The A to Z of Sexual History: H- Hysteria and the Monster in your Womb

Basically, crazy women need more orgasms.

Basically, crazy women need more orgasms. Pretty much anytime before 1950, if a woman was being a bit troublesome, she could be frog-marched down to the doctor who would administer an orgasm, then send her home with wet between her legs. Horny, irritable, anxious women were thought to have a disease: hysteria. And the cure? Making her cum.

The symptoms of hysteria ranged from erotic to ludicrous, including fainting, insomnia, fluid retention, vaginal lubrication, "voluptuous sensations" and, natch, "a tendency to cause trouble". Sometimes disorders such as epilepsy, anorexia, postpartum depression and menopause would be misdiagnosed as hysteria, but mostly "hysterics" were just women with a libido and a disapproving patriarch in their lives.

This weird theory about women was taken as read from its first inception around 4th century BC, until the American Psychiatric Association dropped the term in 1952. Ancient Greek writers including Plato had a theory that the uterus was a wild animal desperate for impregnation and if it didn’t get some semen quick it would it would lose its shit, take over the brain and send the chick mad. Hippocrates wrote: "In the middle of the flanks of women lies the womb, a female viscus [organ], closely resembling an animal… in a word, it is altogether erratic. It delights, also, in fragrant smells, and advances towards them; and it has an aversion to fetid smells, and flees from them; and on the whole the womb is like an animal within an animal."

My womb has a sense of smell? Who knew. Anyway, the cure was coaxing the uterus back into its rightful place. Galen, a 2nd century physician, recommended married patients to have more sex with their husbands, and unmarried women, nuns or widows – all who were the most common complainants – to either marry, take part in vigorous horseback riding, energetic rocking on a swing, or massaging her vulva to "induce the hysterical paroxysm", i.e. an orgasm. Masturbation was not allowed (it causes mania and death) so you had to get a doctor to do it for you. In the 1600s, physician Pieter van Foreest wrote about the "suffocation of the mother", as he called hysteria, advising: "Ask a midwife to assist, so that she can massage the genitalia with one finger inside, using oil of lilies, musk root, or something similar."

This didn’t count as a sexual act, by the way, it was medicinal; hysteria was caused by a woman’s need for maternity, not for sex.

By the 17th century, hysteria was thought to be the second most common disease after fever. But the sex-obsessed Victorians really embraced it and packed asylums full of hysterical arm-flaying, hair-pulling women. Worse still, some didn’t even get their weekly climax cure. An eminent 1850s obstetrician Issac Baker Brown recommended chopping off their clitoris. Clitoridectomies, performed for epilepsy, nymphomania and excessive masturbation, used scissors, knives or a red hot iron to cauterise the poor girl's lady bits.

That was soon acknowledged as quackery, and physicians were back to "pelvic massage" (fingering), which they apparently didn’t enjoy one bit. The technique was difficult to master and took too long, so they set about looking for time-saving devices. In the early 1800s, in any decent spa, women could be treated with hydrotherapy (basically what tween girls do with showers heads). A steam-driven vibrator arrived in 1869, and in 1873 the first electromechanical vibrator was used at an asylum in France for the treatment of hysteria. Soon women could buy their own portable devices and cure themselves in the privacy of their own home. It appeared as a home appliance nine years before the vacuum and ten years before the electric iron. Ads for vibrators appeared in women’s magazines like Needlework Companion billed as "very useful and satisfactory for home service".

Amazingly, vibrators were not considered sex toys. The invention of the speculum caused more controversy. While obviously some people had figured out how it all works (written pornography of the era describes women orgasming – called "spending" – all over the place), in medical terms female sexuality was a complete mystery. Women were thought to only derive sexual pleasure from an erect penis, with everything else classified as pathological. It wasn’t until the 1920s, when the first vibrator appeared in an erotic movie, that the penny dropped.

Finally, Charcot, Freud’s teacher, and Breuer challenged the definition of hysteria, arguing that it is in fact anxiety manifested in physical symptoms – what is now referred to in psychiatry as conversion disorder.

They did all sorts of horrible things to women to figure this out, such as burn their nasal passages with hot pokers, commit them to asylums and squeeze their ovaries in front of large crowds of expectant men. Thankfully, hysteria has disappeared, its only legacy being a lot of awful fucking dildo boutiques in LA.