The History of “Hysteria”

2 Jun

(Before you start to read this, while I don’t consider this post to be really NSFW there are some things that might seem objectionable… maybe. So, this is my version of warning you. Be warned! But not too warned.)

There were some really interesting repsonses to my post about spider sexism yesterday, so I thought I’d add to that discussion with an issue that was in the back of my mind while I was writing.

While the sexism discussed in the article about spiders seemed a little dubious at times, and at least one person made the comment that this situation might have called for such terminology, the overall point (of sexism within scientific study topics) is one that I’ve been interested in for awhile.

A few years back, (actually almost a decade ago… yikes) I borrowed a book from a friend about the history of sex toys. I’m 98% sure it was this book: The Technology of Orgasm: “Hysteria,” the Vibrator, and Women’s Sexual Satisfaction.

This book taught me, among other things, the history of the word hysteria. Wikipedia now does a pretty good job of summarizing saying that:

Female hysteria was a once-common medical diagnosis, made exclusively in women, which is today no longer recognized by modern medical authorities as a medical disorder. Its diagnosis and treatment were routine for many hundreds of years in Western Europe. Hysteria was widely discussed in the medical literature of the nineteenth century. Women considered to be suffering from it exhibited a wide array of symptoms including faintness, nervousness, insomnia, fluid retention, heaviness in abdomen, muscle spasm, shortness of breath, irritability, loss of appetite for food or sex, and “a tendency to cause trouble”.[1]

Since ancient times women considered to be suffering from hysteria would sometimes undergo “pelvic massage” — manual stimulation of the genitals by the doctor until the patient experienced “hysterical paroxysm” (orgasm).[1]

So, while the book documents such inventions as dildos and vibrators, first created as tools for doctors to help induce “hysterical paroxysm,” it also documents what was a considerable period of time that sexism disallowed any real understanding of female sexuality. How long, you might ask? The word hysteria can be dated back to the time of Plato when he compared

a woman’s uterus to a living creature that wanders throughout a woman’s body, “blocking passages, obstructing breathing, and causing disease.

I particularly remember the section that described this in the book as I had to give a presentation on it and when I got to tell people that Plato thought the uterus was some sort of super-bitch of an organ that would randomly decide to choke you and make you faint… well, let’s just say that I won “Most Fun and Entertaining Presentation” that day.

At least, that’s how I remember it.

That little quoted bit above is also from Wikipedia, here.

I would say that this issue is out-dated, but with the political back and forth that has been making questionable changes in the world of Women’s Health, it’s impossible to say this is an issue that is ready to be shelved.

We’ve come a long way but there’s still more to go… and it might just make you a little “hysterical” if you think about it too much.

Okay, “Worst Joke of the Blog,” winner. It’s okay, I’ll admit it.





One Response to “The History of “Hysteria””

  1. Alicia June 2, 2011 at 5:25 pm #

    Did you see this link I posted last week on FB? Relates well to your topic today.

    (Sorry for the long link, I can’t remember how to hide URL’s in HTML code.)

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