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Oh Joy! An Ode to the Vibrator

An abbreviated history of machines that go buzz in the night

Oh Joy! An Ode to the Vibrator

“This new generation of 20-somethings isn’t afraid of their sexuality at all,” says OhMiBod founder Suki Dunham. “They gladly wear it on their sleeve.” Or should that be, in their panties?

OhMiBod packages its new Club Vibe—a bullet that vibrates in response to ambient sound, such as a nightclub DJ or a lover’s voice—with a goes-with-anything black thong. The toy debuted at the World Music Conference in Miami this past March to a very enthusiastic crowd.

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Club kids might not need any social camouflaging to help them feel comfortable with vibrators, but they are the first generation to do so en masse. They are only the tail end of millennia of unfortunate misunderstandings about sexuality among medical, religious, and social leaders.

Yes, millennia. Vibrators didn’t spontaneously erupt in the 1970s. They weren’t even a new idea in the late 1800s, when steam- and electricity-powered behemoths first appeared in doctor’s offices to help physicians treat women for hysteria.

To get to the roots of vibrators in Western civilization, we must look to antiquity, early enough that New Testament authors could have specifically banned vibration, if they wanted to.

Ancient Greeks Say Oom Bop Bop Good, Good Vibrations

Physicians have prescribed vibration for thousands of years, believing that motion applied to the body stimulated circulation and digestion, calmed nervous disorders, and staved off disease and poor health.

Robert Noah Calvert, author of The History of Massage (Healing Arts Press), describes instruments developed to extend the physical strength and ability of the person providing the treatment—instruments that could fit equally well in Stockroom.com and MassageWarehouse.com. They include a variety of bats and clubs with which to “pat” the body and thin staves for stroking.

He also outlines several ancient Greek vibration techniques that survived well into the nineteenth century.

One method required the patient to travel in a wagon with uneven wheels over rough stone roads. Another placed the afflicted on a wooden plank hung from a tree branch or cross-bar while assistants pushed it to and fro. Riding a horse or mule provided more intense treatment. In fact, for thousands of years, physicians prescribed horseback riding for women and girls suffering from “hysteria.”

No Wonder Women Were Hysterical

At any given point in history, hysteria could mean anxiety, depression, sexual frustration, pre-menstrual syndrome, ennui, dysmenorrhea, or a number of other conditions of mind or body. I particularly like how Albrecht von Haller, a Swiss physiologist and anatomist who practiced medicine in the eighteenth century, describes it: “Weeping, irritability, depression, mental and physical weariness, morbid fears, forgetfulness, palpitations of the heart, headaches, writing cramps, mental confusion, fear of impending insanity, and constant worry were the most noted symptoms.”

The most often prescribed remedy for hysteria was marriage; physicians were not entirely unaware of the connection between “physical therapy” (genital massage) and sex. Virgins, nuns, and widows might require medical attention, but wives advised to use an over-the-counter remedy: their husbands. Married women and prostitutes who still felt hysterical were obviously flawed or infirm, and permitted to see a midwife or doctor.

“When marital sex was unsatisfying and masturbation discouraged or forbidden, female sexuality, I suggest, asserted itself through one of the few acceptable outlets: the symptoms of the hysteroneurasthenic disorders,” writes Dr. Rachel Maines in The Technology of Orgasm (Johns Hopkins University Press).

Regular medical massage to induce paroxysm might not be every woman’s ideal solution, but it was better than getting writing cramps all the time.

From Steam-Powered to Just Steamy

Some nineteenth-century physicians suggested train travel for women suffering from any of the complaints formerly associated with hysteria, though the term was finally falling out of favor. The idea was that if you sat a little bit forward and spread your legs just so, the vibrations would enter your body through the train seat and cause all kinds of relaxation and therapy.

For these same reasons, other physicians opposed train travel for women, in case this new-fangled extreme vibration would have deleterious effects on female bodies.

