I gave the talkback for the play “In the Next Room or the Vibrator play,” at the Wilma Theatre this past March. The talk offered esoteric information concerning the treatment of sexual pleasure during the Victorian Era. The following is a transcript of my talkback. I have re-posted since it didn’t transfer from old website.
I shall apologize upfront, I’m going to answer this question (What is hysteria and why was it popularized during the Victorian Era?) by reading from my notes, I don’t want to leave anything out. Perhaps some of you can relate to this problem, and no, the vibrator doesn’t seem to have any positive effect on the lack of memory syndrome, at least not mine.
During this past week I have spent much time researching the symptoms of hysteria. I’ll mention just a few that I noted in my reading – faintness, nervousness, insomnia, fluid retention, muscle spasm, shortness of breath, irritability, headaches, melancholy, emotional instability, aggression, depression, lower abdominal heaviness, loss of appetite for food or sex, tendency to cause trouble, and I could go on and on.
The history of the notion of hysteria goes back to ancient times; Hippocrates mentioned it in his writings, but it was Plato’s theory of the wandering uterus that is the source of the name. His theory describes a pattern of symptoms associated with the sexual frustration of women who remain childless too long after puberty. Freud and his colleagues considered it to be the first rudimentary theory of psychosexual frustration. Linguistically uterus and hysteria are related.
Galen, a prominent physician from the second century, wrote that hysteria was a disease caused by sexual deprivation in particularly passionate women: hysteria was noted quite often in virgins, nuns, widows and, occasionally, married women. The prescription in medieval and renaissance medicine was intercourse if married, marriage if single, or massage to “paroxysm” by a midwife. Galen proclaimed “Arising from the touch of the genital organs required by the treatment, there follows twitchings accompanied at the same time by pain and pleasure…from that time she is free of all the evil she felt.” And then we skip to the mid – 1800’s.
Why were so many women during the Victorian Era being diagnosed with this malady?
First there is the Victorian physician’s thoughts on women, keep in mind the majority of physicians were men. The textbook on physiology most in use among early Victorian medical students stated, “woman is greatly inferior to man in reasoning powers, extent of use, originality, and grandeur of computation, as well as in corporeal strength. Women possess a small range of intelligence and less permanence of complexion, less consistency, impetuosity courage, firmness of character except were affection subsist. She is more disposed to believe all things compared to all persons, to adopt the opinions and habits of others, has no originality, but follows and imitates men.” These words are the foundation of how the medical community treated Victorian women’s health status, including sexuality.
These women were not allowed to freely engage themselves in sexual acts unless it was with the specific purpose of procreation. A woman’s worth before marriage rested in her chastity, and once married she was expected to engage only in conjugal acts when necessary. Any sexual desires experienced by women were considered to be in contradiction with the proper definition of virtue. According to the text “The Physician and Sexuality in Victorian America” sexual promiscuity was an “ominous indication of national decay, and not a sign of women’s liberation.”
Although this was the mainstream view during Victorian times, many early love manuals actually emphasized sexual intercourse for pleasure.
However, women’s sexual satisfaction rested on the traditional model of sexual response, it assumes all women get as much pleasure from vaginal intercourse as men. Even though it has been shown that the majority of women do not achieve orgasm in this fashion, but through direct stimulation of the clitoris.
Women were also considered less highly sexed than men, therefore women who exhibited any form of excess sexual desire were believed by the medical community fated either to become prostitutes or enter insane asylums. According to the first full-length study on nymphomania “eating rich food, consuming too much chocolate, dwelling on impure thoughts, reading novels, or performing “secret pollutions” a euphemism for masturbating, may overstimulate women’s delicate nerve fibers and could lead to nymphomania.
We now have replaced the term nymphomania with sexual addiction, an equally controversial term within the field of sexology.
And so you ask why women didn’t take matters, literally into their own hands, and masturbate. Typical thoughts on female masturbation during this era.
Dr. Blackwell the first female physician to graduate from an American medical school, was a feminist and felt it was wrong to think that women were any less sexual than their male counterparts. And yet she too disapproved of masturbation, calling it “a vice from which all other forms of unnatural vice springs.” She blamed it for domestic violence, and for making both women and men lose their self-control.
