The Volokh Conspiracy

Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent

"Victorian-Era Orgasms and the Crisis of Peer Review"

Two phrases you probably didn't expect to see together.


But quite a compelling article in The Atlantic (Robinson Meyer & Ashley Fetters), with the subtitle "A favorite anecdote about the origins of the vibrator is probably a myth." An excerpt:

It's among the most delectably scandalous stories in the history of medicine: At the height of the Victorian era, doctors regularly treated their female patients by stimulating them to orgasm. This mass treatment—a cure for the now-defunct medical condition of "hysteria"—was made possible by a new technology: the vibrator. Vibrators allowed physicians to massage women's clitorises quickly and efficiently, without exhausting their hands and wrists.

It's a disturbing insight, implying that vibrators succeeded not because they advanced female pleasure, but because they saved labor for male physicians. And in the past few years, it has careened around popular culture. It's given rise to a Tony-nominated playa rom-com starring Maggie Gyllenhaal, and even a line of branded vibrators. Samantha Bee did a skit about it in March. A seemingly endless march of quirky news stories has instructed readers in its surprising but true quality, including in ViceMother Jones, and Psychology Today.

In short, the tale has become a commonplace one in how people think about Victorian sex. And according to a contentious new paper, it may also be almost totally false.

There is absolutely no evidence that Victorian doctors used vibrators to stimulate orgasm in women as a medical technique, asserts the paper, written by two historians at Georgia Tech. "Manual massage of female genitals," they write, "was never a routine medical treatment for hysteria."

"There's no evidence for it," says Hallie Lieberman, an author of both the new paper and Buzz, a popular history of sex toys. "It's inaccurate."

NEXT: Today in Supreme Court History: May 29, 1917

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Everyone enjoys a good post about vibrators, but wouldn't it be much more beneficial for Prof. Volokh to devote his excellent intellect and credentials and his opportunity through this forum towards threats to freedom of speech like this one even if it goes against his political preferences?

    From the NYT

    "Recent legislation requires firms to declare that they don’t “discriminate” against the firearm industry — or risk losing lucrative business with the state. . . .

    The stakes are high for big banks. If a bank states that it is in compliance with the law and is found to be otherwise, it could face criminal prosecution. It could also be shut out of the state’s giant municipal bond market. Texas is one of the biggest bond issuers in the country, and Wall Street has long made lucrative — and relatively risk-free — fees underwriting municipal bonds. With $50 billion in annual borrowing, Texas generated $315 million in fees last year alone for financial firms, according to data from Bloomberg.

    From 2015 to 2020, JPMorgan underwrote 138 Texas bond deals, raising $19 billion for the state and generating nearly $80 million in fees for the bank, according to Bloomberg data. But the bank has been shut out of working for the state since the law went into effect in September. This month, JPMorgan submitted a bid to underwrite a $3.4 billion bond issue for utilities, the largest in the state’s history. It would not be able to secure that contract until it is certified under the new law, known as S.B. 19."

    Just saying

    1. Do you have a source for that other than the NYT?

      1. Without male technology, we would be still be eating fruits from trees, and found dead animals, clothesless, in the trees.

        1. A possible defense for those litigations over doctor sex abuse of athletes.

          1. At an anecdotal level, multiple orgasms may be a treatment for what we call anxiety and depression today. Tremulous, moist eyed, unhappy people emerge poised, confident, and smiling after being driven to the edge of madness from delight.

            1. Cute story, bro. The problem is today. At least medicine is trying to validate its findings. The lawyer? Feels free to make shit up to make money because it has the men with guns. That justifies violence against this totally garbage, highly toxic profession. They are 1000 times more toxic than organized crime that also sees no need for validation save coercion. At least organized crime provides services and products that are in demand. The lawyer provides nothing of value, just staying out of jail.


              1. We are in the Inquisition 2.0, much slicker, and much more lucrative than 1.0. That ended when French patriots beheaded 10000 church officials. That is the model for the remedy to 2.0.

                1. Lawyer obscenity laws would have prevented the publication of the missing sources.

                  The brain has a narrow pipeline of inputs. Filling it with alternatives to hysteria or anxiety would be useful in a temporary but effective way to block it and to bring relief. The 3 Stooges were working in a health spa. The quack doctor suggested exercise as a treatment. A walk around the block would be a good treatment without the drama.

