The Modern “Hysteria”

13 / 05 / 2016

By Naomi Chainey.

A common experience of online feminists, troche or, indeed, women with public opinions, is being told by men who disagree with them that some penis is in order.   Whether this comes in the form of unsolicited dick pics, horrendous rape threats or the suggestion that opinionated women just need to get laid, the idea that penis is the key to making women “rational” is now a staple in gendered online abuse.

Of course, this idea is not new, nor restricted to online spaces.  In 1969, journalist Marilyn Webb dared to speak about feminism at an antiwar demonstration.  The (sadly unsurprising) response from a cohort of men was to scream at her to strip and demand she be pulled down and raped.  In Western cultures, the idea of penis as the antidote to feminism can be traced all the way back to Greek Mythology, in which rebellious virgins refused to worship the phallus (madness!!!) and were cured by the Argonaut Melampus, who helpfully suggested sex with strong, young men as the way to regaining their wits.

This sexual pathologisation of inconvenient female behaviour has, historically, covered everything from the expression of opinions to the presentation of all manner of mental and physical ills with the official diagnosis of “hysteria”.  Beginning in ancient Egypt, with the concept of spontaneous uterus movement causing various plights to the mind and body, hysteria has been cited as the cause of a wide range of feminine issues, including what we now understand to be neurological disorders, immune dysfunction, post-partum depression, PTSD and sexual frustration.   Female infidelity and socially unacceptable behaviour such as “chattering” have also come under the umbrella.  “Hysteria” has functioned as a catch-all concept for things women say, do or experience that are not directly relatable, explainable, or considered acceptable by the men in control of cultural narratives.  It was both born of, and a perpetuator of the concept of woman as the unknowable, irrational and sexually inferior creature.

The consequences of this diagnosis have not been wonderful for women.   At best it’s been dismissive – a patriarchal tool of disempowerment.  At worst, it was associated with demonic possession and witchcraft, resulting in executions during the late Middle Ages through to the 18th century.  Involuntary admissions to psychiatric facilities – with inventive therapies such as leeching and ice baths – were popular at times.  But over and over, suggested treatments for hysteria have reflected the sexual expectations of the era.  Married women needed more sex.  Unmarried women?  Abstinence.  When it was socially appropriate, hysterical women were prescribed dildos.  When masturbation was culturally framed as “self abuse” women needed “massages” from physicians (there’s an essay to be written on the disparity in social standing between men and women providing fee-for-service orgasms, but I digress).  When physicians found the hand jobs taxing, they invented the vibrator to give themselves a break.  Pregnancy was recommended, as failure to fulfil the function of motherhood was thought to exacerbate symptoms.  Then there was the infamous “penis envy” theory bandied about by Freud.

In retrospect, considering the disparate range of conditions being lumped into the hysteria basket, the focus on the phallus seems indicative of a value system prioritising the utility of women from a masculine perspective over the needs or desires of women themselves.  Especially as actual female sexual function has remained relatively unstudied.  (We didn’t know what the clitoris looked like until 2009. Yes, you read that correctly.)

But were men ever diagnosed with hysteria?  Around Freud’s time, with the growing popularity of psychiatry, the idea that hysteria was in the mind rather than the uterus was gaining traction.  Talk therapies were recommended as treatment.  It was no longer the penis but the apparent rationality of the psychiatrist that hysterics were expected to turn to.  Women were still more likely to be diagnosed, but men were no longer exempt.

The double standard of diagnosis is most apparent in the history of MS (Multiple Sclerosis).  Like many immune disorders, MS is more common in women, but in the early 20th century, the diagnosis was more common in men.  Women reporting the same symptoms were still being misdiagnosed as hysterics.

In modern times, hysteria has become unfashionable, having been removed from the DSM (the psychiatrist’s bible) and replaced with “somatoform” and “dissociative” disorders, both still more commonly diagnosed in women.  While there are many reasons these conditions may be gendered, including biological and socioeconomic factors, it’s important to note these factors remain relatively undefined, and that medicine and psychiatry remain masculinised fields of study, creating potential biases in the framing of women’s illness.

Certainly modern women are feeling a bias.  In a survey on gender and chronic pain, over 90% of women reported feeling discriminated against by the healthcare system, the most common complaint being that their pain was not taken seriously.  This feeling is supported by studies on gender and pain management, demonstrating women are less likely to receive prescription pain medication, and are forced to wait longer when they do.

Stigma around chronic conditions more prevalent in women (considered hysteria back in the day) remains rampant.  As anyone with fibromyalgia, lupus, chronic fatigue syndrome, endometriosis or POTS will tell you, doubt around the validity and severity of symptoms continues unabated in both the community and the doctor’s office.  Lack of committed research dollars is both a contributor and consequence of the associated stigma.

So the more things change, the more they stay the same.  Witch burnings are thankfully off the table, but the underlying cultural suspicion that women’s perceptions are inherently flawed continues to lurk.  The objectification of women in terms of their relevance to men remains a cultural norm.  And if comments sections are anything to go by, the hysterical notion of the penis as a tool of rationality has had disturbing staying power in some quarters.

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