Tuesday 19 June 2012

Movie Review: Hysteria (plus my ramblings about the female paroxysm, er, orgasm)

Female paroxysm? Orgasm? What's that boy babbling about? And what the heck does any of this have to do with a movie review?

"Hysterical paroxysm" is a 19th century medical term for orgasm. Nudge, nudge, wink, wink. We'll all chuckle, maybe with a touch of embarrassment, and look at one another with an all knowing expression like we're all in on the gag and are completely aware of what's going on. But are we? Really?

Hysteria is a work of fiction surrounded by real facts. It is a period piece set in late 19th century England and involves one Joseph Mortimer Granville. The film has taken some liberties with this character but has certainly correctly portrayed a medical condition of the day, female hysteria, a condition which doesn't exist.

Female hysteria? Once upon a time the medical profession determined that a wide variety of symptoms such as faintness, nervousness, sexual desire, insomnia, fluid retention, heaviness in abdomen, muscle spasm, shortness of breath, irritability, loss of appetite for food or sex, and "a tendency to cause trouble" were representative of this supposed illness. Defining exactly what this malady was remained elusive but the cure said it all. The proscribed remedy was for a woman to undergo "pelvic massage", the manual stimulation of the genitals, by a doctor until the patient had a hysterical paroxysm (orgasm). If you're like me, it's at this point you exclaim, "What!?!"

What the heck... okay, what the hell is going on? This idea dates back to the ancient Greeks and it would seem that this whole thing could be construed as a way of denying women their sexuality however I would be more inclined to say it shows a total lack of understanding about sex and especially female sex.

In the 19th century, masturbation was seen as deviant behavior, and as even more inappropriate for women than for men, since women were believed (and taught) to be free from any form of sexual desire. Some physicians treated "female hysteria" -- symptomized by insomnia, irritability, nervousness, or "excessive moisture inside the vagina" -- with what was termed "medicinal massage", inserting a finger and gently rubbing the woman's genitalia. This led to "paroxysm", a sudden outburst in the patient which doctors (being men) believed was not orgasm, since women were thought incapable of orgasm.
-NNDB: Joseph Mortimer Granville

You do realise we are talking about a period in our history of only one hundred and thirty years ago. Wow. Like really wow. Then again, how long prior to that was the Earth flat?

Back to the movie. Our hero, Dr. Granville, is having a tough time of it making his way in the medical profession of London, England in the late 1800s. As luck would have it, he gets a job in the established practice of a doctor who is making quite a living doling out orgasms, sorry paroxysms to a long list of female clients looking to make their lives just a little more orgasmic, oops, I mean less hysterical. The hero all too willingly (but unwittingly) lends a hand (or two) to better the lives of these sorry London citizens but soon ends up suffering from what I can only suppose might be carpal tunnel syndrome. Hmmm, no Lloyds of London to insure his hands for a million bucks, er, pounds?

Thanks to the tinkering of a friend with electricity and motors, Dr. Granville invents a vibrator. Instead of manually massaging the pelvic area, he uses the device to stimulate the female genitalia and produces not only excellent results but attains said results much faster. The rest, so they say, is history.

The movie only garnered a rating of 55% on Rotten Tomatoes which would make it a so-so film. Nevertheless, I enjoyed it. It was well shot; the setting and costumes were good and I enjoyed this peek at another era. The important aspect of the film, for me at least, was the whole question of female sexuality and how the general level of common knowledge was abysmally low.

One scene shows our hero arguing with a medical colleague about germs and gets fired for wanting to replace a dirty bandage with a clean one. It is startling to realise that at this moment in time, we as in the collective we were only beginning to understand germs. Our good doctor mentions reading about the work of Lister, a British surgeon who promoted sterile surgery, so our good doctor is merely on the verge of coming out of the medical dark ages. (Trivia: Coca Cola up to 1903 had an estimated nine milligrams of cocaine per glass. -Wikipedia)

I found this stunning. We are only talking about one hundred and thirty years ago (Granville invented his vibrator in 1883) and this is the level of knowledge? People don't know about germs and they don't know about the female orgasm. Okay, germs I can get but it is difficult to conceive that any of these women undergoing this "medical procedure" did not know their own bodies were capable of having an orgasm.

Or is it difficult?

Betty Dodson
In previous research, I ran across Betty Dodson, author, sex educator, and pro-sex feminist. (see my blog) Over the years, she has been an advocate of female masturbation in order to educate women about their own bodies and sex. On her official web site, I discovered the following emails:

I've Never Had an Orgasm - Sep 17/2010
I'm an 18 year old female, I've had two male partners. I've never been able to reach an orgasm, it feels close at times, but I push away because of the intensity, it feels so good that it sort of hurts. I and my current partner has tried a lot of different things. Is there something that I could be doing to reach an orgasm??

