by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
March 12, 2009
LOSING OUR RELIGION
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- How timely is it that this year's Women's Film Festival in Brattleboro is showing "Passion and Power: The Technology of Orgasm," a 2007 film by Wendy Slick & Emiko Omorias?
Very timely. Vibrators have become big news here in Vermont.
On Feb. 15, the Associated Press burned up the wires with a story that the Vermont Country Store's catalog, "The Voice of the Mountains" -- that repository for everything warm, fuzzy, sassafrassy, rural and old-timey - is devoting a section to vibrators, creams, penis rings, DVDs and other sex aids.
The outrage was quick and vituperative. Many of the angry letters began with, "I'm not a prude, but..." It seems that people were shocked, shocked, to learn that sexual aids not only exist, but are sold on the open market.
Maybe they were also shocked, shocked, because these aids are being targeted to older folks? And who likes to think of old folks having sex? "Ew!," as the young ones say.
Or maybe they were grabbing at the last cultural taboo? Black people? Oh, one is president of the United States. Gay couples? Oh, Vermont led the way to acceptance with civil unions, and now they can marry in several states. What is left for people with the worst kind of closed minds, the kinds filled with conventional wisdom, to rant and rail against? Well, obviously, it's got to be sex.
And not just sex, but females enjoying sex. We're used to thinking about men enjoying sex - we don't blink an eyelash anymore at those erectile disfunction commercials on television. It's the female orgasm that is so disturbing.
In the film, we learn some interesting things about the history of vibrators. We learn that in the shape of dildoes, they seem to have to have been known since early antiquity. That in Victorian times, women went to medical doctors for "treatments" that involved orgasms. The disease? It was called "hysteria," and a good treatment seemed to calm a woman down - at least until the next appointment.
When vibrators - and rural electrification - became more easily available, porn movies began to feature women masturbating with them. That ended the doctor's visit for good - it made vibrators unsavory.
But who needed a doctor for something you could do it in the privacy of your own home?
Then came the 1970s and the feminist movement. Artist and author Betty Dodson - who is featured in the film - almost single-handedly brought the vibrator back into women's lives. She began a crusade to teach women how to have orgasms with vibrators - alone and with partners. Soon women were taking classes in "down there," In groups, they looked at their cervixes in mirrors. A battle raged over whether there actually was a vaginal orgasm, anyway, or if they weren't all clitoral. And if they were all clitoral, then who needed a man?
If I remember correctly, the "G Spot" was discovered around this time in order to even up the playing field once again.
Things calmed down until President George W. Bush rallied the right-wing conservative Christians, who still believe that a woman should be barefoot, pregnant, tied to the kitchen and subservient to a man. For a while, things were (pardon) touch and go about whether even sex would survive.
Then, in 2004, former fifth grade teacher Joanne Webb was arrested for selling vibrators (in the South they have sex toy parties, like Tupperware parties) to two undercover cops in a small Texas town.
"She had broken a state law that prohibits the sale of devices that stimulate the genitals," says the film's Website. "Texas and three other states have enacted these laws as a backlash to feminism. In these states, however, it is legal to advertise and sell Viagra. This double standard for women has far-reaching contemporary implications for sexual freedom, civil liberties and the right to privacy."
As documentaries go, this is not a particularly good film. It features uncomfortable camera angles and cheesy historical reenactment. But as a part of women's history, it's riveting.
Getting back to the Vermont Country Store for a minute, owner Lyman Orton defended selling sex toys (it seems to have become a lucrative part of his business) by saying he was trying to defeat "the negative image of older folks held by younger ones and to demonstrate the tremendous mutual benefit to both groups of changing that outlook."
He was also looking for ways, he said, to move away "from the image of narrowing-down life as we age to one of expanding life."
Rip that page out of the catalogue if you don't care to look at it, Orton said.
And I'd add, let your assistant sell that birth control prescription if it goes against your religion. And if you don't like abortions, don't have one.
But, again, it's not about sex.
"It's about more deeply understanding the changing culture around aging well through a conversation with those who know a thing or two about the subject," Orton said. "If, along the way, we bump into taboo subjects that make some uncomfortable, we will take them on in our characteristic no-nonsense, practical Vermont way."
Joyce Marcel is a journalist whose first collection of columns, "A Thousand Words or Less," can be ordered from her website, joycemarcel.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.