The term “hysteria” as a condition for women in Western medicine dates back as far as the 4th century and remained as an official diagnosis in the DSM until 1952. It was a catchall category for a wide array of women’s mental health conditions, with symptoms ranging from nervousness and sleep disruption to temporary blindness and hallucinations. These conditions are now understood to be illnesses like anxiety disorders, dissociative disorders, and PTSD.
Hysteria, a Latin term literally meaning “womb disease,” was understood to be sexual frustration and as long as it was a recognized condition, the recommended treatment was manual stimulation of the patient in order to achieve an orgasm. Treatment was recommended only for older women who had chosen a life of abstinence or were recently widowed, as it was improper for unmarried young women and married women were assumed to be receiving sexual satisfaction from their husbands. The treatment was performed by doctors, midwifes, or the patient (if prescribed).
The history of hysteria is problematic in two main ways. One is that it represented the medicalization of women’s sexuality by pushing women’s sexual frustration into the clinical setting and making it a medical diagnosis with orgasms as a clinical treatment. The second is that it sexualized women’s mental health by dismissing serious mental illnesses, often related to childhood sexual abuse, as sexual frustration. Despite a scan of available literature on hysteria and vibrators, I have never seen both issues discussed side-by-side. The first is usually represented lightheartedly as ridiculous historical practice. The second is usually represented from a more academic perspective as part of the history of medicine. Yet both are issues of inequality and were the direct result of a culture that values men more than women.
Read more about the medicalization of women’s sexuality though hysteria in this excerpt from a book on the topic.
Eventually, because of the sexual nature of the treatment in a society denying the existence of female sexuality, the time and effort the treatment took, and the high volume of patients needing regular treatment, the vibrator was invented. Although it was used in clinics at first, eventually it moved into the sphere of the home. Over the course of the 20th century, the vibrator become a novelty item and sex toy and its medical history was largely forgotten.
See what historical vibrators looked like and were named at the site of the Antique Vibrator and Quack Medical Museum.
This historical relationship between women’s mental health, sexuality, and medicine is important to remember because it reflects the past culture from which modern culture grew. Given that 100 years ago, hysteria was still a diagnosis and that even 60 years ago, women’s mental health issues were not recognized or understood, it is not that surprising that society still politicizes issues like birth control, abortion, and rape. Western and specifically American culture still struggles to accept the concept of female sexuality. As a result, people continue to improperly medicalize some issues of women’s sexuality and sexualize others that are medical. The history of hysteria sheds light on the current image of women’s sexuality in society and helps to make sense of it. Understanding this image is a necessary step in disassembling and reconstructing it to be more equitable and just for women.