The Hysterical History of Female Masturbation

She Bop

She bop--he bop--a--we bop I bop--you bop--a--they bop” -Cyndi Lauper, “She Bop”

Long before female masturbation became fodder for Cyndi Lauper tunes, the game of sexual solitaire was one played, purportedly, at your own peril.

Puritans in 17th century New England viewed masturbation of any kind as akin to blasphemy and perpetrators of either were sometimes sentenced to death. Leading into the Victorian Era, horror tales were regularly told about the dangers of such self-amusement.

One moral lecturer was Sylvester Graham, more famously known as the purveyor of the eponymous cracker. His 1834 “Lecture to Young Men” warned adolescent men about masturbation, while promoting a bland diet to stifle any excitement...down there. At the same time, young women of that era were often discouraged from riding horses and bicycles, lest they encounter a bit too much stimulation.

However, at the same time that masturbation as recreation was looked down upon, for women at least, it was being used as a medical treatment.

Rachel P. Maine’s 1999 book, The Technology of Orgasm explores the history of doctors using vaginal stimulation in cases of female “hysteria.” Hysteria was once a common diagnosis for women suffering from any number of symptoms, according to Maine’s research. Among these were nervousness, insomnia, spasms, respiration trouble, a drop in appetite for food or sex, and irritability.

Maine found that it was common practice beginning in ancient times and continuing into the 19th century for doctors to diagnose said condition and prescribe a stimulating pelvic massage as a cure-all. The massage, which would induce “hysterical paroxysm” — aka. South Side fireworks — was administered with the idea that sexual release would provide temporary relief from the patient’s symptoms.

Doctors did not enjoy the “tedious” task of manually stimulating their female patients (wimps!), but they were fond of the profit that they turned on account of the patient’s need for continuing treatment.

Fortunately for weary doctors and women everywhere, primitive electric vibrators arrived on the scene in the late 19th century, Maine found. Around the same time the toaster started saving time in the kitchen, the vibrator afforded doctors more opportunities for repeat business by quickly getting their patients off and out of their office.

While this practice proved profitable for doctors, it was costly for patients and, over the years, women found various means of stimulation in their own homes and even at work.

In his book Psychology of Sex, H. Havelock Ellis found that female operators of “the treadle sewing-machine” would sometimes generate arousal from the vibrations the machines caused in their chairs — thus causing people everywhere to question the purity of their grandmothers’ sewing circles.

Over the ensuing decades though, the vibrator went from medical tool to at-home accessory. Maine’s book features an advertisement from a 1918 Sears catalog that offers a portable vibrator amongst ads for home appliances like electric fans and radiators.

Though the respectability of owning such a device might have been questionable at first, the sexual revolution of the ’60s marked the beginning of acceptance of women wishing for the proverbial rocket in their pocket.

Women like Betty Dodson, a founder of the pro-sex feminist movement, promoted female masturbation and vibrator use.

Dodson is quoted as saying that she sees “oral sex and manual sex and intercourse as foreplay for my vibrator sex.”

Today, there is a pretty fair profit to be made in the sex toy and pleasure party industry, even during a recession. A recent article on reported that, a leading sex toy retailer, saw an increase in sales of over 250% from 2008 to 2009.

Jen Hasseler is managing national director of For Your Pleasure, a “romance home party company” with party hosts situated across the country. Hasseler’s division, Parties by Jen, has over 175 consultants whose pleasure parties bring in an average total of $50,000 to $70,000 every month.

These events are essentially Tupperware parties with dildos, vibrators, lubes and lotions instead of food storage containers. Hasseler feels that women come to the parties to learn more about their sexuality and develop a comfort zone.

“They really love the idea of purchasing their intimate items from someone who can answer their questions and teach them about their body and ways to enhance their intimate life and experiences with or without a partner,” she said.

As her industry grows, Hasseler sees the open discussion of female sexuality becoming less and less of a taboo.

“I have noticed in the 5 years that I’ve worked in this industry,” she said, “that the perceptions of not only female masturbation, but also perceptions about the use of sex toys, have really become mainstream and widely accepted.”

And, with that, the evolution of female masturbation continues: from invasive medical treatment, to secret indulgence and, finally, to relatively wholesome national pastime.

Image courtesy of

Tom Huddleston, Jr. is a regular web contributor of Jerk Explains it All.