In Western Europe in the Victorian Era, there existed a strange and variable disease – quite commonly diagnosed, and widely discussed by the medical journals of the time. However, this disease has pretty much disappeared from our vocabulary, and even our knowledge, today. It was female hysteria, and the cure was – the vibrator. Today we find out what this hilarious historical curiosity has to teach about being a modern woman.
What was ‘female hysteria’?
Female hysteria was though to be, in different times and areas:
A womb wandering throughout the body, strangling the victim and causing shortness of breath (around the time of Plato in Greece). The Greek word for the uterus is hystera – hence the name.
A complex of symptoms that may have included: faintness, fluid retention, muscle spasm, heaviness in the abdomen, shortness of breath, irritability, a loss of sexual and food appetite… and a ‘tendency to cause trouble’!
A disease most often developed by virgins, nuns, widows, and occasionally married women.
One Victorian physician estimated that a quarter of all women suffered from hysteria.
Galen, a Greek physician and one of the pioneers of our understanding of neuroscience, was a bit more accurate in his description of the condition – sexual deprivation in particularly passionate women.
How was it treated?
Doctors would sometimes implement a pelvic massage technique – essentially stimulating a woman to orgasm. The orgasm was couched in medical terms as a ‘hysterical paroxysm’. The diagnosis was considered ‘profitable’ for the doctor – since it was not a life-threatening condition, or even likely to lead to a stint in a mental hospital. However, patients needed to keep coming back for constant ‘treatment’.
What does this tell us?
You’re right – this historical curio definitely tells us that the Victorian era was one of terrible sexual repression! But if you look a little deeper, it also has some lessons for women today.
A lack of sexual release can have very real consequences in your personality. Perhaps even a ‘tendency to cause trouble’! It is unlikely that the physical symptoms noted (fluid retention and abdominal heaviness – more likely related to monthly cycles) were a direct cause of sexual frustration. However, the irritability, muscle spasms, and a loss of appetite for sex could certainly be considered a direct cause of sexual frustration.
This tells us that just as guys can get antsy, aggressive and irritable when their sexual activity starts declining, women experience their own set of real impacts on the personality. And in this day and age, there is just no need to get to that stage!
The alternative cure for hysteria
In Galen’s era, the prescription was intercourse if the woman was married, marriage if she was single, and in the absence of a willing or able male, pelvic massage by a midwife. Today’s cure is much more private, tailored to your individual preferences and versatile. There is a huge range of adult toys, vibrators and dildos, that can perform that ‘onerous’ chore of indulging a woman in her natural needs! There is no reason for women to suffer in silence anymore, when there are so many different adult toys, all easily accessible from the comfort of your desk chair and computer.