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In the early days of medicine, the female reproductive organs were regarded with suspicion and in ancient Greece one of the primary diagnoses for female troubles was the wandering womb. This was described as a condition whereby the uterus could actually migrate through the body and take up residence in different places within the torso, attracted by fragrant smells. This displacement of the uterus was blamed for many problems, including knee problems, sleep and vertigo as well as hysteria. Medical men and husbands would try to scare the womb back into position by applying bad smells and loud noises!
The time of the month has long been a terror to the males of society and there are many insane myths about women and menstruation. One curious belief was that being in the presence of a menstruating female could cause food to go bad. Canned fruits or vegetables would rot away, butter would fail to set and curing hams would grow mould. Obviously, none of this is true!
The myth of vagina denata is found all over the world including ancient Rome and within the indigenous tribes of South America. The basis of this myth is that some women had a full set of teeth in their genitalia, specifically made to castrate any unlucky fellow who tried to trifle with them. This is biologically impossible but was believed as fact. There have been cases of teeth and hair being found in ovaries following removal after surgery. These are called dermoid cysts and are benign.
This myth was specifically created to ensure the female population were less educated than men.
In 1873, a Harvard professor called Dr Edward Clarke suggested that ladies should keep away from higher education for the sake of the survival of humanity. He theorised that women who engaged in sustained vigorous mental activity, studying in a “boy’s way”, risked atrophy of the uterus and ovaries, masculinisation, sterility, insanity, even death. Coeducation was seen as impractical since young women should study no more than four hours each day, with a total remission during the menstrual period, a regime which would be emasculating to boys. Strangely, he didn’t suggest how all this studying would impact upon the health of men! His theories were disputed by many medical practitioners, both men and women.
Contrary to the modern stereotype that males have greater sexual desire than females, during the Middle Ages women were often seen as much more lustful than men. This view stemmed from the opinion that men were more rational, active creatures and closer to the spiritual realm, while women were carnal by nature and thus more materialistic. Although popular opinion saw women as sexually insatiable, it was also considered natural for women to take on a more submissive role during sexual intercourse. This was due to the softer side of the female form but contradicted the lustful nature of women.
Women were expected to be shy about sexual matters, and it was considered men’s obligation to interpret the “signals” sent out by their wives in order to be able to satisfy them adequately. This focus on the male as the “active” partner during sex had a significant influence on concerning the acceptability of certain sexual positions. The church believed that any position other than the missionary position was unnatural, going even far as to suggest that children conceived when sexual intercourse took place from behind would have birth defects as a result of such deviant behaviour.
The diagnosis of female hysteria was first introduced by Galen, a Greek physician who believed that female semen, accumulated in women and festered, turning venomous if not released by frequent intercourse.
Hysteria was the vaguely defined ailment used by medical men to explain away the physical complaints many women suffered, including anxiety, sleeplessness, irritability, erotic fantasies, a heaviness in the lower abdomen and a wetness between the legs. It was basically sexual frustration. Many men believed that women were sexually fulfilled by the male ejaculation but we know this is not true. It was also applied to any condition a female may present with that the physician couldn’t explain or did not want to deal with.
Female hysteria has been documented as far back as the 13th century when doctors of that time understood female libido and advised them to relieve their sexual frustration with dildos. During the 16th century women were advised to encourage their husband’s lusts to relieve their symptoms but for many women this was unsatisfactory and did not resolve their symptoms. As we now know from modern research, only 25% of women can experience orgasm through vaginal sexual intercourse, the other 75% need clitoral stimulation to achieve an orgasm but this was not realised at the time.
For the unmarried, single or widowed woman, horse riding was recommended as it stimulated the clitoris and could cause an orgasm but for many, this method was unsatisfactory. By the 17th century, dildos were less of an option as opponents of sexual pleasure had demonized the act of masturbation as “self abuse”.
Fortunately, a reliable, socially acceptable treatment was discovered. Doctors and midwives massaged the clitoris and inside the vagina with vegetable oil which helped women to orgasm and experience sudden, dramatic relief from their symptoms. However, doctors did not call these climaxes orgasms, they called them “paroxysms” because many believed that women were incapable of sexual feelings, therefore could not possibly experience orgasms.
Initially there was distrust towards this treatment as it was seen as inappropriate touching but many women happily returned to their doctors to be relieved of their symptoms. Many medical practitioners found this tiring and the first vibrator was invented. Some of the earlier mechanical vibrators were cumbersome, messy, unreliable and dangerous but with the invention of electricity, an enterprising doctor named Dr Joseph Mortimer Granville patented the first electromechanical vibrator.
Many doctors lost their monopoly on hysteria treatment due to the popularity of these devices as women began to buy their own devices, thanks to advertisements in magazines and catalogues. Due to the sexual nature of the devices their real purpose was disguised and they were marketed as personal massagers, similar to some products being sold today – but everyone knew what they were for.
So, we can thank physician fatigue for the proliferation of all the fabulous vibrators available today to alleviate our “hysteria”.
Some of the more bizarre sexual myths about women included women with flat breasts pleasured themselves too often, lemon halves prevented pregnancy when used during sexual intercourse and if you observe something ugly when pregnant, your baby would be ugly.
Let’s be thankful that all these bizarre and crazy myths have been consigned to the recesses of history and no longer have any place in our society today!