Am I Sexy Now: A History of Women and Sex
Disclaimer: As I am talking about vibrators, if your name is “Dad”- please read no further.
In this series, we have talked extensively on how women have conformed to, created and manipulated their body image and fashion to achieve sexiness. However, we haven’t examined the fascinating sexual experiences they have gone through to actually understand their needs and desires. For men, sex and what they need to reach satisfaction is pretty straight forward. However, women have a much more complex composition which requires a deeper mental and physical examination to achieve any sort of reward. Sadly, many (men and women) still do not have an understanding of the required steps. While it is very much so a matter that requires personal and private consideration, there have been hilarious historical steps taken to reach a better understanding of feminine sexuality.
Okay, we are about to embark on a stimulating journey and, sadly, I am not allowed to add “lol” and “giggity” after every statement, so just know I am having a fantastic time.
On my recent voyage into the depths of the internet, lusting for quirky historical facts, I ran into a fun little article that touched on the vibrator. While I knew the basic history behind the invention, I was unaware of the depths of depravity that both men and women went through to solve the tiny problem of “female hysteria” aka – horniness. Let us start there.
Basically the vast majority of women throughout history have not been sexually satisfied by their husbands or lovers. I think, by now, it has been well established that women have been pushed aside throughout most of history. With men’s sexual needs being so easily satisfied, and as women were basically baby machines with no brains, it is not hard to see how fulling their wives sexual desires wasn’t too high on men’s list of priorities. This left a lot of women who succumbed to hysteria, or the “womb disease”(1) , or basically extreme sexual frustration.
So according to all dictionaries, hysteria is a noun, tied to the adjective hysterical. Hysterical is based off the Latin word hystericus and from the Greek word hysterikos, both meaning “of the womb” or uterus. The Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines hysteria as : a state in which your emotions (such as fear) are so strong that you behave in an uncontrolled way or behavior exhibiting overwhelming or unmanageable fear or emotional excess. This behavior was attached to oddly behaving women throughout history who, mostly, were simply exhibiting signs that could be attributed to sexual frustration.
The prescription? Clitoral stimulation. (Stop reading Dad). In her article for the New York Times, Rachel Maines cites a medical journal published in 1653 by Pieter van Foreest which discussed female diseases. The doctor prescribed:
“When these symptoms indicate, we think it necessary to ask a midwife to assist, so that she can massage the genitalia with one finger inside, using oil of lilies, musk root, crocus, or [something] similar. And in this way the afflicted woman can be aroused to the paroxysm. This kind of stimulation with the finger is recommended by Galen and Avicenna, among others, most especially for widows, those who live chaste lives, and female religious, as Gradus [Ferrari da Gradi] proposes; it is less often recommended for very young women, public women, or married women, for whom it is a better remedy to engage in intercourse with their spouses” (1).
Sorry, Foreest, but if the married women are exhibiting the same crazy “symptoms” as the chaste women, then clearly their hubbies weren’t pulling their weight. What were the symptoms these women were displaying? In his amazingly entertaining article entitled, “‘Hysteria’ and the Strange History of Vibrators,” Michael Castleman M.A. states that most women were complaining that they were experiencing, “anxiety, sleeplessness, irritability, nervousness, erotic fantasies, feelings of heaviness in the lower abdomen, and wetness between the leg” (2). Sorry ladies – we’ve all been there. Luckily, we are now much more aware of what we need.
Unfortunately, the jump from these stimulating doctors visits, to the invention of the vibrator had a looooooong road. This is due, in part, to society and what was deemed respectable. For example, religion had a lot more influence and we have all heard the old threat that God would strike you down for masturbation – but if you go to the doctor for your stimulation, well then that’s okay. Additionally, most women had no clue as to what sex or their “wifely duties” were until their Mom sat them down for an uncomfortable conversation on their wedding day. Lastly, Maines states that, “…the normal functioning of women’s sexuality in a patriarchal social context … did not recognize its essential difference from male sexuality, with its traditional emphasis on coitus” (1) or if men got off one way, a woman should have no problem achieving the same goal in the same way and they felt no need to examine this further. Basically, a husband was the prescribed cure and women were told to simply encourage their husband’s lust.Other cures were offered and Castleman states that:
“For hysteria unrelieved by husbandly lust, and for widows, and single and unhappily married women, doctors advised horseback riding, which, for some, provided enough clitoral stimulation to trigger orgasm. But riding provided many women little relief, and by the 17th century, dildos were less of an option because the arbiters of decency had succeeded in demonizing masturbation as “self-abuse (2).
It wasn’t looking good for our young heros until modern science exploded all over the subject. This is where it gets hilarious. For centuries it would seem that women would set up regular appointments, and return often, for treatment to their hysterical symptoms. This proved taxing on the medical staff who complained about fatigue of the wrist, which would lend to a rhythm too slow for the required achievement and they would see less patients throughout the day. The brilliant medical profession then put their minds on a mechanical way to solve this problem. They went through a series of inventions, such as, “…a number of genital massage contraptions, among them water-driven gadgets (the forerunners of today’s shower massage devices), and pumping, steam-driven dildos. But the machines were cumbersome, messy, often unreliable, and sometimes dangerous” (2).
Thankfully, electricity was invented and became more accessible and in 1880 Dr. Joseph Mortimer Granville, patented the electromechanical vibrator (2). Unfortunately, this had a negative effect on the practices of the doctors who worked their fingers to the bone. The vibrator became openly available for women to purchase and use whenever and as often as they wanted – without an appointment. While they were socially called “personal massagers” to hide their faux pas intent, they took over the market and the rest is history.
Today they come in all shapes and sizes and allow for a personal exploration of a woman’s body and needs. Luckily today there are thousands of articles out there that are aimed at educating men and women on the proper way of achieving a female orgasm. We are in the day and age of technology and information that allows this exploration. No longer are we in the dark ages – now we can aim for sexiness and actually know what to do once we get there! It is all about embracing your body and having the guts to question and find answers and solutions. We are in charge and that is a beautiful and satisfying thing.
- Maines, Rachel P. “The Technology of Orgasm.” New York Times. 1999. Web. 21 August 2016. <https://www.nytimes.com/books/first/m/maines-technology.html>.
- Castleman, Michael M.A. “‘Hysteria’ and the Strange History of Vibrators.” Psychology Today. 1 March 2013. Web. 21 August 2016. <https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/all-about-sex/201303/hysteria-and-the-strange-history-vibrators>.
- Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images firstname.lastname@example.org http://wellcomeimages.org Vaginal examination in the horizontal position with the patient covered with a sheet. Nouvelles démonstrations d’accouchemens Jacques Pierre Maygrier Published: 1822-1825
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