Why ‘hysterical’ should be a 4-letter word…

Sigh. It’s been a while.

With hubby back at work, the house is silent. I have returned to reading and writing all day in my pyjamas with an endless supply of lattes. With reading comes excitement and with excitement comes great additions to and quotable quotes for my thesis, but there is also a darker side… there is so much to get passionately angry about – angry enough to blog about it!

In this newfound silence, I have returned to reading and writing about the history of the vibrator. It is such a fascinating topic – fascinating enough that I have been reading about it and writing about it for nearly three years. Throughout this time, I have been obsessed with an excellent book by Rachel Maines, “The technology of orgasm: ‘hysteria,’ the vibrator, and women’s sexual satisfaction” (and I think that I am not the only one – it is soon to be released as a major motion picture starring none other than Maggie Gyllenhaal). I have read this book and re-read it and today I re-read it once again for probably the fifth time and every time I find an extra layer that I hadn’t previously digested.

Today’s epiphany was about the disease paradigm hysteria. I have been absolutely fascinated with this condition – as it dates back to Hippocratic times and existed medically right up until it was removed from the American Psychological Association’s diagnostic manual in 1952. The symptoms of hysteria were numerous, yet vague – and have seemingly disappeared from modern culture (until the advent of female sexual dysfunction – but that is another passionate and heated topic for another day). However, it is my exploration of the treatment of hysteria – medical massage to orgasm – that keeps bringing me back to this book.

Today as I read, I finally understood how vibrators and hysteria are so intricately and inseparably connected. Hysteria, as I have come to understand it, was seen as a challenge to the male-centrered, pro-natal paradigm of sexuality because the simple existence of the sensations (which then became symptoms) pointed to a gaping hole in this paradigm (pun not intended). Why would women experience these symptoms and require a diagnosis with particular (and sometimes horrific) treatments if this paradigm of sexuality encompassed their needs – the truth of their bodies? This gap had the potential to change the very core of how sexuality (and morality) was understood, so the medical establishment was brought in to redress it as an illness, cured by clinical conditions. This medicalization also reinforced the notion that the lack of female sexual satisfaction (and orgasm) within this paradigm related to women being flawed and frigid (as opposed to the paradigm being problematic). In essence through hysteria, “women’s desire and sexual satisfaction are erased” (Starr & Aron, 2011, p. 377).

This new understanding of course got me thinking about how the word ‘hysterical’ functions in today’s day and age. According to Maines (under the chapter title Female Sexuality as Hysterical Pathology) regarding the term hysterical  – “applied to a person, it means ‘upset to the point of irrationality;’ applied to a situaiton, it means ‘very funny.’ The usage has shifted from the technical designation of a disease paradigm to much more general references to uncrontrolled, usually frivolous, emotions. This development, occuring primarily since World War II, is only the latest in two and a half millennia of kaleidoscopic refocusing on feelings and behavior usually constructed as quintessentially feminine” (1999, p. 21).

As read these words and type my response, I can feel my blood start to boil and that familiar feeling of rage rise up from within my belly… and I wonder if this reaction would have been enough to be considered symptoms of hysteria… They most certainly could be spun to be hysterical. Even here, alone in my quiet house, I can vividly recall the times I was called hysterical and it was inevitably by someone (only men from my recollection) who wanted nothing more to shut me up. And it worked. Upon being called hysterical, I can remember turning red and sputtering and struggling to get out a coherant word in rebuttal, but feeling so stupid and humilitated and devalued that I could muster nothing other than nonsensical mutterings. And to this day, I can’t think of what I could have said that would have created the same reaction… except to somehow have said it to them (him) first.

This war we wage as women – to be equals of men, to be heard, to have our words and feelings valued – has to be fought on every front. Which is why something as seemingly innocuous as being called hysterical is as serious (or even more serious) as being called any four letter word (yes, even the c-word).  The origin of words like hysterical are so important even though usage can change over time because it reveals their underlying philosophy – and in this case it is a philosophy of inferiority, silence, and absence.

So please don’t call me hysterical.

Or cunt for that matter.


Maines, R. (1999). The technology of orgasm: ‘Hysteria,’ the vibrator, and women’s sexual satisfaction.  Baltimore, MD: John Hopkin’s University Press.

Starr, K.E. & Aron, L. (2011). Women on the couch: genital stimulation and the birth of psychoanalysis. Psychoanalytic Dialogues: The International Journal of Relational Perspectives, 21(4), 373-392. doi: 10.1080/10481885.2011.595316


About sexagogy

I recently completed my Master's thesis exploring non-traditional venues of sexuality education for adults and I am wondering where it will take me next.
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6 Responses to Why ‘hysterical’ should be a 4-letter word…

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