Remember the Brady Bunch episode with the exclamation: “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia!”?
“Vagina, Vagina, Vagina!”
Well, in Michigan, a legislator named Lisa Brown used the word vagina in her remarks against several bills restricting abortion. The response of the Republicans who hold the majority was to block her from speaking. This happened just last week.
At the same time Representative Brown was being silenced for using the word vagina, the “Fifty Shades Trilogy: Fifty Shades of Grey; Fifty Shades Darker; Fifty Shades Freed” by E.L. James sold over 10 million copies in the United States in just six weeks.
I read all three books. Book One needed an editor. The sex scenes are titillating, but it feels repetitive - and not in a good way. Book Two still has all the sex and we get a better storyline with a dash of mystery. Book Three added more storyline, continued mystery and a surprising (to me anyway) ending. None of the three books are great literature. (But did anyone really expect them to be?) The Trilogy is very much in the vein of Harlequin Romances, but with lots of explicit sex.
Besides the writing which is passable, my biggest complaint with 50 Shades is actually with the sex scenes. No doubt, they are hot. But E.L. James (Erika Leonard) perpetuates the holy grail of orgasms: via intromission. Yes, Anastasia’s clitoris is mentioned and Christian certainly knows where it is and why it’s important. But Ana repeatedly achieves orgasm just through penetration. For 70% of women that just ain’t the norm. Instead of this trilogy leading to a little more fun in the bedroom (elevator, car, meadow or wherever) I worry that what it’s actually doing is getting a lot of women (and men) hot and bothered while simultaneously raising the expectations on them and their partners. There already seems to be a need for a little flashing neon sign that says “Clitoris” with an arrow to help some guys get the hang of it. Do we really need the bar set any higher thanks to 50 Shades?
Which leads me to the new movie “Hysteria”. (I have not yet seen it. Here is a review.) The film focuses on the medical treatment of hysteria, specifically during the 19th century. For centuries doctors had been massaging the genitals of women until they achieved “hysterical paroxysm” or orgasm, as a treatment for a wide variety of female maladies. But in the late 1800s the first vibrators were invented as a labor saving device for doctors. This is at the heart of the movie “Hysteria”.
In her book “The Technology of Orgasm: "Hysteria," the Vibrator, and Women's Sexual Satisfaction ”, Rachel P. Maines explains how for millennia male doctors decided how women should feel and behave around all things sexual. This included the belief that women should be completely satisfied through the act of male penetration. Or, conversely, good women should not enjoy intercourse at all. This was true even though doctors were routinely bringing their female patients to “hysterical paroxysms”. Maines also notes: “The first home appliance to be electrified was the sewing machine in 1889, followed in the next ten years by the fan, the teakettle, the toaster, and the vibrator. The last preceded the electric vacuum cleaner by some nine years, the electric iron by ten, and the electric frying pan by more than a decade, possibly reflecting consumer priorities.” Unfortunately, by the end of the Roaring Twenties, early pornographic films showed vibrators being used overtly for sexual pleasure rather than as a medical cure all. With that, vibrators began to disappear from the Sears Roebuck catalog and ads in popular ladies magazines. (Vibrator Timeline available here)
It took until 1952 for the American Psychological Association to finally delist “Hysteria” as a disease. But it wasn’t until 1973 that vibrators reemerged at a National Organization for Women’s conference and became part of the benefits package, if you will, of the feminist movement.
Yet even today in the state of Alabama, it is still illegal to sell a vibrator as a sex toy. You can buy fireworks in Alabama. It’s just that thanks to the misogynistic anti-vibrator law, the good ladies of Alabama don’t have a lot to celebrate with those perfectly legal fireworks.
So where can law abiding citizens in the other 49 states buy a vibrator? Sex shops are usually seedy, tawdry places. However, Good Vibrations has been operating at the opposite end of that spectrum since 1977. I first ordered from them in 1988 after seeing an ad for them in the Utne Reader. They’re on the web, (Good Vibrations ) and have shops in San Francisco, California and in Brookline, Massachusetts. Standing inside their Massachusetts shop it’s all pink and cheery. If you squint your eyes you would think you were in a cosmetics boutique or a party store. (Yes, a party store!) They have darn near anything you could want to try. Best of all, the website is full of user reviews - very, helpful and informative user reviews. If you visit either one of their brick and mortar shops you can also check out their vibrator museum. They even have a 1950s “Handy Hannah” on display!
Meanwhile, numerous states with Republican majorities are working hard legislating against women’s reproductive rights. Even the birth control pill has been a direct or tangential target of right wing legislators. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has promised “to get rid of” Planned Parenthood. And the United States Congress has had 61 bills in the last two years which pertain in some way to abortion.
Are all of these conflicting realities ironic and schizophrenic? Yes.
Which is why, at the age of 54, I continue to support both sides of Planned Parenthood - its health services and its action committee. I also make financial contributions to progressive politicians. And, of course, I vote. Voting has always been a political act; a civic responsibility. Now I find it completely congruous to add orgasms to that list of political acts! In this day and age, understanding history and recognizing the resurgence of the far right to attempt to rein in women, I see using vibrators and having orgasms (alone or with a partner) and even reading mediocre, yet wildly popular porn as political acts.
Who’s with me?