Episode 41: The Technology of Orgasm with Emiko Omori and Wendy Slick

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Listen to this interview with the two women who produced and directed the movie Passion and Power, based on the controversial yet educational book "The Technology of Orgasm; Hysteria, The Vibrator and Women’s Sexual Satisfaction." Emiko Omori and Wendy Slick talk about how the vibrator was invented by doctors to cure women’s hysteria. Back in the day, doctors responded to what they termed "hysteria" with an appointment for masturbation to orgasm. Omori and Slick relate that the vibrator was invented to help make it easier for doctors. And so began a new spin on feminism.

Transcript

Woman: This program, brought to you by PersonalLifeMedia.com, is suitable for mature audiences only and may contain explicit sexual information.

Man: This interview was recorded at the One Taste Center in San Francisco on January 29th, 2008.

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Harmony Niles: Welcome to “A Taste of Sex: Guest Speaker Interviews.” I'm Harmony Niles. We are coming to you from the One Taste Urban Retreat Center in San Francisco. One Taste is an organization dedicated to bring an awareness to all of those areas in which we struggle to stay conscious - sex, relationship, food, money. We have centers in New York and San Francisco as well as a growing online community at OneTaste.us. Through our workshops and events, we help people live fuller, richer, and more connected lives. We are here tonight with Emiko Omori and Wendy Slick, the Directors of “Passion & Power, the Technology of Orgasm.”

Filmmaker and cinematographer Emiko Omori has produced many educational documentaries including the Academy Award nominee “Regret to Inform.” She has taught at USC, San Francisco City College, and at San Francisco State University. Wendy Slick has produced and directed in almost every facet of the media industry and has worked for Lucas Film Learning, Hardcourt Brace, and Sundance Institute. She created the video department for the College of Marin.

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Harmony Niles: “Passion and Power,” the film chronicles the invention of the vibrator and its impact on sexual politics through interviews with feminist pioneers, social historians, a Texas housewife, and a New York performance artist. We see how the device went from a cure for hysteria to an appliance made by Sears & Roebuck.

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Harmony Niles: Thanks for joining us tonight.

Wendy Slick: Great description.

Harmony Niles: Thank you. I'm really interested in the ways that we exert power of our sex in our definitions of what is normal and what is abnormal. Can you talk about how the first vibrators were marketed as a cure for hysteria? How did they define hysteria then?

Emiko Omori: As Rachel Maines, the author of the book that we based the movie on, the book is “The Technology of Orgasm: “Hysteria,” the Vibrator, and Women’s Sexual Satisfaction.” Well, Rachel Maines, the author as she says in our movie, “It was the wastepaper basket of otherwise unemployed medical symptoms.” Which means…

Harmony Niles: Sleeplessness.

Emiko Omori: …yes, yawning, sleeplessness, reading French novels while wearing tight corsets, crankiness.

Wendy Slick: Disagreeing with husbands.

Emiko Omori: Right. Headaches, you name it, it was that hysteria just encompasses huge vast…

Harmony Niles: So we all got it.

Emiko Omori: We all got it, yes that’s it.

Wendy Slick: So if we all got it, who’s normal and who isn't? I think that extrapolates out what we've learned in this book is that it has a ripple effect in our lives, and sex is certainly a center part of our lives. But this is not really about sex. I know your radio show is about sex, but this movie is all about things that go beyond that, and sex being a way of describing self-confidence and feelings about self and self-esteem.

Emiko Omori: It's about civil rights and women’s rights. Well, the history of the vibrator is quite interesting and, in fact, it covers a big span of time. The fact that it was invented by doctors, which is what keep the author, Rachel Maine’s interest because she was doing needlework research which is one of her areas of expertise, women’s needlework. She was flipping through women’s magazines from the early 20th century, looking for needlework patterns and she said she kept coming across these ads that sounded like a vibrator. It's at saying typical way ads are today, it's the vibrator to massage your neck, that kind of thing.

It wasn’t really her area, but she decided to investigate that this was an invention by doctors, the vibrator was, and why did doctors need vibrators and it was for the treatment of hysteria. A treatment for hysteria was to go to the doctor, be masturbated to orgasm where they called it “hysterical paroxysm massage” to hysterical paroxysm. But the doctors weren’t very good at it.

Wendy Slick: They didn’t like doing it…

Emiko Omori: They didn’t like doing it.

Wendy Slick: …because it took so long.

