The Vibrator story

Side notes about a modern play, featuring an old medical medical problem
- and treatment

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THROUGHOUT HISTORY, WOMEN'S BODIES HAVE

provided humanity with a wellspring of puzzlement and wonder—their reproductive powers reliably arouse responses ranging from reverence to fear. In keeping with the human instinct to understand and conquer nature, for thousands of years people have endeavored to harness female sexuality. Early philosophers and doctors zeroed in on the uterus as a nexus for these unknowable strange and scary forces in an attempt to control and contain them. The uterus was thought to be responsible for a considerable host of afflictions that fell under the heading of "hysteria."

 

Hysteria as an illness dates back to antiquity: the word derives from the Greek "hystera" which means uterus, or more literally, "of the womb." Thus "hysteria" has always connoted female concerns. (The American Psychiatric Association retired the term in 1952, later adopting the more gender-neutral "conversion disorder" instead.) Documented male cases of hysteria do exist, though they are far and away the exception rather than the rule. The disease became a sort of catch-all assessment for a variety of tangible yet unexplained symptoms stemming from no obviously discernable cause. Doctors stamped the hysterical label on many conditions that we now recognize as other things: schizophrenia, anxiety and panic attacks, epilepsy, etc. But they also applied it to a vast cornucopia of symptoms like nervousness, boldness, fainting, excessive energy, apathy in the bedroom, an overly hearty sexual appetite—basically anything not readily identifiable as something else.

 

The most frequently prescribed and preferred treatment for hysteria was marriage, and for a woman to be "strongly encountered" by her husband. Pre-20th-century logic determined that if the symptoms emanated from the womb, a sexual release would purge them. However, with the female body being so enigmatic, not many doctors recognized the fact that traditional intercourse alone does not provide said release for a significant number of women. If marriage proved unsuccessful, which it often did due to many women's uncooperative physiology (today, figures are quoted that anywhere from 50-70% of all women do not achieve orgasm without some form of clitoral stimulation), those women were considered deficient or abnormal and in need of further remedy.

 

The Victorian era in particular embraced the diagnosis of hysteria with perhaps a tad too much gusto. Conservative sexual attitudes at the time contributed to a rampant proclivity for purging any behavior or characteristic that did not conform to societal norms. An ideal woman radiated chastity and modesty; feelings of lust or desire were considered unseemly or abhorrent, and often indicative of an underlying problem requiring fixing. And yet, contradictorily, though a passionless woman was thought a pure woman, she was also sometimes proclaimed to need medical treatment, particularly if she objected to sex. The message to women was confusing: be chaste, but want sex a little bit (and of course only with your husband); don't show enthusiasm, but don't be lethargic either.

 

It was commonly believed back then that women had little or no sexual desire. From the female perspective, sex was to be endured. Victorian ideas about the purpose of intercourse indicate that most women thought sex existed mainly for reproductive reasons, and possibly for male pleasure, but very rarely did people acknowledge that sex might also provide pleasure for the woman. Dr. Clelia Mosher's famous study of 45 Victorian wives and their sex lives confirms that a large number of women knew next to nothing about sex until marriage. Some refer to having read parts of a female-penned populist guide to gynecology and midwifery in order to glean something ahead of time, but most went in all but blind. Without knowing much about what to expect, or what was expected of them, sex may have been a terrifying prospect for many women. Oftentimes, things would not go smoothly, and a couple would seek a doctor's advice, where a pronouncement of hysteria was likely.

 

If marriage failed to alleviate hysterical symptoms, doctors usually then prescribed "pelvic massage" in order to induce a "paroxysm," which literally means a sudden fit or convulsion, but we know now that in this context it was simply another name for an orgasm. It is interesting to note that while the favored remedy was a vigorous bedroom encounter with one's husband, doctors were yet able to achieve clinical distance with the pelvic massage they administered in their offices, maintaining that the "hysterical paroxysms" they induced were purely medicinal and contained nothing of the sexual about them.

