Timeline: Female Hysteria and the Sex Toys Used to Treat It

Vibrators, douches, and pelvic massage: Curing crazy ladies for centuries—one “hysterical paroxysm” at a time.

French pelvic douche of about 1860 from Fleury, reproduced from Siegfried Giedion, Mechanization Takes Command (New York: Oxford University Press, 1948)

The new film Hysteria tells a fictionalized account of the invention of the vibrator in Victorian-era England. But just how historically accurate is it? Surprisingly close. As historian Rachel P. Maines points out in her book “The Technology of Orgasm,” the symptoms of “hysteria”—a catch-all diagnosis for a slew of vexing lady problems that dates back a couple millennia—included fainting, anxiety, sleeplessness, irritability, nervousness and “a tendency to cause trouble for others.” (Two other symptoms suspiciously associated with hysteria? Erotic fantasy and excessive vaginal lubrication.) And since at least the second century, a good orgasm, or rather “hysterial paroxysm,” was considered a suitable treatment—at least when practiced by a medical professional. Check out our illustrated history of hysteria—and the early sex toys used to treat it—from the time of Hippocrates to today.

For more information on the fascinating history of the vibrator, check out Rachel Maines’ book “The Technology of Orgasm: ‘Hysteria,’ the Vibrator, and Women’s Sexual Satisfaction” and the Good Vibrations Antique Vibrator Museum.

Open-source timeline tool by Balance Media and WNYC/John Keefe. Try it yourself here!

DOES IT FEEL LIKE POLITICS IS AT A BREAKING POINT?

Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

Thanks for reading—whether or not you can pitch in today, or ever, I'm glad you're with us.

Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate

Share your feedback: We’re planning to launch a new version of the comments section. Help us test it.