A little over 10 years ago, gynecologist Lauren Streicher, MD, had just begun writing her first book, The Essential Guide to Hysterectomy. When researching the history of the procedure, she came across fascinating information about the treatment of hysteria in the 19th century – mainly, the common practice of doctors masturbating female patients to orgasm to “cure” their condition.
Soon after, Dr. Streicher, an assistant clinical professor at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, was invited to speak at a women’s convention. She suggested that her topic focus on vibrators; the hosts didn’t go for it, assuming the audience would be offended. Dr. Streicher went ahead with a tamer lecture, but asked the crowd, “How many of you would like to learn about vibrators next year?”
“The place went wild,” recalls Dr. Streicher. “Women were on their feet, clapping and cheering. I went to the conference organizers and said, ‘I think they’re telling you what they want to hear.’”
A year later, she gave her first talk on vibrators, “Good Vibrations: The History and Modern Use of Sex Toys.” Among the dozens of lecture topics that Dr. Streicher offers, “Good Vibrations” has become one of the most requested. In addition to discussing the vibrator’s history in the doctor’s office, her lecture touches on the proliferation of home vibrators throughout the 1920s, including Sears Roebuck catalogs featuring vibrators for sale.
“The normalcy of it – that it was thought to be a part of a woman’s general health – surprises women today,” says Dr. Streicher.
When the roaring ’20s came to a close, vibrators became something of a taboo subject, but recently, their use is on the rise. A study in the 2009 Journal of Sexual Medicine shows that 52.5 percent of women use a vibrator, and 80 percent of those women use a vibrator with a partner. Today, sex toys are easier to find than ever before – all a woman has to do is walk into her neighborhood drugstore.
“Even five years ago, that was unheard of,” says Dr. Streicher. “But we still have a ways to go. In fact, in Alabama, Virginia and Mississippi, it’s illegal to buy or sell a vibrator.” And, she adds, the generational gap is huge. While women in their 20s and 30s often chat about vibrator use with friends (thank you, Sex and the City), women over 50 are reluctant to discuss it openly.
“Often the women who would most benefit from having a vibrator are those who don’t even know where or how to get one,” says Dr. Streicher. So, in both the lecture hall and the exam room, she’s taken spreading the word about vibrators into her own hands.
After discussing the vibrator’s history, her “Good Vibrations” lecture delves into the importance of vibrator use today, and its medical benefits. “I tell them that I’d recommend a vibrator to women who have problems with intercourse after surgery or radiation, have a partner with erectile dysfunction, are struggling with post-menopausal hormonal changes, or feel that they need clitoral stimulation to be sexually satisfied,” says Dr. Streicher. “Women appreciate hearing this information from a gynecologist, who can talk about it matter-of-factly.”
While many may think that discussing sexual dysfunction falls exclusively on a sexual therapist or psychologist’s shoulders, Dr. Streicher disagrees. “Much of what a gynecologist does is addressing sexual issues, so vibrators certainly come under that umbrella,” she says. “Plus, while most women don’t have their own sex therapist or psychologist, they all have a gynecologist.”
Dr. Streicher makes a point of bringing up sexual function, including toys, with patients. It’s the rare gynecologist who will broach the subject, but Dr. Streicher hopes the continued lifting of the social stigma surrounding vibrators will make it more common practice.
“I’ve had a few patients who are shocked and appalled when I bring it up,” she admits. “But most women are excited and relieved that I’ve introduced the topic and therefore given them permission to talk about it.” If Dr. Streicher has her way, those conversations between women and their doctors, partners and friends will continue to become commonplace occurrences.
Pictured: A scene from Hysteria. Richardo Vaz Palma/Sony Pictures Classic Photograph.