Girls were even restricted from riding horses or bicycles, sewing, and squatting down to do laundry because the feelings associated with these activities could lead to masturbation.
This past year has seen much news on the controversial female genital cuttings, also known as ritual clitoridectomy being performed by certain tribes in Africa. This procedure was also recommended during the Victorian Era. From what I have read clitoridectomies were not performed often, but I certainly noted several professional papers and books written during the Victorian Era promoting this procedure as a cure for female masturbation.
A former president of the Louisiana State Board of Health, felt masturbation resulted in ‘hopeless insanity.’ This insanity could also be inherited from the offspring of a person that masturbated. As a result, females thought to be masturbating were subject to a clitoridectomy.
Dr. Kellog, created his own signature food designed to curb masturbatory urges and sexual desires. He believed that a child should be served cold, instead of hot, cereals at breakfast, in order to avoid the itch to masturbate. Think about this the next time you eat Kellog’s corn flakes.
Dr. Kellog also claimed that a masturbating woman was likely to suffer from nervous exhaustion and emaciation, as well flat-chestedness, memory loss, fickleness, and an irritable disposition.
In his text “Plain facts for old and young” he described numerous ways to stop children from masturbating. Specifically for females, his remedy was to pour a bit of pure carbolic acid, a toxic liquid and disinfectant, also known as phenol, directly on the clitoris so that it burned so badly that no girl would ever want to touch there again.
Although the drastic measures were by no means the norm, it still shows the strict code of virtue imposed on sexuality in the Victorian age.
As I mentioned earlier the mid-wife was the first practitioner to perform manual stimulation, but then the physicians realized this was a huge source of income because the treatments are constant, and the patient never dies from the therapy. Unfortunately the treatment consumed an inordinate amount of time, since the doctors were not always skilled at performing the task at hand. Then Kranzberg’s Second Law of technology: “Invention is the mother of necessity” came to rescue the physician from his tedious task and the vibrator was born. Initially it was water-powered, then steam-powered and finally the vibrator became one of the earliest devices to be converted to electricity.
Early electric vibrators were strictly for professional use in the doctor’s office, but as technology improved and the size of the vibrator got smaller, the devices were sold by retailers such as Sears, Roebuck and Co. and advertised in women’s magazines, such as “Needlepoint” with photos of women using them to massage their scalp. It was the fifth appliance electrified, predating the vacuum cleaner and iron by a decade.
The play was true to the notion of doctors believing that the paroxysm they were creating had no relationship to orgasm. This belief also veiled the production of vibrators by over a dozen manufacturers, including Hamilton Beach and General Electric.
It is speculated that the sudden disappearance of vibrators from the market relates to them appearing in stag films. In Widow’s Delight, a porn film of the 1920s, a woman comes home with her date, chastely pushes him away, and then rushes into her bedroom, rips off her clothes, and pulls out her vibrator.
Physicians and manufacturers could no longer pretend what they were being used for. The vibrator only re-emerged due to the sexual revolution of the 1960s.
Hysteria was finally officially removed as a disease by the American Psychiatric Association in1952 however the source of female hysteria, sexual frustration still exists. Many in the medical profession continue to use the intercourse-followed-by-muscle spasm style orgasm as standard for female sexual satisfaction. There is an entire industry that has sprung up on this notion, it started with Viagra.
However, the sexuality of women is still a difficult subject for people to accept. An over the counter natural arousal gel for women can’t get TV air time because the very idea of female sexual desire makes people squirm. Yet Viagra and Trojan vibrators get prime time.
I will leave you with one final thought from Gina Ogden, sex researcher and author on topics relating to women, sex and spirituality, “Depending on how you define orgasm (and sexologists have so far been unable to agree on one, all-encompassing definition), there are also whole-body orgasms, thought orgasms, heart orgasms, love orgasms, and orgasms that reveal God, Goddess and the entire unifying principle of the universe…. women, they will tell you, that having an orgasm or two or ten is only one aspect of sexual satisfaction. They will say that sexual satisfaction is a layered and multidimensional experience, often fully as emotional and spiritual as it is physical.”
I thank you.