      2. " Do you have a source for that other than the NYT? "

        Would you accept FreeRepublic, Instapundit, or One America . . . or does it have to be Stormfront or The Crusader?

        Carry on, clingers.

        1. Rev, Rev. You still talkin'? Why you still talkin'?

        1. How does a link back to the comment mentioning an NYT story provide a source other than the NYT?

          1. Sorry. Made a mistake.

            Try this.

          2. It's Stormfront, the Crusader, or forget it for guys like Matthew, bernard11.

            1. "Stormfront"??? hasn't been around for Centuries (in AlGores Internets time, hey, if the "Experts" can extrapolate future temperature based on 100 years of measurements on an Earth that's much older (5-10K years, tops) I'll call 6 years "Centuries"

              You been Freeze Dried, or doing hard time?


              1. You are as knowledgeable and reliable as you are literate, clinger.

                (that was a nice shoutout to Prof. Volokh from NationalCrusader14 over at Stormfront, was it not?)

                1. Oh Great,
                  thanks Reverend, for providing a link to an International Terrorist Organization (Stormfront) (apparently you're a frequent visitor) I'm thinking your real name is more likely "(Reverend) Abdullah-Sheik-Khalid")
                  And you're just displaying your ignorance (or ICD 10 G30.9) as my merely responding by typed language demonstrates "Literacy"
                  And in conclusion, You are as Ignorant (see above), and Impotent as ummm,
                  Our Sleepy POTUS (can't wait to see what Stupidity he unleased at Uvalde today) "Uvalde!!! Love to be back in New Mexico!!!!!!!!!"

                  Frank "in an Intellectual Fist Fight, you're a double Amputee"

                  1. Some might have gone with, "sorry, my mistake." But you do you.

    2. I suppose each of us has our own ideological clitorises to stimulate.

    3. Sidney. You want to force states to subisidze woke traitor corporations with their financial business. They need to be crushed.

      1. No I want to celebrate the Constitution that provides for freedom of speech, freedom from compelled speech and freedom to express unpopular ideas.

        1. People who say we should appease and surrender to the Chinese Commie Party for money should be executed. To deter. This is especially true when they control assets and power. Dimon is a Democrat Party oligarch. Crush him. Arrest him.

          1. Sydney. Dimon. Not a Jew. Refused to convert before marrying his Jew wife. So don't go there.

            1. Dimon is a Harvard indoctrinated scumbag, however. Open season on them.

    4. Sydney, zero tolerance for woke. JP Morgan was responsible for 2008. They should have been executed. They are all NYC, Ivy indoctrinated traitors. They need to be rounded up, tried an hour, and immediately executed. They are agents of the Chinese Commie Party. That scumbag, Dimon, a Harvard indoctrinated scumbag, had to kowtow, and to apologize for a joke about them. He needs to be arrested, tried and killed, the NYC traitor filth.

    5. Its not just the firearms industry, its also oil and gas.

      Texas has decided as a matter of public policy not to do business with banks and underwriters that have a policy not to do business with some perfectly legal entities that Texas values and are important to Texas's economy and the wellbeing of Texas' citizens, and other states are following suit.

      San Francisco refuses to do business with companies that are headquartered in any of 28 states, I guess that is their right too. And some public pension funds won't invest in companies that allegedly cause climate change.

      Perhaps its counter productive but states can choose who they do business with as long as they aren't discriminating for illegal reasons.

    6. Everyone enjoys a good post about vibrators, but wouldn't it be much more beneficial for Prof. Volokh to devote his excellent intellect and credentials and his opportunity through this forum towards threats to freedom of speech like this one even if it goes against his political preferences?

      How is this any different than the anti-BDS laws, which we've discussed many times here? This is a type of anti-discrimination law, and while hardcore libertarians may think that freedom of speech overrides such laws, that is not how the courts analyze them.

  2. Whatever the best means of inducing female orgasm might be, reading the VC is definitely not it.

    1. As good a comment as I have ever read on this Blog

    2. Volokh can induce female orgasm by appearing in the media. Nothing is a bigger turn on.

    3. "Whatever the best means of inducing female orgasm might be, reading the VC is definitely not it."

      There is something and someone for everyone.

      Some women have a thing for biker gangs; others get branded for ridiculous cults.

      Some women still become nuns; others like cups.

      Some women have a snuff fetish; others idolize Phyllis Schlafly.

      And some women do nothing but envy Colleen Rafferty.

