Good vibes from ‘In the Next Room’: Vibrators through the ages featured in Becker exhibit

| Managing Editor
Rahee Nerurkar | Student Life

A vibrator from the early 20th century is on display at the Bernard Becker Medical Library as a part of an exhibit titled “In the Next Room: Medical Treatment of Women with ‘Hysteria.’” The exhibit is in conjunction with a play at the Edison Theatre titled “In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play).”

“I think when you say to people that the vibrator was used as a medical treatment, that already is astonishing,” Henry Schvey said about the contraption at the center of “In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play).” Schvey, a professor of drama and comparative literature, directed the Sarah Ruhl play, the 2010 Tony Award Nominee for Best Play and a Pulitzer Prize finalist that is set to premiere on the Edison Theatre stage on April 19 and run through April 27. “[The vibrator] was not seen as a sexual device or as providing sexual pleasure in women because sexual pleasure was unknown—it was basically seen as a taboo,” Schvey continued. “The basic thing is that vibrators were used at the end of the 19th century as a cure—as a medical procedure—that was intended to heal cases of hysteria, largely in women.”

In December, as part of a promotional effort for the play, Schvey contacted the staff at the Bernard Becker Medical Library on the Washington University Medical School campus about the possibility of a collaboration with “In the Next Room.”

“Dr. Schvey approached us and asked us what we could do to support them or tie into,” Elisabeth Brander, a rare books librarian at the Becker, said. “We decided one of the most effective things for us to do would be to put on an exhibit.”

Brander and co-worker Martha Riley curated the exhibit, titled “In the Next Room: Medical Treatment of Women with ‘Hysteria,’” which opened on April 1 and is expected to be on display through July. Though Brander and Riley originally planned to focus the collection on electrotherapy and medical books of the 1800s, their scope shifted to showcase the more visually stunning illustrations of the library’s 16th- to 18th-century books on women’s diseases. “Then we really wanted to get some artifacts from the 19th and early 20th century to bring more reality and interest to the exhibit,” Riley said.

These artifacts—five vibrators on loan from the Center for Sex and Culture in San Francisco—date from the early 1900s to the 1920s. “[The manual vibrator] looks like an egg beater,” Riley said. “And it does work,” Brander added.

“[The electric models] look very much like hairdryers,” Brander said of the other four vibrators. The vibrators on display run the gamut of size and shape, from a compact black version intended for male use to the Polar Cub Electric Vibrator that, according to its box, encouraged women to order the “Polar Cub Electric massage…for nervous disorders…[and] instant relief in cases of headache, fatigue, and general ‘nerviness.’”

“During this period, [women’s sexuality] was suppressed,” said Susan Stiritz, senior lecturer in the Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies program. “There are many symptoms that happen when you don’t allow people to express their sexuality.”

“[Doctors] recognized that if they rubbed her vulva,” Stiritz continued, “she would have what they called a paroxysm, which they thought was like a shudder, but they didn’t see it as an orgasm. They didn’t get it. They thought it was just something like you hit your knee here and you have this reflex, and they recognized that the treatments cured her hysteria, but they didn’t realize that it was sexual.”

“It’s kind of a strange idea,” Riley echoed, “which shows how little they knew about women’s bodies at that time.” These misunderstandings weren’t limited to female orgasm—they extended to misperceptions about female anatomy. “[An illustration of Andreas Vesalius]—it’s supposed to be the uterus and the vagina, but it basically looks like an inverted penis,” Brander said. “They believed the female reproductive system was an inverted male system. In [the Vesalius], they actually called the ovaries the testes because they produced ‘semen,’ which, of course, now we know is not true.”

“The female body tended to lag behind the curve,” Brander said, referencing contemporary male anatomical illustrations that are near-indistinguishable from their modern counterparts. Understanding of female hysteria similarly lagged. Millennia after Hippocrates first described hysteria-like symptoms in women and prescribed masturbation to lure a woman’s wandering womb from her diaphragm back to her genital area, massaging the vulva remained the treatment de rigueur for hysteria. With the advent of electricity, medical professionals developed electric vibrators to replace manual stimulation.

“It’s interesting,” Stiritz said, “that the vibrator was one of the first things invented along with the discovery of electrical power. It was invented before the toaster—before the vacuum cleaner—you know, first things first.”

These early vibrators were marketed as health-promoting devices, veritable cure-alls for everything from the Polar Cub’s nebulously defined “nervous disorders” to physician George Beard’s 75-page “incomplete” list of possible hysteria symptoms.

Medical and personal-health use of vibrators persisted until the blue pornographic films of the 1920s began incorporating them. After more than 2,000 years, the link between female masturbation and female sexuality had finally been formed in the general public’s mind, and vibrators quickly fell out of popularity as genteel women sought to avoid the taint of an overtly sexual stimulator. In 1952, hysteria lost its designation as a disease by the American Psychiatric Association, and when vibrators regained popularity in the 1960s and ’70s, they were openly marketed as sex toys.

Vibrators, however, have not been removed entirely from psychological treatment, where they’ve made a foray into sex therapy. “I make recommendations for vibrators quite often for a variety of different reasons,” said Heather Raznick, a 1994 MSW graduate of the Brown School of Social Work, LCSW and American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors and Therapists-certified sex therapist. “I use vibrators to treat all orgasmic dysfunctions, and I also use vibrators for arousal issues. Vibrators have an ability to increase swelling and lubrication for a woman. Typically men get aroused and are engorged far more quickly than women are. About the time a man is ready to penetrate his female partner, she’s just considering whether or not she’s in the mood…for many, incorporating a vibrator into their play will allow for their arousal to be timed a bit more appropriately.”

According to Rachel Maines’ “The Technology of Orgasm,” the inspiration for Ruhl’s play, possibly more than 70 percent of women have difficulty achieving orgasm by means of penile penetration alone.

“Women think—and this is what the play’s about—that the way you have an orgasm is through a penis entering the vagina,” Stiritz said. “However, there are no nerves in the vagina—that’s not how you have an orgasm. You have an orgasm through clitoral stimulation.”

Raznick reaffirmed Stiritz’s assertion, adding, “And a vibrator in addition to penetration creates far more success in achieving an orgasm.”

Over the course of their near-two-centuries-long development, vibrators have transitioned from the cold, clinical devices used to administer hysteria treatments to items of sexual liberation, empowering their users to control their own sexuality. “In the Next Room,” the play and the Becker exhibit, hopes to capture that essence. “This is a play about not only sexual awakening, but it’s also about emotional awakening,” Schvey said. “It’s recognizing that women are independent beings. They can handle money. They can press [a vibrator’s] buttons themselves.”