How the Women of Good Vibrations and Babeland Have Helped to Liberate Female Orgasms

The history -- and current form -- of the sex toy industry tells us a lot about men, women, and a healthy sexuality.

In 1999, Rachel Maines published a most provocative work, The Technology of the Orgasm.  It is a study, as its subtitle indicates, of “hysteria, the vibrator, and women’s sexual satisfaction.” An underground classic, a documentary film based on it, Passion & Power: The Technology of Orgasm, directed by Emiko Omori and Wendy Blair Slick, was released in 2007. 

The study is a critique of “androcentric” culture, the tyranny of male-centric sexuality.  It is remarkably revealing, dialectic analysis of how the technology invented to discipline female desire, expressed as “hysteria,” became, a century later, sexual wellness products sold by Amazon and at Wal-Mart. 

Maines’ book should be read as part of the larger feminist critiques of patriarchy through the repression of female sexuality, particularly through the suppression of the female orgasm.  She documents how, from Hippocrates to Freud and beyond, the ruling sexual ideology of each age was based on the tyranny of the phallus, the erect and orgasmic male penis.  This tyranny involved a “socially” accepted notion of sexual pleasure based on male ejaculation and the goal of sexual coitus, penetration, serving the needs of procreation. 

Her study also details how women resisted this tyranny.  One form of resistance, perhaps the most threatening to male hegemony, was labeled “hysteria” or, more broadly, “hysterical paroxysm.” The American Psychiatric Association’s “DSM” finally dropped the “disorder” in 1952.

Maines shows how, during the late-19th century and much of the 20th century, the (mostly male) medical profession employed a variety of techniques -- including manual, hydraulic, mechanical and electronic devices – to treat this female “disorder.” Initially, they hand massaged women patients to orgasm.  She notes that the first vibrator was released in 1880 and, since the 1920s, clinicians increasingly relied on new and improved technologies – what she calls “capital-labor substitution options” – to address the “problem.” 

Most illuminating, Maines’ points out that “once the vibrator became a relatively lightweight and inexpensive device that could be operated by water or electricity in the home, it became a ‘personal care appliance’ and not a medical instrument.” [p/121]  And the rebranding from “personal care appliance” to “sexual wellness” was but a short hop-skip-&-jump.    

Going further, Maines’ argues that there has been “a systematic effort to subsume the knowledge of the clitoris, not the vagina, as the seat of the greatest sexual feeling in most women into the androcentric model … .”  The purpose of this effort has been “to avoid one-to-one heterosexual confrontation over orgasmic mutuality by shifting the dispute onto medical ground.” [p/112]

The challenge facing today’s “sexual wellness” business is shifting the sexual pleasure paradigm from the traditional “androcentric” culture to one of “orgasmic mutuality” and the equality of the clitoris and penis.  This is as much a socio-political struggle as a sexuality issue.

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The 2nd wave of feminism championed not only social and political equality between women and men, but also sexual equality.  Profiles of four women’s sex-paraphernalia ventures – Good Vibrations, Bableland, We-Vibe and My Secret Luxury -- suggest how things have changed over the last four decades.

The “grandmother” of sex-toy shops for women is Good Vibrations, the esteemed San Francisco firm that recently celebrated its 36th anniversary.  Its founder, Joani Blank, sex educator/therapist, started the store because in 1977 when there was no where for women to get erotic materials that was in Black’s words, "clean and well-lighted" and "friendly, feminist and fun."

Carol Queen, the company’s staff sexologist and historian, recalls the scene in the late-70s when the store opened.  “San Francisco was the epicenter of the ‘sexual revolution,’ during the pre-HIV gay freedom years,” she notes.   Queen adds: “Good Vibrations was very specifically created for women, but the irony of this was, shortly after it was launched, the store began to get visit from male customers too -- it turns out many of them also didn't like the classic ‘dirty bookstore’ type of store.”

According to Queen, “vibes top our best sellers in general. Also: Please Cream (our house-brand cream lube); and Charm silicone dildos and Don Juan silicone anal toys.” Good Vibrations also carries books, adult movies, safer sex supplies, body products, BDSM gear (up in popularity this year with all the attention generated by 50 Shades of Grey) and much more.

Looking back to the pre-AIDS sex scene, Queen reflects, “the climate has changed enormously in many ways -- and in some ways very little.”  Yes, she points out, sex is more open, more sex-toy outlets are available, the HIV epidemic has ebbed, the Internet has enable easy access to sex-related publications and porn videos, and gay marriage seems in reach.  “But sex education is still terrible!,” she laments. “Partly it's conservatism, partly it is affected by continuing sex role stereotypes that persist in labeling women who know too much about sex,” Queen says. Most troubling, “many young women today are still very disconnected from their bodies and the ways that sex can be most pleasurable and empowering for them.”

Queen shares Betty Dobson's concern about the current sexual culture.  Dobson, a feminist activist with a Ph.D. in sexology, warns that “without shifting the locus of heterosexuality from penis/vagina intercourse to include the clitoris, the potential for a real sexual revolution will not occur.”  “Recent research,” Queen adds, “confirms yet again how many women have sexual issues that include orgasm difficulties, pain with intercourse, and so forth.” “When a woman isn't adequately aroused,” she adds, “these problems are common and predictable, and when many women and men don't understand the role of the clitoris in arousal and orgasm, it's no surprise that such problems are widespread.”

