How Doctors Treated “Hysteria”One Hundred Years Ago With Orgasms

hysteria-oh-yeahFrom the film Hysteria dealing with how doctors used orgasms as a medical treatment


Starting around the 1860s until the early 1930s many European and American middle to upper class women were treated by medical doctors for certain aliments by inducing them into having an orgasm.  This might sound like quake medicine to us today but at the time, this was a prescribed medical treatment available to doctors to treat women suffering from a whole host of conditions including such things as insomnia, tension, headaches, and other such aliments under the condition known as “hysteria.”  As female orgasms weren’t usually obtained within the bounds of marital sex in the western world during that time, it fell to doctors to give sexual relief to many of these women.

There is a famous saying attributed to one Lady Hillingdon of England, who wrote in her journal in 1912, “When I hear his steps outside my door I lie down on my bed, open my legs and think of England.”

At the time, this was probably a pretty accurate description of what sex was like with a spouse, as the idea that a woman should be pleasured by her husband was not something most men considered.   Back then, sex between most married couples consisted of the man, dressed in his pajamas,  getting on top of his similarly dressed wife, finding her vagina opening, entering her, thrusting for a minute or two, ejaculating inside of her, rolling off, and falling fast asleep.   Actually, that’s a pretty good set-up for a man, and it was all perfectly normal for those times.  In fact, it would be an exception to the rule for the husband to make passionate love to his wife, and bringing her to an orgasm times during their encounter.

Today, we know how important it is for a woman to have an orgasm, as it’s a natural method of maintaining the balance of hormones within the woman as well as the feel good effect from the releases the chemical Oxytocin, which causes a euphoric high during times of stress (childbirth, injuries, and during orgasm).  It was a great way for a woman to cope with the stress in her life, if she were allowed to have one

When some women began complaining of various ailments, the husbands would send them to the family doctor for a diagnoses and cure of the various aliments she was suffering from. By trial and error, doctors found that by massaging the woman’s clitoris, it would often bring temporary relief of their complaints, leaving them with happy husbands who were more than willing to send their wives back for repeat treatments.  A win-win for all involved.

The treatments were quite simple really and probably much like the genealogical exams women receive today during their well women exams.  The woman would go to her doctor where he would get her onto the examination table, place their feet in the stirrups, reach in through their bulky dresses, and massage the clitoris until she climaxed.  When it was done, she would pay the doctor, and schedule her next appointment.  There was nothing dirty or wrong with this treatment as it was a recognized medical treatment that doctors used.

And just as gynecologists of today don’t get excited or turned on when they do gynecological exams today, the doctors of yesteryear felt the same way.  To them they were seeing Mrs. Smith, who was probably in her forties or fifties, a bit over weight, and probably had a flabby belly from her five or six pregnancies (which was normal for the time).  She would get onto the examination table where he would reach in, find her clitoris, and massaged it until she felt relief.  And then it was on to his next patient for the same thing.

The vibrators were actually invented by doctors as a way to relieve themselves of this rather labor-intensive chore that often left doctors with sore fingers.  With the vibrator, all the doctor needed to do was to place the tip near the clitoris, turn it on, and in a far shorter time the woman would have a far more powerful orgasm in a much shorter time.  Though initially the vibrator was strictly a medical device sold only to doctors, it would eventually be simplified and sold over the counter to women for self-treatment.

It just goes to show how much women need orgasms and just how ignorant husbands were back in the old days when sex to a man was basically a quick thrust and a groan followed by a good sleep.  And with birth control not in general use at the time,  that meant larger families than we have today.


Photo Credit:  The film Hysteria.  2011.  Director Tanya Wexler.



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