It’s all in the mind, you know.
Blame it on my lack of a classical education, but it was only a couple of years ago I realized that the word ‘hysteria’ is a feminist issue. It comes via the Greek for ‘uterus’, hence υστερία. The ancients believed that psychological-based problems (as opposed to physical ailments) only affected women, and therefore had their source in the womb.
All this had passed me by, and I had never made the connection. I’d quite happily describe certain male colleagues as ‘hysterical’ without implying I thought they were female, or indeed that the quality was particularly feminine. It was quite a surprise to me that certain people felt very strongly about this, and I was saddened at the subsequent reduction of available vocabulary.
However, a paper in J Sex Med caught the eye of one of our Faculty just recently, in which the whole basis of hysteria (in the sense of a diagnostic entity of neurosis) has switched sides, so to speak. (Update: evaluation on f1000 Medicine.) By examining testosterone levels and looking for associations with psychopathologies in men seeking treatment for sexual dysfunction, Bandini et al. found that depression and anxiety were negatively correlated with testosterone levels. Of course: real men don’t cry, after all.
histrionic/hysterical traits were strongly and positively associated with elevated T[estosterone]
(Higher testosterone was also associated, unsurprisingly, with better self-reported sexual function, higher blood flow in the penis and cough bigger balls.)
So what they are saying is that certain supposedly (by the ancients, at least) feminine characteristics, to which men were obviously immune (not having a womb), in fact have their source in uniquely male anatomy, turning the accepted (and vaguely misogynistic) wisdom on its head. ‘Better’ sexual function (which I assume means ‘more of it’), and higher social dominance and mate-seeking behaviour all correlate with histrionic/hysterical traits. From an evolutionary perspective, the authors speculate that these could all be markers, or signals, of hormonal quality. Hysteria ex orchida.
I’m now envisaging flouncing out of particularly tiresome meetings claiming my hormones are making me do it. More seriously, this possibly means I can go go back to using ‘hysterical’ without my feminist credentials slipping—at least as long as I carry a copy of this paper around with me. Besides, nobody really cares about etymology anymore, do they?
Bandini, E., Corona, G., Ricca, V., Fisher, A., Lotti, F., Sforza, A., Faravelli, C., Forti, G., Mannucci, E., & Maggi, M. (2009). Hysterical Traits Are Not from the Uterus but from the Testis: A Study in Men with Sexual Dysfunction Journal of Sexual Medicine, 6 (8), 2321-2331 DOI: 10.1111/j.1743-6109.2009.01322.x