A couple years ago, I took an Abnormal Psychology course at a San Diego community college. Our first lesson focused on the history of mental illness and its treatment.
The professor opened by describing a now-extinct illness called “hysteria,” which struck ladies only and featured symptoms from faintness, nervousness, and insomnia to irritability, loss of appetite for food or sex, and even “a tendency to cause trouble.”
During the Victorian Era, the professor explained, hysteria was enough of a problem to inspire heaps of medical research. And because the illness largely seemed to be stemming from the patient’s mind, hysteria became one of the first “mental” maladies to be studied rigorously by the modern medical community.
So what does any of this have to do with sex?
Well, hysteria turned out to have a long-known and very sex-related cure. But oddly enough, this cure was never mentioned in my Abnormal Psychology class.
Perhaps in a nod to how far we haven’t come since the Victorian Era, neither the professor nor the textbook could muster up the courage to tell students that women got rid of hysteria by getting themselves off.
According to Wikipedia’s “female hysteria” entry, this knowledge has been around a long time:
Galen, a prominent physician from the 2nd 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 vaginal massage (pelvic massage) by a midwife as a last recourse.
And Wikipedia’s “vibrator” entry explains how pelvic massage fell to doctors, who eventually turned to technological support:
The “pelvic massage” was especially common in the treatment of female hysteria during the Victorian Era, as the point of such manipulation was to cause “hysterical paroxysm” (orgasm) in the patient. However, not only did [doctors] regard the “vulvular stimulation” required as having nothing to do with sex, but reportedly found it time-consuming and hard work...
Circa 1880, Dr. Joseph Mortimer Granville patented the first electromechanical vibrator, then, in 1902, the American company Hamilton Beach patented the first electric vibrator available for retail sale, making the vibrator the fifth domestic appliance to be electrified, after the sewing machine, fan, tea kettle, and toaster, and about a decade before the vacuum cleaner and electric iron.
In their delightful book Sex at Dawn, anthropologists Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha note that by 1917, more American households owned a vibrator than a toaster. But as Wikipedia notes, a change was coming:
The home versions soon became extremely popular, with advertisements in periodicals such as Needlecraft, Woman’s Home Companion, Modern Priscilla, and the Sears, Roebuck catalog. These disappeared in the 1920s, apparently because their appearance in pornography made it no longer tenable for mainstream society to avoid the sexual connotations of the devices.
With the sexual revolution of the 1960s, vibrators began to re-emerge as mainstream commercial items. Today, a wide variety are available, as an earlier Sex in San Diego column attests.
Still, I can’t get over how that Psychology course discussed hysteria in-depth but stopped short of mentioning vibrators. To me, this seems like a lesson on the Titanic that omits its glug-glug finish.
Don’t students deserve the full story? If there’s a link between orgasms and mental health, isn’t that perfect discussion fodder for a psychology class? If we can’t have matter-of-fact discussions about vibrators and orgasms and sex in college courses, how modern are we, really?
And this was in California, I might add. As usual, when you move from blue states to red states, the censorship gets worse and even involves the law, as Wikipedia reminds us:
In February 2008, a US federal appeals court overturned a Texas statute banning the sales of vibrators and other sexual toys, deeming such a statute as violating the Constitution’s 14th Amendment on the right to privacy…
As of 2009, Alabama is the only state where a law prohibiting the sale of sex toys remains on the books, though Alabama residents are permitted to buy sex toys with a doctor’s note.
Sex in San Diego, a column appearing every Thursday here at The OB Rag, explores topics related to sex in America’s Finest City. To encourage openness while still respecting privacy, most authors will use pseudonyms.