Thursday, March 17, 2011

Welcome, Olivia Waite!

Today's guest blogger is Olivia Waite, here to talk about one of the lesser-known aspects of Victorian medicine. Take it away, Olivia!
Hysteria is virtually impossible to approach head-on. It has an enormously long history -- nearly as long as the history of medicine itself -- and an impossibly broad and vague list of symptoms. You can still find Google results that show it has not faded from public awareness -- but mostly we associate it with the corset-wearing, sexually repressed upper-class woman of the Victorian era.

In her book The Technology of Orgasm, author Rachel Maines explains more particularly why hysteria was so enduring as a diagnosis: "This purported disease and its sister ailments displayed a symptomatology consistent with the normal functioning of female sexuality, for which relief, not surprisingly, was obtained through orgasm, either through intercourse in the marriage bed or by means of massage on the physician's table."

That's right -- for much of human history, female sexual arousal was treated as a disease. The very fact of being a woman was made into a sickness.

And the cure? Sex, or masturbation.

Imagine you are a woman and a wife of means in the mid-nineteenth century. You have been feeling vaguely unwell for a while -- headaches, malaise, perhaps some minor aches and pains. You bring this issue to your doctor, who then diagnoses you with hysteria and does one of the following things:
-- informs you to have more sex with your husband
-- rolls up his sleeves and stimulates your ladybits with his hands
-- recommends a midwife, who will roll up her sleeves and stimulate your ladybits with her hands.

What your doctor would not do: tell you to stimulate your own ladybits. Because despite all the orgasms apparently going around in the medical industry, it was considered either sinful or unhealthy or both to take matters into your own hands, so to speak.

Hysteria patients were good business for doctors -- women diagnosed with hysteria tended to be wealthy, and could receive treatments and consultations over a span of some years -- but bringing a woman to orgasm by manual means was considered physically laborious and time-consuming. Certain health spas used water pressure to help women achieve climax -- which goes some way to explaining why the baths remained so popular!

So when George Taylor patented his Manipulator in 1869, the machine was heralded as a time-saver more than as a cure. The Manipulator used a steam engine -- no, really! -- to create a vibrating sensation on a rod or a padded surface. Other similar machines followed, soon powered by electricity, and growing ever more sophisticated. The use of them spread beyond the medical profession to the consumer, and vibrators were advertised as health aids in the back of magazines like the Ladies' Home Journal up until the 1920s. Which is where Rachel Maines discovered them, while researching textile history.

When I first started looking at the history of hysteria and the vibrator, I had no idea how shocking I would find it. As an erotic romance author -- and longtime reader -- I considered myself pretty unshockable on the subject of sex. Menage, m/m pairings, kinky stories, erotic horror -- I'd read a little bit of everything. But to look at these treatments for hysteria, at the way women's bodies were considered automatically dysfunctional, at the way the prescribed cures are so blatantly sexual to a modern eye -- that shocked me down to my toes. Knowing that lengthy debates were held in medical literature about whether or not women could orgasm at all? Dumbfounding.

My debut book, "Generous Fire," is an alternate take on the invention of George Taylor's Manipulator. I wanted to correct what I saw as an imbalance in history, to make women's pleasure something healthy and, well, pleasurable, rather than a condition for which she required impersonal medical treatment. In an erotic romance, as in most romances except the very sweetest, the woman always gets to come -- and frequently more than once. Women's sexual pleasure is central to the romance genre -- and while I can't and wouldn't want to alter the historical record, I can imagine something better for the present, and for the future.
Olivia Waite is the author of "Generous Fire," coming soon from Ellora's Cave. She loves books and tea and just about anything with tentacles, has a brand-new Facebook page, and blogs at

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