UAB Theatre's production of "In the Next Room (or the Vibrator Play)" explores a time when physicians developed a new treatment for "female hysteria." UAB Theatre's production of "In the Next Room (or the Vibrator Play)" explores a time when physicians developed a new treatment for "female hysteria."

The medical history of a labor-saving device: The electric vibrator

February 09, 2015
By Jeff Hansen
Learn the medical history behind the electric vibrator, used by a late 19th-century doctor to treat “female hysteria” in the upcoming UAB Theatre play, “In the Next Room (or the Vibrator Play).”

A long medical history of female sexuality underlies the comedic play “In the Next Room (or the Vibrator Play),” which will be presented by Theatre UAB on Feb. 18-22.

The play is set in the 1880s, just as electricity was creating labor-saving devices such as the electric sewing machine, toasters and electric fans. But there was another labor-saving invention that may surprise many — the electric vibrator. In this play, a Dr. Givings treats women with a vibrator but remains emotionally distant from his young wife.

The early history of electric vibrators was discovered by Rachel Maines, a needlework historian, as she combed through 1906 copies of “Woman’s Home Companion” and “Needlecraft.” Surprisingly, they had advertisements for vibrators. Her research ended up as the book “The Technology of Orgasm: ‘Hysteria,’ the Vibrator, and Women’s Sexual Satisfaction.” (Read the first chapter here.) That book was one of the inspirations for “In the Next Room,” a comedy by playwright Sarah Ruhl.

From the time of Hippocrates to the early 20th century, Maines explains, some doctors or midwives massaged the genitalia of female patients to orgasm to treat what was then considered an ailment — female “hysteria.” Hysteria, she said, had symptoms of chronic female arousal: “anxiety, sleeplessness, irritability, nervousness, erotic fantasy, sensations of heaviness in the abdomen, lower pelvic edema and vaginal lubrication.”

The outcome of the massages was a “hysterical paroxysm.” This physiological response was considered therapeutic medical treatment, unrelated to sexuality. Today it is recognized as female orgasm.

“There is no evidence that male physicians enjoyed providing pelvic massage treatments,” Maines wrote. “On the contrary, the male elite sought every opportunity to substitute other devices for their fingers…”

“The early vibrators were sold in popular magazines and in Sears Roebuck catalogues. But you couldn’t call it what it was.”—Bridgett Hill Kennedy, Ph.D., visiting assistant professor in the UAB Department of Psychology.

Bridgett Hill Kennedy, Ph.D., visiting assistant professor in the UAB College of Arts and Sciences Department of Psychology, teaches classes in human sexuality, as well as social psychology, developmental psychology and introductory psychology. She said, “The early vibrators were sold in popular magazines and in Sears Roebuck catalogues. But you couldn’t call it what it was. It was a ‘therapy device’ or a ‘massage device,’ with no mention of the genitals.”

Kennedy, who is eager to see “In the Next Room,” says there is still a gap between male and female sexuality.

A 2008 study of U.S. women, she says, found that although 40 percent reported low sexual desire, decreased sexual arousal and/or problems reaching orgasm, only 12 percent of those women considered it a source of personal distress.

“Men are very comfortable with their own bodies,” she said. “Women don’t experience that comfort in their own bodies.”

“I always tell my female students that your orgasm is your responsibility,” Kennedy said. “Communication is the key. But how can you communicate effectively if you have no idea what your needs are? You have to explore your own body.”

“Sexuality is more than just sex,” Kennedy said, and she tells her students that “communication is the most important part of sexuality within a relationship.”

And although Ruhl’s play features a vibrator, it also is not about sex. “The play is not a sex farce about vibrators,” Ruhl has said. “Ultimately, the play is about intimacy.”

Theatre UAB will perform “In the Next Room” at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 18-21 and at 2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 22, in UAB’s Alys Stephens Performing Arts Center, 1200 10th Ave. South. Because of the nature of live theater and the individual perceptions of audience members, this production comes with a content warning: It contains adult situations, sexual content and perceived partial nudity. General admission tickets are $12 and $15, $6 for students, and $10 for UAB employees and senior citizens. For tickets, call 205-975-2787 or visit Theatre UAB online at www.uab.edu/cas/theatre


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