Industrial-strength vibration was everywhere at the turn of the twentieth century—and it was new. Work formerly performed by human or animal surrendered to giant contraptions that rumbled, shook, and pulsated. People adapted to the noise and motion of machinery even as they watched it replace their own labor and craftsmanship. The male worry about being replaced by vibrators is not entirely driven by sexual insecurity.

Hysteria treatments still provided a steady source of income for physicians. One American practitioner estimated that by  the late 1800s, 75 percent of the aggregated annual income of American physicians stemmed from “frail woman.” Still, this “easy” income was limited by a doctor’s physical stamina, his tolerance for boredom, and his ability to withstand carpal-tunnel syndrome and tennis elbow. You can only manipulate so many hysterical patients in a day.

If only there were a machine that could help.

Dr. George Taylor’s “Manipulator,” introduced around 1870, is the first “modern” vibrator. Powered by steam, the business end was a vibrating sphere, which the patient snugged up against through a hole in the exam table. Dr. Taylor specifically advised physicians to supervise women when using his machine, to prevent “overindulgence.”

Taylor’s machine was only the first of many that offered relief to doctors, who could treat more patients more efficiently—10 minutes of machine-assist versus an hour of using their own hands made the steep price tags worth it.

A few years later, British physician Joseph Mortimer Granville developed a battery-powered vibrator that came with several “vibratodes” you could swap out, much like today’s multi-headed Eroscillator. While Granville intended his device as a musculoskeletal therapy for the men and openly opposed its use in women, his employer, Weiss, marketed the machine to physicians worldwide, most of whom did not hesitate to apply it to women.

With the arrival of portable models in 1899, however, women were able to take matters into their own hands. The vibrator was the fifth home appliance to be electrified, preceded only by the sewing machine, the fan, the teakettle, and the toaster, says Maines. To give you some perspective on the vibrator’s place among housewives’ priorities, the vacuum cleaner didn’t come along for another nine years, followed by the electric iron and the electric frying pan.

Consider that most homes did not yet have electrical outlets and you really begin to admire the ingenuity that went into these things. The earliest home-use vibrators plugged into a light socket.

Porn and Psychiatry Screw Up a Good Thing

Nothing as good as regular, socially acceptable visits to gigantic industrial vibrators could possibly last, and sure ‘nuff, Sigmund Freud’s ravings about female sexuality and the stag films of the 1920s wrecked everything. While Freud pronounced clitoral orgasms as an immature second-cousin-twice-removed of a real orgasm—defined as orgasm caused by a penis in the vagina—early skin flicks showed women masturbating with handheld vibrators on their own, with each other, and with male partners to finish the job.

Just think how different the century would have been if John Q. Public had celebrated the admission that paroxysm was orgasm, that women felt sexual pleasure (and felt it from external genital stimulation), and that every husband could now have a little mechanical buddy on his team.

Instead, the vibrator was whisked out of the medical office and into the boudoir. Women’s magazines advertised “personal massagers” that promised a plethora of do-it-yourself health benefits. They improved “life and vigor, strength and beauty.” They made your eyes bright and your cheeks pink. You’ll smile a lot and look better and be more relaxed and have improved circulation! “And all those things are true,” laughs Dr. Maines.

In fact, the vibrator completely cured American women of hysteria in just a few decades, as the American Psychiatric Association removed the disease from its Mental Disorders Diagnostic Manual in 1952.

We may chuckle now, from our sophisticated place at the dawn of a new era of sexual equity. And yet, the only way to sell a vibrator in Alabama today is to make sure the customer has a “bona fide” medical reason to buy one.

I Fought the Law and the Law Won, Sort Of

After battling the Alabama sex toy ban for more than 10 years, adult retailer Sherri Williams refused to admit defeat when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case. Instead, she contacted sex therapist Dr. Marty Klein, author of America’s War on Sex (Praeger) and SexualIntelligence.org.

“She decided she was going to help customers use the legitimate medical exemption clause of the law,” says Dr. Klein. “She asked me to design a questionnaire that would help the store evaluate if customers had a legitimate medical need for sex toys.”

