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September 14, 2019

Female Hysteria: When Victorian Doctors Used to Finger Their Patients

In the Victorian Era – specifically 1837 to 1901 – doctors treated woman by genital stimulation to induce “hysterical paroxysm” or an orgasm. This hysteria was supposed to be a build-up of fluid in the woman’s womb and doctors assumed that since men ejaculated and felt better then it stood to reason.


But what about the husbands? What did they have to say about this? Well, proper gentlemen of the time were not trained to see to their wives needs – it was not even understood that women had needs. Instead it was much easier to call for the doctor when a woman exhibited symptoms of hysteria. Yes, the doctor could treat the women in their home. The Fainting Couch or Chaise Lounge became popular for the ladies’ comfort during this “treatment”.

Female hysteria was a once-common medical diagnosis, made exclusively in women, which is today no longer recognized by modern medical authorities as a medical disorder. Its diagnosis and treatment was routine for many hundreds of years in Western Europe. Hysteria was widely discussed in the medical literature of the Victorian era. Women considered to be suffering from it exhibited a wide array of symptoms including faintness, nervousness, 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”.

Women with hysteria under the effects of hypnosis, ca. 1870s.

Since ancient times women considered to be suffering from hysteria would sometimes undergo “pelvic massage” — manual stimulation of the anterior wall of the vagina by the doctor until the patient experienced “hysterical paroxysm”.

Victorian advertisement showing a doctor treating woman’s hysteria by “pelvic massage”.

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 turn of the century, hydrotherapy devices were available at Bath, and by the mid-19th century, they were popular at many high-profile bathing resorts across Europe and in America. 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.

While physicians of the period acknowledged that the disorder stemmed from sexual dissatisfaction, they seemed unaware of or unwilling to admit the sexual purposes of the devices used to treat it. In fact, the introduction of the speculum was far more controversial than that of the vibrator.

Female patient with sleep hysteria wearing a straight jacket.

High frequency electric currents in medicine, 1910.

Water massages as a treatment for hysteria, ca. 1860.

A physician in 1859 claimed that a quarter of all women suffered from hysteria, which is reasonable considering that one physician cataloged 75 pages of possible symptoms of hysteria and called the list incomplete; almost any ailment could fit the diagnosis. Physicians thought that the stresses associated with modern life caused civilized women to be both more susceptible to nervous disorders and to develop faulty reproductive tracts. In America, such disorders in women reaffirmed that the United States was on par with Europe; one American physician expressed pleasure that the country was “catching up” to Europe in the prevalence of hysteria.

Rachael P. Maines, author of The Technology of Orgasm: “Hysteria,” the Vibrator, and Women’s Sexual Satisfaction, has observed that such cases were quite profitable for physicians, since the patients were at no risk of death but needed constant 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.

An early 1900s vibrator unit.

An early vibrator ad.

A 1918 Sears, Roebuck and Co. ad with several models of vibrators.

Advertisement for the Barker Vibrator by James Barker in Philadelphia, ca. 1906.

By the turn of the 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.”

Late 19th century “medical massager”.




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