Pussy at Play

New film documents the history of vibrators

I never thought I'd see vibrators dancing in the closing credits of a movie at Lincoln Center. But that's just what I saw at the world premiere of Passion & Power: The Technology of Orgasm (technologyoforgasm.com) at the Walter Reade Theater last month. The independently funded documentary was produced and directed by Wendy Slick and Emiko Omori and is based on the book The Technology of Orgasm: "Hysteria," the Vibrator, and Women's Sexual Satisfaction by Rachel P. Maines. It's a fascinating look at the history of vibrators and the female orgasm in America.

The film begins with Maines sharing some history about how the vibrator first came to exist. From as early as Hippocrates, doctors began diagnosing women with a condition called hysteria that had a broad range of symptoms, including anxiety, insomnia, crankiness, and nervousness, and that brought on erotic fantasies and heaviness in the pelvic region. The treatment for hysteria was a vulval and clitoral massage performed by a doctor in order to achieve what was called "hysterical paroxysm"—an orgasm. In other words, you went to the doctor, he got you off, and you went home feeling better. At the end of the 19th century, the first vibrators were invented in order to make the doctor's job easier. Although the prototypes were huge and clunky (one early one was practically the size of a bed, another was powered by coal), eventually there were smaller handheld versions. Pretty soon, manufacturers began marketing them directly to consumers.

As Maines points out in the film, once electricity was brought into homes, "the first appliance to be electrified was the sewing machine in 1889, followed in the next 10 years by the fan, the teakettle, the toaster, and the vibrator"—well before things like the vacuum and the frying pan. Companies openly advertised vibrators as cures for various ailments and tools for "social and business success" in widely read magazines like Popular Mechanics, right alongside ads for soap, lace, and manufactured homes. One ad that Maines cites in her book read: "Invented by a woman who knows a woman's needs. All nature pulsates and vibrates with life."

Details

The film traces the vibrator's journey from medical device to sex toy, although the '50s, '60s, and '70s are glossed over too quickly. The filmmakers turn their attention to sexual liberation and the women's movement, then to the 2003 case of housewife Joanne Webb, who was arrested for selling vibrators to undercover police at a Passion Party in Texas. Webb's lawyer Beann Sisemore is interviewed, and she tells the story of approaching the police to find out just what all the fuss was about. She said she wanted to set a light tone, so she opened with: "What's the deal with the war on clitorises?" The cops gave her a perplexed look and responded, "We're not going to arrest the clitorises." The case against Webb was eventually dismissed; however, the law banning the sale of obscene devices— defined as anything "designed or marketed as a simulated sexual organ or useful primarily for the stimulation of human genital organs"—is still on the books. There have been other cases challenging it, but in 2006 the Supreme Court refused to hear a case that could have overturned it. If you have six or more sex toys in your possession, the law considers it intent to distribute or sell in Texas.

The film's screening was followed by a lively Q&A with the filmmakers and several of the women featured in the movie, including Rachel Maines, Betty Dodson, Dell Williams, and Reno. One audience member asked about something that I noted: the glaring omission of any images of pussies. While plenty of flowers bloom on-screen, no vulvas or clits were actually shown. I think this contradicts one of the core messages of the film, about reclaiming knowledge about women's bodies—especially our genitals. Co-director Wendy Slick admitted from the stage, "We wanted it to be able to reach the mainstream," though as it is, they don't yet have a distributor.

Dell Williams, feminist pioneer and founder of Eve's Garden, is one of the women profiled in the movie, but strangely, she stands alone as a vibe peddler. My other critique of the film is that there is no acknowledgement of the work of sex-positive sex-toy stores in bringing vibrators—along with sex education and empowerment—to the masses. Besides the briefest mention of Good Vibrations, it and others like it (Babeland, A Woman's Touch) are overlooked.

Today, the vibrator has become a staple in many women's (and men's) bedrooms and is openly acknowledged as an orgasm-inducing wunderkind. However, there is still fear and misunderstanding about them. One of the most popular questions I get asked by college students at my sex-ed lectures is: "Is it true someone can become addicted to their vibrator?" (You can get used to it, but it won't desensitize your clit or make it impossible to put the thing down.) Male and female partners are reluctant to introduce a vibrator into their sex life based on all sorts of false assumptions: You should be able to get your partner off without a machine. Using a vibrator means you are an inferior lover or that something is wrong with you. People need to recognize that vibrators can do things no human being can: They can deliver powerful, consistent stimulation that cannot be matched by even the most gifted mouths, tongues, fingers, or hands. Women who confess to me that they can "only" come with the help of a vibrator need to stop feeling bad about it and consider themselves lucky, because plenty of other women out there have never had an orgasm.

1
 
2
 
All
 
Next Page »
 
My Voice Nation Help
0 comments
 
Loading...