Wellness Movie Making / 2 Bay Area Women Recount The (Shocking) History Of Vibrators


Bay Area filmmakers Wendy Slick and Emiko Omori never imagined that it would take more than seven years to make a documentary on an electrical device. They were wrong.

Their subject was the history of vibrators.

“Wendy and I are both from the sex, drug and rock’n’roll generation,” Omori said. “We thought we knew everything. We knew next to nothing.”

“Passion & Power: The Technology of Orgasm” will premiere at Lincoln Center in New York on Saturday and screen at the Mill Valley Film Festival in October. The character cast includes two pioneering feminists, a housewife arrested for selling vibrators at Tupperware-style parties in Texas and Rachel Maines, an academic who in 1977 stumbled upon turn-of-the-century commercials for the camera as she searched for sewing patterns.

“The vibrator was contemporary with the toaster and before the steam iron and vacuum cleaner,” Maines said in a telephone interview. “We had our priorities.”

Slick and Omori make it clear that these instruments of pleasure were more than a sexual tool – they were also political, social and subversive.

No one is more aware of this than Maines, who wrote an article on vibrators for the June 1989 edition of Technology and Society, a venerable publication of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

The magazine’s technical advisory board insisted that “Socially Camouflaged Technologies: The Case of the Electromechanical Vibrator” was a hoax perpetrated by the newspaper’s editors as a parody of a typical IEEE offering, filled with “dozens. and dozens of obsolete references ”.

“They did a full-scale investigation,” said Maines, now a visiting fellow at Cornell. University in Ithaca, NY “I had to prove that I existed and I had to give them a social security number. My husband called it the dweeb attack.”

The article led to a book, “Orgasm Technology: Hysteria, the Vibrator, and Female Sexual Satisfaction”. Published in 1999 by Johns Hopkins University Press, it was the 24th in a series that included work on household plumbing, air conditioning, vertical waterwheel, and cotton mills.

Shortly after the book’s release, Slick and Omori decided to make it a documentary, but had to compete with 11 rivals for the film option before they won.

“We were always doing socially useful things that no one wanted to fund,” Omori said. “We thought sex would be a given.”

This was not the case. The two longtime filmmakers received only one grant from the foundation and had to use their own money and private donations to subsidize the film, which cost just under $ 150,000.

“There was a network of women who supported this,” said Slick, sitting in her Mill Valley studio with Omori, who lives in San Francisco’s Bernal Heights neighborhood.

Slick said she was amazed at what she read in Maines’ book. “It was an unknown story,” she said. “How did we not know that? ”

The filmmakers were particularly surprised by the relationship between doctors and vibrators. Maines wrote that gynecological massage has been a standard medical treatment for “hysteria” – considered the uterus’ response to sexual deprivation – since ancient times. In the 1860s, an American physician created the Manipulator, a steam device. Two decades later, Dr Mortimer Granville of Great Britain invented the electromechanical vibrator, although he intended it only for male skeletal muscles and warned that it would be morally indefensible to use it on women. Some of his colleagues thought otherwise. It could take over an hour of manual labor to bring about the “hysterical climax” as it was called. With the help of the vibrator, it could be done more cost effectively in less than 10 minutes.

“When you think of people who produce orgasm for a fee, the word that comes to mind isn’t doctors,” Maines said in the phone interview.

In 1899, the vibrator was introduced as a home medical device and appeared in magazine advertisements in 1904. A 1918 Sears Roebuck catalog ad “Helpers All Women Appreciate” described a 5-way portable model. , $ 95 as “very useful and satisfactory for home service.” . ”

Some of the vibrators featured in the documentary appear to belong to a torture chamber. Others seem better suited for use in the kitchen. By 1930, at least a dozen American companies were manufacturing the devices.

Maines wrote that sexuality was never explicit in advertisements and that “the product’s usefulness for female masturbation was thus constantly camouflaged.” However, when vibrators began to appear in erotic films in the 1920s, their cover was blown away as medical aid. Most of the commercials disappeared and vibrators went underground, resurfacing decades later with the help of the feminist movement, the sexual revolution and Betty Dodson, known as the “godmother of the masturbation movement.”

In the documentary, Dodson – whose workshops taught women to go to places no man has been to before – recalls how a male lover suggested they experiment with a barber’s scalp massager. This produced spectacular orgasms which led to a crusade on his part to show women how to use vibrators. Her message was consistent: “Independent orgasm, I guarantee you will lead to independent thoughts.”

The film also features footage of a much younger Dodson in 1974 at the Revolutionary Women’s Sexuality Conference in New York City. This rally was coordinated by another feminist pioneer, Dell Williams, at the request of the National Organization for Women. In “Passion & Power”, she describes how a boyfriend discussed the concept of the clitoris with her.

“I didn’t even know I had one,” Williams said.

The filmmakers said it was inspiring to meet Dodson and Williams, who opened Eve’s Garden, a store in Manhattan for female sex toys, in the early 1970s. At the same time, Slick said, it was reassuring to learn that these icons had a lot of insecurities – like when Dodson confesses in the movie that she thought she was distorted because she had “elongated inner lips.”

The documentary features other women who broke the rules, as Slick said. Performance artist Reno reveals how she discovered the pleasures of bathtub accessories from a young age. Texas housewife Joanne Webb recounts her arrest in 2004 for selling vibrators – in her state, a felony. Lawyer BeAnn Sisemore speaks about the defense of Webb, whose life fell apart as a result of the case.

The documentary itself, like the early vibrator commercials, is tasteful but provocative.

“We’re too risky for PBS but not risky enough for HBO,” Omori said.

On a trip to Los Angeles, Slick said, they spoke to an industry man who urged them to add a scene with mirrors on the floor. They ignored this suggestion.

“We didn’t want to be too clinical,” Omori said.

Some segments were shot in New York and Texas, others in the Bay Area. Maines was interviewed at a lavish Victorian house near Alamo Square, which the filmmakers found by calling a wallpaper association in Berkeley.

“I think they did a great job,” Maines said. “It’s quite different from the book but it encompasses more stuff. It was a real San Francisco experience for me. I’ve been there three times. It was kind of like a sleepover for middle aged women. . ”

The documentary, made with a small format digital video camera, contains almost no men but several sea creatures, as well as aquatic motifs and historical images of women walking and burning their bras, while wearing dresses and clutching their purse. Slick and Omori said universities and feminist studies programs across the country have expressed interest in the film.

“It opens something,” Omori said.

An academic she knows has started to divulge details about her sex life. Another woman said the jellyfish in “Passion & Power” reminded her of how she felt when she had an orgasm. And the film was well received at a sex conference for therapists and educators in North Carolina.

“We had a five-minute standing ovation,” Omori said. “I’ve never had one before.”

For more information on the film, visit


. For an overview of vintage vibrators, visit Good Vibrations’ three Bay Area stores, listed at




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