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author-photo-lower-res-copyOf Maud Casey’s most recent book, Alice Sebold said, “The Man Who Walked Away cast a spell from which I never wished to wake.”

Indeed, this book is spellbinding. Between the mental patients, the overly-confident doctors who treat them, the women suffering from hysteria, the dazzling acrobat, and the man who simply walks across Europe, this book is like a an eerie, unsettling dream that you cannot shake from your head.

Maud and I shared a fascinating discussion about The Man Who Walked Away, in which Maud brought up “ovary belts,” the difficulty in simply being human, and a “hunger for peace.”

Imagine you’re an 18 year-old bloke born and raised in Sheffield, England. You’ve just finished high school, have no plans for university, and are trying to figure out what to do with your life. There aren’t many apparent options. Sheffield is a gray, aging steel town, and if you don’t think of something else you’re going to end up working in a factory. Or maybe not, because the local economy is shit and a lot of the steel mills are closing.

The one thing you have going for you is you’re an aspiring musician. One day you miss a bus and find yourself talking to another chap who’s in a band. He invites you to audition. You’re thrilled at the prospect of joining an actual band, and you want to play guitar, but it’s clear your skills aren’t quite up to the task. Or at least not playing an instrument. To your surprise the band asks you to become their lead singer, which at that point is the greatest moment of your life.

In the last two weeks, two TNB writers have written about masturbation (thank you Smibst and Marni Grossman). Why not make it a threesome? Tis the season, right?

Specifically, I’d like to focus on the vibrator.

I was 29 when I visited my first actual sex toy shop. I went with a couple of girlfriends from my kung fu class to look for Valentine’s Day gifts for our men. Together, we were trouble.

First, there was V, the dark-haired Filipina-American who had spent 8 years in the army and who could arm-wrestle any man stupid enough to challenge her under the table. I have broken up fights between her and overzealous guys at dance clubs on more than one occasion. Second, there was M, the ample-chested knockout who never failed to turn a head with her screaming feminine vibe. She has also been the cause of a few scuffles at dance clubs – but perhaps for less confrontational reasons. Third, there was me, their plump friend, Bess.

So there we were, marching into Ye Old Sex Shoppe on 28th Street (otherwise known as “Fascinations”), and winking boldly at the pre-adults working the counter as if we had just stopped in to get a bag of chips and a vanilla Frappucino out of the refrigerator case.

“Can I help you with anything?” asked a zit-faced attendant somewhat ambiguously.

“Oh, sure,” replied V with a firm nod, “just looking for a sex toy.”

“Do you guys carry those?” joined in M.

“For sex,” I added, late as usual on the scene.

The attendant smiled a crooked “I have just the thing” smile and led us through the store. Past the lotions and games. Past the sticky videos. Not quite to the fake pussies. He stopped at a table filled with a menagerie of items. Aside from the obvious “penis” theme, the collection was comprised of all sorts of dangly, delicate things. Flowers. Fairies. Hearts. Like something I would find under glass at Gramma’s house.

 

“The latest in vibrators,” he said, grabbing one by the shaft and holding it up for our examination. It was pale green and coated in a soft rubber. A hummingbird emerging from a flower was poised in mid-flight, its beak at the ready.

“It’s for your clit,” he explained.

I raised my eyebrows at V and repeated what he’d said very seriously, “It’s for your clit.”

Our personal shopper then proceeded to turn it on for us. Handed it to M like a pair of size 7 black pumps.

“Good God,” she said. “That beak isn’t getting anywhere near my clit.”

She handed it back to him, pinched between two vibrating fingers. He turned it off, visibly hurt. Excused himself to help a customer wearing a black trench over combat boots and bearing multiple facial piercings.

After that, we headed over to the lotion section. Contemplated edible undies. French maid costumes. Chocolate body paint. Didn’t bring the vibrators back up for a good 15 minutes. When the subject finally did come up, it was touched on with a derisive humor. The pale green. The beak. Was that an orchid from which it was emerging or a Black-eyed Susan?

Touchy subject, vibrators. Kind of embarrassing. Got one? Sure. A whole collection. I got them from your mom. Right.

According to one study, however, this has not always been the case. In 1999, Rachel Maines published an eye opening study called “THE TECHNOLOGY OF ORGASM; “HYSTERIA,” THE VIBRATOR, AND WOMEN’S SEXUAL SATISFACTION.”

In a nutshell, for centuries – possibly millennia – women have been assumed to not be able to reach orgasm during normal intercourse. As a matter of fact, women were thought to not be able to reach orgasm at all.

What women were subject to, on the other hand, was a disease called “hysteria.” This disease involved a variety of symptoms, including “excitability, mood swings, insomnia, and restlessness.”

Once diagnosed with hysteria, women were then prescribed a treatment from doctors, which involved genital massage in order to effect a “paroxysm.”

I had to read that part twice when I first came across it, so here it is again. Women went to their family doctors or midwives in order to receive genital massage to help bring them to a paroxysm.

Not an orgasm – women don’t have orgasms – paroxysm.

Women would go into the doctor’s office, hike up their skirts, remove pantaloons, and allow the doctor to rub their clitoris until they cried Mother Mary.

Nuns and unmarried women in particular were encouraged to go for regular treatment. They used aromatic oils. There was no shame attached. It was a medical condition. Many doctors of the day believed that nearly 70% of the female population suffered from this affliction.

Naturally, this epidemic was becoming a bit of a problem. Think about it. The ugly spinster comes in once a week for her paroxysm. She is awfully slow about it. Sometimes it takes the doctor nearly an hour to effect her paroxysm. The doctor is losing time and money. Other tragically afflicted (hotter) patients need his attention. Something needed to be done.

Thus was born the first of the automated vibrators (Cleopatra and her “calabash of bees” doesn’t count). There is evidence that shows that vibrators were used as early as 1860 – run by water or foot pedal.


But when the Chattanooga arrived on the scene, the history of the vibrator would change forever. Here is a lovely description of the device:

The Chattanooga…stood nearly 2m tall and required a couple of men to operate it. Being steam-powered, the engine of the machine was located in a small room and two men shoveled coal into the furnace and monitored the steam temperature, pressure, and thrust required to drive the Chattanooga. The engine room was separated from the doctor’s room by a wall which had a hole in it. A mechanical arm extended from the engine through the wall and into the consulting room where the doctor controlled it and used the vibrating arm to administer the appropriate genital massage to the grateful patient.”


By the turn of the century, the vibrator was battery operated and was the fifth household appliance ever to be electrified.


Toaster? Check! Sewing machine? Check. Vibrator? You better believe it. Electrified before the vacuum; before the iron. The vibrator had even become a popular gift – touted as a great muscle relaxer, of course.

So what happened?

Porn, for one thing. As soon as movie producers realized they could make money by selling sex, it was only a matter of time before the vibrator made its first appearances on the big screen and smuttied up the whole vibrator industry. By the 1920s, a vibrator could scarcely be found on the shelves. It wasn’t until the 1960s when they made a reappearance and were suddenly viewed as a power symbol.

As for the “disease” of hysteria, well, it was finally recognized in 1952 by the American Psychiatric Association for what it really was – sexual frustration and not something pathological.

And as for my little visit to the sex shop, it ended as can be reasonably expected. I became pregnant with my first child. Actually – funny story – so did M. Which leads me to the moral of my little story:

Whether it’s pale green, pink, pocket sized, comes with hanging daisies and emerging hummingbirds – buy the damn vibrator.