I’m back from baby hiatus with a new Genderal Interest column at Jezebel today: Vibrators and Clitoridectomies: How Victorian Doctors Took Control of Women’s Orgasms. Riffing on the popularity of the new movie Hysteria, the article looks at the different approaches to women’s bodies — and women’s pleasure — in Victorian England. Excerpt:
It’s as easy to celebrate Dr. Granville, the vibrator inventor and hero of the Hysteria movie, as it is to demonize his genital-mutilating contemporary, Dr. Baker-Brown. But the two Victorian physicians had much in common. Not only did both believe in hysteria as a legitimate medical condition, they both believed in men’s responsibility to exert complete mastery over women’s pleasure. One wanted to make women orgasm in his office, on his terms, and with his invention. The other wanted to ensure that women didn’t orgasm at all, thanks to his procedure. Their patients obviously experienced different results, and we’re rightly more outraged by Baker-Brown than by Granville. Those differences shouldn’t obscure the reality that each made his reputation by proposing new techniques to help men control women’s sexuality.
Granville and Baker-Brown agreed on something else: the dangers of female masturbation. It was only in the mid-19th century that medical texts began to discuss the clitoris and its evident purpose. Doctors were as troubled by its location as by its possibilities; why was the clitoris located within easy reach of the average woman’s fingers but not inside the vagina, where it would be more easily stimulated during intercourse? The obvious conclusion — that women are designed to experience sexual pleasure without relying on a man –- was enormously threatening to the medical establishment (and plenty of ordinary men as well.) Female masturbation (something that some male doctors had once considered impossible) represented women’s independence. Neither Granville nor Baker-Brown could countenance that.