Monday, February 1, 2010

Hysteria: The Most Interesting History Lesson Ever

According to The Technology of Orgasm, hysteria was a common medical diagnosis found exclusively in women during the Victorian era. Indeed the word “hysteria” comes from the Latin word for uterus and is the root for other words related to the female reproductive system, such as “hysterectomy”. The symptoms included faintness, nervousness, insomnia, fluid retention, heaviness in the abdomen, muscle spasms, shortness of breath, irritability, loss of appetite for food or sex, and may lead to a “tendency to cause trouble.” It was believed by the Greeks that hysteria occurred when a woman’s uterus had become too light and dry from lack of sexual intercourse and as a result had migrated through the body, compressing the heart, lungs and diaphragm. Physicians from the second century believed that the “disease” was brought on by sexual deprivation in exceptionally passionate women. The conclusion that sexual deprivation caused hysteria also lead to the diagnosis to be common for virgins, nuns, widows, and, sometimes, married women.

Given this ridiculous, disturbing, albeit a little funny diagnosis, it should come as no surprise that the treatments for hysteria included sex for married women and pelvic message for unmarried women. That’s right. The cure-all for this condition was essentially an orgasm. Not that doctors, husbands, or society was willing to admit that. Heavens no, in fact masturbation was discouraged in women during this time least they become unchaste or unhealthy (or bruise their husbands' sexual egos).

So what is a pelvic message? Well the pelvic message was basically manual stimulation by doctors or midwives that was performed until orgasm was reached…oh, I’m sorry, until "hysterical paroxysm" was achieved. This service turned out to be quite lucrative for doctors because there was little to no chance of death and some women needed continual treatments. As a result of such high demand, the vibrator was invented to assist medical professionals in maximizing the number of patients treated in a day.

After having this little history lesson, I must say that I find myself torn between the urge to cry and to laugh. It’s almost a virtual certainty that many women were sexually abused during these treatments. I’m sure there were women who did not want to be subjected to the pelvic message and were confronted with husbands and doctors who tried to convince them that it was good for them. It is also likely that some doctors became sexually aroused while performing the pelvic message and proceeded to rape their patients. After all they were “curing” the patient right?

At the same time, I can’t help but think of sexually frustrated house wives pacing around their Victorian parlors and insisting to their husbands that it was time to call the doctor for another “treatment”. I wonder if any husbands ever watched one of these sessions and thought….I could that…and we would save a lot of money if I took care of this myself.

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