      Somewhere, there are women -- maybe not more than a handful, maybe not where you live, captcrisis, but they are out there -- there are females who swoon for disaffected, on-the-spectrum, science fiction-loving, faux libertarian males who live to publish vile racial slurs, fondle guns, fetishize illusory "good old days," and attend Federalist Society events.

      (This site's link limit really was a problem with this one)

      1. Written by someone who's obviously NOT! (HT Borat) a "Reverend" or had any experience with Women (I'll concede maybe the Inflatable Variety)

        Frank "Hey Now!!!!!"

      2. Rev, Rev. That is most women, like over 80%. The rest are unsuitable for any relationship with male or female. They have cats.

        1. These are Volokh's defenders.

          Drackman and Behar.

          Ouch. Very ouch.

          1. "Ouch"? That's what "She" said!!!!!!!!

            Frank "Hetero"

    4. I don' t know, Amy Barrett (has a Sniper Rifle named after her, appropriate) seems like she'd be up for anything when she takes her robe off.

        1. Weren’t you the one who said you knew she was gonna be a squish because she adopted a black kid? Maybe that was niisicko, apologies if so

      1. No, she doesn't. You are a flat out liar. The rifle you are referring to has nothing to do with her
        The Barrett sniper rifle is a real thing, easy to find the company on the internet. Pretty easy to find.

    5. Damn right, this is a white male blog, or so I've been told.

    6. It would not be the strangest kink I've ever seen mention of.

  3. What orgasms? Anyone who has ever seen an old print ad for a phallic shaped vibrator knows that women used them to relieve tense neck muscles.

    1. Or to lose weight, like with the "Relax-a-cisor" device from Mad Men Season 1, "Indian Summer" a device with electrodes women attach to, you know, Hilarity ensues!

  4. With Kopel's current contributions and this whatever it is from Prof. Volokh, this blog may have become precisely what I expected it to become.

    And Blackman is somehow standing mute at the sideline as it occurs. That I did not expect.

    1. Rev. Peddle your puritannical woke elsewhere. You stink, you vile lawyer.

      1. Why don't you and the Rev. start your own site and spare the rest of us?

        1. You may be spared by using the Mute User button to the right of Flag Comment.

          1. I think it was Confucius who warned to always be aware of your opponents intentions....

            1. My intentions include watching and helping the liberal-libertarian mainstream continue to shove American progress down the throats of bigoted conservative culture war casualties, Flight-ER-Doc.

              What are your intentions, other than to continue to comply with the preferences of better Americans?

              1. My Intentions? Not complying (" Continuing?" implies that there was a period of complying) with the preferences of "Better Americans" (Your Alzheimer's is showing, don't you usually say "Bitter"??)
                Seriously, "Reverend", in a Verbal Slap Fight, I'm Moe, you're Larry,

                Frank "Shadduppppppppp!!!!!!!!!"

            2. Sun Tzu: "If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles."

              Xiang Yu: "Live with a man forty years. Share his house, his meals… speak on every subject… then tie him up, and hold him over the volcano's edge. And on that day, you will finally meet the man."

            3. But did Confucius also warn others to be waste time to be aware of the village idiots' meaningless blatherings?

              1. Delete first *be* 🙁

          2. I wish Reason commenting software provided an option to automatically hide/collapse all generations of comments below a muted one. I think that would cut down on a lot of meandering threads. About half the comments would disappear under many posts and I think I have only three or four user's muted (probably much the same ones that others have also muted).

            (Of course, I wouldn't have seen this comment or made this response if such a feature existed and I can't honestly claim the blog would be any worse for that state of affairs.)

  5. I enjoy a good Orgasm as much as anyone (in Med School we'd joke about the difference between the $5 Pelvic Exam and the $50 one (it's all in the Thumb!)
    but what next? a scholarly tome on the origin of "The Shocker"????

    Frank "Dys-pareunia is better than No-Parenuia"

    1. What is a bad orgasm?
      Asking for a friend.

      1. Umm, when your (Jewish) mother interrupts it.....?????

        Frank "I'm in the Bathroom!!!"

