Imagine it is 1880 and you are a London housewife. You are unsatisfied with your life, easily irritable, depressed and experiencing insomnia, so you seek a doctor for assistance. If you can afford Dr. Robert Dalrymple and his protégée Dr. Mortimer Granville, you would be diagnosed with “hysteria.” This was considered a plague of their time, a “disabling condition” for at least half the women of London. The cause of this plague? An “overactive uterus.” Here’s the best part: The treatment for hysteria was…(wait for it)…having your clitoris manually stimulated by your doctor until orgasm. I’m serious. This was a medical treatment to address the nervous system and help put a woman’s uterus back in order.
The movie Hysteria provides a glimpse into the lives of Dr. Dalrymple and Dr. Granville, and their exclusive and lucrative practice in treating housewives of London. But poor young Dr. Granville didn’t know what his new job would entail. The physical strain was too much, and persistent hand cramping (presumably the start of carpal tunnel syndrome) began to interfere with his ability to get women off.
Luckily for Dr. Granville, this eager doctor happened to have a friend and benefactor who was a Lord of London and eccentric inventor. His latest invention was a steam-powered generator attached to a feather duster to ease the strains of housework. However, they saw the potential to extend this technology to ease the strains of Granville’s handiwork. The result? Multiple “paroxysms” in a quarter of the time. The marketability of this as a home product for the relaxation and health of women led to the invention of the portable home “massager,” the precursor to our favorite vibrators today.
I’ve known about the origins of the modern vibrator for many years, but Hysteria helped fill some confusing gaps for me. For example, how was it possible that the doctors didn’t know they were sexually pleasuring their female patients? How did they not know they were inducing an orgasm? Also, wasn’t this type of touching considered very personal and embarrassing? At the time, it was believed that women only experienced sexual pleasure through penetration of a penis. The doctors believed they were triggering a paroxysm which was understood to be a necessary outburst and release of emotion. And as depicted in the movie, the doctors provided their vulva massage to each patient behind a red velvet curtain, draped at the woman’s waist, to maintain modesty.
The history of the vibrator is confusing and truly ridiculous by today’s understanding of sexuality. Despite dabbling in serious topics, Hysteria takes a romantic comedy approach that is entertaining and accessible, but certainly not earth shattering. I recommend it as a worthy rental to tickle your sexual funny bone. And what movie about vibrators wouldn’t have a happy ending?
~Dr. Jenn Gunsaullus, San Diego, CA -- Sociologist, Sexuality Speaker, Sexologist, Sex Therapist