Emiko Omori: Yes. It could take over an hour. They didn’t know what they were doing, and then the vibrator reduced this time to under 10 minutes. Now, of course, they were so happy to have this. They could have more patients, they don’t have to do it themselves. It's a mechanical thing. So it started in doctor’s offices.

Wendy Slick: When we read this in Rachel’s book, I just couldn’t believe it. We're kids from the ‘60s--I'm giving our age a little bit--rock and roll, sex, drugs, fun. We're feminists and we had no idea about the story, so we wanted to get that message out there. That it was very funny but it's also poignant that how we've been defined all these years, hear doctors using social camouflage to masturbate women to orgasm without any--to husbands who were sending them there. Husbands were sending them to the doctors.

Emiko Omori: What we're tying that middle class Victorian America. The working class, they're much too busy working. [laughs] They didn’t have time to this kind of stuff.

Harmony Niles: Or the money, [xx].

Emiko Omori: Right, or the money, yes, right.

Wendy Slick: Right.

Harmony Niles: Did you want to tell a story?

Wendy Slick: We both started laughing before when we were telling that when Emiko was saying the name of the book, which we've based this movie on, which is “Hysteria,” The Vibrator, and Women’s Sexual Satisfaction.

Emiko Omori: Well, it's “The Technology of Orgasm.”

Wendy Slick: “The Technology of Orgasm,” and then that’s the subtitle. So we were just screening our film at the Palm Springs International Film Festival in Palm Springs, California. You know, when you do these things, you do publicity and you want to get the word out. So we drove down there and we were told by the publicists that we had to be at this TV station at six in the morning, to be on live TV.

Emiko Omori: Live television at six in the morning.

Wendy Slick: So, you know how much fun that is. Not only radio, you can at least deal with the voice, but you had to look right and our brain intact to be working, which is actually the hardest part. So we got up at four or five and we got out there. It was dark and cold. We didn’t know where we're going and we got lost and we went late. They finally got us in there and they push us in front of the cameras and, “You're going to be on live in, I guess, a minute.”

The guy who’s going to interview us comes out and he says, “Oh, by the way, you can't say the word “vibrator” on the air.” As you can see, that’s part of the name of the book that we based our movie on and it's what the movie is about. So we were both kind of in shocked and I think I say, “Can we say orgasm?” He said, “Yes.” Then I go, “But what do we say?” He says, “Well, you say adult toy.” Not adult sex toy, we could say adult toy instead of the word vibrator. So when we had to say the name of the book, [laughter] Emiko said--what was it?

Emiko Omori: Something like, you know, “The Technology of Orgasm: “Hysteria,” the adult toy we can't name and Women’s Sexual Satisfaction!” We should have said something like “The adult toy that vibrates and Women’s Sexual Satisfaction,” but at six in the morning, we're barely functioning. I thought where have we come? What is this town?

In defense of the man--the host of that show--these days, television stations and corporations are running scared because of the Janet Jackson incident. So I'm here he was a little nervous that he didn’t get too wacko us on that we're going to say all these kinds of words that were going to upset his audience and get a letter written.

Wendy Slick: I'm sure someone above him told him to do that, too. I mean, I don’t think it was his idea. But it's kind of what our movie is about, what just happened to us.

Emiko Omori: Yes, and it is live and so they can't really--if we started off saying various words and we get them into trouble. We told them we don’t want to get him into trouble or us.

Wendy Slick: It's funny because we were good girls, and afterwards, we were in the pool [laughs] in Palm Springs. A friend of ours, a Hollywood writer, was writing what we should have said. Of course, it was very funny and brilliant, but no. We just went, “Oh.” I think it was so shocking.

Emiko Omori: Well, somebody who saw it, because we thought, “Oh, my goodness. I have no idea how that interview went just because you were always trying not to say something.” [laughs] So at the end, I went, “I don’t know if anybody learned anything.” She said--this person who came to one of our screenings--she saw us on television and I went, “Oh, no. What was it like?” She said, “It was very funny, but I didn’t learn much about the movie.” [laughter]

Harmony Niles: That is ironic, because it really is perfectly what your movie is about, the way that these aspects of women’s sexuality has gotten pushed to the sidelines and it's not recognized. I know you talk about in your movie how the definition of real sex is penetration then leading out to male ejaculation. Women’s orgasm doesn’t even really enter that equation at all. Where do you think we're at now in 2008?