A decade-and-a-half after Good Vibrations opened, two enterprising women, Claire Cavanah and Rachel Venning, opened Babeland in Seattle in 1993.  Cavanah, looking back, reflects: “We were friends and had both moved to Seattle and were interested in starting a business but didn’t know what to do. One day, Rachel was at my apartment and noticed a bottle of lube I had. It was gross and she made fun of it; we commiserated on the awful experience I’d had going to a sex shop to use a gift certificate I’d gotten and how this was the least worst thing I could find there. We started fantasizing about how great it would be to have a sex shop that we’d want to patronize and the light bulb went off! We started putting Babeland together right then.”

They reportedly borrowed $18,000 from friends and family, but found it difficult to secure a retail outlet as landlords didn't want to rent to a women-run sex-related business.  They eventually opened a 900-square-foot shop in the then gentrifying Capitol Hill district.  “The neighborhood was packed with gay people, musicians artists, and creative people of all stripes,” Venning recalls. “It was a great place to start a business that was based on a new concept: sex toys for women.”

It was an exciting period. “It was at the end of the culture wars where the anti-porn feminists were starting to relax and those of us who had jumped off that ship and were pro-pleasure had moved on,” Cavanah says.  And adds, “I can’t think of any place that had real sex information. There certainly wasn’t the kind of information online that there is now.”

In a 2000 Seattle Times profile, the paper noted that between 1998 and 1999, Babeland’s sales grew 19 percent with a reported profit of 53 percent. The staff grew to 30 people.  In 1999, they opened a store in New York City with opening cost at $50,000.  Since then, they’ve opened two additional stores in New York, shops in Los Angeles and San Francisco as well as launching aprofitable website.

Cavanah notes that over the two decades since they opened their first store, sexuality has changed, especially for women. “Talking about women’s pleasure is normal, not radical or surprising,” she points out. “It’s in popular culture, mainstream tv and media outlets. There’s more good information out there in all places. I can’t believe how fast this has moved.”  Among Babeland’s bestselling produces is the We-Vibe, a couple’s vibrator.  In addition, “over the past year, we saw a huge increase in sales of restraints, floggers, riding crops and Ben Wa Ball-style products, like Luna Beads due to Fifty Shades of Grey.”

Cavanah and Venning bring a strong feminist commitment to their business.  “The creativity and revolutionary fire that led to us first opening Babeland still burns strong in the Seattle staff,” Venning says. “They are fierce advocates for sexual liberation and self expression.”

Melody and Bruce Murison are inventors of We-Vibe, a vibrator that can be used during sex but does not interfere with intercourse. Bruce, an engineer formerly with Nortel, the Canadian telco, had lost his job.   Over a period of about 5 years, the couple worked together to develop an innovative vibrator.  They tested 6 versions carefully assessing issues ranging from the devices shape, the texture of the silicon the motor’s power and speed at various settings.

One major issue they identify had to do with the device’s basic technology.  “We had to develop our own custom clitoral motor because no existing motor was small enough and powerful enough,” Bruce Murison notes.  Each device is hand cast in stainless mold, a slow and expensive process.  It uses medical grade silicone that’s about 4 times more expensive than conventional materials used in many vibrators.  They were also concerned about meeting environment concerns, including those relating to the battery, be free of heavy metals and be carbon neutral.  Once they had developed the prototype, it took two years to work out production in China.

The We-Vibe is targeted to the upscale, discriminating consumer.  According to the company, “the We-Vibe is an investment and we designed it to last for many years of enjoyment. Used every week for 1/2 an hour, a typical We-Vibe may last for about 4 years ….”

Stacy Rybchin started the website My Secret Luxury after a bad experience visiting a New York sex-toy shop.  As she admits, “what should have been a fun and enticing experience left my husband and I feeling embarrassed and dirty - and not in a good way.  I realized there had to be a better way to learn about adult products and inspire romance.”

She was further disappointed when she went online only to find site after site carrying product with little or no discrimination as to quality or value.  She decided to take a different approach, one that involves “curating” the best products for a discriminating customer.  “I want men and women to learn about pleasure, discover innovative products, and shop in a secure environment where they can feel comfortable,”  she adds.

Rybchin believes that American sexuality is changing as evident in the growing acceptance of gay marriage and the popularity of E. L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey.  While people are generally more open about sex, she recognizes that “some are still shy about it.” Her site offers products for both women and men and, as she admits, “more men are customers.” Her biggest selling products are more luxury vibrators and couples toys.  She’s targeted specialty consumers, including more discriminating customers and sex toy beginners, who are intimidated by thousands of products.

She believes that many heterosexual couples are aware that female pleasure is realized through clitoral masturbation and not penetration.  She is encouraged by what she thinks is a growing awareness among men that “women come first” and that vibrators, among other products, “create more intimacy and trust in the relationship.”

 

David Rosen writes the Media Current column for Filmmaker and regularly contributes to CounterPunch, Huffington Post and the Brooklyn Rail, check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com; he can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net.