Hysteria: Phreudian phallusy or what?

5 Jan

In the latest issue of The King’s Tribune there’s an article by one of the editors, Justin Shaw, titled “Porn is Bad.” It’s a must read for anyone with an interest in the politics (poetics?)of porn from the perspective of an articulate and honest male consumer, rather than that of anti porn activists, or academics arguing against them.

I was delighted to read the piece, as its long been my complaint that voices such as Shaw’s are not  included in the debate. Though I hesitate to use that word, seeing as the anti porn activists brook no debate. You’re either with them or against them in their war on the producers, actors, and consumers who in their view form the pornographic axis of evil.

In the second paragraph of the piece you’ll find this comment: “Gail Dines gave a series of hysterical screeches when she visited Australia last year…” An accurate and unremarkable assessment of Dines’ performance I would have thought, but no. This innocuous observation provoked a surge of outrage on Twitter, with tweeps complaining the comment was misogynist. Everybody knows or should know, they argued, that the term “hysterical” has been used to denigrate and discredit women, especially feminists, for decades, and Shaw was allegedly perpetuating that abuse in his description of Dines.

You’ll get no argument from me that “hysterical” has indeed been used to discredit women. I just wonder though what we will be left with if we demand the discontinuation of all terms that can be used to discredit women, and for that matter, men. I have on more than one occasion used the word “hysterical”to describe the behaviours of certain male politicians, and I think I might have once unkindly attached it to Clive Hamilton after reading one of his more florid anti porn rants. Colloquially, the word is used to mean emotional excess, mental agitation, and loss of self-control.

The term “mass hysteria” is not gender specific, and is used to describe the behaviours of groups containing men, women, transgendered and un-gendered people. In sociology the more frequently used term for mass hysteria, is “moral panic.” I rest my case.

So what is the (potted) history of “hysteria?”

It was apparently Hippocrates who first used it to define “disturbances of the uterus” thought to cause all manner of ailments peculiar to women (“hystera” meaning womb) though there are arguments about that explanation of its origins.

In the mid to late nineteen hundreds the many and varied symptoms of hysteria were attributed to sexual dissatisfaction, and physicians treated their female patients with “pelvic massage”, that is, clitoral stimulation to orgasm. In order to spare physicians this arduous task, women were eventually dispatched to midwives for treatment, and then offered vibrators.

An aside: I can attest to the value of midwife administered orgasms. My second child was born in a bean bag at home, and I was attended by a midwife. At some point in my labourings, she tenderly applied an herbal cream to my lady bits and in the process, brought me to a spectacular orgasm. As I was groaning anyway, none of the assembled spectators were any the wiser. I strongly recommend this practice as an aid to delivery.

Back to hysteria. French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot became fascinated by inexplicable paralysis in some of his female patients. As there appeared to be no organic reason for their troubles, he decided psychological factors were to blame. To this end he hypnotised them, in an effort to discover the repressed traumas he suspected were being expressed physically.

And then came Freud. Fascinated by Charcot’s theories, Freud gave the world his brilliant (if not always accepted) theories of repression and conversion disorder. Initially he confided to his colleague and friend Wilhelm Fliess (a man with bizarre opinions about the purpose of the human nose, but that’s another story) his belief that much of the hysteria he found in his female patients originated in premature and abusive sexual experiences during their childhoods in middle class families. This was perpetrated on them by relatives, or nannies. With no means of expressing their trauma, or even acknowledging it, Freud’s female patients converted their distress into any number of psychological and physical symptoms that were, in his terms, hysterical. That is, without apparent organic cause, sexual in origin, and particular to women.

Unsurprisingly, Freud’s insights into middle class family life did him no good in the climate of the times, and it’s alleged that he dropped them in order to save his reputation. He then came up with his Oedipus Theory, and there’s debate as to whether that did him a lot of good either, but that’s also another story.

The problem is the symptoms of hysteria are still inevitably defined as female, yet we know this is a nonsense. As Freud well knew men are also sexually abused, and can suffer after effects every bit as “hysterical” as those endured by women. Freud would have done us all a favour if he’d coined a non-gendered term to describe the symptoms he observed in both male and female patients as a consequence of repressed trauma, but alas, he did not, and here we are in 2012 still fighting about hysteria.

In defense of Shaw, his sentence doesn’t read to me like a misogynist use of the term: I can think of no other that so accurately describes Dines’ performances and her intention to inspire moral panic (mass hysteria) in her audiences.

And she almost succeeded for this viewer when she used the acronym ATM to describe a sexual practice that I do not find inspirational. In the elegant words of @ruminski this concerns [redacted lower body orifice] to [redacted upper body orifice]. It has nothing to do with cash dispensers, except if you’re paying for it.

Following Meatloaf, I will do anything for love, yes I will do anything for love, I will do anything for love, but I won’t do that. No, I won’t do that.

