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.