“Dr. John Butler’s Electro-Massage Machine”: A History of Manufacturing Female Pleasure

By Christine |

Before the steam iron, before the vacuum cleaner, we had vibrators. They debuted in the early 1880s as a medical treatment for “hysteria.” They were subsequently introduced as a home medical appliance in 1899 and appeared in magazine advertisements as early as 1904.

A $5.95 model had made the Sears catalog by 1918.

This fascinating but hidden history is the subject of the a new documentary, “Passion & Power: The Technology of Orgasm,” which premieres this Saturday at Lincoln Center in New York. It will have its West Coast debut at the Mill Valley Film Festival in October.

Filmmakers Wendy Slick and Emiko Omori based their work on a critically-acclaimed book-length study by Rachel Maines, who stumbled upon the early advertisements while researching the history of needlework.

As Natalie Angier writes in her review of the book “The Technology of Orgasm” for the New York Times, Maines learned that the history of vibrators — especially their invention as a medical tool — was tied into the entire social history of women’s health:

Her investigations led her to conclude that doctors became the keepers of the female orgasm for several related reasons. To begin with, women have been presumed since Hippocrates’ day, if not earlier, to suffer from some sort of ”womb furie” — the word ”hysteria,” after all, derives from uterus. The result was thought to be a spectacular assortment of symptoms, including lassitude, irritability, depression, confusion, palpitations of the heart, headaches, forgetfulness, insomnia, muscle spasms, stomach upsets, writing cramps, ticklishness and weepiness.

Who better to treat the wayward female plaint than a physician, and where better to address his ministrations than toward the general area of her rebellious female parts?

Of course, this history has its colorful side as well — which would seem to make it a very marketable, if offbeat, subject for a documentary. After winning a fairly competitive process the get the rights to the book, though, Slick and Omori had difficulty securing funding, according to Patricia Yollin, who writes in the San Francisco Chronicle about their struggle and their unflagging desire to make the film.

“Wendy and I both came out of the sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll generation,” Omori said. “We thought we knew it all. We hardly knew anything.”

The photographs that accompany the article are a must-see. (Here’s one example of an antique vibrator.)

With a budget of less than $150,000, they still were able to interview many well-know and not-so-well-known characters in this expansive narrative. Betty Dodson, “the godmother of the masturbation movement” shook up the establishment in the 1970s with her simple feminist message: “Independent orgasm, I guarantee, will lead to independent thoughts.”

Texas housewife Joanna Webb was arrested in the 2004 for selling vibrators at Tupperware-like parties — a felony offense. Her life fell apart as a result of the case.

Obviously, this history continues to be written.

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