Hysterical paroxysm and wandering womb
So why is our conception of pre-sexual revolution women so vacuum-heavy and vibrator-light? Because to those wacky Victorians, stimulating the clitoris wasn’t masturbating—it wasn’t even sexual. Clitoral stimulation was the palliative cure for a disease. British physician Havelock Ellis’ 1913 work “The Sexual Impulse in Women” estimated that nearly 75 percent of women suffered from “hysteria,” a disease whose symptoms ranged from headaches to epileptic fits to coarse language. Nearly any behavior a woman demonstrated could be construed as hysteria. The number one cure—since the disease’s invention in ancient Greece—was pelvic massage.
Women in the Victorian era weren’t supposed to be able to feel sexual desire, so hysteria became a disease completely removed from sex. They even renamed the orgasm: If a woman became flushed and happy from her pelvic massage, she was said to have underwent a “hysterical paroxysm.” According to Maines, doctors surrounded themselves in “the comforting belief that only penetration was sexually stimulating to women. Thus the speculum and the tampon were originally more controversial in medical circles than was the vibrator.” If a woman desired her clitoris to be stimulated, she was clearly sick with “hysteria,” or so the theory went. And the only cure was to stimulate that clitoris until she didn’t want it to be stimulated anymore. Of course, this cure only worked for so long, and hysterics were lucrative repeat customers.
Ancient Greek physician Aretaeus of Cappadocia called the uterus “an animal within an animal.” He theorized that the womb, if left to its own devices, was prone to going walkabout and strangling the woman from the inside: It needed to be lured back into place with sweet-smelling oils. These oils happened to be applied on and around the clit in a vigorous manner, which likely induced a highly restorative effect for the woman.
The reason behind hysteria changed over the millennia—from wandering womb in ancient times to demonic possession in the Middle Ages. Of course women are more easily possessed; the vagina is an entry point for demons like the exhaust port on the Death Star. Doctors recommended marriage, frequent horseback rides, or getting fingerblasted by a midwife to cure the ailment, according to Maines. By the Victorian era, the cause of hysteria was thought to be modern society and all its demands on fragile womanhood. “In the Victorian period, doctors attributed hysteria to the dangerous behaviors of intellectual women,” writes Greer Theus of Washington and Lee University. All these foot-powered sewing machines and increased literacy rates were tearing women’s delicate minds to shreds. Luckily there had also been advancements in the treatment of hysteria: the water cure, aka the pelvic douche.
Instead of revving up the vibrators, doctors began aiming fire hoses at fire crotches. Pelvic douches, which aimed a jet of water at the inner thighs, were installed in mineral baths all over Europe and America in the mid-1800’s. Women loved them and flocked to the spa towns where such a cure was provided. R.J. Lane, who wrote about his experiences at a spa in England, said men were somewhat fearful of the pelvic douche, but women were “frequently known, on coming out of the douche, to declare that they feel as much elation and buoyancy of spirits, as if they had been drinking champagne.”