 

Similar logic applied to the intense fear of masturbation, or "onanism," as it was referred to at the time. If a paroxysm occurred in a doctor's office or the marriage bed this was seen as a positive result, but if achieved by the woman herself (or a man, for that matter) in privacy, it became unacceptable and depraved. It was believed with absolute certainty that these two situations resulted in completely different effects, despite sharing the same outcome. Rachel P. Maines suggests a possible cause of this striking ability to compartmentalize in the preface to her book, The Technology of Orgasm: "Doctors who failed to recognize the orgasm in their patients must never have seen them in their wives:'

 

Physicians had been prescribing pelvic massage in various forms since ancient Greek times, and possibly earlier, as a cure for hysteria. The simplest method was also the most labor-intensive: the manual treatment. Using one's fingers to elicit a paroxysm could take an hour or more and thus prove quite tedious and tiring. As a result, doctors often handed the task off to a midwife. They also searched for ways to make the process easier. Hydrotherapy was a popular option: they experimented with showers, water pressure, and hot springs, resulting in spa towns like Saratoga Springs or Ballston Spa in New York boasting large populations of doctors. Other prescriptions included horseback and bicycle riding, travel in a carriage, or later a train, and even sewing, as the motion from early, pre-electric sewing machines achieved vibratory effect.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Electric vibrators first appeared in doctors' offices around 1878, not long after the introduction of electric light. Once public awareness of these new devices grew, so did requests for portable vibrators appropriate for home use. Maines notes that, "The first home appliance to be electrified was the sewing machine in 1889, followed in the next ten years by the fan, the teakettle, the toaster and the vibrator." The invention was heartily welcomed and hailed as a revelatory and ingenious device. Considered a medical tool, people viewed the vibrator the same way they viewed a stethoscope or a thermometer.

ironic resonances, but the audience has to work for them. The play coaxes the spectators to swim in the magical, sometimes menacing flow of the unconscious. Ruhl prefers the revelations of the surreal moment to the narrated psychological one. In the prologue to Passion Play—a triptych that uses for its dissection of faith, politics, and political icons the organizing conceit of the staging of Christ's Passion in separate acts by the Elizabethans, Nazi-era Germans, and contemporary Americans— Ruhl announced her daring, playfully cajoling the public to focus on the moment and the mythic:

We ask you, dear audience, To use your eyes, ears, your most inward sight.

For here is day (A painted sun is raised)

And here is night (A painted moon is raised)

And now, the play.

As a storyteller, Ruhl marches to Ovid's drum rather than Aristotle's. "Aristotle has held sway for many centuries, but I feel our culture is hungry for Ovid's way of telling stories," she said, describing Ovid's narrative strategy as "one thing transforming into another." She went on, "His is not the neat Aristotelian arc but, instead, small transformations that are delightful and tragic:' And she added, "The Aristotelian model—a person wants something, comes close to getting it but is smashed down, then finally gets it, or not, then learns something from the experience-1 don't find helpful. It's a strange way to look at experience.

"I like plays that have revelations in the moment, where emotions transform almost inexplicably," Ruhl said. "The acting style isn't explicated, either. It's not psychological:' In The Clean House, for instance, one stage direction reads, "Lane cries. She laughs. She cries. She laughs. And this goes on for some time." To Ruhl, this kind of emotionally labile performance is a "virtuosic" exhibition of behavior. "It feels true to me," she said. "Children are certainly that way. I'm interested in these kinds of state changes. 'I was happy, now I'm sad: "She continued, "If you distill people's subjectivity and how they view the world emotionally, you don't get realism." The irrationality of emotion is one of the themes to which Ruhl's plays continually return. "I don't want to smooth out the emotions to the point where you could interpret them totally rationally, so that they have a clear reference point to the past:' she said. "Psychological realism makes emotions so rational, so explained, that they don't feel like emotions to me." 0

 

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wellspring of puzzlement  rejtlyéjek forrása
arouse responses válaszokat váltott ki
endeavored to harness megfékezni szándékozták
zeroed in v.mire koncentrálni
unknowable strange megismerhetetlenül igeden
considerable host of afflictions egy halmas betegség oka
   
 connoted jelent
far and away the exception messze menően kivétel
a sort of catch-all mintegy szemétláda
tangible tapintható
obviously discernable nyilvánvaló
a vast cornucopia igen bőséges
   
sexual release orgazmus
would purge them megszabadította
being so enigmatic olyan rejtélyes
   
   
   
embraced the diagnosis elfogadta a diagnózis
a tad too much gusto. kicsit túl lelkes
rampant proclivity for purging féktelen hajlam kitiporni
feelings of lust kéjelgési vágy
unseemly illetlen
abhorrent visszataszító
proclaimed to need kifejezetten szüksége van
   
was commonly believed köztudomásu volt
sex was to be endured a sexet el kell tűrni
next to nothing semmit sem
all but blind teljesen vakon
a terrifying prospect egy félelmetes kilátás
   
   
 to alleviate hysterical symptoms a hitőrús tüneteket enyhíteni
paroxysm roham
a vigorous bedroom encounter egy lelkes hálószobai aktivitás
   
   
for that matter ugyanúgy
depraved erkölcstelen
ability to compartmentalize képes osztályozni