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  • Jon Knowles

3. Stroking the Clit to Dampen Hysteria

Updated: Dec 8, 2022


Thanks to Jackie Rotman (NYT, June 26), vibrators are in the news again. Here’s a little history about them: Plato taught that a wandering uterus caused hysteria. Doctors began to stroke the clitoris to relieve it. By the 17th century, most believed the uterus wandered if a woman didn’t get enough sex or wasn’t pregnant often enough. But very few of them would admit they gave women orgasms when curing hysteria.


Most doctors of the 19th century believed that women could not have orgasms. But they still believed that the uterus was a “furious and insatiable animal”. So, professional stroking was necessary — for a fee. And they invented vibrators to make their work easier. In 1889, the Butler Electro-massage Machine appeared. By 1899, the vibrator was the second most used electrical appliance in the home (The sewing machine was the first.) But women knew better than to talk about the joys it gave them.


For the first 20 years of the 20th century, ads for these “Delightful Companions” ran in women’s magazines such as Home Needlework Journal, Women’s Home Companion, and the Sears and Roebuck catalog. In 1910, The American College of Mechano-Therapy ran this ad in Women and Men: “Your Hands Properly Used are all you Need to Earn $3,000 to $5,000 a Year.”


Film porn at the end of the ‘20s, such as Widows Delight, let the cat out of the bag. Ads for vibrators disappeared entirely from mainstream media. In the ‘70s, Eve’s Garden and Good Vibrations opened to sell women sex toys — for pleasure, and a lot of women still used them, but on the Q.T.


They remained a forbidden subject. In 1991, Professor Donald Silva lost his job at University of New Hampshire. He had quoted Little Egypt to describe metaphor: “Belly dancing is like Jello on a plate with a vibrator under the plate.” And in 1998, Clarkson University refused to continue its contract with Rachel Maines. She had published her landmark book, The Technology of Orgasm — “Hysteria,” the Vibrator and Women’s Sexual Satisfaction. Clarkson feared its success would interfere with alumni funding!


Today, Walmart, Amazon, and other retailers sell vibrators as part of the growing “femtech” market — worth $50 billion by 2020. But mainstream advertisers —not at all shy about erectile dysfunction — refuse to acknowledge them.


For citations see:

Book One — 40, 150, 666, 825, 828

Book Two — 14, 111, 129, 157, 314, 441–2, 513, 684, 695

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helene.kendler
helene.kendler
Jul 12, 2019

I remember Eve's Garden with great fondness: commerce that catered to a woman's sexual pleasure was virtually unheard of (at least in New York City) until Eve's Garden opened in 1974. The 1973 "Obscene Device Law" in Texas prohibited the sale or promotion of "obscene devices," being defined as "a device including a dildo or artificial vagina, designed or marketed as useful primarily for the stimulation of human genital organs." The law was very specific about possession: "A person who possesses six or more obscene devices or identical or similar obscene articles is presumed to possess them with intent to promote the same." (Oh, so I could own five? Yippee.) It also stated: "There is an affirmative defense available…


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