Sometimes, when I think about sex and society, I just get tickled by how far we’ve come. This isn’t to say that, as a culture, we still don’t have our share of sexual hangups, but, overall, western culture is far more open about sex and sexuality than it’s been in quite some time.
What got me thinking about this was a lovely little film called Hysteria about female hysteria – the medical diagnosis that encompassed everything from anxiety and depression to the outspoken possession of unpopular opinions by women in the late 19th century.
Though the film itself is apocryphal, (click here for the history of the vibrator or, check out the gorgeous antique vibrator museum at the Good Vibes on Polk St. in San Francisco), it does a lovely job of showing the 19th century attitude towards sex that led to the development of such a catch-all diagnosis. It also illustrated a valuable truth – to ignore sex is not to eradicate the drive to have it. All it does is change the label under which the desire is classified.
For example, rather than needing a good fuck – because getting fucked was not something ladies, (even happily married ladies) – did at the time, women diagnosed with hysteria underwent a “treatment” wherein a physician with “special training” would manually bring about a “paroxysm”. This paroxysm would then “re-situate the uterus” and alleviate the patient’s “unpleasant” symptoms, (which could be anything from “disturbing dreams” to moodiness). In other words, the doctors would make the patient come and she would feel better.
Repeat weekly for the rest of your lives ladies, because hysteria was a medical condition that required a medical solution. It was certainly NOT the simple need for a good fucking. Heavens no.
It was out of the exhausting and comically debilitating rigors of the manual treatment for hysteria that the vibrator was born. But what began as a clinical means to an end underwent many cultural permutations over the course of the late 19th and early 20th century. The vibrator was a “personal massager” in the teens and twenties – not openly talked about, but not reviled either. Then, in the thirties and forties, it became a pornographic tool used by perverts and whores, (and housewives and mothers, but we don’t talk about that). The “personal massager” was back with a vengeance in the 50’s and 60’s – there were many sore muscles back then – but it wasn’t until the 1980’s that vibrators, and sex toys in general, came into their own.
Now, well into the 21st century, we’ve got bullet vibes and vibrating dildos, that famous little rabbit and that vibrating gold standard, the Hitachi Magic Wand. We’ve got vibrating butt plugs and smart vibes that you can literally activate from half a world away, (you’re welcome long-distance lovers, tops and subs). Their use is now so far from being taboo that vibrators appear casually in everything from romantic comedies to erotica and porn. Vibrators mean anyone can have an orgasm – alone or with a friend, (or four). They mean that women, (and men), no longer have to mask their pleasure behind a medical diagnosis.
So yes, we’ve still got hangups. We’re still snarky and righteous and judgmental. But we’re also owning our sexuality – and our pleasure – more than we have in decades. And that, I think, is something to celebrate.