After the sewing machine, the fan, the toaster, and the teakettle, the vibrator was the next domestic appliance to be electrified…


Hugh Dancy as Mortimer Granville and Maggie Gyllenhaal as Charlotte Dalrymple in Hysteria, Informant Media, 2011

From The New Yorker:

If the popular perception remains that Victorians were hopelessly mired in repression and prudery, Lutz seeks to capture the shuddering underbelly of Victorian society—what Steven Marcus’s classic 1974 study, “The Other Victorians,” described as “a world part fantasy, part nightmare, part hallucination, part madhouse.” Lutz conjures a time when people like Boyce and his friend Dante Gabriel Rossetti revelled in free love, and when “respectable gentlemen” who had other tastes “prowled the night streets of London for young grenadiers to bend them over in a public toilet.” Sex wasn’t just a favorite recreational activity; it was a primary topic of conversation and subject of study. The adventurer, translator, pornography collector, and writer Richard Francis Burton started the Cannibal Club, in 1863, so that his friends—including such artistic eminences as the poet and avid flagellant Algernon Swinburne—would have, in Lutz’s words, a forum “to analyze ‘deviant’ sexual practices and encourage one another in personal and artistic investigations into the outer reaches of sexual behavior.” These forays into the erotic unknown would invariably take place over “rare wine, steaks, chops, mutton and all manner of meat.”

As with our own sexual revolution, theirs involved technological as well as intellectual innovation. For centuries, physicians had been treating hysteria in their female patients with “pelvic massage,” but in the early eighteen-eighties Dr. Joseph Mortimer Granville patented the first electromechanical vibrator, which advanced this particular medical procedure considerably. (The vibrator was made available as an over-the-counter treatment two decades later, when it was the fifth domestic appliance to be electrified, after the sewing machine, the fan, the toaster, and the teakettle; it remains the machine most important to a great many smoothly functioning households.)

Lutz’s Victorians were, as she says, “groping their way toward a new view of the sexual body.” Swinburne, in particular, was “well on his way to a new heretical questioning in his art: could a worship of the senses replace a belief in God?” This “new eroticism,” then, was far more than a matter of a few libertines’ nocturnal prowlings. Here was an era when the sciences, including the human sciences, were starting to eclipse the authority of Church and Scripture, and English freethinkers like Edward Carpenter and Havelock Ellis—dubbed “the Darwin of sex”—wrote about the varieties of sexual experience without moralizing or pathologizing. Owenites and Fourierists had already formed communities where the sex radicals of the nineteen-sixties would have felt at home: Haight-Ashbury, with tea cozies. It would be tempting to conclude that sexual liberation was really a nineteenth-century project, that Reich was bounding along a trail blazed by his frisky Victorian forebears—if it weren’t for the fact that the eighteenth century had a sexual revolution, too.

“Novelty Acts”, Ariel Levy, The New Yorker