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The sad story of the hysterical uterus

There has been no scientifically definitive physiology of the female anatomy until very recently, but the strange images of its ambiguous history still haunt the common imagination and impact women’s self-image. None is stranger than the female womb.

One anatomical “fact” that has persisted in Western medical lore since ancient Greece was that the female uterus dislikes and displaces and wanders through the body, negatively influencing the brain (I kid you not!). “Hysteria” is derived from the Greek word for uterus.

In a fit of rage the female uterus was touring the body, causing all kinds of emotional disturbances – hence hysteria, hysteria – and hysterectomy.

The mental condition of hysteria afflicted legions of women of all ages throughout the patriarchal centuries, and was considered the most common illness after fever. At menopause specifically, “the belief was that the lack of menstruation caused the uterus to travel throughout the body, ultimately negatively influencing the brain.” (Louis Banner In Full Flower)

The descriptions of hysterical patients painted a terrible caricature of the feminine. Older treatments included bed rest, bandaging, beatings, purging, bleeding, and in the worst cases hysterectomy and/or clitoridectomy.

Kinder treatment evolved in the 19th century, when hysteria became a veritable epidemic, especially among the white middle classes. The doctor massaged the genitals until there was a healing convulsion and wet spasms (an orgasm by any other name), which relieved the patient for a while, until the next appointment. Hysteria was considered chronic and incurable and required ongoing treatment.

Electric vibrators were developed in the mid-19th century to help overworked doctors and relieve hysterical women. They were even marketed to women at home for self-treatment and advertised in catalogs and consumer magazines. (There were vibrators in the house before vacuum cleaners.) However, by 1930 vibrators had gone underground and were not openly advertised again until they re-emerged as sex toys in the 1960s. (This is according to Duana R Anderson in The Wondering Uterus & A Brief History of the Vibrator)

Psychology took over the treatment of hysteria, and Freud practically developed his transcendental theories based on his work with hysterical (and frigid) women. And, well, we should be thankful for that.

He explained hysteria as the physical and psychological expression of internal psychic conflicts about sexuality. (The psyche became soma). He explored the personal histories of his patients for clues, practiced the verbal cure (very innovative for his time) and developed psychoanalysis.

In my opinion, these legions of hysterical women were literally shaking with centuries of misogynistic repression, breaking out of the traumatized collective psyche; an epidemic that sprouted from the universal unconscious where the goddess of myth lay buried.

In the words of the good doctor himself, “The character of hysterics shows a degree of sexual repression in excess of the normal amount, an intensification of resistance against the sexual instinct (which we have already encountered in the form of shame, disgust, and morality), and what seems an instinctive aversion on his part to any intellectual consideration of sexual problems.

“This feature…is not infrequently hidden by the existence of a second constitutional character present in hysteria, namely, the predominant development of the sexual instinct. Psychoanalysis…reveals the pair of opposites by which it is characterized : exaggerated sexual desire and excessive aversion to sexuality.

Modern psychology succeeded in displacing hysteria from the realm of superstition. You could say that he cured mass hysteria; in 1952, it was officially declared a non-disease.

Freud introduced the concept of libido, the psychic energy expressed through sexuality that lies at the root of every living individual and drives our desires and impulses. It can be repressed, expressed, controlled or transmuted. But it exists – a priori!

Psychology helped to make conscious the compulsion of instincts hidden in the unconscious psyche. Basically, ordinary people could now understand their behaviors and symptoms as expressions of an underlying psychic/psychological conflict. Jung introduced the idea of ​​the collective unconscious, which illuminates the universality of dream images and the content of the personal unconscious.

The subdued sexuality of the hysteric was now the very stuff of the modern age, waiting for the 1960s to burst onto the world stage of postwar baby boomers. The sexual liberation of that period was a huge and abrupt cultural change. Perhaps now we forget how radical and fundamental it was: this sexual break with the past.

However, before we get too complacent with this development, we must ask why, with hysteria safely unplugged, we now have a virtual epidemic of hysterectomies, now the second most common surgery among American women, with C-section being the first. . One in three women in the United States have had a hysterectomy before the age of 60!

If our hysterical uteruses no longer travel through our bodies affecting our brains, why are so many women cutting them out?

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