While the law doesn’t define the medical exemption very precisely—“a bona fide medical … reason”—one presumes the FertiCare, an ultra-strong vibrator used to produce ejaculation in paraplegic men for reproductive purposes, qualifies. Available only by prescription, it was recently approved to treat female sexual dysfunction, and claims to “bring pleasure back into your life, and rekindle your lover’s flame.”

It probably makes your eyes bright, too.

 “If a person is suffering from depression, or the effects of taking an antidepressant, or is unable to climax from intercourse or a partner’s hand, that would be a legitimate medical concern,” says Dr. Klein. “If you have neurological damage or some other medical reason that causes sexuality to be compromised, a vibrator is more likely to be seen by laypeople as a ‘legitimate’ way to supplement ‘normal’ sexual functioning. It’s too bad that people look at it that way, but indeed, a lot of people do.”

The idea that a vibrator should only be used if you “need” them harkens back to an era when marriage was the preferred treatment for hysteria, with genital massage by a midwife or doctor an acceptable last  resort.

Needs Must: We Can Do It!

“In the 1920s, very few electrical appliances were being manufactured, and the only one that did well was the sewing machine,” says Dr. Maines. “Electricity was new, still a luxury, and more electrification of homes actually occurred during the 1930s.”

By the 1940s, the war effort took over the factories and resources that would have been needed to produce vibrators. The 1950s and 1960s saw a return to the “massagers,” “spot reducers,” “weight-loss appliances,” and “beauty aids” of earlier decades.

In some cases, the advertising became so coy, women overlooked the full potential of their vibrators.

Dr. Carol Queen, founding director of the Center for Sex & Culture and curator of Good Vibrations’ Antique Vibrator Museum, says that her first vibrator was an “ancient one,” similar to the 1948 Oster “Deluxe Scientific Massage Modality” Model M-1.

“I snagged it from my mom’s closet. It was the loudest appliance I’ve ever heard, and in those days before cable, it made the TV signal roll—so I had to use it late at night and when my folks weren’t home,” she says. “I am sorry to say she never asked for it back, which probably means she had never even figured out how great it was to use below the shoulders.”

She describes another vintage favorite as “awesome but very mechanical-smelling; I was always paranoid it would burst into flames, though not paranoid enough to stop using it.”

 Only in the 1970s did the vibrator begin to shed the last of its protective coloration, thanks in large part to the outrageous acts of feminists, artists, and, yes, retailers. Focus finally began to shift from female sexuality as a disease paradigm within the heteronormative androcentric model of sex to female sexuality as a normal process and even a basic human right. 

The Wand Performs Its Magic

Eve’s Garden, the first sex shop for women, opened in New York City in 1973. That same year, Betty Dodson began leading group masturbation workshops, introducing women to the Hitachi Magic Wand and the power of the clitoral orgasm.

“When I got into porn in 1973, most people didn’t know what the clitoris was,” says Dr. Annie Sprinkle, who describes herself as a prostitute/porn star turned artist/sexologist. “Even I didn’t know for sure if female orgasm was the real thing.”

In almost 40 years of sexual exploration through art, film, theater, lectures, and sex work, Dr. Sprinkle has seen the vibrator evolve from a symbol of feminist rebellion to a nightstand staple, taken for granted by the internet generation. “Statistics show that women are so much more orgasmic now,” she says happily. “The information is out there.”

Her 1981 film Deep Inside Annie Sprinkle included “a scene with this really huge vibrator, with an intense orgasm and ejaculation.” Delving ever deeper into the spiritual side of sex, she included a “sex magic ritual” in her one-woman show Post-Porn Modernist, which ran from 1989–1995. The ritual involved candles, an ancient Sumerian priestess costume, a crystal dildo, and a large vibrator—details taken from both historical and modern times to recreate the ancient idea of the sacred prostitute.

“I was not as big a part in the Hitachi movement as Betty was, but I was using those big vibrators, popularizing them,” she says, dismissing the flimsy, hard plastic novelties the porn shops were marketing to men.

