Lets talk about sex. In the Victorian era, sexual activity was a major obsession. To be more accurate, the suppression of sexual activity was the goal of every wowser, politician, religious leader and medical professional. After all, giving in to sexual urges meant a weakening of moral fibre and mental acumen. Asylums were full of the victims of sexual frenzy and hysteria. As women were the weaker sex, they had to be protected from themselves.
A woman’s uterus was seen as a pathological organ, which was where the term hysteria originated, from the same Greek root word for hysterectomy. In 1859, it was claimed that a quarter of all women suffered from hysteria, and hysteria was used as a diagnosis whenever a doctor thought his female patient was suffering from ‘nerves’. It was the cause of a multitude of complaints. One of the recommended treatments was massage of the ‘womanly parts’, which almost sounds like fun, except a the woman generally didn’t get to choose to participate in such treatments. The womanly parts were massaged until a paroxysmal convulsion occurred, which we now know as an orgasm; a desirable outcome when with your romantic partner, but not so much with a medical professional.
Vibrators were invented as another treatment. J M Granville patented his electromechanical vibrator, nicknamed ‘Granville’s Hammer’, in about 1883, but he had invented it for muscular therapy. It was other medical practitioners that used vibrators to cure hysteria.
Non-conforming women were labelled as hysterics. It was a way of controlling them, because the threat of being institutionalized was very real. Many suffragettes were classified as hysterics and locked away, which was a worse fate than being jailed, because the conditions in insane asylums were often much cruller than the conditions in jails – remember the previous blog about the experiences of Nellie Bly. Hysteria was easy to diagnose, because it wasn’t a real disease. It was the Victorian equivalent of the Scold’s Bridle.
No Steampunk writer should avoid the topic of sex in their work. I’m not talking about erotica or romance, I’m talking about the issues that repressing a whole society created. Most of the male aristocracy had mistresses and concubines as well as wives. A woman’s reputation was more important than her education. The double standard for respectable behaviour of men and women was at its worst; a girl was ‘ruined’ by sexual dalliances, while a young man was sewing his wild oats. This is a fertile area for creating conflict within a narrative.