“Pain and at the same time the pleasure” – can Roman ‘genital massage’ inspire an Age of Great American Sex?

In an article in The Atlantic on 14 May, journalist Andy Isaacson investigates the design of sex toys, and how their marketing has changed over time.  He talked to Helen King, Professor of Classical Studies at The Open University, about common medical treatments the Ancient Greeks used for female problems, and the Romans where genital massage was used.

During antiquity physicians believed that hysteria was caused by the womb meandering around the body, wrecking havoc, yet by the 19th century the term had become “the wastepaper basket of medicine where one throws otherwise unemployed symptoms,” as the French physiatrist Charles Lasègue put it. (The American Psychiatric Association finally dropped hysteria altogether from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1952, the same year it added homosexuality.)

Virgins, nuns, widows and women with impotent husbands were thought especially prone. Victorian physicians, especially in England and the United States, were wary of female arousal. They viewed it as a dangerous slope towards uncontrollable desires and ill health, and advised women against tea, coffee, masturbation, feather beds, wearing tight corsets, and reading French novels.

Rachel Maines, a Cornell researcher, argues that relieving women of this pent-up desire was a standard medical practice. She refers to the Greek physician Soranus, who in the first century A.D. wrote that “We…moisten these parts freely with sweet oil, keeping it up for some time”.  Prof King, leading authority of Classical medicine at The Open University, told Isaacson that actually, a correct translation of this passage has Soranus massaging the abdomen, the typical treatment for another female disorder – chronic flowing of female “seed” – for which rose oil was prescribed, along with cold baths and avoiding sexy pictures. Rather, Prof King says, it is the influential Roman physician Galen who first explicitly mentions genital massage to orgasm as a medical treatment. Galen discusses a woman rubbing “the customary remedies” on her genitals–sachets of Artemisia, marjoram and iris oil–and feeling the “pain and at the same time the pleasure” associated with intercourse.

Did doctors do the deed? Probably not in antiquity, Prof King said – even in the Classical world, there was a taboo against such things, and the task was likely assigned to midwives. References in the annals of medical historyto genital massage are oblique, leaving a trove of circumstantial evidence, although there are some exceptions – such as the British physician Nathaniel Highmore complaining in the 17th century that massaging the vulva was “not unlike that game of boys in which they try to rub their stomachs with one hand and pat their heads with the other.”

The article outlines how advertisements for vibrators appeared in Hearst’s, Popular Mechanics, Modern Women and Women’s Home Companion, among many others. A National Home Journal advertisement in 1908 for a $5 hand-powered vibrator, declared: “Gentle, soothing, invigorating and refreshing. Invented by a woman who knows a women’s needs. All nature pulsates and vibrates with life.” Another in American Magazine claimed that the vibrator “will chase away the years like magic…All the keen relish, the pleasures of youth, will throb within you…Your self-respect, even, will be increased a hundredfold.” A Sears, Roebuck catalog in 1918 advertised a portable vibrator on a page (with fans and household mixers) of “Aids That Every Woman Appreciates.”

As for the present day, Isaacson notes that “Sex toys have transformed into sophisticated and well-designed gadgets that take their inspiration from Apple not Hustler…  a better machine could mean better sex for a repressed nation.”

Can a Better Vibrator Inspire an Age of Great American Sex? Read the full article written by Andy Isaacson in The Atlantic.


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