The vibrator may have symbolized empowerment in the 1970s and 1980s, but it wasn’t quite Sex and the City and a Rabbit Pearl for everyone. Women worried that vibrators were unnatural and inappropriate to bring to partner sex. Some felt they had failed at sex because they could not orgasm without a machine. Many worried their male partners would feel rejected, or would reject them, if they found out about the vibrator.

But what Eve’s Garden and Good Vibrations began, other women were ready to continue.

Hey Honey, Was That the Avon Lady?

In-home “romance parties” combined the privacy and comfort of a familiar place, the excitement of group energy, and the element of education into a winning formula in the 1980s. Women who didn’t live in the big city could now handle a selection of vibrators and ask the consultant for advice—not to mention earn free toys if their girlfriends got their grooves on.

The mediocre vibrators were promoted as a source of sexual pleasure not only for women alone, but as a way to “add spice” to a relationship. Then, if you wanted something better, Wahl and Hitachi had just the thing, at the ordinary drug store.

The AIDS crisis forced masturbation into the public eye when former Attorney General C. Everett Koop made post-office history—and infuriated conservative groups—with the country’s largest public mass mailing to date: an eight-page brochure, “Understanding AIDS,” sent to 107 million American households in 1988. It took a year and a half for the committee to approve its contents, resulting in just two safe-sex suggestions: abstinence and monogamy.

Yet the possession of a vibrator no longer carried such a harsh stigma. Now it was simply smart sex.

Geeks Make Better Lovers

I could write an entire book on the influence the internet has had on sex—in fact, I’ve written two. Some of the effects are obvious: customers can research and shop for vibrators in secret, women can get paid to orgasm with their vibrators over webcams, lovers can control each other’s vibrators over the internet from anywhere in the world.

 “The most interesting part of the history of vibrators is what’s happening right now,” says Cory Silverberg, co-owner of Come As You Are in Toronto, Canada, and co-author of The Ultimate Guide to Sex and Disability (Cleis Press). “When you start designing sex toys to be accessible, it improves sex toys for everyone. Just like ramps are better than stairs for everyone, not just people in wheelchairs,” he says.

Even though vibration has been a health care cash cow, only recently have developers begun to target a wider range of people and purposes. Tech-savvy artists and engineers are bringing an advanced sense of design and functionality honed in other industries to vibrator development. Retailers, in turn, are reaching out to previously ignored market niches.

Vibrators are also returning to the doctor’s office—although this time, the doctor is likely to be a woman and a vibrator user herself.

Dr. Bat Sheva Marcus is the clinical director of The Medical Center for Female Sexuality in New York City. She recommends vibrators for clients who have problems reaching orgasm, as they provide a higher level of stimulation for longer periods of time than a penis, mouth, or hand. “It’s the same reason doctors used them 120 years ago,” she admits.

The center maintains a pool of vibrators to help women decide which ones to buy. “Patients go into the exam room alone, where they can try out the vibrators with condoms and see what works best,” she explains. “Usually they pick the stronger ones, but initially those are intimidating.”

Everything Old Is New Again

 “Times have changed,” says Laura Sweet, sales representative at wholesale distributor Honey’s Place. “[Product designers] are getting intelligent about biology and functionality, how things are going to fit into your body and actually work. More care goes into the product.”

She notes that the Screaming O disposable vibrating cock ring has become one of the best-selling vibrators. “It’s the cheapest thing out there, and yet it’s made out of a high-grade silicon,” she says. “Even my clients who sell only the highest end organic lubricants and the best silicon dildos will carry the Screaming O.”

And yet, the more things change, the more they stay the same. OhMiBod was invited to the prestigious New York International Gift Show in January—and put into the juried “Accent on Design” housewares section.

“We were the only vibrator company in housewares,” says Dunham. “We had all of our NaughtyBods on little pedestals. One lady came over, picked one up, and asked, ‘Are these pens?’”






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