Let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water and attempt to rid ourselves of all language that can be used to denigrate somebody. Intention is everything. In my view, Ms Dines speaks hysterically on the topic of pornography, with the intention of provoking moral panic. I can only hope that the outrage provoked by Shaw’s use of the term does not blind readers to the importance of his observations. I wish he’d publish them on the Drum as well.

14 Responses to “Hysteria: Phreudian phallusy or what?”

  1. Bill January 5, 2012 at 10:52 am #

    The highlighting of “that word” is pretty clearly an argument of convenience when the word was obviously being used in a modern context.

    If we are going to get all hung up about the arcane origins of words, people might like to remember that the next time they use the word “Bastard” as a term of abuse.

    And “gay” used to mean “happy” don’tcha know!


  2. paul walter January 5, 2012 at 1:21 pm #

    Having slept late, I now sit manky before the word processor, half stung. I should come back when I’ve read all of the links.
    I have an impression of parameters more clearly defined than before, which define the conversation between anti porn activists and those who remain sceptical of their theses and aims (and vice versa).
    In the end, I understand Jennifer Wilson to be making a call for a calmer approach to porn, apart, I’d think, from particularly kiddie-porn.
    But Gail Dines and co are, probably quite genuinely, horrified and outraged at what goes on at the blurred edges that demark kiddie porn and abuse, from mere erotica.
    As we discovered last week, with Dines herself at least, much of the feeling is likely sincere and an appropriate response to the sorts of stories told by Jennifer Wilson and other victims of child abuse who contributed here.
    It’s interesting to see that the discussion currently involves dour, sceptical and hardy specimens of Northern English working class culture- Dines wont trust the industry to self regulate meaningfully (a first time for ANY capitalist industry, my sceptical blue collar outlook tells me), while Wilson (like me?) doesn’t trust the state in control of too heavy handed a censorship, employing the n bomb of repression, to knock off a few bed-bugs.
    What I want to know from Jennifer Wilson is, if censorship actually worked to reduce child abuse, would that be not worth the loss of a few (if any) of our own rights.
    Gail Dines, I’d ask, can you be sure that a state apparatus involved in cracking down on kiddieporn in an emotive atmosphere, wont exploit the situation politically to enforce other forms of censorship (a criticism of Conroys net filter plan).
    Wont say any more for now, it seems a complex set of factors are involved and till have sorted out the admixture of religion, politics, various feminisms, radicalisms and conservatisms, all mediated through varying degrees and levels of experience involved.
    But it does seem two things have to preserved: the safety of innocent folk like kids and the Democratic mechanism, with its drive to open, fact based discourse and a healthy emphasis on social interaction as the key to a fulfilling human life.
    As Aristotle said, “The unconsidered life is hardly worth considering”, so to go further on serious issues without the benefit of further thought and other’s contributions, would be calamitous.


    • Jennifer Wilson January 6, 2012 at 6:12 am #

      I doubt very much that censorship would make much difference at all to child porn. There’s already a good deal of it voluntarily in place with various ISPs, but consumers of the stuff have expertise that gets them around the prohibitions. What’s needed are more specialist task forces trained and dedicated to breaking the rings that produce and distribute child porn. That works.


  3. Gruffbutt January 5, 2012 at 1:35 pm #

    I would do anything for love except quote that woeful song.


    • Sam Jandwich January 5, 2012 at 3:07 pm #

      Jens Leckman is far more palatable:
      “You know I’d do anything for love, but Nina what where you thinking of??”

      I still haven’t succumbed to twitter, but now I’m off to read that article anyways…


      • Jennifer Wilson January 6, 2012 at 6:14 am #

        I don’t know what everybody’s got against Meatloaf. Well he did stuff up at some football thing, but where is your forgiveness, people?


    • Jennifer Wilson January 6, 2012 at 5:58 am #



  4. Sam Jandwich January 5, 2012 at 4:06 pm #

    Yes it’s quite a good article, but I’m still not sure it’s going to convince people (or Sheeple? with apologies to Mlle. Liberator) like, oh I’m not going to even say their names ever again!!

    What I think would be useful is to have a socio-phenomenological analysis of what a person thinks and feels when looking at porn – with the aim of demystifying and de-horning (with apologies to cattle) the power of this supposedly threatening act – ie, why and how is it that people are turned on by porn? That article by Justin Shaw describes it in terms of “an aid to wanking”, but why is this useful? Why can’t we masturbate and think about doing the grocery shopping, or cooking dinner, or pegging out the washing? Why do the sensuous curves of a Maserati 250S make my teeth ache and my brough furrow, and my stomach jump in ecstacy, but do nothing for me sexually?

