The History of Hysteria: Pathologizing the Female Libido (Love vs Sex 240)

Hysteria was one of the first diseases to be described formally. Hippocrates discussed it in the fourth century BCE, and you’ll find it in many medical text covering women’s health written from medieval times until it was removed from the list of recognized medical diagnoses in 1952 (twenty-one years before homosexuality was finally removed). Hysteria was still one of the most diagnosed diseases in the Unites States and Great Britain as recently as the early twentieth century. You might wonder how physicians treated this chronic condition over the centuries.

We’ll tell you. Doctors masturbated their female patients to orgasim. According to historian Rachel Maines, female patients were routinely massaged to orgasm from the time of Hippocrates until the 1920s. Have a seat; the doctor will be right with you. . . .

While some passed the job off to nurses, most physicians performed the therapy themselves, though apparently not without some difficulty. Nathaniel Highmore, writing in 1660, noted that it was not an easy technique to learn, being “not unlike that game of boys in which they try to rub their stomachs with one hand and pat their heads with the other.”

Whatever challenges male physicians faced in mastering the technique, it seems to have been worth the effort. The Health and Diseases of Women, published in 1873, estimates that about 75 percent of American women were in need of these treatments and that they constituted the single largest market for therapeutic services.

Much of this information comes from The Technology of Orgasm, Maines’s wonderful book on this “disease” and its treatment through the centuries. And what were the symptoms of this “disease”? Unsurprisingly, they were identical to those of sexual frustration and chronic (unsatiated) arousal: “anxiety, sleeplessness, irritability, nervousness, erotic fantasy, sensations of heaviness in the abdomen, lower pelvic edema, and vaginal lubrication.”

This supposed medical treatment for horny, frustrated women was not an isolated aberration confined to ancient history, but just one element in an ancient crusade to pathologize the demands of the female libido—a libido that experts have long insisted hardly existed.

The men who provided this lucrative therapy didn’t write about “orgasm” in the medical articles they published on hysteria and its treatment. Rather, they published serious, sober discussion of “vulvular massage” leading to “nervous paroxysm” that brought temporary relief to the patient.

Maines found “no evidence that male physicians enjoyed providing pelvic massage treatments. On the contrary, this male elite sought every opportunity to substitute other devices for their fingers.”

(The Hamilton Beach Company of Racine, Wisconsin, patented the first home-use vibrator in 1902, making it {only} the fifth electrical appliance approved for domestic use. By 1917, there were more vibrators than toasters in American homes.)

Sex at Dawn

Ryan and Jethá          2010

 

 

 

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