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Monday, 10 November 2014

Urban myths and legends about the sexual past

I was gratified to see somebody concurring with my own views on the extreme dubiousness of the case for Victorian vibrators and C19th doctors masturbating female patients for hysteria. But from the comments on that piece, people seem very attached to the belief that this Really Happened and was a Genuine Thing in Victorian medicine.

I note some people claiming that they have seen Victorian vibrators in a museum and so it must be true. Except you can, really, label any old Victorian medical device as such, because, given the spread of the idea that these actually existed, people will take it on trust. I've personally been asked to testify that a certain Victorian medical object was a Victorian sex toy, when there was really very convincing evidence (such as the patent number attached to its base) that it was an electrotherapeutic device intended for rectal use (a use of electrotherapy which can be substantiated from contemporary medical texts - it was recommended for haemorrhoids and also for prostate problems). I feel that there are interesting and bizarre stories about Victorian medical practices which are rather depressingly being occluded by the desire to bend them to the hysteria/vibrator narrative.

The 'saw it in a museum' defence of some sexual urban myth is not a new one: in fact it's of some antiquity, being recorded by E J Dingwall in his classic work, The Girdle of Chastity (1931) apropos of chastity belts. He pointed out that although widely supposed to have been a medieval device, the examples he saw were no earlier than the Renaissance - and more recent scholarship suggests that even these may have been later forgeries. The curatorial comment on one of these items

held in the British Museum remarks:
The evidence for their use in the Renaissance period, however, is largely anecdotal or in burlesque fiction. It is probable that the great majority of examples now existing were made in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as curiosities for the prurient, or as jokes for the tasteless.
But presumably there are still people going around with a vague belief that this was a thing that actually happened in the Middle Ages.

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