Married & Never Had an Orgasm - Dec 11/2010
Please can you offer me advice, I am 29 years old and dont really know where to go. I have been with my husband for 8 years now and married for the last year. I have never been able to orgasm, not with him, anyone else or on my own, if I have I have not known about it.

39 & Never Had An Orgasm - Nov 15/2010
I am 39 years old and I have NEVER had a orgasam, i have tried everything i can and ijust cant do it. I am married and I have talked to my husband about it and we have talked about it but there is nuthing he can do. I hate to have sex but i do it now and again. I have has a hystradrectomy about 4 years ago but that has nuthing ti do with it cuz i never had one befor then. I am at my wits end and I please need help.

27 and Never Had an Orgasm - Jun 6/2009
I am 27 years old, never had an orgasm. I'm married 5 years with 2 kids.

What? Time for me to once again say that I found this stunning? What is the state of sex education? Do people not know their own bodies? Heck, we're not talking about the late 19th century now; we're talking about now, another century, heck another millennium!

But is it all as stunning as that?

Rush Limbaugh
Who doesn't know about Rush going off on a rant against one Sandra Fluke, the woman brought in by the Democrats to testify for having private insurance companies cover contraception. Not only did he suggest Ms. Fluke was a slut and a prostitute, he said she wanted to be paid to have sex and that she's having so much sex, she can't afford her own birth control. (see my blog: Rush Limbaugh: That's spelled with one F and one U) Okay, Mr. Limbaugh is a sexist misogynistic boor who demonstrates a profound ignorance of sex, health issues and the economic means of lower income people, but as a visible representative of the far right, he clearly shows that the level of common knowledge about the world has not necessarily increased all that much from the time of the movie Hysteria.

The American Life League
Back in December 2011, the charitable organization Susan B. Komen For the Cure decided to revoke its funding of Planned Parenthood. This decision arose from the efforts of one Karen Handel, newly appointed  senior vice president of public policy at the charity and staunch pro-life anti-abortionist. When the plan came to light in February 2012, the ensuing public outcry resulted not only in the charity reversing its decision but in the resignation of Handel.

In investigating Planned Parenthood as a target of the pro-life movement, I discovered then wrote about the American Life League, one of the largest pro-life organizations in the United States. (see my blog Planned Parenthood: addicting children to sex!!!) While only 3% of the services offered by Planned Parenthood relate to abortion, the ALL takes exception to all their services since many of those services are related to sex: testing and treatment of sexually transmitted diseases, contraception, and pregnancy testing and prenatal services. ALL isn't just against abortion, they are against all things relating to sex including sex education. Like Karen Handel, if ALL had its way, they would see Planned Parenthood shut down.

Is it just me?
The movie Hysteria is set in the late 1800's. Betty Dodson and her work, Rush Limbaugh and his motor mouth, and The American Life League and the vilification of all things sexual are of the present day. One hundred and thirty years separate the two and yet I wonder just how much we collectively have advanced. We may all have a good chuckle at hearing about "hysterical paroxysm" but we should be damn well angry at the shenanigans of the vocal few who would see us all remain in the dark ages of the 1800's.

Final Word
The film as a film is better that the so-so rating of 55% on Rotten Tomatoes. I think it is well worth a viewing. And by the way, once again I would advise against getting up and leaving the theatre when the credits start. The film uses this last bit of the movie to show off the many technical forms of the device throughout history thanks to the Antique Vibrator Museum in San Francisco. (see my blog: May is National Masturbation Month)

As a look back on the state of affair of the late 19th century, it is stunning to see the knowledge which is currently available to us. However, in reflecting on how much or how little the general state of our knowledge has changed, it is more evident than ever just how far we still have to go. What sometimes passes for knowledge in certain circles is nothing more than superstition or religious dogma. There is no empirical evidence to back up claims but despite this gulf between claim and reality, people persist in holding on to their beliefs no matter how ill-formed they may be. And that's enough to even make me hysterical.


Rotten Tomatoes: Hysteria: 55%
Hysteria has an amusing subject but its winking, vaguely sarcastic tone doesn't do the movie any favors.

Wikipedia: Hysteria (2011 film)
Hysteria is a 2011 American romantic comedy film directed by Tanya Wexler. It stars Felicity Jones, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Rupert Everett and Hugh Dancy. The film, set in the Victorian era shows how the medical management of hysteria led to the invention of the vibrator. The film's title refers to the once-common medical diagnosis of female hysteria.

Wikipedia: Female hysteria
Female hysteria was a once-common medical diagnosis, made exclusively in women, which is today no longer recognized by modern medical authorities as a medical disorder. Its diagnosis and treatment were routine for many hundreds of years in Western Europe. Hysteria was widely discussed in the medical literature of the 19th century. Women considered to be suffering from it exhibited a wide array of symptoms including faintness, nervousness, sexual desire, insomnia, fluid retention, heaviness in abdomen, muscle spasm, shortness of breath, irritability, loss of appetite for food or sex, and "a tendency to cause trouble".

