Friday, 29 January 2016


I watched the 2011 film “Hysteria” a few days ago. Directed by Tanya Wexler and set at the end of the 19th century the film depicts the management of “hysteria,” a then popular diagnosis of women displaying an array of symptoms including nervousness, insomnia, exhaustion, depression, cramps, and sexual frustration. It’s an atmospheric film, evoking images of Victorian London; it is also a romantic comedy. The humour comes from the way in which upper class women were treated for hysteria, both from the female’s point of view and the young Dr Granville’s technique for masturbating them.

Medical practitioners of the day tried to manage hysteria by massaging the genital area, decently covered under a curtain, to elicit "paroxysmal convulsions", without recognizing that they were inducing orgasms. In the film, the young physician Dr. Mortimer Granville gets a job helping Dr. Dalrymple, who runs a successful practice treating women.

Granville seems to be good at massaging, getting a sizeable following, while at the same time developing a liking for the Dalrymple's very proper Victorian daughter, Emily Dalrymple. As the practice prospers, Dr. Dalrymple proposes marriage between Emily and Granville; in the meantime, Granville finds himself assisting Dalrymple's other daughter, Charlotte, a premodern feminist firebrand who runs a settlement house in a poor section of London.

Dalrymple forbids Granville from offering any future assistance to Charlotte, hoping to dissuade her from her work in the slums. Meanwhile, the increased clientele at the practice is hard on Granville, and his hand musculature is unable to keep up with the task. In terms that we, today understand, he has repetitive stress syndrome. This leads to dissatisfaction among the patients and his dismissal by Dalrymple.

Fortunately, his friend Lord Edmund St. John-Smythe has developed an electrical feather duster, and its vibrations give Dr. Granville the idea to modify the gadget for use as an electric massager.

As such, the vibrator enters the stage as a medical device for the treatment of the condition, reducing treatment time while greatly increasing customer satisfaction. The royalties from its sale result in independent wealth for Granville, who has since fallen in love with Charlotte. Pledging to use some of his wealth to establish a clinic at her settlement house, he proposes marriage to Charlotte and she accepts.

As with anything to do with the Victorian era, the contrast between rich and poor is apparent. The wealthy, upper and middle class ladies, can have their sexuality fulfilled. The poor women, whom Charlotte endeavours to help, rely on charity for their most basic medical needs.

In the 19th century, masturbation was seen as deviant behaviour, and as even more inappropriate for women than for men, since women were believed (and taught) to be free from any form of sexual desire. Some physicians treated "female hysteria" -- symptomized by insomnia, irritability, nervousness, or "excessive moisture inside the vagina" -- with what was termed "medicinal massage", inserting a finger and gently rubbing the woman's genitalia. This led to "paroxysm", a sudden outburst in the patient which doctors (being men) believed was not orgasm, since women were thought incapable of orgasm. "Physician-assisted paroxysm" became popular among patients, but for doctors it led to pained, sore fingers and wrists. Sometimes taking anything up to an hour for the female patient to achieve the desired result. Regardless of Dr Granville's intent and protestations, his device was soon adopted for the task, allowing treatment which had taken as long as an hour (and often failed) to instead be completed in mere minutes (and virtually always successfully).

At the height of his worldwide fame, Sigmund Freud sought to discredit medical masturbation, but by then many women viewed doctors as an unnecessary intermediary. Vibrators were soon offered in the Sears Roebuck catalogue, but with the advent of motion pictures came pornographic films, and when men realized how these machines were being used by women, vibrators were withdrawn from ordinary commercial distribution and even outlawed in many areas.

In 1952, more than half a century after Dr Granville's death, the American Psychiatric Association concluded that female hysteria was a myth, not a disease. The sale of vibrators for sexual purposes remains illegal in many nations, and in the American states of Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Texas, and Virginia. In 2007 the US Supreme Court declined to hear a case questioning the Constitutionality of such prohibitions, leaving these laws in effect.

This blog post was compiled using sources from the Web.


  1. Great article! And well written! I'm aware of how the modern vibrator was invented. Societies ruled by men have always been afraid of female sexuality. "The only thing wrong with the world is that the women own all the pussy."--Anonymous (But I bet it was a man who said it.

  2. Thanks Guy! Yes,I do agree that societies ruled by men engender a fear of female sexuality.If female sexuality is acknowledged as a reality, then it has to be seen as something that cannot be controlled; lack of control is something to be feared.

    Patriarchy must maintain the status quo and as far as female sexuality was concerned, in times gone by, the status quo was maintained by stating absolutely that women do not, could not enjoy sex. How could they without a penis?

    A woman who had such needs, would be deemed "unnatural" a whore. Imagine the shame, and the guilt such a woman would feel; she would live in a world of silence, a world of secrecy. To tell--would drive her into a world of humiliation. And other women would probably be more condemnatory than men.

    The hegemony was so ingrained into the culture of the time -- everyone believed it. Men and women perpetuated it. It wasn't just a mythology, it was absolute fact--the truth

  3. I will have to find out if I could rent the movie, "Hysteria." The Victorian attitude to female sexuality lasted a long time. My late mother was born in 1918 (a fortnight before the Armistice that ended the Great War, as they called it then). When I was about 20, she told me to go to a doctor to get some remedy for my out-of-control lust for men (according to her). I told her I didn't want it "all the time," as she put it, just once in awhile. I said, "You know how that is." Apparently not.
    In those days, the age of majority in Canada was 21, so I was terrified that my parents could take me to a doctor and demand a "cure" (clitoridectomy?). Or (Goddess forbid) could they get me committed to a psychiatric institution just for that? I didn't want to find out! Needless to say, I avoided mentioning my sex life to my parents after that, and didn't show them my erotic writing unless they asked. For some reason, my mother seemed to accept it later in her life. Maybe she approved of my status as a published writer, and could more-or-less ignore much of the subject-matter.

  4. BTW, the little avatar me of me is very up-to-date. It was taken last week at the Canadian university where I teach, because I needed a new photo for the English Department website. The general zeitgeist seems to have changed so much that now I'm not afraid of being recognised!