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What came first: The vacuum cleaner, or the vibrator?

Hint: The answer may surprise you.

In fact, during the Victorian era, doctors used vibrators to assuage women exhibiting signs of "hysteria," perhaps proving that there is no better cure for neurosis than an old-fashioned orgasm.

The film Passion and Power: The Technology of Orgasm reveals this and other little-known truths about the history of vibrators and their impact on society.

First off, Passion and Power is not a porno. Co-producer and co-director Wendy Slick describes it as a documentary with a humorous edge. The film is based on a book by Rachel Maines, who was researching needlework patterns in 19th-century women's magazines when she stumbled upon ads that featured contraptions similar to the modern-day vibrator (though they were far less compact than today's models).

"My first thought was, 'I must have a dirty mind!'" says Maines, author of The Technology of Orgasm: "Hysteria," the Vibrator, and Women's Sexual Satisfaction.

Further investigation revealed that, yes, vibrators were the fifth electric household item to ever go on sale; women could pick up their very own at the neighborhood Sears. However, Maines says that vibrators were a "socially camouflaged" technology, meaning that marketing disguised the true purpose—with ads claiming they were "good for circulation."

"Grandmothers of today, or make that great-grandmothers, were buying them like crazy—they were the hot item," says Slick, who, along with partner Emiko Omori, competed with 12 other bidders for the rights to the film. "Then in the '20s, they started to be used in stag films, and women didn't want anything to do with them."

Vibrators disappeared from the mainstream until the sexual revolution in the 1960s and '70s. Slick says that they now serve as an icon for women's rights—an icon which some states were reluctant to legalize. The documentary includes the story of a woman who sold vibrators at "Passion Parties" and came up against a Texas law forbidding the sale of items manufactured to stimulate human genitals.

Passion and Power seeks to help women own their sexuality in a society that defines sex as "to male orgasm," says Maines. This ignores research that shows that only 70 percent of women can have an orgasm during run-of-the-mill sex.

"Within society, we are very hush-hush in regards to talking about sex," says Malia Uhatafe, student director at the UA Women's Resource Center, the organization hosting the screening. "It is not considered womanly or proper."

As Slick says, the word "orgasm" itself makes people nervous.

"Women have been defined by men about how they should feel and how they should have an orgasm," says Slick. "I do think that the times are opening up a little bit to the notion that women can be defined by themselves, not by men."

Gentlemen: This message is not meant as a blow to your egos. At Maines' lectures, she says that there is always a guy in the crowd who yells, "If this is true, what are we here for?" and, "I don't need that kind of competition."

Do not fear the vibrator, she says: "See it as a part of your team."

Her wise words have sparked not only the film; they've also led to a Broadway adaptation, In the Next Room (or the Vibrator Play).

Maines says that she is astonished by the amount of attention that her scholarly book has received, and that the time was apparently right to drop the vibrator bomb. Indeed—the vibrator has come a long way from the bulky housewife staples of the 1800s. Now, a girl can play with everything from the "Waterproof Wabbit" to a vibrating rubber ducky; they can even drop $1,500 on the Swedish, gold-plated "Lelo Yva" model.

"The world was ready for it," she says. "We've gotten to the point in our civilization where sex is no longer for (just) making lots of babies—now we say maybe just a few babies, and a whole lot of enjoyment of our lives, for women too."

Meanwhile, Maines' words live on. She has even heard that a puppet musical inspired by her book is in the works, complete with a chorus of puppet doctors, mini vibrators and—one has to wonder—puppet "O" faces?

More by Erica Nannini

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