With a jar of Speculoos cookie butter in one hand and a Pink Lady apple in the other, I sat down and read Andy Isaacson’s Atlantic Monthly article on vibrator design, expecting to be disappointed. Instead, I was elated. It renewed my hope that within the next five years, we will be living in a dildo-themed utopia, similar to the one depicted in Nicholson Baker‘s House of Holes but minus the horrifying bubbly porn monster. The article is a biography of Ethan Imboden, the founder of the upscale Jimmyjane sex-toy company that sells 24-karat gold vibrators and ones created by high-end designers. Imboden’s goal is not just to sell sex toys but also to transform the cultural attitudes surrounding sex toys by introducing good design into the world of butt plugs and vibrators. I view him as a kindred spirit.
After reading the article, I decided to visit Jimmyjane’s website to peruse their newest products. Scrolling at the top of their page was an animation of a red curtain emblazoned with the logo for the Hysteria movie. The curtain opens and closes, revealing a link to a trailer for the movie on one side, and a link to their collection of Hysteria-themed vibrators on the other.
Even though Hysteria is filled with historic inaccuracies (which I detailed in an earlier post), I was thrilled to see this movie tie-in. No mainstream Hollywood studio has ever been brave enough to partner with a sex-toy company to promote their movies before. Because the movie is based on Rachel Maines’ book on the history of the vibrator, I wasn’t surprised that her version of vibrator history is retold on the Jimmyjane website, a story that claims that doctors in the 19th century thought of vibrators as a chaste medical devices even as they were applying them to women’s clitorises and giving them orgasms in their offices. Although I argue that the vibrator was always considered a sexual device, I can’t fault Jimmyjane founder Imboden for repeating Maines’ story. He’s not a historian, and, to his credit, the site does mention that Maines’ book is controversial among sex historians. But because Imboden obviously takes sex toys seriously and thinks deeply about the design of his vibrators, it’s distressing to see this erroneous history retold. However, I quickly got over my annoyance and checked out the historically themed products themselves.
They’re selling two Hysteria tie-in products: Prescription 1-Mild Symptoms and Prescription 2- Severe Diagnoses. Each are re-brandings of products that they currently sell. The only difference is the packaging. And it’s beautiful.
Both come in a white rectangular box that is decorated with abstract, Cy Twombly-esque grey splatters. In the righthand corner of the package there’s a faux prescription from Joseph Mortimer Granville, the purported inventor of the electromechanical vibrator, complete with a date stamp of May 18, 1880, and the logo of both Sony Pictures Classics and Jimmyjane.
The Prescription 1 kit includes a cock ring and two clitoral vibrators that are a part of Jimmyjane’s The Usual Suspects: Iconic Vibrator Collection, This collection features versions of the most famous styles of vibrators that the company has recast in a clinical iPod white, rendering them less cheap looking and disposable and more modern and museum-piece like. Prescription 1’s ad copy pokes fun at Victorian-era hysteria diagnosis in a playful tone:
“Are you suffering from faintness, nervousness or insomnia? You could have Hysteria. Fear not, we have the cure…You’re sure to feel better in no time.”
Ensconced in the same wonderful packaging, Prescription 2: Severe Diagnosis comes with an Yves Behar-designed dual-motor vibrator and a tube of Beyond Euphoric massage lotion. Once again, the ad copy is fantastic:
“The symptoms of Hysteria, as listed in Victorian medical books, include faintness of breathe, loss of appetite, and a ‘tendency to cause trouble.’ Heed these dangerous warning signs and do what’s best for your health – quarantine yourself in a bedroom immediately with FORM 2 and some nourishing massage lotion. Treatment may be administered solo or by another. Nurse uniform optional.”
Jimmyjane’s ad copy makes brilliant use of history. It manages to wink at the sexual cluelessness of the past, while also further eroticizing the vibrator by layering it with another level of taboo that is both comforting because it’s a form of nostalgia and also stimulating since it still exists in the 21st century. Because the Hysteria-themed sex toys acknowledge that vibrators have a history, they should be praised. That simple acknowledgement brings a cultural credibility to vibrators and the historians who study them.
Although I’m in favor of using history to sell sex toys, a larger question about its use remains unanswered. The question we should be asking is whether cloaking a 21st-century vibrator in 19th-century nostalgia leads to a greater social acceptance of vibrators or whether it reinforces the idea that sex toys have always and will always be taboo. Since I think discussions of the history of women’s sexuality should be as honest as possible, it’s difficult for me to accept this misrepresentation of the past. What good can come of pretending that our great-grandmothers lacked knowledge of their own clitorises?
I think that there’s a danger not in using vibrator history to market vibrators but in presenting this history as one of repression. The true story of the vibrator is much dirtier than we let on. It’s hotter and messier and less giggle-inducing. But we insist on desexualizing the past. Foucault said that one of the reasons that we persist in mythologizing the Victorians as sexually repressed is because they didn’t speak publicly and explicitly about sexuality. Instead, they created multiple secret sexual discourses that were cloaked in respectability and became titillating because they were imbued with culturally constructed naughtiness. This repression allowed the Victorians to derive erotic pleasure from talking publicly about sex because they felt like they were transgressing against societal norms. Although Foucault complicates the history of sexuality in the 19th century, he doesn’t provide a blueprint for vibrator companies in the 21st. The question of whether it’s ethical to fictionalize history in the service of present-day orgasms remains unanswered. If pretending that the Victorians were sexually repressed leads to more vibrator sales, should we just go on pretending?