'Hysteria' Movie Paints Vibrator as Medical Device

VIDEO: Movie documents the invention of the vibrator to treat hysteria in women.
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Long before settling in sex shops, vibrators were sold at Sears. "Aids that every woman appreciates," reads a 1918 catalog blurb for a vibrator and its various attachments. It may sound scandalous. But back then, vibrators had little to do with sex.

Back then, sex had little to do with women -- in terms of pleasure, anyway. The act, considered one of procreation rather than recreation, consisted of penetration and male orgasm. If the woman happened to enjoy it, well that was a bonus. As a result, women suffering from hysteria -- a now abandoned medical diagnosis related to sexual dissatisfaction -- would seek the help of doctors and devices.

"It turns out to be physically healthy and mentally healthy for people to have an orgasm," said Susan Heilter, a psychologist and couples therapist in Denver. "People do become more emotionally brittle without that sexual release."

Emotional brittleness, anxiety, depression were all symptoms of female hysteria. The treatment: pelvic massage until "hysterical paroxysm" or, in other words, a doctor-delivered orgasm.

The movie "Hysteria," which has the Toronto International Film Festival all abuzz, chronicles the lives of two Victorian era doctors charged with treating a town of hysterical women. Physically exhausted by the task, they invent a motorized device -- the prototypical vibrator in spinning feather duster form -- to quicken the climax.

The romantic comedy, which stars Hugh Dancy as a medical protege and Maggie Gyllenhaal as his mentor's daughter, details the evolution of the female orgasm from a chore once resisted to the challenge now widely accepted. But with its function (aside from pleasure) unclear and one in 10 women unable to attain it, the female orgasm, in many ways, remains elusive.

A study of 10,000 twins and siblings published in the September issue of Animal Behavior suggests the ability to achieve orgasm is inherited from woman to woman. But a May 2011 study in The Journal of Sexual Medicine found that female orgasm rates were unrelated to 19 other evolutionary relevant inherited traits. All this to say the purpose of female orgasm, unlike the sperm-spreading purpose of male orgasm, is a mystery. It is known, however, that sexual dissatisfaction is bad news for couples.

"Sexual satisfaction is similar to money," explained psychologist Susan Heitler. "If you don't have enough, it's a real source of stress and divisiveness. But as long as people have enough for their basic needs, more is entertaining and pleasurable, but not essential."

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