In the video above, MSNBC's Professor Melissa Harris-Perry talks about how female sexual desire has been treated throughout history in our male-dominated culture. Pointing to a New York Times Magazine article "Unexcited" about Lybrido, a new pill awaiting FDA approval that's supposed to "stoke sexual desire in women," Harris-Perry says the article was adapted from Daniel Berger's new book What Do Women Want? Adventures in the Science of Female Desire by Daniel Berger (Browse inside the book at Harper-Collins.).
The drug "would be a milestone in the medicalization of women's sexual desire," according to Harris-Perry and others. She says that in the past, all the way back to ancient Greece, women's sexual desire has been treated as an illness. She reminds viewers that the word hysteria, associated with uncontrollable emotions and madness, was derived from the Greek word for uterus. Here's what Merriam-Webster has to say about that:
New Latin, from English hysteric, adjective, from Latin hystericus, from Greek hysterikos, from hystera womb; from the Greek notion that hysteria was peculiar to women and caused by disturbances of the uterus First Known Use: 1801Harris-Perry says "female hysteria" was treated as a mental illness as early as the fourth century A.D. and the Greek philosopher Plato pronounced "a sexually frustrated uterus that wanders throughout the body as nothing less than a threat to female sanity." A lack of sexual desire as well as strong sexual desire were both considered to be symptoms of uterus-driven illness, and male doctors as recently as the 1950s prescribed orgasms as the cure for that, "the orgasm cure."
I've observed that we still have a tendency in this culture to declare that women are sexually frustrated when they appear to be highly focused or high-strung. Just last night, for instance, I heard a male character on the BBC's Orphan Black finale tell a female detective character who questioned him aggressively that she clearly needed to "get laid."
But the shock for me in Harris-Perry's commentary and report was not that doctors told women that orgasms would help them. What floored me was this bit of history: if the doctor prescribed orgasms and the woman's husband was not able to give her one, then her male doctor would fill that script personally. So, you know, I had to look this up, and here is what I found in the book The Story of V: A Natural History of Female Sexuality by Catherine Blackledge:
Over the centuries, the methods prescribed to induce orgasm in so-called hysterical women included advocating being 'strongly encountered by their husbands' if they had one. Alternatively, if a woman was single, widowed, or confined to a nunnery, the recommendation could be horse-riding, pelvic rocking in swings, chairs, or hammocks, or vaginal massage—the latter to be provided by the patient's physician or midwife.Hmm. This gives a whole new meaning to "call the midwife" that I'll need to get out of my head. Here's a clip from the book.
I already knew about the hystera-hysteria history and how male chauvinism and patriarchy (also racism) have corrupted the scientific study of female health issues, but it never crossed my mind that sexism went so far in manipulating female patients. Talk about abuse of power. Now when I see old movies in which male characters look at women and joke to their male friends about the perks of being a doctor, I'll view the scene in a whole new light.