We’ve done a lot of silly, abusive, and utterly dangerous things in medicine. To be fair, most of the terrible things we’ve done were our best attempt with what we knew at the time to make the human condition a bit more tolerable.

So you gotta hand it to those doctors who tried to cheer women up by giving them vibrators.

Or was that another rumor I learned from Disney movies?

Today’s Moment of Science…. HYSTERIA!

The smartest minds in history have believed all sorts of dumbass things about uteruses. It’s more understandable back when medicine was working with humors, bloodletting, and assloads of guesswork. Hippocrates proposed that women were “physiologically cold and wet.” This was in contrast to men who were warm and dry, naturally. So he suggested female humors were far more prone to rotting.

The cure? Sex. The symptoms were caused by the uterus wandering around the body because it’s in a goddamn mood from a lack of essential vitamin dick. Hippocrates alleged the uterus would produce toxic fumes if you weren’t having sex, which must have been a banger of a clinical trial. Aromatherapy was regularly attempted as a treatment. Put something that smells bad near the mouth, something that smells good near the hoo-hah, sneeze, and presto, that womb will fix itself right up.

Though often attributed to Hippocrates, the word hysteria doesn’t appear in ancient Greek. The term ‘wandering uterus’ was generally used until the late 1700s until ‘hysteria’ was first documented. It could cover a wide range of symptoms, both physical and mental. Anxiety, appetite loss, irritability, insomnia, and fainting could be cause for a hysteria diagnosis. Need to loosen up and bang? Hysteria. Like banging a little too much? Absofuckinglutely hysteria. Don’t worry, there are plenty of ways to vagina wrong.

I know you want to get to the part where a Victorian era doctor is jackhammering away at some nineteenth century clitoris with a steampunk vibrator, but the tale doesn’t quite end that way.

The main source of this myth was the book The Technology of Orgasm from historian Rachel Maines. The story goes that doctors were treating hysteria by manual stimulation but, as happens to the best of us, their hands were getting cramped from all the medical grade finger blasting. Since they were using the device externally and thought women only got pleasure from penetration, those innocent Victorians didn’t see it as sexual, it was just a medical treatment.

If there’s evidence this happened, it’s damn near non-existent.

There are no English sources talking about doctors using vibrators to bring patients to “hysterical paroxysms” i.e. orgasms. Furthermore, Maines sources from Latin and Greek are so poorly translated to the point of seeming deliberate. A medical text describing a lower back massage was translated to ‘masturbation,’ amongst other issues.

Furthermore, the vibrator was invented in 1880 by British doctor Joseph Granville, and heavily marketed as a panacea for all that ails you. Which, to be fair, is how I treat mine. It was even recommended for perineum stimulation for male impotence. On the other hand, it was warned not to be used on the clitoris, because it was “liable to cause sexual excitement.”

They knew what it did, and they knew it was sexual.

The most upsetting part of this is how readily the tale was embraced. It was somehow easier to believe that our great-great-grandmothers were cluelessly getting their clits buzzed to hell and back than to suggest, and hear me out now, the Victorians fucked.

Hysteria was removed for the second and final time in the publication of the DSM-III in 1980. There are better diagnostic tools now to recognize and differentiate a vast array of medical problems that were previously lumped into one giant category of “your girl parts made you do it.” And if you’re feeling a bit hysterical after reading this and finding out this story isn’t true as you thought it was, I highly recommend… some self-care.

This has been your Moment of Science, never quite prepared for the stories that I find out aren’t true half-way through writing them.

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