Category Archives: Vibrator History

Why the United States Needs More Sex Museums

Picture of the Museum of Sex in New York City

Image by Scott Beale / Laughing Squid

Working at the Smithsonian this summer has led me to wonder why there aren’t more museums in the U.S. devoted to the history of sex. We have only one; it’s in New York City, and it’s for-profit, not by choice, but because the New York State Board of Regents said  “that the word museum could not be used in a way that would make fun of the term.”  And that’s the first barrier to sex museums in the U.S.: the fact that they’re placed in a museum ghetto, with even less prestige than the National Mustard Museum, which, unlike the Museum of Sex, has been granted non-profit status.

I visited the Museum of Sex last weekend with my old college roommate Shoshanna, a great person to tour it with considering that we spent our time at Bennington College penning songs about genital warts and fraternizing with our Aspen Slopes blow-up doll. Since the founder refers to it as “the Smithsonian of sex,” I wanted to like the museum. Unfortunately, it bears no comparison. In theory, I support all sex museums because the more legitimacy given to the study of sexual artifacts, the better the chance that my work will be taken seriously, and more important, that America’s sexual heritage won’t be lost. But the museum, try as it might, just didn’t work. It was simultaneously too serious and too whimsical.

A case in point is their exhibit titled “Sex and the Moving Image” which features film clips playing on a variety of screens, some mounted against the wall, others embedded into the floor. The haphazard locations of the screens mirrored the jumbled nature of what was being shown on them. A few displayed porn, while others showed a grab bag of sexual films including mainstream Hollywood movies, nudist films, and films depicting oral sex. The whole exhibit seemed incoherent, as if the curator didn’t know what story to tell. One of the themes was about sexuality leading to technological innovation, but the exhibit never explored the deeper implications of this. It wasn’t clear whether they were arguing that technologies simply made sexual films more widely available or if technologies led to societal acceptance of depictions of sexuality. They also stuck to the conventional repression-to-liberation narrative, that in the early 1900s, even though there were stag films, they were somehow quaint, that because fellatio was being performed in a Model T, it was charming.  This makes for a simple story, but a boring one. And in their vibrator history section, they re-told Maines’ vibrator story, without questioning it, even though a quick glance at scholarly literature would’ve showed them that the story shouldn’t be wholly accepted. Continue reading

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Vibrate Your Clitoris Like It’s 1895

Jimmyjane uses vibrator history to sell its products

Jimmyjane uses vibrator history to sell its products.
Image from Jimmyjane’s website.

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. Continue reading

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Why You Should Buy Your Family Sex Toys for Christmas

Don Wands Candy Cane Glass Pleasure Wand. Image from http://www.shevibe.com

If you’re planning on giving vibrators to your relatives as Christmas presents, you might think that you’re a daring individual who is bucking tradition and upending the spirit of such a sacred holiday. I should know: When I was sixteen, I gave my cousin a vibrator for Christmas. I felt like such a rebel because I made my family so uncomfortable. But gifting vibrators for Christmas is not a new phenomenon. In fact, you could even call it an American tradition. One hundred years ago, vibrator companies promoted their products as suitable holiday gifts for brothers to buy for their sisters. And they suggested that grandchildren should buy their grandfathers violet ray machines, electrical devices that emitted purple light and came with rectal and vaginal attachments. You can still buy violet rays today, but only at sex toy stores.

So purchase that We-Vibe II for your parents without shame. Improve their sex lives. If they say that a dual-purpose g-spot vibrator and clitoral stimulator designed to be worn during intercourse is an inappropriate gift for them, direct them to my website. Blame it on me. They may be secretly contemplating divorce, and this is the one product that could save their marriage. In fact, if you don’t buy this present for your parents they will surely divorce, and you’ll only have yourself to blame.

Is your sister cranky? It’s definitely because she is having too few orgasms. You must remedy this problem. It’s your job as a brother. Buy her the I Rub My Duckie Santa Vibe. It doubles as a Christmas ornament, and it looks like a children’s toy, so nobody will think you’re creepy for purchasing it for her.

Is your brother getting on your nerves? It’s most likely because he’s sick of masturbating with his hand. Buy him the Tenga 3D Masturbation Sleeve. Not only is it one of the most highly rated masturbation sleeves, but also it looks like it was designed by Frank Gehry, so he can set it on his shelf and claim that he bought it at MoMa.

If you don’t buy your family sex toys for Christmas, this will be the result:

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If We Can Send A Vibrator Into Space…And Other Sex Toy News

This Saturday, just in time for Yom Kippur, Dave Levine, aka Sex Toy Dave, is going to be the first person to launch a vibrator into outer space. Propelling a Mini Multi-Speed Vibrating Bullet into interstellar space may, on its surface, seem unnecessary. Logically, there’s no reason that a vibrator should be sent soaring into the heavens. But logic plays no part in space travel, and the symbolism alone is inspiring. We are reaching out into other worlds, offering up one of our most treasured artifacts to distant beings. I only wish they had chosen to send the Retro Pocket Rocket or an alien-themed Flesh Light into orbit instead of that boring bullet. If aliens stumble upon this sex toy, they will definitely attack us. They’ll assume that this is the best sexual technology the human race is capable of creating, which will lead them to believe that our military technology must also be extraordinarily bad. The future of humanity is at stake. Please, somebody, send another vibrator into the ether immediately.

Why Are the British Upset About This Tame Sex Toy Ad?

This is supposedly the first sex-toy advertisement to ever be shown on TV in the U.K. It was initially intended to be aired this week during prime time, but TV executives nixed that idea because they thought the name of the company’s website was inappropriate. For God’s sake the name is lovehoney.com, not discountgiantwoodenanalbeads.org, but nevertheless, that was the reason they claimed for its unsuitability.