        1. Why George, why?

      2. Every single one -- right on the money.

  6. The "contentious new paper" makes a valid point.

    "There are few safeguards against flawed empirical research in the humanities. Scholarly publishing rarely involves any sort of fact checking. Peer reviewers and readers for academic presses are not expected to confirm a manuscript’s empirical claims, beyond what they already know. Book reviewers likewise rarely examine citations or sources. [...] Because fact-checking is not a routine practice in scholarly publication, factual challenges to scholarship, particularly in the field of history, are rare, and can be perceived as personal attacks rather than part of the scholarly process. Therefore, scholars have few incentives to question established research. [...] What results from all this is something akin to Noelle-Neumann’s 'spiral of silence', that process by which outlandish propaganda can spread despite widespread doubts about its validity. [...] Academics end up engaging in groupthink, accepting something as true because everybody else seems to think so, rather than questioning what John Kenneth Galbraith derisively termed 'the conventional wisdom'."

    1. An author can always toss in a couple-dozen references to obscure, non-english journals (or make them up) and get a pass, in the non-STEM journals.

      How many reviewers have access to (say) the Cape Verde Journal of Biologic Ethnography Review, published in Cape Verde Creole?

      1. I review the Iranian journals frequently, they've had longer experience with PTSD/Amputees/Burns from combat than any other country, and better outcomes, of course they aren't "Peer Reviewed", so we persist with the BS "Encounter Group" approach,


  7. Only trust peer review by English lords.

    1. Bob,
      That is a silly comment even for you.

      1. Um, I think it was a pun. Not a great one, but a pun nonetheless.

  8. This is quite literally a buzz-kill. (I fully expected someone else to get there before me. Uh...)

  9. I am occasionally asked to be a peer-reviewer (not for sex toys though.....)....

    Peer review does not mean the paper is valid, it does not mean the statistics are correct (and with a masters in mathematics I can tell), and the editors don't want rigorous review...because they need crap to publish, and they don't know the math either.

    1. Peer review does not mean the paper is valid

      The way I put it is that peer review is a minimum evidentiary hurdle. If your paper can't even make peer review, it's probably utter shite.

      And has been noted, if every paper in a 20-article peer-reviewed journal has a 95% confidence level, then one of those papers is probably wrong - and lots of luck working out which!

      1. "If your paper can't even make peer review, it's probably utter shite."
        Even that is a gross misstatement that certainly does not apply to the highest impact journals with very low rates of acceptance.

      2. One of those papers is probably wrong *even if authors are honest and the methodology is correct*. And that's assuming there's no publication bias, on the part of the authors or the journal.

    2. "the editors don't want rigorous review...because they need crap to publish, and they don't know the math either."
      That is an incredibly broad brush slur that is grossly unfair to many editors of highly regarded journals (at least in STEM disciplines).

      You are correct that it does not ensure that the paper is valid, especially in predatory journals.

  10. "The way I put it is that peer review is a minimum evidentiary hurdle. If your paper can't even make peer review, it's probably utter shite."

    It's not even that. A paper that passed peer review is still more likely to be utter shit than not.

    1. Matthew,
      How many journals and in watch fields to you read on a regular enough basis that you know their standards and criteria for acceptance?

      1. ...and in WHAT fields...

        1. What I expected from you, no answer.

          1. Don Nico. The papers that I do have expertise to review have a tendency to be incredibly flawed. Even worse, I cannot tell how many "peer reviewed" papers in health and environmental science are so flawed in construction that I would given them a failing grade at an elementary school science fair. Often in environment they fail to actually study anything. They make a model and then report on its results.

            In health (as opposed to medicine), the majority of findings actually come down to "being rich is good for your health and being stressed is bad for it", with the new study just finding another proxy for either wealth or stress.

            If the publications that I can evaluate are this bad, why would I trust the ones that I cannot?

  11. It's a disturbing insight, implying that vibrators succeeded not because they advanced female pleasure, but because they saved labor for male physicians.

    I'm having a difficult time seeing such a win-win situation as being "disturbing".

    1. The explanation would be disturbing -- if true -- because the adoption of mechanical vibrators would have had nothing to do with the woman, but was purely for the convenience of the men involved. That is, the supposedly disturbing aspect is the hypothesized sexism of the rationale.

      1. Wow, what a perceptive observation

  12. "how people think about Victorian sex"

    It was my understanding that orgasm achieved by mechanical stimulation of the gonad, regardless of who is manipulating the machine, is not sex, Miss Lewinski.

    It might be Victorian, but it isn't sex.

  13. Another product idea for the new line VC merch.

  14. narrative uber alles

    just remember, much-mocked Victorian sensibilities were mainly the result of watching their Georgian aunts and uncles slowly go mad from syphilis

Please to post comments