Wendy Slick: We're at the same place. No, I think, we'll probably a little better. I think, the younger women and younger men seem to be on little more of an equal ground, know a little more of what's happening. But we've had lots of young women see the movie and come up to us afterwards and go, “Well, I know about sex [xx], but I didn’t know this history.” And then they go, “Thank you.” So I think you need to know where you’ve come from to be able to stabilize where you are. I'm not sure how stable it is right here where we are. I think that along with the story we told as part of this little piece of--I mean, the other pieces, there are four states where you can't sell vibrators, it's illegal, which is in our movie.

Emiko Omori: We can sell Viagra.

Wendy Slick: You can sell guns!

Emiko Omori: Yes. So have we progressed? In awareness, I think, and certainly--because now, unfortunately things like AIDS, sex is on everyone’s mind here. I think we're going to start to go a little bit backwards or we are going out a little bit backwards. It's a more dangerous time.

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Emiko Omori: You know, I look at that movie, and I think, when we started and certainly the way I perceived it, it was something that was going to be this book only. It is just a history of the vibrator from the time of Hippocrates up to the Victorian Age. But in serendipitously, it wasn’t that plan. We started meeting this people,--I'm not going to give things away in the movie--a really wonderful and interesting cast of characters emerged. They had something to do really with the feminist history of all these. So then it became a much bigger movie--in some ways.

Women have said, and I certainly felt this at the end of trying to--you know, when you structure a movie and how are we going to end this movie and we finally get to figure out what the end could be. It's a little bit sad, and I thought to myself, “Why is it a bit sad?” I think part of it is exactly that. It's a very different time now and different because sex is more dangerous in a real way than back then. There was kind of energy and innocence, hope, that things we're going to change. We've been roughed in the streets trying to get equal pay and all that, maybe there is this thing of getting old, it's nostalgia have set in. But I think, whether the laws and all that have changed, I think the people are in a different relationship to it now.

Harmony Niles: So you have Betty Dodson in your movie, that’s fabulous. What was it like working with her?

Wendy Slick: It was interesting how we met her. Early on in the movie, of course, we had read about her and I think [xx] mentioned to.

Emiko Omori: I'm just wondering, do people know who Betty Dodson is?

Harmony Niles: Would you like to speak to that?

Wendy Slick: Well, you tell them about Betty Dodson’s.

Harmony Niles: OK. Well, she's an icon.

Emiko Omori: Oh, yes, yes.

Harmony Niles: Definitely, one of the great figures of early feminism in the ‘70s and a woman of power, one who championed masturbation and made that OK. I love the part in your movie where she was talking about how she showed slides of vaginas to a group of women in a workshop. Women just went nuts. They had never seen any other vagina but their own. So many people have feelings about, “Is mine OK? Does it look right?” I know, I certainly had those feelings. It must have been so empowering to be able to realize, “I'm normal, I'm OK, and I'm beautiful.”

Wendy Slick: That’s certainly Betty.

Emiko Omori: So, what did you get out of that section about yourself?

Harmony Niles: Yes, I really felt her when she talked about that she had been worried that her vagina was deformed and that it didn’t look right and that it was ugly. I think that we all really do have these feelings. The one thing that I was disappointed in was that you don’t show those slides of the vaginas in the movie, you showed pictures of flowers. Was that for legal reasons?

Wendy Slick:  We've had this debate with Betty, as you can imagine. She wanted to show her pictures. This movie is a mainstream movie and it plays to any 5-year-old and 90-year-old women, it plays to younger women. It will probably get on TV and plays in movie theaters and having explicit photos puts it in a whole different realm. We wanted to get the message out so we thought that was a small price to pay to get it to more people. The images--Emiko is a very talented and credible cinematographer and her images are breathtaking.

Emiko Omori: Thank you, thank you.

Harmony Niles: Yes, the imagery is gorgeous.

Wendy Slick: So we get to see those breathtaking images.

Harmony Niles: Yes.

Emiko Omori: Well, I like to say and I can't really define it in any way is that when I see the movie, I can tell that it was made by women. There was another movie that you set to take a look and I forget what it was called, it's on “Showtime,” and there was a little clip on YouTube or something. It was like 10 seconds and I go,--it's women talking about their orgasms—“This was directed by a man.” I don’t know why, but indeed, it was.

I think, men might have different expectations about a movie about women and their orgasm and that women want to make. I hate to sound like sex is just any, but I think it has a woman’s touch. I don’t know if that really actually happens. You know, you'll hear those things, “Oh, this got a woman’s touch.” I think it does. I don’t think this movie could have been made by two men.

Wendy Slick: It probably shouldn’t have been.

Emiko Omori: No! It shouldn’t have been.

