Vibrators, a type of sex toy, are making its way into mainstream big box stores. Over a century ago, this pulsating device was a common household item. However, once it was associated with female sexual pleasure, it was cast aside in disgrace. It has taken over 100 years, but the vibrator is back!
Sex toys have a fascinating herstory.
In the late 1800s, vibrators were one of the greatest medical devices conceived.
You see, women had a little problem way back then. They felt frustrated. Depressed. Fatigued. Bloated. Unsatisfied. There was a term for this horrific medical condition: hysteria. In particular, men were perplexed: How can we cure our women of this flaccid ailment?
Enter the heroic medical doctor. These doctors, almost always men, found a sure-fire cure for the distressing issue of hysteria — paroxysm. Yes, the women needed a release, a paroxysm, to help them feel calmer, more relaxed. It was a well-known fact that women were biologically incapable of experiencing sexual pleasure. Specifically, it was inconceivable that women would delight in orgasms. Consequently, sexual pleasure was centered around the male experience.
Hysteria and manual massage
At that time, the only known cure for hysteria was manual massage. Yes, that’s exactly right. Physicians fervently used their hands and fingers to massage “down there”. (Women didn’t have clitorises back then — it’s a modern invention.) Sometimes these professionals would spend up to an hour restoring these desperate women to a more acceptable mental state. In fact, as so many distraught women caught word of this extraordinary “treatment”, they began lining up for their turn. Were there any repeat patients? Why, yes, I’m quite certain there were many, many visits by many, many frustrated women on many, many occasions. Just a hunch.
This was really hard work for these dedicated physicians! Their hands were getting really, really tired!
(For a humorous, entertaining take on the invention of the vibrator, check out the movie Hysteria starring Maggie Gyllenhaal. You can view it with your older teens. It is pretty clean, believe it or not.)
Physicians had had enough. Keeping these women happy….I mean treated.…was very labor intensive. Sometimes this arduous manual therapy took up to an hour! Eventually, these poor, overworked men utilized a device invented by Dr. Joseph Granville called the percusser. This contraption was intended to relieve muscle aches. However, exhausted physicians adapted this tool to relieve them of their professional duties to treat these hysterical women. This medical device, the electric vibrator, allowed women to resolve their own medical ailments in the privacy of their own homes. Genius!
Now women had more time to work around the house – no more waiting at the doctor’s office. (I imagine husbands returned home from long days at work and still couldn’t figure out why dinner wasn’t on the table, however….) These devices were sold openly everywhere. Sears Roebuck sold it in their catalog along with other necessary household items, like vacuums.
Then, in the 1920s, pornographic movies — stag films — incorporated vibrators into the storylines. Suddenly, these highly-revered, necessary household appliances became viewed as sordid sex toys. They were yanked from the shelves, tossed in the garbage and became a source of shame. Even Dr. Granville distanced himself from his spectacular invention when it was viewed as an illicit contraption.
Sex, Crackers, and Cereal
Keep in mind, this was an era in which sexual mores were extremely puritanical. Masturbation was considered a horrific sin. It caused blindness and madness! In fact, there are many individuals who continue to believe this myth. Just sad. For them.
Fear not, however! Sylvester Graham, an innovative gentleman disgusted by the very idea that someone may actually enjoy self-pleasuring, had a great idea. You see, Graham believed that a poor diet, which included white flour, caused society to behave immorally. Additionally, he surmised that food made from bland whole wheat flour would suppress any desire for sexual pleasure.
So he concocted an idea to fix this problem of immorality and depravity: Graham crackers.
Yes. That’s right. To quell sexual desire, graham crackers were invented. Yum.
One of his followers, Dr. John Kellogg, also wanted to cure our nation of the evils of sexual pleasure. His invention? The corn flake. Yes, breakfast cereal was initially created to eliminate lustful behavior.
Sex Toys and the Women’s Movement
In the 1970s a new wave of feminism was beginning to take hold due to the development of the pill, Roe v Wade and Title IX. Women openly claimed their sexuality as a result of this.. Because of this, vibrators began a slow reemergence into women’s bedrooms. Joani Blank was a pioneer in providing women’s sexual health and wellness products. In 1977 she founded Good Vibrations in San Francisco. This was a safe, comfortable space for women to learn about their sexual wellness and purchase products to enhance their sexual pleasure without shame.
Up until recently, the availability of sex toys has evolved from clandestine purchases, in which the packages arrived to one’s home in plain wrap, to colorful sex toy stores that dot our retail outlets.
Additionally, vibrator options have exploded. Women in particular are designing sex toys that focus on female sexual pleasure, such as Dame and Maude. Historically, men designed vibrators. Needless to say, this meant the vibrators resembled penises, because, of course. However sexual pleasure for some women require different design options and women innovators are responding to the need. Manufacturers are popping up in numbers to join the party. In fact, the “fem-tech” world of women’s sexual health and wellness is big business.
“The “femtech” market, which includes the category of sexual wellness, could be worth $50 billion by 2020, according to a 2018 report by Frost and Sullivan. The adult store industry made $9.5 billion in 2018, and sex toys account for nearly 80 percent of that revenue, according to a 2018 report from Ibis World.” (The Man Who’s Putting More Sex Toys on Walmart’s Shelves by Katie Van Syckle, New York Times, July 9, 2019)
Recently, Walmart hired a small personal appliance manufacturer to produce an affordable, stylish, and fun sex toy line. Yes, coming to your local Walmart, Target, and Amazon, anyone can confidently and shamelessly purchase their own personal-use sex toy. This matters because only 25% of women have the magical ability to climax with penetrative sex. It is perfectly fine for women to get a little extra help to improve their sexual health. Even Walmart has figured that out. Sadly, there is still some pushback when recognizing vibrator development in the male-dominated tech world.
Purchasing sex toys is as simple as it once was… more than a century ago!
The sordid history of the vibrator is an important piece of women’s sexual herstory. Bringing the vibrator to big box stores, out in the open, is a tremendous step forward as society accepts women as independent sexual beings, no matter their orientation or identity.
Historically, sexual pleasure was centered around male pleasure. It is so important to have sex-positive conversations with your kids. In fact, I highly recommend Peggy Orenstein’s book Girls and Sex to learn more about sex-positivity and women. These conversations should embrace pleasure for all. And for self! By taking the shame out of experiencing pleasure, sexual and sensual, we can raise kids who are respectful, kind, and attentive lovers. In fact, someday your child may approach you about using a vibrator! Read this article by Melissa Pintor Carnagey of Sex Positive Families to prepare for that conversation.
I know it sounds crazy to think about this, but don’t you want your kids to have a satisfying relationship with their romantic partners? (Yes, you do.)
Unfortunately, it has taken over a century, but the vibrator is one indicator that all genders are happily recognizing that there’s enough fun and pleasure for all! Who wants to go shopping?!