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Home - Medicine and Medical History - Good Vibrations, Bad Science

Good Vibrations, Bad Science

It goes without saying, that we’re discussing sex and masturbation in this article. You know what to do with this information.

Joseph Mortimer Granville, Public Domain
Joseph Mortimer Granville, Public Domain

In a world rife with medical misinformation and a reinterpretation of medical histories to suit narratives, it falls upon those who are allergic to those things to set the record right. Be it claims about miracle cures, ancient “medicines”, the old “more between heaven and earth”, or the old standby, the quantum theory defense.

It specifically behooves those professing to such an allergy to check their own misconceptions. And a huge one, often cited as social commentary or amusing fact, is the claim, that vibrators were “invented to cure hysteria.”

Much is packed into this simple line. An indictment of early medicine associating the uterus (which is where the word ‘hysteria’ originates from) with madness or illogical behaviors, a shot at the bow of male dominated 19th and early 20th century medicine, or simply a fun sex related fact that engages the fantasies of pubescents everywhere.

It is, however, a much repeated, myth.

True is, that the vibrator was invented by Joseph Mortimer Granville, a (1833-1900) London physician who, besides this device, also invented the blood pressure meter and a way to obtain differential temperatures in patients, which he used to determine fertile and non-fertile periods in his female patients and as an early diagnostic device for minute temperature changes in tuberculosis.

Granville did not intend his “vibratode” to be used anywhere near the female clitoris. In fact, in both his book and the attached users manual, he actively warned against it:

The greatest objection to vibration thus applied is that in over-sensitive patients it is liable to cause sexual excitement. This must be carefully watched for in its application and the treatment discontinued immediately

James Craven Wood, Clinical Gynecology

Wood wasn’t a fan of “percussions” of female genitalia as it was practiced mainly by therapists outside evidence based medicine. In fact, by 1875 a cottage industry of homeopathic and non-trained “healers” had sprung up, that offered “percussions” (clitoral stimulation) as a means to treat all manners of illnesses from “fainting” to headaches and “hysteria.” Those were rather thinly veiled sex workers, not physicians.

The origins of a myth

This was generally known until very recently.

Only in June 2001 and, owed mostly to the emergence of the Internet as a new and rapid means of dissemination of data, did the “hysteria treatment” myth arise. It originated in the works of Rachel Maines, a technology historian. Maines claimed in her book “The Technology of Orgasm” (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998), that the vibrator had indeed been intended to treat hysteria.

Yet, the claim remained relatively unchallenged for ten years. Too fitting was it, a narrative of medicine unaware and uninterested in women’s issues, phsyicians practicing achaic and false medicine due to their indifference, and the harrowing thought of young women being forcefully “treated” with this approach.

Only in 2012, with the recognition of Helen King’s paper titled “Galen and the widow: Towards a history of therapeutic masturbation in ancient gynaecology” by the Women’s Classical Caucus, did some historians attempt in earnest to replicate Maines’ findings by reading through Wood’s and others publications. Two things stood out: Wood and his colleagues not only strongly opposed percussion as a treatment, Wood’s initial paper even warned against using the “vibratode” for anything but phlegm loosening in tuberculosis (which, to be honest, is about as unscientific as masturbation is for ‘hysteria’).

Maines would have known this. But that didn’t make for a sellable book, and so she decided to ignore it, even shoot back at anyone questioning her methodologies. The book sold, and it sold well. And the myth became “fact.”

In 2020 the primary researchers into this topic, Hallie Lieberman and Eric Schatzberg, expanded on their 2018 paper, which did not recive much of its well deserved fanfare, titled “A Failure of Academic Quality Control: The Technology of Orgasm” (PDF) in a New York Times article.

In it, Lieberman writes:

If you swap the genders you can recognize how much the widespread acceptance of this story is based on gender bias. Imagine arguing that at the turn of the 20th century, female nurses were giving hand jobs to male patients to treat them for psychological problems; that men didn’t realize anything sexual was going on; that because female nurses’ wrists got tired from all the hand jobs, they invented a device called a penis pump to help speed up the process. Then imagine claiming nobody thought any of this was sexual, because it was a century ago.

The truth, as Lieberman points out, is much cooler. It’s not physicians whose hands hurt but a floundering early medical science that invented things that barely worked. And it’s not unaware women being masturbated as treatment but empowered and smart women who recognized the potential of this useless device and used it for a purpose not intended (and, in fact, warned against) by the inventor.