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Thursday, June 21, 2012

It's a Book! It's a Play! It's a Movie! 'Hysteria' and Our Continuing Fascination With the Invention of the Vibrator

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Last weekend, I went to the Oriental Theatre to see Hysteria, a movie that covers the same ground as Sarah Ruhl's In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play) and Rachel Maines' book The Technology of Orgasm (read my comments on the Milwaukee Repertory Theater's recent staging of In the Next Room here). Maines' slim volume, published in 1998, seems to have kicked off a decades-long fascination with the invention of the vibrator, culminating in a star-studded Hollywood movie.

Hysteria has received mixed reviews, with some critics stating that the movie was too glib, too wink-wink, nudge-nudge about Victorian views on sexuality, as if the movie characters themselves were secretly rolling their eyes over their own outdated propriety. I was surprised to find out that it was billed as a comedy, since I think vibrators and women's sexual pleasure are very serious topics indeed. Maines' book has been criticized for historical inaccuracy, and since Hysteria is a mainstream farce, it strays even further from the truth, whatever that might be, in the interest of getting laughs.

As I wrote after seeing In the Next Room, we are actually not as far away from the Victorian view of sexuality as we like to think. Hysteria places the invention of the electric vibrator in the 1880s, but it was not until almost 100 years later, in 1972, that sex educator Betty Dodson self-published her monograph (which we would probably term a zine today) Liberating Masturbation and became “the first public spokesperson” for using vibrators as a masturbatory device (previously, they had been billed as health aids). Almost 40 years after Dodson traveled the country touting the benefits of the now-famous Hitachi Magic Wand, I still talk to women every week who have never had an orgasm, who find it shameful or shocking to talk about masturbation, or who approach the topic of vibrators with nervous laughter, as we are encouraged to do while watching Hysteria—not so far from Victorian sexuality, after all.

I hope that Hysteria will encourage people to reflect on and question our cultural assumptions about women's and men's sexuality, rather than perpetuating the idea that sex and sex toys are “hysterical”—something to laugh about instead of taking seriously. Go see it at the Oriental and then pop by the store to tell me what you think of it!

Want Laura to answer your questions in SEXpress? Send them to laura@shepex.com. Not all questions received will be answered in the column, and Laura cannot provide personal answers to questions that do not appear here. Questions sent to this address may be reproduced in this column, both in print and online, and may be edited for clarity and content.

Laura Anne Stuart has a master's degree in public health and has worked as a sexuality educator for more than a decade. She owns the Tool Shed, an erotic boutique on Milwaukee's East Side.