Tag Archives: vibrator history

Why Technological Innovation Always Leads to Masturbation

Young's dilators

Young’s Rectal Dilators from the late 1800s. These rubber butt plugs were made possible through the vulcanization of rubber.

One of the questions that my dissertation aims to answer is why technological innovations are nearly always followed by sexual innovations. The discovery of the rubber vulcanization process in the mid-1800s led to the production of dildos. Electrification in the late 1800s was quickly followed by the invention of the electromechanical vibrator.  The invention of Bakelite plastic led to innovative vibrator casings.

If technology is an extension of human faculties, as Marshall McLuhan argued, if it is driven not by an autonomous force but by very human desires for love and sex, community and connection, then it would make sense that new innovations in materials are followed by new sexual products. What drew me to the topic of sex toys in the first place was a naive hope, shared by inventors, that someday the inexplicable mysteries of the universe could be solved through human ingenuity, that sexual intercourse and masturbation, two of the most enjoyable activities that a human being can engage in, could be improved if only we spent some time designing the perfect sex machine.  And it is this same sort of optimism that I’ve seen in early 1930s brochures for Bakelite plastic, touted as the material of a thousand uses, one of which was to enclose our vibrators in beautiful, yet durable cases. There is a downside to this optimism; it burdens our technologies with expectations that they can never live up to. But what interests me is not the fact that our expectations always fail, but that our expectations never change.

When a new technology is developed, we always think that it will elevate us above our animal nature, yet we end up burrowing deeper into its recesses.  Inventors claim that their new technologies will create world peace. Yet, in reality, something very predictable happens. Instead of using technology to better humanity, we use it to improve our sex lives. For example, the internet was supposed to revolutionize education, but instead it improved masturbation. Few celebrate this. But the glut of pornography on the internet should not be ignored. It shouldn’t necessarily be championed either. It’s not a black-and-white issue. As Richard Randall argues, the pornographic imagination has always and will always exist. The human erotic imagination is messy and beautiful, revolting and sublime, but we shouldn’t be ashamed of it. It should be treated as a uniquely human trait and not dismissed as an aberration. It is our job to understand it, to study it, and to acknowledge it as one of the defining features of our existence. 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 the Movie “Hysteria” Gets Its Vibrator History Wrong

Hysteria Movie

A still from the movie Hysteria, about the invention of the vibrator in the 19th century.

Given my profession as a dildographer, I should be elated that Hysteria a movie about the history of the vibrator, is premiering in the U.S. in two weeks. Although I’m thrilled that a legitimate studio produced a movie on the subject, I’m also frustrated that an inaccurate and unfortunate myth about the vibrator is being perpetuated. The movie details the invention of the electromechanical vibrator in the 19th century, and its use as a medical device to treat hysteria. And it maintains the myth that 120 years ago using vibrators on your clitoris was not considered to be sexual because women were thought to only get pleasure from penile penetration. Although it makes for a great story, it doesn’t give the full picture. I don’t expect historical movies to tell the truth, but in this case, media coverage is acting as if this movie is presenting an accurate story about the history of the vibrator. This blog post is my attempt to set the story straight.

To understand this lingering myth about the vibrator, it’s important to understand its origins. The story is gleaned from Rachel Maines’ 1999 book The Technology of Orgasm: “Hysteria,” Vibrators and Women’s Sexual Satisfaction. Maines should be given credit for opening up the field of sex-toy history to scholarly research. That being said, her book shouldn’t be uncritically accepted just because it’s the only one written on the subject. And it has been criticized by historians of technology and sexuality. The problem is that popular culture has wholeheartedly embraced her story, leading to artistic works that are perpetuating this myth. In the past five years, three  pop culture products have been based on her books: a play (In the Next Room, (or the Vibrator Play)), documentary (Passion and Power) and fiction film (Hysteria.

Here’s Maines’ vibrator story that’s been circulated throughout pop culture for over a decade:

Victorian women were sexually frustrated. Sure, some of them were having sex with their husbands, but they were left unsatisfied because most women can’t have orgasms from penetration only. And since masturbation was considered dangerous and unhealthy, they didn’t have that outlet either.  So, what did women do? Well, they went to their doctors, complaining of vague symptoms like nervousness, and their doctors promptly diagnosed them with hysteria, whose other symptoms included insomnia, shortness of breath and muscle spasms.

Doctors decided that the best treatment for the hysteric was female genital massage, which in practice involved rubbing their patients’ clitorises until they had orgasms (which doctors called “paroxysms”). Few people raised their eyebrows. Doctors didn’t think of their medicalized hand jobs as sexual because they didn’t understand the function of the clitoris, instead believing that women only got pleasure from sexual intercourse. And even though getting paid to rub women’s genitals should seem like the best job in the world, it was the opposite. According to Maines, being a professional hand-job giver was “the job nobody wanted,” because it was so tedious and time-consuming.

So when the vibrator was invented, doctors eagerly embraced it as a replacement for their tired hands because it gave women orgasms in ten minutes, instead of the 30-60 minutes that it usually took.  Since it allowed doctors to see more patients in a shorter period of time, they were able to treat more patients and make more money. Therefore,  the vibrator was a “capital-labor substitution device, ” she says. With its legitimate medical uses, the vibrator became known throughout culture as a medical device, and its sexual powers remained hidden. Companies like Hamilton Beach began producing consumer vibrators that they marketed to housewives as essential home appliances that women could use to treat their insomnia and other ailments. But when vibrators began appearing in porn in the late 1920s, they lost their “social camouflage as a home and professional medical instrument,” says Maines. Once the vibrator had been revealed as a sexual device,  doctors stopped using them in their practice and companies stopped marketing them. The end.

My issues with this story:

  1. Some women have vaginal orgasms, so these orgasmically blessed Victorian women must have enjoyed sex with their husbands.
  2. Cunnilingus wasn’t invented in the late 20th century. Although all husbands didn’t perform oral sex on their wives, some of them did. And those lucky wives had clitoral orgasms, at least some of the time.
  3. Just because an advice book tells a woman not to masturbate, it doesn’t mean she’ll listen. Victorian women masturbated. The Mosher survey shows this.
  4. Doctors knew about the function of the clitoris, that’s why in the late 1800s some physicians bothered to remove them  to cure nymphomania.  (Sarah Rodriguez wrote a great article on this).
  5. Women alerted vice societies to the immorality of their physicians’ vibratory treatments, so women must have thought these treatments were sexual.
  6. Doctors who massaged genitals were usually considered to be quacks. At least that’s what the American Medical Association thought about them.
  7. Vibrators were also considered to be quack devices by the AMA, according to their Historical Health Fraud Collection.
  8. Consumer vibrator ads weren’t openly sexual because of draconian anti-obscenity laws, not because of a lack of knowledge about women’s sexuality. If companies described orgasms in their advertisements, they faced arrest. That’s why they had to rely on coded language.
  9. Companies didn’t stop advertising their vibrators in the 1920s. Ads have appeared in every decade since. And most people didn’t watch porn films in the 1920s anyway because they were difficult to get a hold of. So, knowledge about the vibrator’s sexual uses couldn’t have been spread through them. 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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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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