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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.
 
 
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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.”

 
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