The female 'medical aid' that has gone from a whisper to a scream
Published 16/11/2010 | 05:00
Five years ago, two postal workers sparked a serious security alert in South Carolina when they heard a suspicious buzzing sound coming from a package they were handling.
The post office was evacuated, a bomb disposal squad rushed to the scene and the package carefully opened. Inside was . . . a vibrator.
Postal workers, of course, need to be vigilant against terror threats. However, most would concede that it is much more common these days to find a vibrator than a bomb in the post.
Ann Summers, the 'female-friendly' chain of sex shops, faced opposition when they opened their first Irish store in 1999 on O'Connell Street, across from the GPO. Now the company says its biggest seller in its Dublin shop is a vibrator called the Rampant Rabbit G Pulse Remote. (A remote? Girls, how lazy could you be?)
"Our sales of them go up year on year," says the cheerful girl from the Ann Summers press office. "We are forecasting that we will sell 2.5 million sex toys this year." This figure comes from online sales as well as stores in Ireland and the UK but that is still a lot of people getting buzz for their bucks.
The very fact that most women (and some men) can identify that a Rabbit is not necessarily a small, fluffy animal shows how the vibrator has been embraced.
That particular brand was the one brandished by Miranda in Sex and The City in front of her girlfriends -- and the millions of women who tuned into the show. The vibrator was presented as being as much the modern girl's accessory as a favourite pair of high heels.
We modern Millies might soon be shaken and stirred by a new film which claims to show the origin of the vibrator -- as a 'medical aid' for women. Hysteria, starring Maggie Gyllenhaal, tells how mechanical, ahem, 'manipulators' were invented as part of a Victorian medical kit.
Women who were seen to be acting up, ie, showing stress, moodiness and other 'nervous' symptoms, were often stamped with the catch-all diagnosis of 'hysteria'. (This was preferable to accepting that they might simply be going against the ladylike conventions of society.)
As far back as the writings of Plato in ancient Greece, it was suggested that these symptoms were the result of an unruly womb moving about within the body. (Hystera is the Greek word for womb). Later on -- in the second century to be exact -- physician Galen suggested that might be helped by literally satisfying the womb with a good spot of pelvic massage.
In 1653, there was mention in a medical manual of this massage to a state of "paroxysm". It would relieve hysteria, itself a term not dropped from the psychiatric lexicon until 1952.
The movie Hysteria finds it modern resonance from its supposed depiction of how a vibrating device was invented to do the tiresome job of massage.
It is set in England around 1880 when Dr Joseph Mortimer Granville, played by Hugh Dancy, invents an electric-powered vibrator to treat patients. Maggie Gyllenhaal plays his daughter, who gets involved with his father's research assistant, played by Jonathan Pryce.
Romance might sound odd in the context of Pryce's character, whose work has him at the business end of satisfying women sexually. But, explained the film's director, that's not how he would have seen it. Doctors considered the vibrator as a tool for curing neuroses rather than anything saucy.
"Everyone pretended it was a medical thing, not a sexual thing, or rather, they really believed it," said director Tanya Wexler.
The early vibrator meant that doctors could treat female patients more quickly -- and more of them in a day -- than they could if they had to do the massage manually.
There is no strict evidence that Irish doctors' surgeries were pulsating to these industrial-sized vibrators in the late 19th century. Their use on this side of the Atlantic would have been restricted to upper-middle class and upper-class ladies.
Dr Mortimer Granville, according to Rachel Maine's The Technology of Orgasm, preferred for his device to be used to massage "male skeletal muscles".
In America though, the use of hydrotherapy -- the careful aiming of high-pressure jets of water -- to treat neurotic ladies was already in place in spas across the country. An American became the first to patent a take-home vibrator in 1902 and Maine, in researching her book, was surprised to see how many genteel ladies' magazines carried ads for these massage devices.
There were "in such periodicals as Needlecraft, Home Needlework Journal, Modern Women, Hearst's, McClure's, Woman's Home Companion, and Modern Priscilla. The device was marketed mainly to women as a health and relaxation aid, in ambiguous phrases such as 'all the pleasures of youth . . . will throb within you'." Well, quite.
The camouflage of 'therapy' was thrown off when pornographic films of the 1920s and '30s showed perfectly sturdy-looking women using the devices in a way that left nothing to the imagination.
Vibrators then disappeared underground, so to speak, before reappearing in the US in the 1970s -- and smuggled in by mail order until the late 1990s here.
Now, though, even the Irish can be seen as pioneers of vibrators. Two years ago, a Dublin husband and wife, Chris and Janice O'Connor, created the world's first 'green' vibrator.
Called the Earth Angel, it works not on batteries but by cranking the wind-up mechanism by hand. Chris said that he had invented the Earth Angel not out of a prurient interest in sex -- but because of a concern about climate change.