Women, it seems, have always had the unfortunate luck of being branded as crazy. Take hysteria for example. Historically, it was the first psychiatric disorder to be solely attributed to women. Etymologically, the word hysteria comes from hystera, the Greek word for uterus. The disorder has a convoluted, bizarre past, with causes attributed to the paranormal, psychology and science, with treatments ranging all the way from herbal concoctions to increased sexual activity. The symptoms were, but not limited to anxiety, an increased libido, irritability, vaginal lubrication, hallucinations, deviancy, erotic thoughts, inappropriate conduct, tremors, seizures, and partial paralysis. Several believed that the mental illness could produce a wide range of symptoms, manifesting itself differently in different women, but the cause was always attributed to the uterus.
The History of Hysteria
The origins of this exclusively female pathology can be traced all the way back to Ancient Egypt, where it was believed that emotional and mental dysfunctions in women were caused by atypical uterus movements. Treatment included placing either perfumed or foul-smelling objects near the mouth and the vagina.
The Ancient Greeks too had some pretty strange ideas. Hippocrates, who is credited with coining the term Hysteria, like his Egyptian counterparts, believed that it was caused by “wandering wombs”, which was caused by the lack of sexual activity, and additionally, due to lack of use, the uterus was affected by humours, which impacted them negatively. And what was the Father of Modern Medicine’s recommended cure? Sex, of course. He believed that engaging in intercourse with a male would purge these depraved women of all those bad humours, curing her of her affliction. Women were encouraged to get married and to get down and dirty (with her husband, preferably) as much as possible. Needless to say, this isn’t an example of the physician’s best work.
As time went by, theorists and practitioners came up with various other possible explanations for the gender-specific disorder, from demonic possession to repressed trauma. But the core belief that hysteria was caused by a lack of sexual activity spread to other parts of Europe and stuck around for a surprisingly long time.
The affliction was once believed by physicians to be an incredibly common condition among women, in the Victorian era especially. It was discussed extensively during this time. The diagnosis was thrown around, and became a go-to for doctors, to categorize any form of female instability.
Due to the alleged, rather carnal and explicit explanations for the cause of hysteria, therapists developed several unusual and quite invasive treatments that are just as bizarre as the origins of the disorder. Most physicians believed that the best way to cure female hysteria were methods that resulted in a “hysterical paroxysm”, which is essentially, a fancy word for an orgasm, through either clitoral or vaginal stimulation. If you’re curious as to how exactly these therapists achieved this, read on to find out.
Manual stimulation of a woman’s genitalia was, for a long time, considered to be a legitimate treatment for female hysteria. There were several clinics set up, that hired both men and women, who would conduct long sessions with the goal to stimulate a hysterical paroxysm in a woman, through assisted massages. These clinics were very popular back in the day but soon fell out of fashion, as the method was reportedly very cumbersome and exhausting for the physician, several of them allegedly suffered from finger cramps and wrist pain as a result.
Jets of water from high-pressure showers and hoses were also used to cure hysteria. The French Douche, for example, was a specially designed chair that a woman would sit on, and a strong jet of water would be fired at her pelvic area until the desired result was accomplished.
Vibrators were originally patented as a cure for hysteria. Since manually massaging a woman’s nether regions can be quite the task, vibrators, or personal massagers were invented. There were a number of instruments and contraptions invented just for this, some of which look more like torture devices, rather than a masturbatory aid. Prior to the invention of smaller, portable electric vibrators, there were large steam and coal powered vibrating chairs and tables that a hysterical woman would have had to sit on.
Hysteria As A Mental Illness
Hysteria was declassified as a female exclusive mental illness in the 1950s, and the term reclassified as “hysterical neurosis”, which encompassed a completely different set of symptoms, was dropped the 1980s, with the third edition of the DSM, and was changed to conversion disorder.
There is no proof that the mostly male physicians who treated women diagnosed with hysteria took any sort of pleasure in it. It is suggested that they saw these practices as more of a medical necessity, rather than a sexual act. However, attributing a specific psychological dysfunction to a woman’s physiology – her uterus is undoubtedly a controversial subject manner, and is a point of contention, especially to feminists. But despite having a long way to go in the realm of gender equality as of today, taking a look into our past, and what was unquestioningly acceptable back then, shows us just how far we’ve come.