Monday, September 28, 2015

Dell Williams: Planting a Feminist Garden

Dell Williams died last year at the advanced and venerable age of 92. But only after having earned some highly deserved fame as the brave feminist force behind the creation of Eve’s Garden, widely recognized as the US’s first women-focused sexuality boutique and mail order business back in 1974.

If you’re among the folk who’ve heard of Ms. Williams, chances are that you’re also among the countless millions who believe in their true hearts that women’s sexuality – specifically women’s orgasms -  are both a resource and a gift of the sort that keeps on giving, largely in direct relationship to how much we honor it.

Born in 1922, Williams came into her own after pursuing multiple other endeavors including acting and a stint in a branch of the armed services. After all, coming into one’s own is a process sometimes. It happened for Dell Williams after she attended a Body/Sex Workshop with the fearless, talented and wholly inimitable sex educator Dr. Betty Dodson in New York. There, Ms. Williams’ epiphany took a deep and life-altering hold on her as she learned to explore the liberatory experience of taking charge of one’s own pleasure.

She learned about the power of her female body, and most importantly, how to tap into the source of her orgasmic energy through tactile manipulation and the use of vibrators.  Not to the exclusion of partnered sex, but as a way to be independent in the pursuit of sexual fulfillment, Williams spoke of the sheer empowerment that derives from being in charge of one’s own pleasure and not dependent upon the involvement of anyone else.

It was, by her own admission, an epiphany of the first magnitude, prompting her to put all she had learned into action. But it was the humiliation of being mocked by a young male sales clerk when she attempted to purchase a vibrator at Macy’s that motivated Williams to get to work and establish her women’s sex boutique she named Eve’s Garden – much to the excitement and utter elation of countless women everywhere.

Williams opened Eve’s Garden the year I turned 22. I remember hearing women on my college campus buzzing about it in excited whispers, anxious to explore what the nacient women’s sex shop had to offer, so spectacularly feminist and deliciously transgressive. A decade past the free-love era of the 1960s, for some women who lacked Williams' moxie and wouldn’t think of marching into Macy’s to buy a vibrator, the mere thought of being able do so without fear of ridicule held excitement and promise. After all, the sexual revolution of the 60s notwithstanding, the 70s were still a time when not much had changed in terms of women taking charge of their own orgasms in ways that privileged our own power rather than foregrounding the need to stroke male egos in order to reinforce the power and the sexual primacy of men. In fact, the idea that a woman might even consider using a vibrator to orgasm made some men pretty uncomfortable, regardless of the circumstances.
But that’s certainly not to say that the role of vibrators in bringing on women’s orgasms hadn’t already been acknowledged, albeit in some pretty hard-to-imagine ways.

As far back as the first century A.D., medical practitioners were employing a technique referred to as pelvic massage as a way of bringing their female patients to orgasm in order to cure what they termed, female hysteria. In fact, the writing of Hippocrates, the so called father of medicine, mentions this notion of women suffering emotional distress that could only be assuaged by expertly administered pelvic massage. As hard as it is to believe today, the operative thought here was that women were prone to hysteria, (literally, “womb disease” in Latin) because according to “medical” theory at the time, a woman’s uterus could become detached and wander about inside her body looking for a fetus to fill itself up with. Seriously… I couldn’t make this up, people. 

And what were the “symptoms” of this so-called “female hysteria?” Let’s just say that pretty much any detectable mental state beyond happiness could pretty well fit the bill – sadness, anger, listlessness, or no emotional affect at all. Of course, the fact that penile penetration doesn’t bring most women to orgasm on its own didn’t help, and in a male-centered model of human sexuality this shouldn’t surprise us.

Again, according to the “wisdom” of the era, the only way to fix things was to administer “pelvic massage” - a technique by which the doctor massaged a woman’s genital area with his fingers to bring on “hysterical paroxysm,” a kind of world-altering release of energy and tension known today around the planet as a good, old-fashioned orgasm. After her treatment, and upon payment of a tidy fee, the woman went home - happy and fully “cured” until the next time.

So. At least a couple of thoughts come to mind here. On the one hand, the whole notion that there’s some sickness attached to women wherein their uteri become unglued, as it were, to go wandering around inside them would be scary to the maximum degree, except that scarier still is the notion that anyone ever believed this. Secondly, the idea that medically administered pelvic massage began loosely around the time of Christ and continued up until the early 1950s stretches the bounds of credulity, at least for me.

Beneath this crazy misogynist rubric, as you might imagine, quite a lucrative arena for invention and manufacturing grew up to address this “medically necessary therapy” enabling all manner of mechanical, electrical, even foot-powered  vibrators to flood the marketplace - all in the service of medical men whose fingers got tired in the service of their female patients. 

My absolute choice for most appalling of this ilk is the 19th century invention of a sort of water cannon, not unlike a fire hose that the “doctor” aimed at the vulva of a nude and sitting female “patient.” Unbelievably, the large and forceful gush of water was supposed to bring on a "hysterical paroxysm," now known as an orgasm, thereby curing her. Of course, while a strategically positioned water stream can certainly be delicious, the angry blast from a water cannon seems a tad bit extreme.

And while there’s a long and vibrant history in the world-wide annals of sex toys, (ancient dildos found in the volcanic ashes of Pompeii spring to mind), orgasm-producing vibrators have their own storied journey through the dusty pages of time. In the US and in Europe, they’ve ranged from huge, loud wind-up or electric-powered contraptions that forfeited any hope of maintaining any discretion to the tiny, silent remote controlled implantable vibrators of today.

The odd thing was that even though genital stimulation was once ubiquitously prescribed, the idea that women could or should stimulate themselves for the sheer pleasure of it was roundly censured. In fact, women who used vibrators were most often thought wanton and nasty, in desperate need of direction and guidance by some omniscient, omnipotent man. 

Feminist entrepreneurs like Dell Williams, thankfully, see it otherwise. An outspoken activist pioneer for a woman’s right to “define, explore and celebrate her sexuality,” Dell Williams knew the worth of a dependable vibrator. But more importantly, she also knew the soul-affirming value of women being able to access pleasurable devices for themselves, sans the judgmental scrutiny of a tone-deaf patriarchy, in an environment that honors the nature of women and women’s bodies, empowered and duly lionized on our own spectacular terms.

photo credit: <a href="">Five Sexy Stars: Redux</a> via <a href="">photopin</a> <a href="">(license)</a>

photo credit: <a href="">Five Sexy Stars: Redux</a> via <a href="">photopin</a> <a href="">(license)</a>

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