Better than Viagra? Filmmakers Wendy Slick and Emiko Omori report that was one Palm Springs audience member's enthusiastic response to learning the history of the female orgasm. (Pictured here, Texas teacher Joanne Webb, who was charged with a crime for selling sex toys in Texas.)

Emiko Omori and Wendy Slick's "Passion & Power"

Susan Gerhard February 18, 2008

In the backroom of a Bernal Heights café where mothers and toddlers are holding court, filmmaker Wendy Slick cannot contain her own happiness at the news that a Texas law banning the sales of sex toys has been overturned, a decision made Feb. 13, 2008 — just in time for Valentine’s Day. The film she and the Bay Area’s Emiko Omori made together — a history of the vibrator — is itself a Valentine for self-loving women. “Passion & Power, the Technology of Orgasm,” opening this week at the Roxie New College Film Center and the Smith Rafael, gives Rachel Maines’ entertaining academic book on the subject a new life onscreen. Slick and Omori spoke with about the passions behind their project, as well as using jellyfish as a metaphor and the unexpected audiences taking a shine to the film. How did you become interested in making this book about female orgasm into a movie?

Wendy Slick: It’s not a topic we had ever dealt with before. A mutual friend of ours had hired Rachel [Maines] as a textile consultant in her film about quilts (Pat Ferrero, SF State, ‘Hearts and Hands’). We were at Sundance with ‘Rabbit in the Moon,’ and Pat said, ‘You have to read this book.’ We thought we knew all this stuff — we’re feminists, we’re rock and roll kids. We optioned the book, bid against 14 other entities — BBC, Italian Television.

Emiko Omori: They were heavy hitters. Everyone had to turn in a proposal. She said ours was the best.

Slick: It was the first time Johns Hopkins Press had ever had anyone try to option one of their books.

Omori: It was a scholarly work, and it became a bestseller for Johns Hopkins Press. It went from hardback to paperback!

Slick: Its author, Rachel Maines, is one of the witnesses instrumental in these cases [of obscenity against women selling ‘sexual aids’]. She did research for the ACLU to get these cases in front of the Supreme Court.

Omori: She was an expert witness. There are very few in the country. ‘Vibrator historian.’ It didn’t make the movie, but she says, ‘George and Martha Washington used to go to spas. And if they disapproved of this, they would have written it into the constitution.’

Slick: Her humor in the book, and her tone, is what started us on wanting to turn it into a movie.

Omori: She writes very accessibly. For you two, what was the most surprising element of her research into the history of the female orgasm?

Omori: Obviously, the ‘treatment’ for ‘hysteria.’ Going to the doctor to be massaged for ‘hysterical paroxism.’ Women were being medicalized and exploited by the medical and pharmaceutical industry.

Slick: Emiko and I were reading this academic work. There was this word that Rachel used that I had to look up. ‘Androcentric.’ Understanding that was profound for me. There was something about seeing the world through that filter — of being defined by males. See it’s also applied to sexuality, how you’re supposed to feel, how you’re supposed to look. It’s a word we needed in our vocabulary. The way science actually set women back was interesting ...

Slick: In pre-Copernican times, they felt women had to have orgasms to be fertile. Once they ‘discovered’ orgasms weren’t [necessarily] related to fertility, then we were just the ‘wrong body.’ I’m interested in what kinds of changes you’ve seen personally in perceptions of women’s sexuality over the past few decades.

Slick: I think since my teens when I became sexually aware, I think it’s been two steps forward, three steps back. We had the sexual revolution in the ’60s, and it started to be talked about. Then, I’m not sure — perhaps AIDS threw things back.

Omori: We hadn’t progressed as far as we’d hoped we’d progressed. Some women said at the end of the movie and said they were a little bit sad. It had something to do with the exhilaration of the ’70s, when people were marching in the streets. We were nostalgic.

Slick: You see those young faces at the conference. Those were contemporaries. There was that hope that we were changing views of the world, changing ourselves. But there still is hope for some kind of change. When we started making this film, we thought it was for us, Baby Boomer women. But since we’ve started screening, we’ve been surprised that young women come up and thank us. Campuses are showing it — NYU, Cornell, UCLA, Stanford.

Omori: And men. We were at the Sebastopol Film Festival, and this man came up, clutching a copy, and said, ‘Will you autograph this? I’m going to send it to my mother.’ We were at Palm Springs. Nine in the morning in Palm Springs, and it was the 75-year-old Viagra set. Couples. We thought, ‘Oh my god, they’re all old!’ In the Q&A, someone said they were in one of Betty Dodson’s workshops.

Slick: One guy said, ‘This is better than Viagra!’ What was your visual approach?

Omori: It is an academic book — you’ve got the PBS talking head archival stuff. That’s essentially what our movie is, but we wanted to give it a unique look. We thought there was something with the entire picture of how women are viewed. ‘Things are askew.’

Slick: Emiko collects images. A lot of the images, Emiko got on her travels around the world, or at the aquarium. I showed this movie to my 84-year-old mom, who doesn’t mince words. She just loved it. One of the things she said was, ‘You even have roses in the bathtub.’ That image just stayed with her.

Omori: We wanted it to be sensual. Years ago when I started working in the news business — I was the first woman to be shooting news in the Bay Area — there was this question, ‘Do women see differently than men?’ We were always trying to emulate the ‘good documentaries,’ which were done by guys. I would say if you look at this movie, you’d say it was done by women. We wanted to exploit the feminine aspects of it. Cliches come from somewhere, Hallmark cards. There’s a reason for that. Women are compared to flowers for a good reason. We wanted to get back to that.

Slick: A sex therapist who was a very sophisticated New York woman who’d seen a lot of thins, was the head of a big foundation, came up to us after the film, and said, ‘Oh my God, I don’t know how to say this, but those jellyfish represent how I feel when I’m having an orgasm! So there’s something about it visually and viscerally that seems to be hitting people. People laugh at this movie. It’s wonderful.

Omori: They’re relieved. They think they’re going to see body parts. We went to some guys for funding, and they start talking about mirrors on the floor. People do ask us at times about why we didn’t show the photographs by Betty Dodson Sex for One. We wanted to be able to show this in schools, to 80-year-olds. We made that decision.

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