Day 676: That Forbidden Buzz

originally published November 6, 2013

I need to preface today’s topic by pointing out that we at 1000 Words Industries endeavor to produce family-friendly articles, whether our topic is murderous castles or candy that needs to be flushed from the world. Also, we tend to do a fair portion of our research at what is colloquially called our ‘day job’, so delving into matters of questionable content (violence and boobies) could come with unpleasant repercussions.

With that in mind, and as we try to maintain at least a modicum of self-respect and good taste, allow us to consider for a moment the exalted vibrator.

I know, I know… responsible parents have already shooed their children from the room and set fire to their computer by now. But might they be overreacting just a tetch? When Dr. Laura Berman, who made regular visits to Oprah’s show to discuss her audience’s naughty parts, claimed that mothers should discuss sexual pleasure with their daughters and even buy them their first vibrator, the nation didn’t collapse. Hell, if they don’t learn it from you, they’ll probably end up learning it from the washing machine.

To get really deep and dirty into the topic of vibrators we have to venture back to a weird era in gynecology. We take for granted that our doctors today know what’s going on behind the pasty curtain of our mortal flesh. But it wasn’t that long ago that our collective grasp on medicine and body function involved terms like ‘bad humors’ or ‘Scrivener’s palsy’ or ‘get the eels, I think he has lung fever’. And since all medical practitioners were men, we sure as hell didn’t know what the hell was going on in a woman’s innards.

A prime example of this is the wandering womb. Hippocrates, who was bang-on when it came to writing immortal oaths but didn’t always have his doctoring facts straight, taught his students about this condition. It seems the uterus has a habit of slipping out of place and wandering about the body like some curious jellyfish, poking its head around the duodenum just to see what’s up. The uterus puts pressure on other organs, which causes symptoms of disease. You’ve got heartburn? Must be your uterus sloshing against your esophagus. Touch of vertigo? Uterus on the brain. You get the idea.

This creepy medical theory made it easy to blame almost anything ailing a woman on her uterus. But as we gradually came to learn a bit more about anatomy around the 16th and 17th centuries, the focus on women’s health began to shift. No one considered the uterus to be an autonomous being anymore, but there had to be some explanation for all these female issues – why aren’t they more like us???

“Maybe it has to do with female semen,” science declared. After all, female semen intermingles with male semen during sex then gets stored in the womb, right? If a woman is acting a little wonky, or if she’s retaining water or feeling kind of listless, she might be suffering from the Widow’s Disease. If a woman isn’t having sex (like a widow, for example), her female semen will turn venomous and attack her. Right?

Really it’s a wonder our species has made it this far.

Finally we settled upon Female Hysteria as a blanket diagnosis. In 1859 a prominent physician estimated that one in four women suffer from this, and a 75-page report was put together of the symptoms of this condition. Everything from a loss of appetite or sex drive to retaining water was a potential sign of female hysteria. This carried on into the 20th century; doctors believed it was the stress of industrial and post-industrial life that was causing this nervous condition to wreak havoc with women’s innards.

Fortunately there was a solid cure for this tragic malady: the pelvic massage, leading to hysterical paroxysm. In layman’s terms: masturbation. But medically-supervised masturbation in a clinical atmosphere. As much as this sounds like a blatant manipulation of logic to allow horny doctors to finger-diddle their patients, it was actually quite a chore for the physician. When the ‘Tremoussoir’ was invented in France in 1734, or when American inventor George Taylor came up with the ‘Manipulator’ in 1869, these were seen as a huge relief for doctors who no longer had to perform these complicated medical procedures by hand.

Hamilton Beach, the company that built my slow cooker, patented an electric vibrator for medical use back in 1902. This means the vibrator was the fifth domestic appliance to be patented with electricity for consumer use, right after the sewing machine, electric fan, the kettle and the toaster. The vacuum cleaner and electric iron were still around ten years away. Finally women could cure those pesky eating disorders and headaches at home!

Of course the more people tend to enjoy something the more the government yearns to regulate it or take it away completely. In the 1920’s when pornography began showing up in print form and when men suddenly realized that hey, women seem to enjoy sex too, the establishment began to clue in that these medical vibrators were being used for somewhat non-medical applications. They quickly disappeared from the Sears & Roebuck catalog, and from ads near the back of Needlepoint magazine.

As the 1900’s rolled on, doctors came up with other words to describe the causes of female hysteria symptoms: epilepsy, schizophrenia, anxiety, or simply nothing wrong at all with the woman, you perverted bastard. Sigmund Freud helped to point out that the brain was more often to blame than the clitoris for your wife’s insomnia. It was a golden age of discovery.

The cordless vibrator was patented in March of 1968, in that other decade of free love and reckless abandon during the last century. Only by the 60’s, there wasn’t as much of a societal need to disguise a vibrator’s purpose under a medical banner. By the 1980’s the things had become more commonplace, and when Charlotte professed her addiction to a certain rabbit-themed vibration device in a 1998 episode of Sex And The City, it wasn’t so much a shock to the societal lobes anymore. The Journal of Sexual Medicine claimed in 2009 that about 53% of adult women in the United States have used a vibrator. I’d bet that number is a bit higher.

So now it’s a mainstream appliance, sold on the shelves at Safeway, Target, CVS and Walmart. Well, the Wikipedia article claims this is the case – I’ve been inside all those stores and never seen a vibrator for sale. Maybe I’m not looking in the right place, or maybe there’s something medically wrong with me.

A wandering teste perhaps? I should get it checked.

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