Wendy Slick: Actually, in one of our screenings, my Dad had said, “Oh, very nice movie, but you should make one for men.” I told Dad that at one of our screenings, and some guys [xx], “Yes, if you’ve made it for men, it would have been 30 seconds long.” [laughter]

Harmony Niles: That’s great.

Emiko Omori: Just so your listeners--if ever you come to the movie, please don’t ask why we don’t have any men in the movie.

Wendy Slick: I was just going to ask. [laughs]

Emiko Omori: I think it's self-explanatory, isn't it? We had been asked that a few times.

Harmony Niles: What other kind of comments have you gotten? What other kind of comments and feedback have you gotten from people who’ve seen the movie?

Emiko Omori: What's been really fun is, at least, two or three women have--at different screenings like at Palm Springs, OK, another little story. Palm Springs gave us a very nice venue, it was 7 pm on a Friday. That's like primetime in the movie world and we had a sold out on [xx]. We had a very, very wonderful audience. We had another screening at 9:30 am Sunday. We're going, “Who is going to come to a 9:30 in the morning, Sunday morning, church morning?” Well, people started up lining up.

You know, Palm Springs is sort of a retiree community, so there were a lot of white-haired couples that came and they were a really great audience. So during Q&A, this woman goes, “I was in one of Betty’s workshops.” That has happened in more than one screening and I thought, “You know, I should get their names and say, I'd love to just have and talk about what it was like to be in Betty’s workshop.” What it did for them, how it changed your life?

That audience was just unexpected, like fun audience. They're not exactly our parents’ age, they're maybe 10 years older or 12 years older than some of us. So they went through that, like my mother from the fifties, she didn’t go through the feminist times. So these women did, and they recognized all the people in the movie and I think it just brought back good memories of those times.

Harmony Niles: When I watched that person in the movie, I felt also like, “Oh, I wish I was there. Those are the times to be in.”

Wendy Slick: It must.

Harmony Niles: It seems like the vibrator in those years was championed as a feminist icon. Now, in our broader popular culture, I feel like there's been a backlash to feminism.

Wendy Slick: A lot of people do say that a lot of these laws are a backlash to feminism because a lot of them came in in the ‘70s. I think it's true and it's very sad. I mean, Betty was out there with the icon of feminism and now it's illegal. That’s a pretty big chunk, it was supposed to become forward.

Emiko Omori: Well, we have had wonderful responses. At the Mill Valley Film Festival, we had a standing ovation. It's pretty thrilling to have, because people have said, and actually somebody said this at Palm Springs like, “Oh, the title, “The Technology of Orgasm,” I just didn’t know if I really wanted to see this movie or whatever.” I understand that, we talked about this. Should we have that in the title or not? Was it going to turn more people away than attract people? But it's the name of her book and I said, “Well, there's some cache. If anybody knows the book, then we’d go with that. But it has, I think, gotten us into trouble at times. People are afraid to show a movie that’s got the word “orgasm” in it.

Wendy Slick: We also [xx] because of that word.

Harmony Niles: Really?

Emiko Omori: Yes.

Wendy Slick: That’s another testimony to what's happening now in these times. This was not looked at as something that people want from money at. We're experienced filmmakers, I mean.

Emiko Omori: It's perfect for PBS, but they will never put something in their program guide that said “orgasm.” You know, it’d be great for [xx]. They’ve no idea. This will be so perfect. The demographics of the women are the women who write checks [xx].

Wendy Slick: We were [xx] on KPFA. In one hour, I think, we raised some $10,000 and they played [sp] 70 DVDs. It was just amazing. It was interesting, they played parts of the movie on radio, which [xx] pretty well.

Emiko Omori: It’s interesting how a lot of documentaries these days because it's really informational. For a lot of documentaries, that is the structure holding it--the interviews and things. So it's amazing, it played really well on radio. We should make a book on tapes of these.

Wendy Slick: By the way, can we mention our website?

Harmony Niles: Of course, please say.

Wendy Slick: www.PassionAndPowerTheMovie.com because the DVD is for sale on our website.

Harmony Niles: Thank you for listening to “A Taste of Sex.” This event is part of our Tuesday Night Forum. Join us every Tuesday night and hear educators and speakers address their work in sexuality, nutrition, relationships, science, and culture. If you would like transcripts or like to check out our other podcasts, you can find them at PersonalLifeMedia.com. Find out more about One Taste and the work we do at OneTaste.us. We have a great chatboard and invite you to join our discussions.

Thank you, Emiko and Wendy. Let's go over and watch the movie.

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Woman: Find more great shows like this on PersonalLifeMedia.com.