5 Crazy Ideas About Female Sexual Desire in History

The presence of female desire was once considered a bigger problem than the absence of it.

At 51, my sex drive is no longer the needy pest it once was, just a pleasant and regular visitor. True, it gave me some of the greatest times of my life, but it also caused a lot of problems.

Female desire is an intriguing thing. It was addressed in pill form this past summer with Addyi, the first FDA-approved drug to treat female hypoactive sexual desire disorder, which the Mayo Clinic defines as the “persistent and recurrent lack of interest in sex that causes you personal distress." The roll-out of the drug, misleadingly nicknamed “pink viagra” (it actually works on your brain, not your blood flow), drew criticisms about its effectiveness, its side effects and its oversimplification of the physiology of desire. (The Motley Fool investment website describes early demand for Addyi as “tepid,” reporting that only 227 prescriptions had been written in a story posted Nov. 18, 2015.)

In the past, it often wasn’t the absence of female desire that was seen as troublesome; it was the presence of it. Female sexual desire was seen as something dangerous to be tamped down, not revved up. Here are some bits of medical history that might make you a little happier to live in the 21st century.

1. The doctor is In.

You might be familiar with "hysteria," a 19th-century term for symptoms that, to the modern ear, sound like female sexual arousal and frustration, including anxiety, sleeplessness, sexy fantasies, and vaginal lubrication. The surprising medical solution was for doctors to massage the genitals of women to “paroxysm”—aka orgasm.

In her book, The Technology of Orgasm: “Hysteria,” the Vibrator and Women’s Sexual Satisfaction, Rachel P. Maines says female masturbation was frowned upon in that era, and out-of-bounds female sexual desire was seen as pathological, a condition requiring treatment by a male physician.

Eventually machinery was invented to help doctors with this rampant problem. The first battery-powered vibrator internationally marketed for the job was designed in the mid-1880s by Joseph Mortimer Granville, a British physician who, Maines writes, didn’t even approve of the device for this purpose: it was meant for men’s skeletal muscles.

Luckily, no one cared what he thought, and by 1900 there was a bewildering array of such devices available to “treat” women and save doctors all the time and effort of treating women by hand. 

2. The unkindest cut.

Hugo Schwyzer, writing in Jezebel in 2012, detailed how Dr. Isaac Baker-Brown felt that vibrators didn’t cure hysteria, they only made it worse by making patients want more “treatment.” The solution, he thought, was to excise the clitoral glans, following which, he promised, “intractable women became happy wives; rebellious teenage girls settled back into the bosom of their families; and married women formerly averse to sexual duties became pregnant.”

Baker-Brown’s barbarism didn’t last in his native Britain, but doctors in America were still recommending clitoridectomies as late as 1937. Schwyzer’s article refers to a 2000 Ms. Magazine story by Martha Coventry, who interviewed a woman who underwent the procedure in 1944 when she was 12 years old—to stop her from masturbating.  

3. In dreams.

And then there was the idea that removing everything good and happy in your life and replacing it with pain and loneliness was a step in the right direction.

In Nymphomania: A History, Carol Groneman uses the story of “Mrs. B” to convey how difficult it must have been for a Victorian lady, circa 1856, to confide her lustful thoughts to a male doctor.

Twenty-four-year-old Mrs. B. had always had a healthy sexual appetite and had a great sex life with her husband. She dreamed night and day about having sex with other men and had started having a problem at home: her “husband complained that she had an obstruction that made intercourse difficult.” Mrs. B thought he just had erectile problems. But she visited Dr. Horatio Storer, worried about her fear that “she was not going to be able to limit her sexual desire solely to her husband in the future.” She thought her dreams were the result of the couple's failure to conceive a child.

After an exam in which Dr. Storer touched Mrs. B’s clitoris and caused her to shriek with excitement, he told her “if she continued without treatment, she would most likely end up in an asylum.”

The treatment included, among other things, having her husband move out so they wouldn’t have sex, giving up her writing of a novel, ice-cold sponge baths and enemas, and swabbing “her vagina with borax solution.”Groneman says Dr. Storer wrote no followup notes on the case except: “Mr. B. remained absent and Mrs. B.'s lewd dreams had not reappeared.” 

One imagines this put an end not just to Mrs. B's sexy dreams, but to all her dreams. 

4. “A little ketchup for my steak.”

That, reports JR Thorpe at Bustle, is one man’s description of his partner’s menstrual period. Thorpe cites The Curse: A Cultural History of Menstruation, as listing ideas in different cultures about the dangers of period sex, including that the French once believed a child conceived at that time would be “subject to horrible diseases, including leprosy, syphilis, scrofula and violent ulcers of the skin.” 

In the 19th century, contact with menstruating women was thought to give men gonorrhea, and as late as the 1950s, a survey found most women’s reasons for abstaining from sex during menstruation was their fear it might lead to “hemorrhage, injury or infection.”

It’s true that pregnancy can still occur if you have sex during your period. And according to SexOnline.com, the cervix expands more at this time creating a greater pathway for bacteria and STIs. Beyond that it’s not only safe, but has its benefits, which are enumerated by Emma Kaywin on Bustle.

5. Womb to wonder.   

In classical Greece, writes the University of Waterloo’s S.L. Ager, hysteria—i.e., women’s mood swings and erratic crazy behavior—was blamed on a woman's womb, mostly its inability to stay put. It was thought that the womb "was liable to detach itself from its regular home, and wander off at will through her body,” Ager writes, causing all kind of mischief in its travels, including possibly choking a woman to death. 

The Roman physician Aretaeus described the wandering womb as moving ‘hither and thither,” “obliquely to the right or to the left, either to the liver or spleen,” that it was like “an animal within an animal,” and it preferred fragrant scents to foul ones.

That meant it responded to aromatherapy. Matt Simon writes in Wired that, “To cure a wandering womb, physicians could lure it back into position with pleasant scents applied to the vagina, or drive it away from the upper body and back down where it belongs by having the afflicted sniff foul scents.”

Which “pleasant scents” are not detailed, but next time I feel ooky I’m going to sit uncomfortably close to some buffalo wings and see what happens.

Liz Langley is a freelance writer based in Orlando, Florida. #OrlandoUnited. OrlandoStrong.

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