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Victorian Vibrators, Modern Problems

Apr. 12, 2012
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The Milwaukee Repertory Theater is in the final weeks of its production of In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play) by Sarah Ruhl, which runs through April 22. Because the play has to do with—ahem—vibrators, the Rep invited me to lead talk-backs after two performances to provide a modern-day perspective on how vibrators and sexuality are perceived.

I'm not a theater critic or a historian, but I loved the production, and I'm fascinated by the issues it brings up. I also enjoyed the discussion that the audience engaged in afterward. For me, the major takeaway is that the view of sexuality that Victorians crafted still has deep, deep roots in our culture and profoundly influences how we think about sex today.

In the Next Room
is inspired by Rachel Maines' groundbreaking book The Technology of Orgasm: "Hysteria," the Vibrator, and Women's Sexual Satisfaction, which also spawned a documentary, Passion & Power: The Technology of Orgasm. The book explores the history of the vibrator—how, why and when it came into being.

A key concept explored in the book and the play that still echoes in our consciousness to this day is the Victorian idea that women's orgasms are not really "sex." When we hear about a performance whose subtitle is "The Vibrator Play," we are titillated—are they actually going to show someone using a vibrator on stage? Oh my gosh, how can they do this? We clearly mark vibrators as "sex toys" in our day and define their use as erotic and somewhat stigmatized—something that's usually used in private and not discussed—so to think about showing them on stage seems shocking.

For Victorians, however, sex was extremely phallocentric. Unless a penis was going into a vagina, sex was not happening. Women were commonly viewed as asexual. What we might view today as sexual repression or frustration in women was viewed then as a disease—hysteria—whose cure was the use of a vibrator in a doctor's office to induce orgasm and thus "relieve symptoms." The use of a vibrator on the clitoris was NOT viewed as sexual by Victorian doctors, and women's resulting orgasms were not viewed as sexual events.

Judging by the questions I get for this column, during my workshops and at the store, these beliefs still profoundly color our experience of sex, even if we disavow them on the surface. I answer countless questions about how women can have orgasms "during sex," by which they mean during penis-in-vagina intercourse. We still view this as "real sex." We still perceive women who get their orgasms through something other than penile penetration as somehow "sick" or abnormal.

People might go to In the Next Room expecting to get a glimpse into the past, but the play holds up a mirror to our current views about women's sexuality, love and communication in relationships, inviting us to explore where our ideas of what we think we know about sex actually came from.

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.


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