Since ancient times women considered to be suffering from hysteria would sometimes undergo "pelvic massage" — manual stimulation of the genitals by the doctor until the patient experienced "hysterical paroxysm" (orgasm).

Good Vibrations: Antique Vibrator Museum
We display our treasures alongside our company collection online and in our San Francisco Polk Street Store. The vibes in our collection date from the late 1800s up through the 1970s. The electric vibrator had its inception in 1869 with the invention of a steam-powered massager, patented by an American doctor. This device was designed as a medical tool for treating "female disorders." Within 20 years a British doctor followed up with a more portable battery-operated model; by 1900, dozens of styles of electric vibrators, just like those in our exhibit, were available to the discriminating medical professional.

In Bed With Married Women - Mar 7/2011
Female Hysteria and Creepy Old-Timey Vibrators by Jill Hamilton
Are you exhibiting any of the following symptoms:
--Trouble sleeping?
--Fluid retention?
--"A tendency to cause trouble"?
Yes, yes, yes and oh yes?

Let's see, according to my medical book, circa 1895, you have a clear-cut case of Female Hysteria.

NNDB: Joseph Mortimer Granville
Joseph Mortimer Granville invented the electric vibrator, not as a sexual device but to relieve more mundane muscle aches. Originally called a percusser or more colloquially "Granville's hammer", the machine was manufactured and sold to physicians, but as it became increasingly popular its inventor tried to disassociate himself from the device's "mis-use". In his 1883 book on the subject, "Nerve-Vibration and Excitation as Agents in the Treatment of Functional Disorder and Organic Disease", he wrote, "I have never yet percussed a female patient ... I have avoided, and shall continue to avoid the treatment of women by percussion, simply because I do not wish to be hoodwinked, and help to mislead others, by the vagaries of the hysterical state ..."

Wikipedia: Joseph Lister, 1st Baron Lister
Joseph Lister, 1st Baron Lister OM, FRS, PC (5 April 1827 – 10 February 1912), known as Sir Joseph Lister, Bt., between 1883 and 1897, was a British surgeon and a pioneer of antiseptic surgery, who promoted the idea of sterile surgery while working at the Glasgow Royal Infirmary. Lister successfully introduced carbolic acid (now known as phenol) to sterilise surgical instruments and to clean wounds, which led to reducing post-operative infections and made surgery safer for patients.

my blog: Sex Ed: Betty Dodson: educator, author, pro-sex feminist
Widely known as a pioneer in women's sexual liberation, her fame has come from both advocating masturbation and conducting workshops for more than 30 years where groups of women would talk, explore their own bodies, and masturbate together. In 1974, she self-published a slim volume of 60 pages entitled "Liberating masturbation: a meditation on self love" in which she encouraged women (and men) to really understand their own bodies in order to have better sex – both alone and with partners. The book was considered a feminist classic for decades. Finally, Dodson reworked the material and republished it in 1996 under the title "Sex for One: The Joy of Selfloving" (208 pages).

my blog: Rush Limbaugh: That's spelled with one F and one U
Recently, the world has been atwitter on Twitter and other social media commenting left, right and centre about one Rush Hudson Limbaugh. Of course, it is easy to pile on by calling him an anal orifice or a Neanderthal or a meany... (I consult my notes) oops, that's a f**kin' meany... however I can't help feeling there is more, much more not just to this particular story, but to what the story represents. This is the tip of the iceberg.

my blog: Planned Parenthood: addicting children to sex!!!
Over the past few years, I have heard right-wing people in criticizing Barack Obama make comparisons to Nazi Germany, trying through hyperbole (I think they actually believe this to be a valid comparison) to make things out worse than they are. But just imagine what would happen if Rick Santorum or Michele Bachmann or even the president of ALL, Judie Brown, somehow came to power. We would all be knocked back to the dark ages. We would be burning people at the stake, using blood-letting as a home remedy and putting chastity belts on girls. Am I exaggerating? Planned Parenthood gone. Legal abortions gone. Sex Education gone. Free condoms gone. Sex gone.

my blog: May is National Masturbation Month
In 1995, California sex advocate Dr. Carol Queen with the assistance of Good Vibrations, held the first National Masturbation Day on May 7 while declaring May masturbation month.

Surveys indicate that 90 per cent of North American men and 65 per cent of women masturbate, Queen notes, "yet masturbation continues to be maligned in our culture, censored from our education and scorned as the sexual expression of those who can't get a date. So much so that when the American Surgeon-General Joycelyn Elders endorsed the teaching of masturbation in high school sex-ed classes six years ago, she was fired by the Clinton administration. We gave our heads a shake and said it's about time we fought back. That's when we founded National Masturbation Day."


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