Between having their organs crushed by their underwear, being poisoned by their underwear, and spontaneously combusting thanks to their underwear, the life of a Victorian woman was, to say the least, Not Fun. And nothing sums up their struggles quite like the infamous illness of “hysteria” – a diagnosis foisted upon women for any number of reasons, for which the only known treatment was hours of industrious masturbation at the hands of a physician.
Seen by male doctors as non-sexual because it didn’t involve penetration (modern men, of course, would never believe this) these “pelvic massages” eventually proved so tiring that the medical community invented the mechanical vibrator. And the rest, as they say, is history.
It’s a tempting story, repeated by numerous outlets over the years. There was even a movie about it.
There’s just one problem: according to a new paper published last month in the Journal of Positive Sexuality, there’s almost no evidence it ever happened.
Now, it turns out the idea of Victorian ladies being prescribed medically-induced orgasms is a surprisingly modern one – originating only in 1999, with the then-controversial book The Technology of Orgasm by historian Rachel Maines. Since then, say paper authors Hallie Lieberman and Eric Schatzberg, “[the] argument has been repeated in dozens of scholarly works and cited with approval in many more… This once controversial idea has now become an accepted fact.”
But in their paper, Lieberman and Schatzberg have challenged Maines’ conclusions – saying that none of the historical sources she used to support her claims actually do so. Despite her ideas becoming so popular to the public, they argue, there’s simply no mention of these orgasm treatments from sources at the time.
“Medical discourse at the time was very contentious,” they explain. “Physicians regularly lauded and attacked therapies that used new technologies… historians would expect to find debates about clitoral vibration in medical journals.”
And even according to Maines herself, that’s a problem.