Good Vibrations

Once Upon A Time

I walked a few times past the department store salesclerk who was eagerly demonstrating the big blue and white massager. “On sale - - only $19.50 today,” she said. Although I had heard about sexual uses for electric vibrators, I couldn’t justify spending twenty dollars just to try the massager for masturbation. So I turned my back and asked her to hold the whirring machine to a chronically tight spot on my right shoulder. The massager was stronger than any I’d ever felt. The low speed produced a deep throbbing sensation. The high speed was so fast it either tickled or hurt, depending on how it was touching me. It hurt my shoulder so good that I bought it without further hesitation. At the time, and for some weeks later, I didn’t even try masturbating with it.

Up until then, the only way I had masturbated was with my hand, occasionally using an object in my vagina at the same time. I had inserted the handle of my electric toothbrush into my vagina, enjoying the gentle vibrations and warmth, but it had not occurred to me to use it on or near my clitoris. Within moments after I held the new blue and white vibrator to my clitoris, I experienced the most intense orgasm of my life. Although it was all over before I knew what was happening, I saw great potential for pleasure in my new toy.

My partner and I, being yard sale and flea market fanatics, started to collect “antique” and just plain old vibrators and massagers at every opportunity. After a couple of years, we had acquired more than thirty treasures. At first, I tried masturbating with every one and found, to my delight, that all of them, regardless of size, shape, or intensity of vibration, gave me orgasms. We kept them amid the jumble of their own cords and loose attachments in a fabric suitcase under our bed. Periodically we would haul out the suitcase, untangle a few, and plug them in for our friends to giggle or marvel at. Some went out on loan and never returned.

During this time, I was being trained as a sex therapist and was working with many women who had never experienced orgasm. The women in my groups who wanted to experiment with vibrators expressed distress about how awkward they felt purchasing them. Shortly thereafter, I decided to open Good Vibrations, a vibrator store especially (though certainly not exclusively) for women, with a vibrator museum (actually an antique oak showcase) for the public display of our collection. I also wrote and published the first version of this book.

Since 1975, I have learned a great deal about vibrators. In the store, I have had the opportunity to talk with hundreds of women and dozens of men about all aspects of vibrator use. During this time, people have talked more and more openly about vibrators. Sales of vibrators in drug, department and discount stores have mushroomed. In these settings, of course, advertising and promotion are still aimed at the consumers’ sore muscles and tired feet. However, once many of these vibrators get home and out of the box, they probably spend most of their turned-on moments turning someone on. People are not only using vibrators more, they are also increasingly talking, writing, and reading about them.

The “Hysterical” History of the Vibrator

Did you ever wonder what mysterious ailment confined the Victorian woman to her bed? Our prim and proper ancestor had the doctor scurrying up the stairs with his little black bag and the servants whispering about “female troubles.”

Not infrequently, those “female troubles” were “hysteria,” believed in ancient Egypt and Greece to be the revolt of the uterus against sexual deprivation. Webster’s reminds us that “hysteria” derives from “the former notion that hysteric women were suffering from disturbances of the womb” (now you know why men are almost never hysterical!) and defines it as a “psycho-neurosis marked by emotional excitability and disturbances of the psychic, sensory, vasomotor and visceral functions.” It wasn’t until 1952 that the American Psychiatric Association dismissed hysteria as a valid diagnosis.

Historian Rachel Maines has recently provided us with a wealth of information about the standard medical treatment of “hysteria” using vibrators. Maines shows that “the electromechanical vibrator, introduced as a medical appliance in the 1880s and as a household appliance between 1900 and 1905, represented a de-skilling and capital-labor substitution innovation designed to improve the efficiency of medical massage, a task performed since ancient times by physicians, midwives and their assistants.” Medical massage “from the time of Hippocrates to that of Freud included the clinical production of orgasm in women and girls.”

According to medical and midwifery texts of the 1600s, “the treatment generally consisted of the insertion of one or more fingers of one hand into the vagina and the application of friction to the external genitalia with the other. Fragrant oils of various types were employed as lubricants in this procedure.” The objective was to induce “hysterical paroxysm,” manifested by “rapid respiration and pulse, reddening of the skin, vaginal lubrication and abdominal contractions.” Sounds very familiar, doesn’t it ? But at the time it was considered an activity more appropriate to the doctor’s office than the boudoir!

Maines writes that not all physicians recognized this “paroxysm” as an orgasm, but some medical authors through the ages do “comment on the morally ambiguous character of the treatment, including [one physician] who observes that genital massage should be reserved ‘to those alone who have clean hands and a pure heart’.” Later therapies included massage with a jet of water, but “hydrotherapists warned that patients were inclined to demand more treatment than was considered good for them.” A seventeenth century doctor complained of the fatigue factor for the physician in massage therapy and the long practice and considerable dexterity required (not to mention the stress of keeping those hands clean and those hearts pure).

Maines credits George Taylor, an American physician, with a primary role in the development of the modern vibrator in this country. In 1869 and 1872 he patented a steam-powered massage and vibratory apparatus for treatment of female disorders, intended for supervised use “to prevent overindulgence.” By 1900, “a wide range of vibratory apparatus was available to physicians….Articles and textbooks on vibratory massage technique at the turn of the century praised the machines’ versatility for treatment of nearly all diseases in both sexes, and its [sic] efficiency of time and labor, especially in gynecological massage….By [1909] convenient portable models were available, permitting use on house calls….” (So that’s what was inside the doctor’s little black bag.)

Until the end of the 1920s, vibrators were advertised in many respectable women’s magazines as home appliances, primarily as an aid to good health and relaxation, but with ambiguous overtones - “All the pleasures of youth will throb within you,” reads a typical ad. Maines believes that the disappearance of vibrators from doctors’ offices and magazine advertisements “may have been the result either of the adoption of psychotherapeutic treatments [for hysteria] by physicians, or of the appearance of vibrators in stag films in the Twenties, or both.”

Most of the electric vibrators discussed in this book were neither designed nor marketed (until very recently) with sexual uses in mind.

In a 1981 Esquire article, author Mimi Swartz reviewed the emergence of the vibrator as a big business venture, with sales totaling about $13 million in 1980. This is a remarkable story when you consider that the manufacturers are marketing a product without advertising its main benefit. Imagine trying to sell a toaster by saying that it is a metal box that gets very hot when you plug it in – and that’s all. Apparently, this non-existent marketing approach failed, since several mainstream manufacturers no longer make vibrators.

Electric vibrators/massagers have been manufactured in the United States since around the turn of the century (the most elderly in my collection was made by Hamilton Beach and carries a patent date of 1902). However, the first electric vibrator openly advertised for sexual use was an American-made, multi-attachment model, repackaged with a clitoral stimulator tip, and sold at first almost exclusively through the mail in the early 1970s. This particular brand is now sold primarily by discount stores alongside the hair dryers and electric toothbrushes. The package insert is pretty tame; all sexual references have disappeared. In the late 1980s, a well-stocked department or discount store in some parts of the country may carry as many as four or five different brands of electric vibrators, and lest rural readers despair, the Sears catalog has always included a full line of good quality vibrators (manufactured for them by others). Are you surprised?

Interesting, isn’t it, that vibrators which lost their respectability once they were shunned by the medical profession are now seen as an important tool for women taking control of and enhancing their sexuality.