Not only were they upset about the name of the website, but they were also upset with the idea of advertising a sex toy in the first place: “Sex is an intimate expression of lifelong commitment between a man and a woman, not a commodity to be advertised and sold like washing powder or a mobile phone,” said ITV Director Norman Wells in an interview for the Bath Chronicle.

Well, if sex is such a sacred act, then why were ads like this run on British TV without any complaint (as far as I know)?

This double standard is ridiculous. What is so threatening about sex toys that they can’t be openly advertised but ads for erectile dysfunction drugs can? I can only assume it’s because women’s sexuality is more threatening than male sexuality.

In an  interview for Ad Age, Nick Ellis, the creative director for this Love Honey advertisement explained the constraints of advertising vibrators: “You can use sex to sell most products, but as a sex-toy retailer, no hint of anything overtly sexy is allowed,” Mr. Ellis said.

Strangely, American sex toy advertisements from 100 years ago were more risqué than the controversial Love Honey ad.

Hamilton Beach New Life Vibrator Ad in The Des Moines News, November 25, 1912

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Hysteria

I was so happy to be quoted in Friday’s article in the Toronto Globe and Mail about the history of the vibrator. Any time something like this happens, my parents’ embarrassment about my profession drops significantly, and even sometimes turns to pride that their daughter has become a full-time dildographer.

Here’s an excerpt from the article:

And while women of the time didn’t necessarily know what masturbation was, Dr. Hall believes “doctors did.” For this reason and the threat of professional liability, she and other scholars suggest the treatment was performed on the fringes – the lineups of women in the filmic adaptation are sheer poetic licence.

“It’s making these people look like idiots and I don’t believe that was the case. Medical literature shows that doctors knew the role of the clitoris. And it makes light of women’s sexuality,” says Hallie Lieberman, a self-proclaimed “dildographer” and PhD student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison studying the marketing of sex toys throughout history.

“[Maines’ book] really plays on this idea that the doctors didn’t know what the clitoris did, which I think is wrong,” said Sarah Rodriguez, a research assistant professor in medical humanities and bioethics at Northwestern University in Chicago.

Ms. Lieberman and others point to a number of sexual anatomy textbooks spanning from the 1820s into the 1900s that describe the clitoris as a primary sexual organ, one capable of erection. In 1890, physician Leonard Rau called it the “principal seat of sexual orgasm in the female.” An “electric bell” is how one gynecology professor put it in 1900. More accessible was Marie Stopes’ popular 1918 sex manual Married Love, which makes explicit reference to the clitoris and its role in orgasm. The book sold nearly 750,000 copies by 1931.

Ms. Lieberman suggests hysteria continues to enthrall modern audiences because with “women, it’s always a mystery, whether they’re aroused. … It’s hard to reliably give women a clitoral orgasm. There’s still a search for the Holy Grail of that.”

Indeed, in some sense the female orgasm remains elusive, as evidenced by pharmaceuticals’ failed hunt for a “pink Viagra” to treat the equally contentious FSD or “female sexual dysfunction,” a diagnosis in the current DSM, the go-to handbook for psychiatrists.

While Ms. Lieberman doesn’t go as far as to label the controversial FSD and its sister malady, hypoactive desire disorder, as today’s hysteria, she suggests the cure may be vibrators, of all things.

“I believe we should be having great sex throughout the life cycle,” she said. “Vibrators need to be promoted by physicians because they do give a lot of anorgasmic women orgasms.”

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Double-Duty Vibrators

Duet USB Vibrator, set to hit the market in October.

The upside to using your pen to masturbate? Nobody will ever borrow your pen again.

The upcoming introduction of the Duet, a USB-powered vibrator, got me thinking about other multipurpose sex toys on the market. Right now most vibrators that serve dual purposes seem to be impractical and lacking in adventurousness. There’s L’intimate, a vibrator that comes in a lint-roller container. There’s another that inexplicably doubles as a soccer-ball key chain. A few companies make “discreet” vibrator necklaces, but I’m not sure why that would ever be necessary. How often  have you been sitting at a boring dinner party wishing that you had a vibrator handy so you could run off into the host’s bathroom to masturbate?  Actually, that’s usually all I’m thinking about at dinner parties, so I may purchase one.  Other companies make make-up brush and hairbrush vibes, which just seem kind of gross, considering how disgusting hair is, or maybe that’s just my hair which frequently has twigs and other debris in it. The pen vibrator sounds somewhat useful, except I don’t want my writing implements  to smell like vagina. Vibrator Christmas ornaments are charming, but I’d prefer a vibrating Menorah. If I were rich, I can see myself purchasing  high-end hand job jewelry like Angelina Jolie and Christina Aguilera wisely do because the cheap vibrating rings are tacky. Overall, no currently available device stands out as being especially beneficial or innovative.

Although today our dual-purpose vibrators are pretty much impractical novelty items, 100-years-ago, vibrators doubled as useful home appliances. Companies sold home motors that, with separate attachments, could be transformed into fans, knife sharpeners, blenders, silverware polishers, and vibrators. On a sultry day you could mix yourself a chocolate malt, fan yourself on the porch, and then masturbate in your bathroom, all using the same device, which begs the question: Why have dual-purpose vibrators regressed over the past century? If the theory of technological convergence were true, then we should be riding our dildos to the moon by now. In the early 20th century, vibrators were advertised more openly than they are today, they were more powerful, and they served more functions for the household. Let’s bring back this spirit to the sex toy industry. I’m sick of cheap plastic butt plugs that disintegrate in your anus after two uses.

Apple, we need an iDildo ASAP.

1918  Sears Roebuck Catalog. Vibrator attachment for home motor is in the middle column, second from bottom.  Image from  Rachel Maines' "Technology of Orgasm"

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