I want to make clear that I am NOT a Sex Psychologist, Sex Anthropologist, or Sex Expert. I am merely a curious reader and learner who wants to share what I have learned. All sources have been listed throughout and at the end of this brief overview. This conversation may be graphic and is not appropriate for those under the age of 18.
Hysteria and its Origin.
Hysteria originates from the Greek word for uterus. However, the first record of this “illness” (that I could find) dates back to 1900 B.C by the Egyptians, though it was called something else. Hysterias’ definition has barely altered through the years and different cultures. However, its treatments have swung back and forth to both extremes. From removing a woman’s clit to the invention of the vibrator.
I want to first start by explaining how I am defining hysteria throughout this and its common symptoms, according to sex researchers. This definition defines hysteria as symptoms ranging from headache to epileptic fits to coarse language to anything that may hurt a marriage (Cohut, 2020). Furthermore François Boissier de Sauvages de Lacroix, describes hysteria symptoms as:
As you can see, the definition did not leave much room for women to have any actual illness or concern. Which ultimately led to limited research and treatments for any of the above-listed concerns. One exciting treatment methods employed by the Greeks include pelvic messages, which have helped women be happier and more lively. In Victorian times the flushed and excited state’s women entered during their pelvic messages became known as “hysterical paroxysmal” instead of today’s commonly used word, orgasm. The correlation between pelvic massage and orgasms was not yet made due to the common idea in the scientific community that either woman could not orgasm or that penetration was the sole way women could and would orgasm. Later once the vibrator (more on this later) was invented, the notion of using a vibrator was deemed more acceptable than a tampon due to this central idea of penetration being the only way to have an orgasm. However, I am getting ahead of myself. Now that the idea of hysteria and its correlation to masturbation has been discussed let’s discuss how masturbation’s and hysteria connection has shifted and treatment evolved.
Hysteria and Clitoridectomies’
Clitoridectomy: “A surgical procedure in which all or part of the clitoris and sometimes also the labia are removed” (Medical Definition of Clitorectomy, 2021). It is typically done today for transgender and intersex newborns. However, its origins were dark and painful. It was typically done to treat hysteria, and mental illness thought to have been caused by maturation (King, 2015). One doctor, in particular, Isaac Baker, was highly adamant in removing the clit to keep women feminine and marriage material.
According to King, some of these behaviors in which Isaac believed the removal of the clit would treat included “…. “distaste for marital intercourse,” “a great distaste for her husband,” violent behavior, or even just answering back” (2015). Isaac was also known to do the procedure without consent or the women’s knowledge (Roach, 2009). As someone who works in emergency medicine, the idea of doing such an invasive procedure without anyone ensuring consent was obtained is baffling to me. Yet, it occurred numerous times in a span of a few years. Isaac published numerous works to help illustrate his beliefs. One of his more popular publications was in 1861, where he tries to prove that masturbation’s caused damage to a women’s Pudic Nerve, which can lead to sterility and nervous system damage (King 2015).
Five years after publishing this work, he published On the Curability of Certain Forms of Insanity, Epilepsy, Catalepsy, and Hysteria in Females; in this work, Isaac argues that removing the clit through clitoridectomy is a humane way to turn any wife with hysteria, mania, “fits,” or any unmarriageable behaviors into a respectable and loving wife (Brown, 2014). According to JB. Fleming, On the Curability of Certain Forms of Insanity, Epilepsy, Catalepsy, and Hysteria in Females, the “British Medical Journal.” editor criticized Isaacs work heavily (1960). This soon leads to Isaac’s downfall and a shift in ideology on hysterias’ treatment.
Hysteria and Vibrators
We need to go back in time a bit to view hysteria’s long history with vibrators and masturbation to the 13th century. During this period, women were told to masturbate with dildos (pictured below). However, once the 17th century rolled around, this practice was viewed as “self-abuse,” soon after it became thoroughly shunned upon. The specific action that was considered “self-abuse” was not masturbation as we commonly know it today. It was, in fact, only penetration with an object. It was believed that orgasms could only be caused by penetration, hereby making any vibrator or “pelvic massages” appropriate (Roach, 2009).
Doctors began to do manual messages to treat hysteria. However, soon they began complaining of cramping and pain in their hands (Squires 2017). They also stated that these cramps made it difficult for them to treat hysteria successfully. To combat doctors’ “cramped hands,” a variety of devices were created. At one point, a water douche was used. My absolute favorite one water douche I found was a firehouse aimed at the pelvis (Squires 2017). An image of this is below in the gallery, picture 3. Around this same time, the vibrator was invented. Interestingly enough, it was the 5th electronic home appliance invented. The first battery-powered vibrator was invented in the 1880s. At this point, they are still widely used and sold to treat hysteria. Interestingly enough, vibrators were more accepted than tampons due to the lack of penetration.
Sadly, I could not find when the shift from medical tool to sex toy occurred for our vibrator friends. However, I did see that it wasn’t until the 1950’s that vibrators began to be more accepted and viewed as a “tool of female sexual liberation”.
Hysteria Fun Facts
- Hysteria was REMOVED from the DSM officially in 1980
- Hysteria name has shifted to Conversion disorder. However the symptoms, classifications, and body organs have shifted and been updated as well.
- Vibrators were invented BEFORE vacuums.
- There is a vibrator museum in San Francisco.
- Brown, I. B. (2014). On the Curability of Certain Forms of Insanity, Epilepsy, Catalepsy, and Hysteria in Females. Book on Demand Ltd.
- Cohut, M. (2020, October 13). Female hysteria: The history of a controversial ‘condition’. Medical News Today. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/the-controversy-of-female-hysteria#Female-hysteria-in-the-18th-century
- Ellis, H. (2014). Analysis of the Sexual Impulse, Love and Pain, The Sexual Impulse in Women. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.
- Fleming J. B. (1960). Clitoridectomy — the disastrous downfall of Isaac Baker Brown, F.R.C.S. (1867). The Journal of obstetrics and gynaecology of the British Empire, 67(6), 1017–1034.
- King, H. (2015, March 12). The rise and fall of FGM in Victorian London. The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/the-rise-and-fall-of-fgm-in-victorian-london-38327
- Medical Definition of Clitorectomy. (2021, March 29). MedicineNet. https://www.medicinenet.com/clitorectomy/definition.htm
- Roach, M. (2009). Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex. W. W. Norton.
- Squires, B. (2017, January 6). Doctors Created Vibrators After Growing Tired of Masturbating “Hysterical” Women. VICE. https://www.vice.com/en/article/paeb9k/doctors-created-vibrators-after-growing-tired-of-masturbating-hysterical-women\
- Firehose: Rachel P. Maines (1999) The Technology of Orgasm: “Hysteria,” the Vibrator, and Women’s Sexual Satisfaction, Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press ISBN 0-8018-6646-4
- Self-Massage: Self-Massage. (2017, May 18). [Photograph]. https://www.talkspace.com/blog/history-hysteria-sexism-diagnosis/
- Dildo: [17th/18th century dildo]. (2018, December 18). https://georgianera.wordpress.com/tag/18th-century-dildo-and-condom/