'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."

Let's Talk About Sex, Baby

Thanks in part to TV shows like HBO's "Sex and the City," conversations about sex, masturbation and other ins and outs of intimacy are much more common. But not all women are as comfortable with the subject matter as Samantha Jones.

"Sex is funny because in some ways it's nice to never need to talk about it," said Heitler. "It's mysterious, kind of like prayer. It's a very personal experience and when you try to put it into words the concreteness feel uncomfortable and maybe even takes away some of the mystique."

Although sex is more out in the open than ever before, it's still considered a private act -- as it should be, Heitler said.

"On the one hand, ours is a society that talks about it all the time," said Heitler, alluding to the myriad songs about sex and love. "But both sex and love have an element of the mystery about them. And there's something appropriate about keeping them in a separate realm from discussions like, 'Gee, what should we do about the economy?"

Sex benefits from a sense of privacy, Heitler said. "But privacy is different from secrecy." Like mental health, sexual health is gaining attention as being an important aspect of overall well-being. And as such, women are opening up more about perceived problems.

"I think it's important for woman to feel comfortable talking to somebody, whether it's their physician or their counselor about sexuality issues," said Dr. Diane Harper, a professor of obstetrics, gynecology and family medicine at the University of Missouri in Kansas City. "Certainly, it's helped a lot that the proportion of women in OB/GYN exceeds 50 percent."

Unlike the male doctors of Victorian days who draped women in sheets to avoid seeing their intimate areas, today's health professionals aim to answer women's sexual health questions directly and without judgment.

"I think that's probably the bigger help we can provide to women," said Harper, adding that many such questions have answers, or at least options. "They're just totally relieved and so thankful that someone is able to tell them that they're not alone and that what they're experiencing isn't freaky."

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