Sex & Relationships

Sex Toys and the Technology of Orgasm

A new documentary offers up a disturbing history of the first vibrators and shows that sex toys aren't just for pleasure -- they're political.
For those who don't think pussies and their playthings are political, the new documentary Passion and Power: The Technology of Orgasm (Wabi Sabi Productions) will set you straight. Co-produced and co-directed by Wendy Slick and Emiko Omori, the film offers up a disturbing history of the first vibrators as well as a glimpse into the real-life consequences of laws still on the books in four states that ban the sale of them.

The film is based on Rachel P. Maines's 1998 book The Technology of Orgasm: "Hysteria," the Vibrator, and Women's Sexual Satisfaction (Johns Hopkins University Press), updated to include the tale of Burleson, Texas, resident Joanne Webb, who was arrested for peddling dildos and vibrators in 2005 under a state law that prohibits the sale of any "device including a dildo or artificial vagina, designed or marketed as useful primarily for the stimulation of human genital organs." This despite the fact that she was on the board of her local Chamber of Commerce and got a license to peddle her wares when she started selling for Passion Parties.

Under the Texas law, ownership of six or more "obscene devices" is also illegal, based on the assumption that one intends to sell them. There is a loophole: the exception for "a bona fide medical, psychiatric, judicial, legislative or law enforcement purpose." In other words, getting off is not something the state of Texas wants to encourage in and of itself, unless you do so with your hand. A few other states such as Georgia, Mississippi and Alabama have similar laws (the Supreme Court recently declined to hear a challenge to Alabama's law).

Policing women's sex toy use isn't new, but the meaning of the vibrator has changed dramatically over time. The Technology of Orgasm shows how women's sexuality, pleasure and masturbation have been regarded alternately as taboo and important, flip-flopping back and forth between being in vogue and cloaked in secrecy and shame.

Introduced in the late 19th century, the vibrator was originally intended as a cure for so-called hysteria -- a disease manufactured by doctors during the time of Hippocrates -- and soon became a medical staple. Doctors believed that using massage to bring women to orgasm would make them less emotional, but that process took too much time, limiting the number of patients a physician could see in one day. Enter the vibrator. With help from the mechanical friend, women could have orgasms more efficiently -- and on their own time.

The perceived medical need for vibrators evaporated after only a couple of decades. By the early '20s, women were purchasing them for pleasure, with no fear of being ridiculed -- let alone arrested.

"There was no stigma attached to selling vibrators, advertising them, [or] shipping them," says Maines in the film as she shows an ad in the 1918 Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalog for "Aids That Every Woman Appreciates." Another ad shown in the book for the White Cross Electric Vibrator proclaims, "Vibration is Life."

But the film isn't just about the public's acceptance or rejection of vibrators. It reveals the longstanding connection between women's sexual exploration and their freedom to explore in other arenas.

Take Joanne Webb, for example. Was she arrested merely for selling vibrators? Filmmaker Omori doesn't think so. "Passion Parties has been selling in Texas for at least ten years," she said. "I think in this case Joanne Webb was targeted. She had a license and was perfectly legitimate as far as everybody knew. There's definitely a deeper story about persecution. Here's a woman who's very pretty, who liked to flaunt that. She was on the Chamber of Commerce committees. Obviously she offended somebody, and they dug up that law."

One of the most interesting concepts the film offers up is that the enactment of these anti-sex toy laws coincided with the rise of the feminist movement. "Independent orgasms lead to independent thoughts." Slick says, quoting author Betty Dodson. "Who was in power at the time? Men. The feminist movement was picking up power, and it was all very threatening."

"I came from an era when sex was for the man; my job was to please him, and if I wanted to be pleased, I was a whore. That was the belief that I grew up with," relates Webb's lawyer, BeAnn Sisemore, who wasn't even aware of Texas's dildo law until after she took on Webb's case. Webb's take on modern sex ed reveals that for many women, sexual knowledge hasn't come much further. "I see just from talking with women, they really don't know a whole lot about sex, especially having been so involved in the church for so long; it's just something you're not allowed to talk about," she says in the film. Charges were dropped against Webb in 2004, but fighting them led the Webbs to declare bankruptcy.

When asked about their motivation for bringing Maines' scholarly tome to the screen, both filmmakers said they wanted to open up a history of women's sexuality not known before. Though Maines' book caused quite a sensation upon its release, Slick and Omori knew they could add even more depth to the story. So they went about interviewing Maines as well as prominent masturbation advocates Betty Dodson, author of Sex for One, and Dell Williams, founder of the feminist sex toy shop Eve's Garden.

"Betty Dodson became the glue that brought it all together," Omori said. "She was one of the key ones for me because she had this reputation of being a 'tough broad,' and then when she told her very poignant story of her history of feeling [genitally] deformed, and when Joanne Webb tells us her husband had a nervous breakdown, these were things we didn't know that came out." They were still working on the film when Webb's story broke and knew they had to include this modern-day incarnation of the erasure of women's sexuality.

Unlike the radical feminist comedian Reno, who learned the joys of self-love from her family's bathtub jet, Dodson and Williams found masturbation initially through boyfriends who allowed them to be comfortable with enjoying their bodies. Williams was also inspired by a workshop of Dodson's she attended. "We grew up in a culture that made women feel shame and guilt about their bodies and their sexuality, and certainly about masturbation," Williams observes. Dodson thought her inner labia were elongated from too much childhood masturbation until age 35, when her then-boyfriend said, "I love your pussy. It's one of my favorite styles. Do you mind if I look at it?"

While some of the film's imagery begs for an update (frequent sexual metaphors include (crackling lightning, blossoming flowers and fluttering jellyfish), the women at the film's center are feisty, outspoken advocates, all the more so because many didn't start out as such. Joanne Webb was looking for some extra cash when she became a Passion Parties saleswoman, never dreaming that she'd one day find herself on the phone with her local sheriff informing her that there was a warrant for her arrest.

Both boomer-aged women, Slick and Omori originally made the film for others like themselves, who were schooled by feminism in the '70s but didn't realize the politicized history of the female orgasm. They've found that younger women, though, are grateful for their message as well. Slick concludes, "A lot of what we learn about sex is about performance: How long can he last, how quickly can she come, etc. This documentary redefines and clarifies the needs of women's sexual satisfaction. And performance is not the ultimate answer. People should not see the vibrator as a competitor, but rather a member of the team."

That's not to say that buying a vibrator is a revolutionary act, but not being able to buy or sell one serves no one (not even the states in question, which are losing out on commerce) and only furthers women's sexual ignorance. Watching this film will be an eye-opening experience for those who think the vibrator's stigma finally wore off when Charlotte used her Rabbit vibrator on Sex and the City.

Williams makes the connection between feminism and women's sexuality explicit. "When I opened Eve's Garden, it was not only focused on selling vibrators, but empowering women so that they could be responsible and get in touch with their own sexuality, their own power, which would enable them to act in such a way as to change the world. So Eve's Garden became a continuation of my feminist philosophy." Think about that next time you use your Pocket Rocket -- or even your hand.
Rachel Kramer Bussel is an author and editor of over a dozen erotic anthologies, most recently Hide and Seek and Crossdressing. She hosts In The Flesh Erotic Reading Series and is a former sex columnist for the Village Voice.