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Filmmaker Wendy Slick Shows That “repressing women’s sexual being is a political issue”

by Jessica Mosby

Including the word “orgasm” in the title of your documentary film is a bold move. After seeing the film Passion and Power: Technology of Orgasm at the Mill Valley Film Festival, I wanted to talk to the equally bold women behind the film: Bay area filmmakers Wendy Slick and Emiko Omori. During our interview, Slick provided greater insight into the creative process of an independent documentary filmmaker who chooses to focus on women’s social and political freedoms as viewed through sexuality.

The idea for the film started in a hot tub at Sundance in 1999 when Slick and Omori heard about the book The Technology of Orgasm: Hysteria, the Vibrator, and Women’s Sexual Satisfaction from a friend. After bidding against 13 other people for the film rights, the filmmakers independently funded the documentary to ensure that their vision would be realized. That result is a film that is not a salacious ruse intended to titillate moviegoers, but rather a historical perspective on women’s sexuality and liberation.

What is unique about the film, which is currently screening at film festivals and is available on DVD, is that it approaches women’s sexuality in a new way: a perspective that is neither lurid nor totally academic. The film addresses the attitude that women’s sexuality is okay only if we pretend it isn’t there. But it is there, even in women’s magazine advertisements (think Good Housekeeping) from the early 20th century, as Dr. Rachel Maines found during her graduate school research on the domestic arts. Dr. Maines inadvertently found these vintage vibrator advertisements while trolling magazine archives for needlepoint patterns.

Advertisements with slogans touting better health and relaxation, often featuring smiling families, caught Dr. Maines’ eye; she started taking notes. The vibrator advertisements were in no way illicit; rather GE and Hamilton Beach promoted their version of these products in respectable publications. Vibrators were considered a homeopathic remedy. I particularly liked Vibra-King’s slogan: “Look better, feel better, live better.” Dr. Maines, who also works for the American Civil Liberties Union as an expert witness, eventually wrote the book The Technology of Orgasm: Hysteria, the Vibrator, and Women’s Sexual Satisfaction, which was published by Johns Hopkins University Press as part of their technology series.

Vibrators were actually invented by Mortimer Granville in the 1880s and were used by doctors to help alleviate the symptoms of hysteria. Until the 1950s, hysteria was a catchall illness, especially for women. Symptoms could be almost anything–most commonly, excessive emotions and attention-seeking behavior (really, who couldn’t be considered “hysterical” at some point in their lives?). Doctors would “massage the uterus” in an attempt to help their patients relax. Hysteria was a very profitable diagnosis because there was no cure for its chronic symptoms — nor was it fatal.

Hysteria treatment could become expensive, with doctors charging $2-$3 a visit. Buying a vibrator for unlimited at-home use, which cost between $5-$15, was a sound financial decision. Many companies even promoted multiuse motors for household appliances, meaning that your vibrator would share a motor with your kitchen mixer.

The social camouflage was blown during the 1920s when erotic photos of flappers using the vibrators became popular. (It should be noted that these photos are rather mild by today’s standards.) Suddenly vibrator advertisements disappeared from respectable publications, and the vibrator went underground.

It wasn’t until the sexual revolution in the 1960s and the introduction of the birth control pill that sexuality was again part of the mainstream. In the film, Dr. Betty Dodson reminisces about hosting workshops where women were encouraged to explore their bodies and free themselves from the stigmas and embarrassment instilled in participants by previous generations. While I was excited to see Dr. Dodson in the film (I read her monthly column in my favorite feminist magazine Bust) it was disappointing that she and the other accomplished women interviewed didn’t provide much insight for younger women of my generation, who weren’t alive during the heyday of the sexual revolution.

In 1974, while National Organization of Women protestor and female-only sex shop proprietor Dell Williams was organizing a women’s sexuality conference in New York, it was illegal for single women to buy birth control in Texas. In Texas even today, it is illegal to sell or own more than five vibrators; yet it is not illegal to buy or sell Viagra, a pharmaceutical that treats male impotence.

Passion and Power: Technology of Orgasm spends a significant amount of time on the legal battle between Texas housewife and Sunday school teacher Joanne Webb, who was arrested for hosting Passion Parties where she sold erotic goods, including vibrators, in people’s homes. (Tupperware is Passion Parties’ business model.) The charges, which were later dropped, ruined Joanne’s life, as her husband had a nervous breakdown and she was forced to file for bankruptcy.

The reality is that Texas’ laws are liberal compared to many countries around the world; how does being arrested for owning too many vibrators compare with being imprisoned for being the victim of rape, as recently happened in Saudi Arabia? Interviews with a more diverse demographic could have added valuable perspectives and made the film a catalyst for a really serious discussion on the correlation between sexuality and political and social independence.

Clearly, the oppression of women, especially in relation to sexuality, is a cross-generational and international problem.

Passion and Power: Technology of Orgasm is an original name for a documentary. Did that originality help or hurt you while acquiring funding to make the film?

That was not the original name. The original name was “Technology of Orgasm.” In some ways [the name] piqued people’s interest, in some ways it made people uncomfortable. We knew we wanted a different title, but we weren’t sure what exactly…I think I was at a party, we were talking about the film, and the word “passion” just sort of came out. The words “Passion and Power” is great title; it just says a lot.

