The hysterical history of Hysteria (and a look at how far we’ve cum)


When we talk about Hysteria with people we are usually met with looks of confusion or uncertainty; indeed many people have not heard of Hysteria, so we decided to add to the archives and discuss it a little bit. We want to share a little bit of (not so distant) history on a mental disorder that was attributed to women and today seems to have been forgotten.

Today many of us consider ourselves as “sexually open beings”. We understand our bodies a little bit more, and even sex has become a little bit less taboo. All these changes were a process, and only a few moons ago we did not know many things about women - like what a female orgasm was (or even that women craved sexual pleasure!).

“You’re being hysterical!”

Heard this before?

Unknown to many - before the 1850’s, many women were falling ill and rushed to their doctors; describing to them this unexplainable feeling of “shortness of breath, heaviness in the abdomen, muscular spasms, fainting anxiety, irritability and embarrassing or unusual behaviour”. These women were told that they were suffering from an illness called Hysteria.

Hysteria was, in fact, a diagnosable mental illness attributed almost only to women.

The term ‘hysteria’ comes from the greek word ‘hysterika’, meaning Uterus. In Ancient Greece, the Greek believed the uterus was a wondering organ in the body and when “discontent”, it would wander inside the being, from the womb to the brain, passing by other organs and causing havoc. This would then explain the mix of physical and emotional symptoms in the patient. Creative surely, but not quite right. No offence Hippocrates.

Fast forward a few years (or 23 centuries) to the late 1800’s, women are still going to their doctors complaining of these same symptoms, except doctors have now found a ‘cure’ to Hysteria. Using a device, they would perform a pelvic massage to induce "hysterical paroxysm” and try to bring the uterus to its ‘original place’ - it was basically an orgasm.

Well… we’ve cum a long way since then…

… I mean, really.

The device was created by Englishman Dr. J. Mortimer Granville in the 1880's to help doctors with this manoeuvre, for it was *quoting contemporary medical journals* “tedious, boring and physically demanding work”. For that reason, the device (or “percussor”, or - brace yourselves - “Granville’s Hammer”) was patented and became a common object in doctors offices.

Branding and advertising was quickly applied to this portable massager and became a successful consumer good, initially aimed at relieving muscles aches. Quickly enough, creative women discovered the power and pleasure of this massager’s alternative use. From then, the first vibrator was unintentionally created.

In 1952, Hysteria was finally scraped as a non-sense disease by the American Psychiatric Association and from then on, we saw the start of something beautiful. In the 1960’s, we slowly enter the second sexual revolution with sex educator Betty Dodson leading the movement while/and preaching about female orgasm and masturbation. The 1960’s was a time for conversation around sex toys, but not without its set of challenges and stigmas - some that we continue to deconstruct today.

We are still trying to normalise the use of toys, as well as the conversation around pleasure. Let’s imagine what the future holds for sex toys and the fast moving technology movement; will they work together or will they clash? Will we accept sex toys as a norm in (or out) of the bedroom or will we reject it? What are your views on sex toys and how do you challenge some preconceptions you might have around them?

This article was written by Julia Spence, a Designer working around the themes of Education, Female Pleasure and Sexuality. Her work explores designs for alternative points of pleasure in the body and organises different workshops around these thematics.