Chances are you’ve heard the extraordinary and shocking tales of Victorian doctors using vibrators to give female patients orgasms as a cure for hysteria. There are countless articles on the subject, and even a 2011 film, Hysteria, starring Maggie Gyllenhaal.
One problem: There’s no credible evidence to support this widely-believed historical “fact.” The theory that Victorian women in the mid- to late-19th century went to the doctor for orgasm treatments was put forward in the 1999 book The Technology of Orgasm by Cornell University professor Rachel Maines. She analyzed various mentions of medical vibrators and discussions of hysteria to make her case and, though it wasn’t widely accepted when it was first written, this theory has been repeatedly cited and solidified into an empirical truth over the past two decades But Hallie Liberman and Eric Schatzberg, professors at Georgia Institute of Technology, evaluated the original theory in a recently published paper (pdf) in the Journal of Positive Psychology, and showed the evidence is scant.
“Maines fails to cite a single source that openly describes use of the vibrator to massage the clitoral area. Furthermore, none of her English-language sources even mentions production of ‘paroxysms’ by massage or anything else that could remotely suggest an orgasm,” the researchers write.
Evidence from the time does show that vibrators were used as medical treatment, but applied to all areas of the body for conditions as varied as gout and hearing loss. Maines famously quoted a physician who claimed that manual massage “consumes a painstaking hour to accomplish much less profound results than are easily effected by [the vibrator] in a short five or 10 minutes.” But Liberman and Schatzberg went to the original source, a 1906 book by the physician Samuel Spencer Wallian, and report the doctor was discussing the medical use of vibrators to treat intestines, kidneys, lungs, and skin conditions. He wasn’t, as Maines argued, claiming that vibrators gave women orgasms quicker.
And though other physicians of the era did describe conducting pelvic and gynecological massages, these didn’t involve the clitoris or lead to orgasm. “The term ‘pelvic massage’ usually meant uterine massage, a treatment frequently used for conditions such as dysmenorrhea or uterine prolapse,” write the authors. Dysmenorrhea is the medical term for extreme menstrual cramps, and uterine prolapse is when the uterus slips from its normal position and into the vagina. Though some women do find massage helpful for both, it’s not the standard treatment for either condition today.
There are some French sources suggesting the odd doctor in 19th-century France may have tried manual clitoral massage, Liberman says, but it was never a widely accepted treatment. “We could find no evidence that doctors ever used vibrators on the clitoris, either in Maines’ sources or in other primary and secondary sources. But some doctors may have done so on occasion, just as doctors sometimes had intercourse with their patients. Neither was an accepted medical therapy,” Liberman writes in an email.
Maines has, in the past, emphasized that her theory is just that—a theory. She’s also expressed surprise at how deeply pervasive her academic conjectures have become in public discourse. “Well, people just thought this was such a cool idea that people believe it, that it’s like a fact. And I’m like, ‘It’s a hypothesis! It’s a hypothesis!’. But it doesn’t matter, you know? People like it so much they don’t want to hear any doubts about it,” she said in a 2010 interview with Big Think.
So, how did an unproven hypothesis become so widely believed? Well, for one thing, it’s titillating. “Maines has historicized the doctor-patient fantasy, a staple of erotica,” write Liberman and Hertzberg in their paper. “Yet, unlike the porn fantasy, Maines’ narrative can be discussed without social reproach because of its academic respectability.”
David Schmid, an English professor at Buffalo University with a focus on popular culture, notes that the theory allows us to present Victorians as nominally repressed but secretly always seeking out sex. “This paradoxical image of the Victorians as repressed libertines is partly due to the influence of [social theorist Michel] Foucault, of course, (and his argument that one must talk about sex incessantly to repress it properly) but it also allows us to feel a little superior to the Victorians,” he writes. “‘Look at them!’ we say to ourselves ‘They pretended to be so prim and proper but the truth is that were at it like rabbits!’ Throw a male Victorian doctor into the mix—a staid and respectable figure if ever there was one—equipped with sex toys and a randy society lady and the myth acquires an allure that is hard to resist.”
Liberman notes that Maines’ theory was also first published at a time when American culture was embracing the vibrator. “In 1998, a year before the book came out, Sex and the City became the first TV show to air an episode focusing on a vibrator. In the early 2000s, sex toys appeared on the shelves of Walgreens and Wal-Mart,” she writes.
She adds that, although salacious, Maines’ theory neatly maps onto traditional gender roles, in that it describes men giving women pleasure, rather than women giving themselves pleasure through masturbation. “If her story had been about midwives using vibrators on women, I don’t think it would have been as popular,” she writes. “If it had been about women using vibrators to sexually pleasure men, nobody would have believed it. If it had been about men using vibrators on men”—some Victorian vibrators were in fact sold with rectal attachments as treatments for male impotence, Liberman notes—“it is unlikely to have caught on.”
But Maines’ story describes none of these interactions. Instead, it focuses on men being in control of women’s pleasure. Although we may have made some sexual progress since the Victorian era, this is still the conventional sexual narrative. The notion of women’s sexual pleasure continues to be perceived as embarrassing to this day: One 2009 study in which researchers interviewed 20 women found that “the vast majority” responded to discussion of masturbation with “silence, giggles, and embarrassment” and “expressed shock at being asked about masturbation in relation to themselves.” And a 2017 study found that heterosexual women still have fewer orgasms than any other demographic during sex. Well into the 21st century, women’s orgasms in general, and masturbating in particular, is still a sexual taboo.