Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Flow: the Cultural Story of Menstruation

I found what looks to be a great book at the library Friday.  It's called Flow: the Cultural Story of Menstruation by Elissa Stein and Susan Kim.  I haven't started reading it yet, but before I could, my husband already started reading to me from it!  He's finding it quite interesting.

Here's what he read to me already - I had NO idea about this!
Hysteria, that mysterious catchall of female ailments that existed in recorded history for thousands of years, is a diagnosis that dates back to ancient Egypt.  It's associated with out-of-control emotions, irrational fears, and unregulated, over-the-top behavior, but overwhelmingly, only in women.  and believe it or not, one of the most popular treatments for hysteria that literally spanned centuries was manual stimulation to orgasm by a medical doctor.
Okay, it wasn't actually called an orgasm back then, it was a "hysterical paroxysm."  And believe it or not, it wasn't even considered sexual; in a world ruled by a heterosexual, male-oriented notion of sex (i.e. vaginal intercourse in the missionary position), stimulating someone's clitoris was considered therapeutic and about as racy as bandaging a head wound.  That being said, we find the whole thing more than a tad kindy.  Just read the instructions Pieter van Forest wronte in 1653, which makes it all pretty clear to us: "A midwife should massage the genitalia with one finger inside, using oil of lilies, musk root, crocus or [something] similar  and in this way the afflicted woman can be aroused to a paroxysm."
Van Forest was far from the first to describe this method, and in such lingering detail, as an effective treatment for hysteria.  Centuries earlier, Hippocrates, that father of modern medicine, mentioned a simlar treatment in his writings.  And Galen himself, that old second-century perv, wrote: "Following the warmth of the remedies and arising from the touch of the genital organs required by the treatment, there followed twitchings accompanied at the same time by pain and pleasure, after which she emitted turbid and abundant sperm.  From that time on, she was free of all the evil she felt."
And yet, the medical profession emphatically did not suggest a woman try this at home by herself.[...]  No, it was a medical treatment to be provided by a professional - a doctor or a midwife - at a scheduled appointment, for cold, hard cash. [...]
Going to the doctor's for such a treatment was nothing like putting on an oversize gown that ties in front and scooting your bare butt down to the end ofthe table where the stirrups are.  Back then, a woman remained not only standing, but fully clothed; the doctor would have to bend down and reach up under all of her heavy draperies in order to locate the right spot, working completely by feel.  Not surprisingly, the treatment was incredibly taxing; it probably took the hapless doctor time to even find the clitoris, and after that up to a full hour to achieve the desired result.  Plus it was difficult; one doctor back in 1660 ruefully compared the technique to rubbing one's stomach with one hand while patting one's head with the other.  As a result, midwives were often employed to do the actual handiwork.
But by the late 19th century, the second stage of the Industrial Revolution [...] brought us the vibrator.  Dr. J.M. Granville, a British physician, developed a mechanical model in 1883, and overnight, doctors found they could treat hysteria patients in mere minutes instead of hours.
What a boon!  The vibrator quickly became a staple in doctors' offices, and as treatments sped up, revenue streams (ahem) shot through the roof....

Pretty fascinating history of hysteria and vibrators and treating women for such symptoms as (again I quote):
nervousness, insomnia, faintness, chills, fluid retention, heaviness in the abdomen, depression, headache, upset stomach, loss of appetite, shortness of breath, irritability, unexplained laughter or crying, anxiety, a choking sensation, muscle spasms, convulsions, fatigue, loss of appetite, cold hands, cold feet, loss of sexual interest, heaving of the chest, a sudden throwing back of the head and body, the tendency to cause trouble, and on, and on, and on, ad infinitum.
The book is now at the top of the stack of 5 or 6 books I'm currently reading and will get a much closer read beginning tomorrow!  I'll let you know what else I learn.

In the meantime, I find it fascinating how out of touch women - and men - have been with women's bodies and their raw sexuality and sensuality.  How did that happen?  How is it still happening?  Is it happening in your life?  Your daughter's?  How can women become so empowered and self-aware that such absurdities can never happen again?

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