The word "hysteria" originates from the Greek word "hystera," which means uterus. This term was used as a blanket diagnosis for various psychological and physical symptoms experienced by women. Central to this concept was the belief that a woman's womb could wander freely within her body, leading to "hysterical" symptoms, which included expressions of sexual desire. Throughout history, the nuances and complexities of female sexuality have been met with misunderstanding, apprehension, and in many cases, downright suppression.
Rooted in cultural, religious, and medical misconceptions, female libido has been continually cast in a negative light, viewed more as a pathology than a natural aspect of human existence. Medical & sexual education has historically viewed female libido as a 'problem' even after what many perceive to be a sexual revolution, and remnants of these outdated beliefs continue to influence today's sex education.
Due to the belief in the sexual origins of hysteria, some treatments of the time were directly related to inducing orgasm. One of the most notorious "treatments" for hysteria was the pelvic massage. Physicians would manually stimulate a woman to "hysterical paroxysm" (a term that was a euphemism for orgasm). This was considered a legitimate and standard medical procedure, and not a sexual act. This cumbersome and time-consuming method for doctors led to the invention of the vibrator in the late 19th century. Originally designed as a medical instrument, it was used to treat women diagnosed with hysteria, streamlining the process of inducing "paroxysms", primarily to save doctors of their time and effort in providing routine massages.
The medical community's understanding of both hysteria and female sexuality has evolved significantly since those times. The American Psychiatric Association removed hysteria as a diagnostic category in 1952. Today, the notion of hysteria as a ‘wandering uterus’ that wreaks havoc or as a disease caused by a lack of sexual satisfaction is widely discredited and viewed as a relic of a less informed time. However, the legacy of hysteria remains problematic for several reasons.
Suppression of Female Sexuality
The beliefs around hysteria contributed to a long-standing suppression and misunderstanding of female sexuality. By labelling natural expressions of female desire as a disorder, women's sexual agency was limited.
Hysteria is an example of how women's health issues were once approached with a significant degree of medical paternalism. Rather than understanding the individual, her feelings, or her lived experiences, women were often dismissed and their symptoms attributed to hysteria.
Lack of Research
The misconceptions surrounding female sexuality led to a dearth of real scientific research into women's sexual health. Only in recent decades has there been a surge in understanding and addressing female sexual health issues.
How did this affect Indian women?
Indian culture has a rich tapestry of scriptures, arts, and narratives that showcase a nuanced understanding of sexuality. Ancient texts like the Kamasutra detail not just sexual positions but also the art of love, indicating that there was once a sophisticated curiosity around human sexuality that contrasts against post-colonial ideas of sex.
With Victorian British colonialism and other socio-political changes that reinforced ideas of hierarchy, caste and purity, ideas around sexuality worsened. The Victorian era prudishness and their moral codes in particular, seeped into Indian societal norms, further stigmatizing discussions around female sexuality and autonomy.
Societal Taboos and Silence
Female sexuality remains a largely taboo topic. This silence and shame around female libido have resulted in generations of women who might be unfamiliar with their bodies and desires.
Abstinence-based Comprehensive Sex Education
Comprehensive sex education is still lacking in India, and discussions around female pleasure are even rarer. Sex education in India is still abstinence-based and/or is based around population control. Desire & libido have no space in the conversation yet.
Impact on Mental Health and Relationships
Suppressing discussions around female sexuality can lead to various issues ranging from unsatisfactory marital relationships to mental health issues due to repressed desires and lack of understanding of one's body.
Urban India, influenced by global trends, social media, and increased exposure, is witnessing a gradual shift. Women are reclaiming their narratives, engaging in open discussions about their sexuality, and advocating for comprehensive sex education. But this pleasure revolution is really happening only in privileged pockets. It has not reached the doctors of our country.
Even within our own team, a member was told that they do not need medical support for their aggravated pains and nausea during periods as giving birth to a child will one day solve those issues for them.
We have already reclaimed the vibrator from being a tool to “cure” hysteria to being a tool to own our orgasms. It’s time we reclaimed conversations around female sexuality & libido in a more positive light, not to be seen as a deviance but as an expression of desire towards others, a desire for connection and intimacy and a desire to better understand the woman in you.