Orgasmic design: how vibrators have become ambitious tech products


    The vibrators long, slow march from taboo to mainstream( and maybe even cool) has been all about figuring out what exactly girls want

    Consider the humble vibrator. Invented as a medical device in the 19 th 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 merely are vibrators not invisible, theyre hardly even avoidable. New vibrators are unveiled to the awed public at TechCrunch meetings. 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, Beyonces is allegedly gold-plated and Maggie Gyllenhaal claims an incredible collect .) High-end companies market them as luxury products. One 2012 survey found that 52. 5 % of women utilized them, whether alone or with a partner, and that women who use vibrators were actually more likely to take care of their sex health by going to the gynecologist for regular quizs.

    Its odd to acknowledge this, but vibrators may have gone route beyond not being shameful. They may merely be cool.

    Its been a strange road to this point. For one thing: vibrators, despite their generally positive connotations today, were not invented out of some solely benevolent desire to give women orgasms.

    The electric vibrator was actually fabricated by a British physician in the 1880 s 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, whos currently completing a volume on the subject.

    Specifically, vibrators were used in treating hysteria: doctors gave manual genital massages to unruly girls, with the goal of bringing on hysterical paroxysm. The vibrator was a quicker style to bring on that particular and apparently medically inexplicable fit. Today, wed barely 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 anxiety and the odd sex divide consciousness of Victorians girls seemed to pick up on what the devices were really doing. And advertisers started softly signaling their better, more recreational use in ads.

    Vibrators were marketed initially as medical devices and beauty and health devices, Comella says. Although their sexual utilizes were known, advertisers in the early 20 th century were coys, use coded language to both hint at and mask their sexual utilizes.


    The Vibra Touch massager, in the 1970 s. Photograph: Archive

    For instance, in the 1908 advertising for the Bebout vibrator , which lands somewhere between New Age relaxation tape and religious tenet, we are informed that the Bebout is gentle, soothing, invigorating and freshening. Devised by a woman who knows a womans requires. All nature pulsates and vibrates with life.( This soon takes a turn into the vampiric, when we are informed that the most perfect female is she whose blood pulsates and oscillates in unison with the natural law of being .)

    Oscillating blood aside, well into the 20 th century, vibrators have been sold disguised as something other than sexuality dolls as weight-loss devices( as noted in the Mad Men episode where Peggy Olsen detects some relief from the burdens of being a working gal) or as personal massagers, like VibraTouch, whose 1970 s box showed a woman merrily applying it to her shoulder.

    So when did it become acceptable to refer to vibrators as sex dolls? Or to refer to them at all?

    The answer comes through the convergence of three important historical forces: feminism, LGBT rights and television.

    In the late 1960 s and 1970 s, feminists began to dispute humen received wisdom about things like the vaginal orgasm( then supposedly preferable to the clitoral variety ). The rising homosexual rights motion, with its push for increased visibility and pride, also meant that more people were talking about sex, and defining what they wanted out of sexuality, while disowning dishonor. Sex educators like Betty Dodson began to advocate for masturbation often, as in Dodsons case, with vibrators; she led( ahem) hands-on workshops as a healthy and necessary route for women to get to know their own bodies and preferences.

    It was at around this time that feminist sex toy stores Eves Garden in New York, Good Vibrations in San Francisco and the bi-coastal phenomenon of Babeland began to spring up, with welcoming, well-lit environments and highly trained and informative personnel, as ways for women to get beyond shopping in uncomfortable or male-dominated venues like your standard porn store. The effort was often spearheaded by queer girls, and it eventually began to change not only how sexuality toys were sold, but how they were made.

    You had retailers that were trying to cater to a less skeevy market, but the products were pretty much the same, says sex educator and journalist Lux Alptraum. You had lesbians and feminists starting to make their own sex dolls. When we think about two women having sex, theres more likely to be toys.

    Alptraum points to companies like Tantus, which was founded in 1997 and was instrumental in popularizing the medically safe silicone over popular soft PVC plastics that had been linked to endocrine disruption and cancer.

