• Athena Ives

My Body, My Mind, My Right to Orgasm

By Athena Ives

Over the years women have become more and more open about their sexual desires/needs, their bodies, and their rights to express their opinions. When a population has been prevented from certain rights in the past, they often feel the need to make their freedom known and some do so in extremely bold manners. For 100s of years, women were committed to asylums for “hysteria”, having a different belief than their husbands, and so criminals could avoid prison. While I do not agree with all the extreme displays of freedom, I for one am extremely grateful that I can’t be locked up in the psych ward for having an unpopular opinion or for having and expressing my sexual needs. A sexual appetite in men is seen as healthy and praised. A sexual appetite in women is seen as unhealthy and shamed. See the problem here?

Hysteria: a psychological disorder (not now regarded as a single definite condition) whose symptoms include conversion of psychological stress into physical symptoms (somatization), selective amnesia, shallow volatile emotions, and overdramatic or attention-seeking behavior. The term has a controversial history as it was formerly regarded as a disease-specific to women. Derived from the Greek word for “uterus,” hysteria occurred in women with pent-up sexual energy—or so healers and early physicians believed. Nuns, widows, and spinsters were particularly susceptible, but by the Victorian era, many married women had fallen prey as well. In the late 19th century, a pair of prominent physicians estimated that three-quarters of American women were at risk (Maines, 1999).

Female hysteria was once a common medical diagnosis for women, which was described as exhibiting a wide array of symptoms, including anxiety, shortness of breath, fainting, nervousness, sexual desire, insomnia, fluid retention, heaviness in the abdomen, irritability, loss of appetite for food or sex, (paradoxically) sexually forward behavior, and a "tendency to cause trouble for others". It is no longer recognized by medical authorities as a medical disorder. Its diagnosis and treatment were routine for hundreds of years in Western Europe (Maines, 1999, pg. 23). In Western medicine, hysteria was considered both common and chronic among women. The American Psychiatric Association dropped the term hysteria in 1952. Even though it was categorized as a disease, hysteria's symptoms were synonymous with normal functioning female sexuality. In extreme cases, the woman may have been forced to enter an insane asylum or to have undergone surgical hysterectomy (Mankiller, 1996, pg. 26).

One of the more common treatments for hysteria was clitoral orgasm typically done through manual stimulation from the doctor who soon passed off this task to midwives. In 1880, Joseph Mortimer Granville created the electromechanical vibrator to relieve muscle aches and doctors found this invention shortened the time for a woman to achieve orgasm, which in turn made them wealthy (Mankiller, 1996).

During the Victorian era, psychiatrists were often hired by husbands and fathers to probe their wives’ and daughters’ “abnormal” behaviors. The reasons these men gave ranged from exhaustion, overeducation, or premenstrual syndrome to being unmarried or indulging unconventional sexual impulses (such as masturbation). “On the most basic level, it was never about mental acuity or medical treatment; it was about exerting control over women’s lives and bodies—all under the guise of medicine” (Ward, 1996).

From 1817 to 1824, private funded mental institutions were established in Connecticut, New York, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania. Public institutions were also opened in the south which sparked an increase in stat rune institutions with over 559,000 patients in 1953. All patients were involuntarily committed and many families committed their unwanted family members (Grob, 1954). One well-known case that showcased the issues with involuntary commitment standards was Elizabeth Packard. Mr. Packard committed his wife Elizabeth to the Jacksonville, Illinois Asylum in 1860 for having an unclean spirit. Her husband was a clergyman and based his decision to commit his wife because of her exploring other religious traditions that were outside of the strict Presbyterian faith that Mr. Packard believed in. She was diagnosed with “moral insanity” and held for three years before being diagnosed sane. After release, she lost custody of her children and any ownership of property (Gamwell, 1995).

Another famous case happened in 1928 when Christine Collins reported her son Walter missing on March 10th. The LAPD search for five months with no luck. In August, a boy was found in Dekalb, Illinois claiming to be her son Walter. Despite the similar appearance, age, and knowledge of the neighborhood and other identifying characteristics, Christine denied that this boy was her son. During this time the LAPD was under a lot of heat for criminal activity and to avoid more scrutiny, Captain Jones committed Christine to the LA County General Hospital psychiatric ward under “Code 12” internment. Code 12 was used to commit someone who is “deemed difficult or an inconvenience” (Testa & West, 2010).

During her commitment, the boy finally admitted his name was Arthur Hutchins, a 12-year-old runaway from Iowa looking for a home. Allegedly the LAPD linked the disappearance of Walter to the Wineville Chicken Coop Murders. Gordon Stewart Northcott owned a chicken coop where he raped, tortured, and killed young boys, allegedly including Walter. Northcott was sentenced to death and the body of Walter was never found (Testa & West, 2010).

The cases of these women and numerous others caused the States to change their commitment laws. Legal protections were put into place including the patient’s right to a trial with an attorney, stricter commitment standards, and the final decision was taken from the medical professionals and placed into the hands of the judges (Anfang & Appelbaum, 2006).


Anfang, S. A., & Appelbaum, P. S. (2006). Civil commitment-the American experience. The Israel journal of psychiatry and related sciences, 43(3), 209.

Gamwell L, Tomes N. Madness in America: Cultural and Medical Perceptions of Mental Illness Before 1914. New York: Cornell University Press; 1995.

Grob GN. The Mad Among Us: A History of the Care of America’s Mentally Ill. New York: Free Press; 1994

Maines, R. P. (1999). The Technology of Orgasm: "Hysteria", the Vibrator, and Women's Sexual Satisfaction. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press. pg. 23.

Mankiller, W. P. (1998). The Reader's Companion to U.S. Women's History. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Co. pg. 26

Testa, M., & West, S. G. (2010). Civil commitment in the United States. Psychiatry (Edgmont), 7(10), 30.

Ward, T. (1996). Psychiatry and criminal responsibility in England, 1843-1936.