Matthew Sweet states in his book, Inventing the Victorians: “William Acton’s The Functions and Disorders of the Reproductive Organs (1857)- in which he famously remarked that ‘ That majority of women are not very much troubled by sexual feeling of any kind’- is frequently cited as the defining slogan of Victorian attitudes to female sexuality…..Sources concurring with Acton, however, are rather less easy to find than those arguing against exactly the opposite- that women’s erotic appetites were strong, and that sexual abstinence could harm the health of the female subject….Selective quotations from her (Sara Stickney Ellis) occupy a similarly prominanent position in the discussions of the domestic lives of nineenth century women. Selective quotations from her didactic writing has launched a thousand critiques of the power of Victorian patriachy, yet such studies rarely acknowledge that allusions of her work in more mainstream literature- in the works of Wilkie Collins and Geraldine Jewsbury, for example- are invariably dismissive. How do we know that using Ellis or Acton as keys to the nineteenth-century mindset is not like using Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus or The Surrendered Wife to explain the complexity of our own? Why should we assme that the Victorians’ self-help books and sex manuals were any less silly, flaky or ephemeral than those that fill today’s bookshops?”
For one example, one only needs to look at female hysteria, which was a widely diagnosed malady in the nineteenth century. An 1859 report stated that over a quarter of the female population suffered from it, and a seventy-five page catalog of symptoms was published. These included everything from headaches, nervousness, fainting spells, and stomach pains to depression and ill-behavior.
A popular remedy was administered by doctors in which they massaged their female clients in their office until the women reached orgasm. One physician, Dr. Swift, traveled extensively, and kindly made house calls. These pelvic massages proved incredibly beneficial; however, they also proved time consuming for the doctors. George Taylor rectified that by inventing the first steam-powered vibrator in 1869. In 1883, Dr. J. M. Granville invented the first electromechanical vibrator. This mechanical device proved so effective and popular that after the turn of the century it was marketed as a home appliance for women.
Nowadays, it is believed that female hysteria was an incorrectly diagnosed medical condition. Rather, it is assumed, most of the women probably suffered from anxiety disorders.
Regardless of the underlying cause, it is clear that the 19th century medical community, despite any nonsense pop writers like Acton might have claimed, understood full-well the needs of women to be sexually satisfied for both their physical and mental health.