Last night I had a few girlfriends over to watch Hysteria, which is an entertaining film about a real-life Victorian doctor who invents a treatment for ‘hysterical’ women. He administers an orgasm, either manually or with a newly invented vibrating device, and the women instantly relax, while all symptoms of hysteria disappear. The underlying humour of the movie lies in the fact that the women are very aware of the pleasure they’re receiving at the hands of the doctor, but he seems to be blindly unaware of what he’s actually doing to them.
Coincidentally, I watched Hysteria the same day that I read a chapter about Victorian sexual attitudes in Naomi Wolf’s newest book Vagina: A New Biography. In the chapter titled “The Victorian Vagina: Medicalization and Subjugation,” I learned about the damaging shame directed by men toward women’s sexual desires, which was exactly what Hysteria was getting at, but in a much lighter, more humourous way. Victorian women were not meant to feel desire and, if they did, drastic measures were often taken. Female circumcision, also known as a “cliterodectomy,” was practiced as a way to subdue fiery, argumentative girls and turn them into docile, meek, and obedient women. It was an era in which having orgasms for pleasure, especially when self-induced, was seen as bad, wanton, and worthy of punishment. Ironically, having an orgasm in a medical setting, administered by a professional in the name of science, was considered acceptable, and even necessary at times.
Wolf also writes about the horrible Contagious Diseases Act, which was passed in England in 1857 and gave the state power to round up any woman who was suspected of being a prostitute. She would then be subjected to torturous pelvic exams and imprisonment with no access to family for months on end. This Act got completely out of control as undercover detectives could round up anyone who looked or behaved as if she might be sexually active outside of a marital context. This was a traumatizing blight on England’s history that Wolf believes has had a long-lasting negative impact on the Anglo-American sexual consciousness.
I believe her because, having grown up in Anglo-American society, I’ve witnessed that irrational fear and awkwardness surrounding the vagina. While I’m thankful that my clitoris is safe and not at risk of getting cut off (though I might not be so lucky in certain parts of Africa), I feel sadness that present-day society hasn’t evolved much past the “good vs. bad vagina” dichotomy in North America. If a girl doesn’t want to be part of the piously pure, virtuous Christian crowd that’s waiting for sex until marriage, then she risks getting labeled as a “slut” who “sleeps around.”
As the Contagious Diseases Act imprinted on English minds over 150 years ago, there’s no middle ground safe from judgment for those women — whom I suggest would actually be most women — who crave fabulous, fulfilling, even transcendental and spiritual, sexual experiences because of the wonders they do for the female psyche. And that’s exactly where those Victorian ladies were stuck, having to pay a doctor to perform a task that their husbands/partners should have been doing at home for fun.
The film Hysteria has a more jovial approach to these historical women’s issues and is better suited for a girls’ night than an in-depth discussion of Wolf’s book, but both are fascinating explorations into the past influences on North American female sexuality that I highly recommend. I’m sure you’ll hear more about the book later on, but for now give Hysteria a try and let me know what you think!