Directed by Michael Langan and Terah Maher
Music by Steve Reich
A chorus of women are borne from the movements of a single dancer in this dreamlike “pas de trente-deux.”
Susan B. Anthony
For all the single ladies. Celebrate!
Female hysteria was a once-common medical diagnosis, made exclusively in women. Its diagnosis and treatment were routine for many hundreds of years in Western Europe. Women considered to be suffering from it exhibited a wide array of symptoms including faintness, nervousness, sexual desire, insomnia, fluid retention, heaviness in abdomen, muscle spasm, shortness of breath, irritability, loss of appetite for food or sex, and “a tendency to cause trouble”.
Since ancient times women considered to be suffering from hysteria would sometimes undergo “pelvic massage” – manual stimulation of the genitals by the doctor until the patient experienced “hysterical paroxysm” (orgasm).
The history of the notion of hysteria can be traced to ancient times; in ancient Greece it was described in the gynecological treatises of the Hippocratic corpus, which date from the 5th and 4th centuries BC. Plato’s dialogue Timaeus compares a woman’s uterus to a living creature that wanders throughout a woman’s body, “blocking passages, obstructing breathing, and causing disease.” The concept of a pathological, wandering womb was later viewed as the source of the term hysteria, which stems from the Greek cognate of uterus, ὑστέρα (hystera).
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 by a midwife as a last recourse.
Such cases were quite profitable for physicians, since the patients were at no risk of death, but needed repeated treatment. The only problem was that physicians did not enjoy the tedious task of vaginal massage (generally referred to as “pelvic massage”): The technique was difficult for a physician to master and could take hours to achieve “hysterical paroxysm”. Referral to midwives, which had been common practice, meant a loss of business for the physician. The chaise longue and fainting couch became popular home furniture to make women more comfortable during home treatment. Fainting rooms were also used for more privacy during home treatment.
A solution was the invention of massage devices, which shortened treatment from hours to minutes, removing the need for midwives and increasing a physician’s treatment capacity. Already at the beginning of the 19th century, hydrotherapy devices were available at Bath, and by the mid-19th century, they were popular at many high-profile bathing resorts across Europe, the United States and other American countries. By 1870, a clockwork-driven vibrator was available for physicians. In 1873, the first electromechanical vibrator was used at an asylum in France for the treatment of hysteria.
By the 20th century, the spread of home electricity brought the vibrator to the consumer market. The appeal of cheaper treatment in the privacy of one’s own home understandably made the vibrator a popular early home appliance. In fact, the electric home vibrator was on the market before many other home appliance ’essentials’: nine years before the electric vacuum cleaner and 10 years before the electric iron. A page from a Sears catalog of home electrical appliances from 1918 includes a portable vibrator with attachments, billed as ”Very useful and satisfactory for home service.”
Well shit a brick and fuck me with it. That’s how vibrators came to be? I always knew female hysteria was an umbrella of misdiagnosed fuckery, but wow. Also, 19th century physicians didn’t know the first thing about finger banging despite all the business they were getting. God rest their wives’ souls.
Considering other preposterous notions like the “wandering womb”, it’s kind of mind-blowing we have survived this long as a species. Say what you will about the challenges of today, but I am glad to be alive and well in 2013. So is my uterus.
Hang on tight while we grab the next page