Until the late 20th century, women expressing anxiety or feelings of…pretty much anything emotional were diagnosed as Hysterical (not in the funny way). The symptoms of hysteria, aka “womb disease”, included “anxiety, sleeplessness, irritability, nervousness, erotic fantasies, feelings of heaviness in the lower abdomen, and wetness between the legs”. In layman’s terms: horniness. But because of course women could not be horny—that was the right and realm of men only—something must be wrong with them, thus the creation of a medical diagnosis and centuries of repression. Hysteria, believed to be caused by “spontaneous womb movement”, is the first mental disorder specifically attributable to women. What did they think wombs were doing? Going on organ safari? Taking time to discover themselves? “I’m sorry ma’am, your uterus seems to have taken a vacation to your chest cavity. She has lovely photos.” Even when the study of anatomy became more than chiseling a bangin’ body out of marble, did no one say “Uh, guys, none of the other organs seem to wander around the body on their own. Also, we should all get checked for cooties.”
The first recorded description of the disorder comes from Egypt in 1900 BC, but it really gained diagnostic popularity among the physicians (and I use that term loosely) of the ancient Greeks. Hippocrates, considered a monumental figure in the history of medicine, asserted that the womb produced toxic fumes which could be released through sexual activity. Like the Egyptians, one solution was to have something sweet smelling between the legs and something pungent or unpleasant by the nose to drive the uterus back into place. The only good part of this is calling gynecologists “womb wranglers”. Hippocrates also suggested that even widows and unmarried women should get married and live a satisfactory sexual life within the bounds of marriage to combat hysteria. You’ve probably heard this argument; it’s developed into “she just needs a good hard fuck”, often prescribed for “ice queens” or “bitches”.
The entire idea of this disorder is based on the assumption (believed for way too long) that female sexuality is an unnatural and unhealthy condition. Rachel P. Maines, who wrote THE book on this topic, writes:
This purported disease and its sister ailments displayed a symptomatology consistent with the normal functioning of female sexuality, for which relief, not surprisingly, was obtained through orgasm, either through intercourse in the marriage bed or by means of massage on the physician’s table.
Yes, you read that right. Basically, if your womb goes on walkabout, all you need to do is get its attention with a good orgasm. Of course, if you’re not married or if your husband, like most men in the history of men, thinks that sex is for making babies or satisfying male lust (insert gorilla noises), don’t you worry – you can pay your friendly neighbourhood doctor or midwife to give you a ‘treatment’. This medical opinion was found as early as the first century AD, and increased in popularity in the 1600s, when hysteria became linked to the brain and neurology, and less to the uterus. Because it was still believed that woman could not experience sexual lust or pleasure, the euphoric relief brought on by super professional physician fingering was known as “paroxysm” rather than orgasm. By the early 19th century, treating hysteria became a lucrative business for physicians, whose hysterical patients didn’t die, but required regular treatment to manage the disorder, even if ‘regular treatment’ would nowadays be considered having an affair with your doctor.
The downside of this business was actually performing the chore of giving these women mind blowing (or more likely merely decent) ‘paroxysms’. Physicians complained that the procedure was taxing of their time and labor and gave them hand cramps. They generally “sought every opportunity to substitute other devices for their fingers, such as the attentions of a husband, the hands of a midwife, or the business end of some tireless and impersonal mechanism”. It was this desire to avoid giving their ladies clients the time and effort needed to ‘relieve
symptoms’ that led doctors to experiment with mechanical forms of stimulation, or early rudimentary forms of vibrators. The first were water or steam driven, but the introduction of electricity changed everything and gave women the means to have as many ‘paroxysms’ as they desired. And that, boys and girls, is how the vibrator came (heh) to be.
Though hysteria ceased to be a medical or psychiatric condition in 1952, “hysterical” or “hysterics” are still used today, generally in reference to an extreme state of emotion. It’s no accident that woman are still considered ‘more emotional’ or the trope of the crazy woman is so often seen in media. We also have not evolved past the assumption that there is something psychologically or physically wrong with women’s sexuality. That’s partly what slut shaming is about. So, fuck you, Hysteria, for perpetuating the male-centric view of sex and the belief that female sexuality and desire are unnatural…but thanks for the vibrator.
Castleman, Michael. “”Hysteria” And The Strange History Of Vibrators”. Psychology Today. N.p., 2013. Web. 25 Mar. 2016. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/all-about-sex/201303/hysteria-and-the-strange-history-vibrators
Laden, Tanja M. “Fucking Hysterical: A Timeline Of Vintage Vibrators”. VICE. N.p., 2013. Web. 30 Mar. 2016. http://www.vice.com/read/fucking-hysterical-a-timeline-of-vintage-vibrators
Maines, Rachel. The Technology Of Orgasm. Baltimore, Md: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998. Print. https://www.nytimes.com/books/first/m/maines-technology.html
Tasca, Cecilia et al. “Women And Hysteria In The History Of Mental Health.”Clinical Practice and Epidemiology in Mental Health : CP & EMH 8 (2012): 110–119. PMC. Web. 25 Mar. 2016. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3480686/
 Castleman, Michael. “”Hysteria” And The Strange History Of Vibrators”. Psychology Today. N.p., 2013. Web. 25 Mar. 2016.
 Tasca, Cecilia et al. “Women And Hysteria In The History Of Mental Health.”Clinical Practice and Epidemiology in Mental Health : CP & EMH 8 (2012): 110–119. PMC. Web. 25 Mar. 2016.
 Maines, Rachel. The Technology Of Orgasm. Baltimore, Md: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998. Print.