Obscura |||

The History of Anxiety & Hysterical Paroxysm

The Rise of the Vibrator

Image: Miami UniversityImage: Miami University

Hysteria was the first mental disorder attributable to women1 where symptoms included chronic anxiety, irritability and abdominal heaviness.2

It was was originally believed to be caused by spontaneous uterus movement with the name hysteria being derived from the Greek word hystera’ which means uterus.3

In 19th-century Britain, women suffering from hysteria and chronic anxiety were prescribed pelvic finger massage…

The only consistently effective remedy was a treatment that had been practised by physicians for centuries, consisting of a”pelvic massage” — performed manually, until the patient reached a hysterical paroxysm”, after which she appeared miraculously restored.” (Aitkenhead 2012)

However the hysterical paroxysm was never regarded as an orgasm as there was no penetration taking place. And only penetration was considered sexual.

Treating hysteria at this time was a lucrative business. After all, it afflicted up to 75% of the female population.

But you must not assume that doctors took pleasure from treating this condition, on the contrary, according to medical journals, most complained that it was tedious, time-consuming and physically tiring” writes Decca Aitkenhead.

Image: Miami UniversityImage: Miami University

It was this tiresome act that led to the invention of the vibrator by victorian doctors as a medical device for bringing female patients to orgasm.

Their invention was regarded as a reputable medical instrument — no more improper than a stethoscope — but became wildly popular among Victorian and Edwardian gentlewomen, who soon began buying vibrators for themselves.”

So could it be that hysteria was in fact caused by sexual frustration as Aitkenhead points out?

Or was it, as Rachel Gross notes in her book Vagina Obscura, endometriosis in disguise?4

Some scholars argue that hysteria, far from being a made-up disease, has always actually been endometriosis in disguise. If so, then this would constitute one of the most colossal mass misdiagnoses in human history, one that over the centuries has subjected women to murder, madhouses, and lives of unremitting physical, social, and psychological pain,” write the Nezhat brothers, three endometriosis surgeons from Iran, in a 2012 paper. The number of lives that may have been affected by such centuries-long misdiagnoses is staggering to consider.” Rachel E. Gross

Either way, Hysteria was finally deleted from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1980 but by then the vibrator was seen as more than just a medical device.

  1. Tasca, C. et al. (2012) Women and hysteria in the history of mental health.’. Clin Pract Epidemiol Ment Health, 8, 110-119. Available at: LINK↩︎

  2. Aitkenhead, D. (2012) The buzz: how the vibrator came to be. The Guardian’, Available at: LINK↩︎

  3. Bailey, P. (1966) Hysteria: The History of a Disease.’. Archives of General Psychiatry, 14, 3, 332. Available at: LINK↩︎

  4. Gross, R.E. 2022, Vagina Obscura: An Anatomical Voyage, W. W. Norton Company.↩︎

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