    Women-friendly sex shops also played an important role in putting demands on an industry not typically known for producing quality products, says Comella. Good Vibrations, for example, offered clients warranties and were not afraid to send defective products back to manufacturers.

    With less stigma, there was more pressure for vibrators to be well-made, healthy and effective. And, though vibrators are traditionally focused on clitoral or vaginal stimulation, vibrators focused on prostate stimulation have been on the rise as well, which is helpful in get the whole gender identity spectrum in on the action.

    And then there was Tv. Which may have been the one thing to push the whole debate over the edge, and into the public eye, once and for all.


    Carrie Bradshaw meditating her vibrator in Sex and the City. Photograph: Screengrab

    It was only really in 1999 that[ sex toys] began to gain some respectability in the mainstream, says Filip Sedic, founder and CEO of high-end sex doll company LELO. That was largely thanks to an episode of Sexuality and the City, which featured a rabbit-style vibrator. That episode, in which Charlotte was so enamored by her sex plaything that her friends had to stage an intervention, caused a sudden increased number of interest in personal pleasure products.

    Increase is putting it mildly. At that time, Sex and the City occupied the dead centre of the culture dialogue; it effectively popularized everything from shoe brands to specific cocktails. But demand for the Rabbit Pearl, which provided clitoral and vaginal stimulation simultaneously, was riotous. In 1999, UK store Ann Summers says it sold over one million rabbit vibes alone.

    And thus, it was upon us: the first celebrity vibrator. The Rabbit was so trendy that not only was it more than acceptable to know what it was, you could actually was acknowledged by owning one.

    Which more or less brings us up to the present day. By now, vibrators are not only a recognized industry, they attract major technological talent.

    By 2008, females were considered to be the most wonderful growth marketplace in the adult industry, Comella says. What you began to see were sex doll companies founded by mechanical technologists and design school grads who were really interested in bringing notions about sort and function and, importantly, lifestyle branding, to the forefront of the novelty sector.

    Sedic, for example, has a background in smartphones, and his companys vibrators have a particularly sleek, minimalistic, future-by-Stanley-Kubrick appear that unavoidably reminds one of a sexy iPhone. Alptraum also points to the rise of independent designers.

    There are three factors that have aggressively sped up innovation, she says. One of them is decreasing stigma. MIT engineers can say this is a viable career.[ Factor] two is 3D printing. You can now more easily prototype, more cheaply prototype. And three is crowdfunding. People with an idea and a 3D printer can now get something induced.

    With bigger budgets and easier manufacturing comes more research and growth Sedic says that LELOs in-house designers work with CAD, 3D modeling, clay, wood, you name it and with the investigations and developing comes the chance for the products to work in new ways.

    LELOs Ora, which won the Cannes Lions award for product design in 2014, is a clitoral vibrator designed to simulate the feeling of oral sex.( The upgraded Ora 2 model was released last June .) Meanwhile, the Womanizer, which has gotten rave reviews everywhere from O Magazine to Autostraddle, works on the principle of suction.

    The quality of sex toys across the industry is improving generally, and thats very heartening, Sedic says. But there are still common mistakes that we try to avoid. For instance, we try not to gender LELO products except where its more or less unavoidable, and we try to build predicts for particular purpose but without dictating how they should be used because everyone sensations are different. Its a fine line.

    That said: only because you can buy a $12,000 24 -karat gold vibrator does not necessarily mean you have to. At least not on your first try. Alptraum recommends buying a cheap bullet vibe model( a Doc Johnson Silver Bullet is typically available for less than $10 from online outlets) before anything else, simply to figure out what you like. After that, its truly a matter of personal option: Theres a vibrator thats entirely worth it to some people, but not worth it to me, because our bodies are different, she says.

    But, if you remember, thats what the entire history of the vibrators long, slow procession to the mainstream has been about: figuring out what you, personally, want. If we can say nothing else about the state of the vibrator in 2015, its that you now have a whole lot of options.

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