    I’m not going to go into this right now, in part because it’s been like ten years since I studied philosophy and I’d probably make a hash of it, but I’ve always thought that a good starting off point is the idea that people are turned on by looking at other peoplegetting it on because we are empathetic creatures. When we look at someone who is enjoying themselves sexually, we are able to feel some sense of what it’s like, or to imagine our own bodies being subject to the same sensations, as the people in the pictures/videos. But I’ve always thought, anti-porn, and anti-men commentators invariably display a failure to display empathy, or indeed tend to make their statements from a position of presumption that other people’s motives are inherently dangerous or untrustworthy. Jennifer remember that little exchange recently with a person that I suspect is probably not M from James Bond? https://noplaceforsheep.com/2011/10/23/bolt-the-revisionist-caught-in-distortions-of-historical-facts-for-personal-gain/

    And I don’t really understand why, as I imagine many regular NPFS readers have noted, I find this topic so fascinating and feel compelled to add my two bits, because from what I can tell the anti-porn brigade are such outliers to the mainsteam these days that under certain conditions they’re hardly worth the effort.

    One of the most fascinating things I’ve read recently was the SMH’s expose of cricket writer Peter Roebuck’s “activities” at his house in South Africa: http://www.smh.com.au/sport/cricket/the-roebuck-tragedy-a-tale-of-love-beatings-and-blackmail-20111231-1pgmk.html. This article goes into quite explicit descriptions of the contact that Roebuck had with a number of young Zimbabwean students he had taken on a mentorship role to, and shows that quite clearly he had a deeply-held fetish for young black men, including what could be described as a kind of ritualised sadism-mixed-up-with tenderness (and also that this fetish is by no means confined to sex but also encompassed love, philanthropy, ethics, politics, and cricket, just to name a few).

    What was interesting about this is not so much the content, but that an article like this can appear in a widely-circulated newspaper, and not shock or dismay its readers. In other contexts, we are so accepting of the idea that sexuality is a highly significant force in a person’s life, to be repressed at one’s peril, that when we read stories like Peter Roebuck’s we can’t help but see the unnecessary inevitability of it.

    So there you go. Psychoanalyse that!

    Oh yeah and hysteria is just a storm in a teacup these days 😉


    • Jennifer Wilson January 6, 2012 at 6:07 am #

      Re your second para – can I just say I don’t know why that stuff doesn’t work for you, but some people are sexually turned on by such things – as in fetishes. So how does the empathy theory work in the case of fetishes I wonder?

      Peter Roebuck’s story is uncomfortable to read about, and I’m interested that it’s been given mainstream exposure. Not quite sure why.


      • Sam Jandwich January 6, 2012 at 4:57 pm #

        Maybe watching someone else getting steamed up while pushing a trolley might help you to get caught up in the moment?

        I guess what made me come up with this wacky theoryy is that I actually find it rather surprising that (as a generalisation) men can enjoy watching other men having sex with women. As per the conventional understanding I would have thought that heterosexual men might get jealous of the person in the film, or else they might feel some discomfort at the homoerotic nature of looking at another man naked*. If you appeal to their sense of empathy (or it might be better termed “sympathy”) then this provides i reasonably compelling explanation for this, and also explains why porn consumers can make a moral judgement as to whether the material they’re looking at satisfies ethical standards or not: if they have a fetish for engaging in sadism with a willing female participant, then it is their empathy for the feelings of the female protagonist that acts as a guide as to whether she is actually participating willingly or not – and if it is understood that there is good evidence to suggest that all participants are in there willingly, and that what is being depicted is a fantasy scenario, then there exists a good argument that there is nothing ethically indefensible about the making or watching of that particular piece.

        or something like that!

        *though alternatively it could suggest a rampant heterosexuality, through the aporia of an incomplete binary – what is heterosexual sex without a man?


    • Gruffbutt January 7, 2012 at 11:20 am #

      There’s always the POV vids 😉

      At the risk of providing ‘too much information’, I try to blot out the male half (or third or two-thirds or whatever) when watching some hetero action. (I don’t relate to most of them, but I think my empathy radar is okay.)

      But you do raise an interesting point (said Mrs Slowcombe) about what we need to turn us on. Porn is a lazy substitute for an imagination – in that respect, it can be arguably unhealthy, but the various media are arguably bad for the imagination in general. (Emphasis on ‘arguably’).

      It’s also a poor substitute for the real thing, of course, but even then, it’s not and never will be a level playing field in the relationship/sex stakes. (Okay, just call me Captain Obvious. I’m off to bed…to sleep.)


  5. 730reportland January 14, 2012 at 2:33 am #

    Like `mass hysteria`, this is just manufactured outrage at Juzzy.
    Does everybody remember the Adelaide Arse-Clown at the dispatch-box
    complaining `denier` is offensive to Mr Speaker last year?
    Neither the 1940s nor Jews own the words `denier` or `denial`
    and Pyne`s outrage is fake. The `hysterical` outrage is fake too.
    Just fools trying to hijack words that bother their argument, taste,
    or world view. Or am I hysterical?


    • Jennifer Wilson January 14, 2012 at 7:04 pm #

      No, you aren’t hysterical and even if you were you have every bloody right to be!


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