Along the way, a lot of people were interested in this movie [but we ended up funding it ourselves]. One of the nice things about funding it ourselves was that we got to make all the decisions about what we were going to say. We got to make the movie we wanted to make. That is rare. The wonderful thing is that we got to make a movie we thought was important. That’s cool.

How did Dr. Maine’s book [The Technology of Orgasm: Hysteria, the Vibrator, and Women’s Sexual Satisfaction] influence the film?

The film is inspired by it and also sort of based on it. It was the actual underpinning of the film. Rachel is an academic who has a sense of humor; she makes you learn something you didn’t know with such charm.

We took her inspiration and the stories she discovered and researched, and we brought them into modern times. We’re documentary filmmakers, so we brought in some experts (Dell Williams, Dr. Betty Dodson, etc), who all built on Rachel’s stuff. Rachel has just loved the movie, she is very proud.

I know the film has played at a number of film festivals – how has the film been received?
That’s been one of the biggest joys. People just love it! We’ve had standing ovations. We’ve had great press. We got this theatrical release because of the Mill Valley Film Festival; we sold-out way in advance.

What [the film] does is spur discussion. For women, but also men – it really gives an insight into women. We don’t bash men, we just discuss how women are viewed by men. It opens up something for women to think about. This movie gets women to talk about it with other women.

I’ve had so many women buy the DVD so they could have women’s groups where they show the film and discuss it. At the Mill Valley Film Festival people came out and bought not one, but many DVDs [to give as gifts].

Young women [tell me that they] really appreciate the history of the feminist movement. The response has been absolutely terrific. I haven’t heard any negative response in screenings.

Are there any plans for a wider release at movie theaters? What about a distribution deal?

The film will be playing at the Roxie in San Francisco and the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael (California) February 22nd through the 28th.

I’ve been offered some distribution deals, mostly educational. We’re distributing the film ourselves now. We have a lot of interest; a lot of art house theatres have expressed interest. I would love to have a theatrical distributor.

A number of really cool schools are interested in screening the film: NYU, Cornell, Stanford, and Brandeis. Other schools have bought the film for screening in gender studies classes.

I am a fan of Dr. Betty Dodson from her column in Bust magazine. How did she become involved with the film?

Early on in the movie, when we were thinking about who we wanted to be in the film, Betty came up and one of us contacted her, but she didn’t get right back in touch. She fell off our radar. And, quite frankly, I was intimidated by her.

Later, we were at the Veteran Feminists of America awards in New York City because they were honoring Dell Williams. We showed a piece of the film where Dell Williams was interviewed. Dr. Betty Dodson was at this event and we met her. [She] invited us to come over after the event [so] Rachel, Emiko, and I hopped in a cab and went over to Betty’s famous apartment.

We talked for hours, becoming fast friends. At 3 a.m. I asked her if we could interview her. She said, “Sure, come over in the morning.” We asked if we could leave our equipment at her apartment – filmmakers never do that!

[After that interview] she became a major part of the movie. We’ve [also] become friends. I see her every time I’m in NYC. We email and call. I just love her.

What has the reaction at screenings, particularly those in more liberal communities, been to Texas’ obviously sexist laws?

Everyone is just amazed. People are like, “It’s illegal!” When I name the states, people aren’t surprised by Texas; people expect that of Texas, but it’s not just Texas.

While all of the women interviewed in the film are inspirational, most of them participated in the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. Did you ever think about including younger women in the film’s discussions?

We were really concentrating on woman our age – there certainly could be a whole other film about younger women’s take on the subject – we’re hoping to include on our website a place where younger women can discuss their experiences.

There are always so many stories or ways you can go. I would never say it isn’t right; it just wasn’t where we went with the film.

There was no mention of the AIDS or STD epidemics, which put the 1960s and 1970s free love attitude [which Dr. Dodson discusses at length in the film] in a whole new light. Considering the link between the sexually-transmitted human papillomavirus and cervical cancer, did women’s health issues in relation to women’s sexuality ever come up?

The health issues we cover are about being healthy, well-rounded human beings. We’re also concerned that women are historically being told that they have some kind of disease. It’s a way of controlling women. We just didn’t go into that, but we are, of course, concerned.

We leave the movie at the 1974 sexuality conference. We were so innocent and we were so excited about sexuality. It was an innocent time where there was free love and you could be out there, but then that all changed. People get very teary eyed at the end. I know I do.

The film widely discusses the correlation between sexuality and political and social independence. Considering the abominable status of women around the world, did you ever think about making the film a forum for an international discussion?

We didn’t get into that in the film because really it’s a whole other film, one that I would love to make. Everything has degrees. A rights issue is a rights issue. Of course, some are more dire [than others]. I think that the movie is talking about women’s image and independence and loving who they are. I know the issues are more serious in other countries, but this is a different part of it.

What would you like people to take away from the film?

What we are hoping is that women leave with the knowledge that they’re not alone. We need to clarify what women’s satisfaction is and redefine it, and redefine ourselves. The vibrator is not a competitor, but a member of the team. As Dell Williams said, “Repressing women’s sexual being is a political issue.” We want women to take away that this is a political issue. I want women to come away with self-confidence.

– All images and photographs appear courtesy of the filmmakers.

About the Author

Jessica Mosby is a writer and critic living in Berkeley, California. In the rare moments when she’s not traveling across the United States for work, Jessica enjoys listening to public radio, buying organic food at local farmers markets, trolling junk stores, and collecting owl-themed tchotchke.

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