Vibrators and Clitoridectomies: How Victorian Doctors Took Control of Women’s Orgasms

Given over a century's worth of pleasure that followed its invention, history may easily forget that development of the vibrator in Victorian England was just one salvo in a larger culture war fought over women's bodies. (Sound familiar?) While some doctors were figuring out how to give women orgasms, others were equally determined to make sure that women couldn't feel any sexual pleasure at all. In fact, the same era, the same place, and the same profession that gave birth to electromechanical sex toys also gave birth to the widespread practice of clitoridectomies.

Hysteria, the new Maggie Gyllenhaal/Rupert Everett movie about the invention of the vibrator, has so far attracted only mixed reviews. The film, which claims only to be "inspired by true events" rather than a faithful historical drama, explores the medicalization of sexuality in Victorian England. The movie tells the story of Dr. Joseph Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy), the physician who patented the first vibrator as a means of more speedily inducing orgasms in female patients being treated for hysteria. This disease, which Greek and Roman doctors believed was caused by a wandering, sex-starved womb, was said to threaten women's sanity. (Which, of course, is why the term "hysteria" -– from the Greek word "hyster," meaning uterus –- became a synonym for madness.) Orgasms, or "hysterical paroxysms," were thought to temporarily relieve the symptoms of the disease. And so hard-working men of science like Dr. Granville took it upon themselves to bring sweet relief to the women in their care.

Yet just a few years earlier, another English physician offered a far more radical solution to the hysteria epidemic. Isaac Baker-Brown, a one-time president of the Medical Society of London, had been obsessed with surgical solutions to gynecological problems since his early training (he once performed an ovariotomy on his own sister). In 1858 –- some 25 years before Granville invented the vibrator –- Baker-Brown began performing clitoridectomies in his London Surgical Home for Women. In a series of papers, Baker-Brown argued that the professional manipulation of the clitoris to induce paroxysms was no cure for hysteria. In his view, it only made the problem worse by feeding the patient's lust for gratification. The only effective solution, he insisted, was a permanent one: the surgical removal of the clitoral glans. As Martha Coventry wrote in a famous article for Ms., Baker-Brown promised that after a clitoridectomy, "intractable women became happy wives; rebellious teenage girls settled back into the bosom of their families; and married women formerly averse to sexual duties became pregnant."

Happily, Baker-Brown was soon discredited by his fellow gynecologists, many of whom objected to his habit of performing clitoridectomies on women without their consent. Unfortunately, the surgical procedure he popularized survived his fall from grace. Baker-Brown may have fallen out of favor with his British colleagues, but his ideas found a more enduring footing on the other side of the Atlantic. As early as 1866, American doctors began performing clitoridectomies to stop hysteria, nymphomania, and above all, masturbation. As Coventry discovered, medical textbooks continued to recommend clitoral excisions as late as 1937, and some doctors continued to perform the procedure for at least a decade after that. (Coventry interviewed a Michigan woman who underwent a clitoridectomy in 1944, at age 12: "…as she sat on the exam table, an attendant clamped an ether-soaked rag over her mouth from behind. When she woke up, her clitoris was gone. ‘They tried to keep me from masturbating,' she said. Then, after a pause, added, ‘Didn't work.'")

It's as easy to celebrate Dr. Granville, the vibrator inventor and hero of the Hysteria movie, as it is to demonize his genital-mutilating contemporary, Dr. Baker-Brown. But the two Victorian physicians had much in common. Not only did both believe in hysteria as a legitimate medical condition, they both believed in men's responsibility to exert complete mastery over women's pleasure. One wanted to make women orgasm in his office, on his terms, and with his invention. The other wanted to ensure that women didn't orgasm at all, thanks to his procedure. Their patients obviously experienced different results, and we're rightly more outraged by Baker-Brown than by Granville. Those differences shouldn't obscure the reality that each made his reputation by proposing new techniques to help men control women's sexuality.

Granville and Baker-Brown agreed on something else: the dangers of female masturbation. It was only in the mid-19th century that medical texts began to discuss the clitoris and its evident purpose. Doctors were as troubled by its location as by its possibilities; why was the clitoris located within easy reach of the average woman's fingers but not inside the vagina, where it would be more easily stimulated during intercourse? The obvious conclusion — that women are designed to experience sexual pleasure without relying on a man –- was enormously threatening to the medical establishment (and plenty of ordinary men as well.) Female masturbation (something that some male doctors had once considered impossible) represented women's independence. Neither Granville nor Baker-Brown could countenance that.

In her excellent history of the vibrator, Cornell professor Rachel Maines notes that the device wasn't just invented (as the movie suggests) to save doctors like Granville from the hand-cramps that came with manually stimulating their patients' clitorises. The original vibrators were designed only to be used in a doctor's office, and to provide not only a more rapid but more intense "paroxysm" than a woman could achieve on her own. While some sexperts today fret that women can become addicted to their sex toys, that addiction was exactly what its inventors wanted. Not only would it ensure that wealthy women kept coming back (as it were) for follow-up visits, the early medical monopoly on the vibrator was designed to make solitary masturbation with the hand seem unsatisfying by comparison. Fortunately, that monopoly didn't last; by 1902, the American company Hamilton Beach was marketing a mechanical vibrator for home use. What had originally been designed to supplant female masturbation quickly became a device to make that private pastime easier and more fulfilling.

Obviously, doctors who stimulated their patients' clitorises were better than those who sliced off the offending organ. Given the great joy that vibrators have brought to women (and men) over the past 120 years, it's not wrong to see Joseph Mortimer Granville as something of a hero. But it's worth remembering that in his eagerness to be the gatekeeper of women's pleasure, he had plenty in common with his crueler and more fearful colleagues.