Apr 2, 2009

Passion & Power: The Technology of Orgasm

There are two distinct storylines in Emiko Omori and Wendy Blair Slick's 2007 documentary: the history of technology used to aid female orgasms and the story of Joanne Webb, a Texas woman who was actually prosecuted in 2004 for selling vibrators. That's right, prosecuted.

See, in old Texas no laws govern the number of guns you can own, but women can't have more than five vibrators. And Webb was on the stiff side of the law while selling sexual aids at a Passion Party (that'd be a Tupperware bash that buzzes instead of burps). Her story here plays against a background of documented opinions about female orgasms from the 1700s to the 1970s. That alluring feminine mystique metamorphosed from something condoned to something condemned. Rudimentary sexual stimulants were originally used to relieve women of "hysteria" brought about by such independent activities as "reading French novels while tightly corseted." Once brazenly advertised in magazines and the Sears Roebuck catalog, the personal vibrator was ubiquitous as electric lights.

Passion and Power doesn't adequately explain the vibrator's disappearance and the devolution of female sexuality in the United States. Interviewees — such as noted sex educator and author Betty Dodson — gaze back to days before women had proper sexual education, as if those times have vanished. While this is a wonderful idea for historical purposes, it's far from today's sexual milieu. Audiences need only witness Joanne Webb's tale of Texas justice to see how far we've yet to go.

Unfortunately, neither Webb nor the vibrator gets enough attention during this 74-minute work, leaving viewers unsatisfied. Worse, interview subjects are framed in crooked, floating boxes in a way that doesn't mask shoddy camerawork. Instead, they point out just how poorly shot the documentary is. An interesting concept, Passion and Power is but a big tease.

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