The vibrator’s long slow march from taboo to mainstream (and maybe even cool) has been all about figuring out what exactly women want.
Consider the humble vibrator.
Invented as a medical device in the 19th century it has gone on to become a Mad Men plot line – a Sex and the City tie-in – a celebrity talking point and a feminist cause.
Not only are vibrators not invisible they’re hardly even avoidable.
New vibrators are unveiled to the awed public at TechCrunch conferences.
They are reviewed on Gizmodo.
They comprise valid talking points for celebrities including Barbara Walters. (Walters named hers “selfie” – Alicia Silverstone endorses ‘eco-friendly’ vibrators – Beyoncé’s is allegedly gold-plated and Maggie Gyllenhaal claims an ‘incredible collection’.)
High-end companies market them as luxury products.
One 2012 survey found that 52.5% of women used them whether alone or with a partner and that women who used vibrators were actually more likely to take care of their sexual health by going to the gynecologist for regular exams.
It’s odd to admit this but vibrators may have gone way beyond not being shameful.
They may just be cool.
It’s been a strange road to this point.
For one thing: vibrators – despite their generally positive connotations today – were not invented out of some entirely benevolent desire to give women orgasms.
‘The electric vibrator was actually invented by a British physician in the 1880s to treat nervous conditions of various kinds in both men and women’ says Lynn Comella – associate professor of gender and sexuality studies at the University of Nevada – who’s currently completing a book on the subject.
Specifically vibrators were used in treating ‘hysteria’:
doctors gave manual genital massages to unruly women with the goal of bringing on ‘hysterical paroxysm’.
The vibrator was a quicker way to bring on that particular and apparently medically inexplicable fit.
Today we’d hardly find any of this inspirational; ‘hysteria’ diagnoses could include forced institutionalization and clitoridectomies along with the manual treatments.
And even the ‘massages’ themselves were often not undertaken by choice.
But despite the oppressiveness of the ‘hysteria’ panic – and the odd sexual split consciousness of Victorians – women seemed to pick up on what the devices were really doing.
And advertisers started quietly signaling their better more recreational use in ads.