In Praise of Vibrators

Sometimes, when I think about sex and society, I just get tickled by how far we’ve come. This isn’t to say that, as a culture, we still don’t have our share of sexual hangups, but, overall, western culture is far more open about sex and sexuality than it’s been in quite some time.

hysterical paroxysmWhat got me thinking about this was a lovely little film called Hysteria about female hysteria – the medical diagnosis that encompassed everything from anxiety and depression to the outspoken possession of unpopular opinions by women in the late 19th century.

Though the film itself is apocryphal, (click here for the history of the vibrator or, check out the gorgeous antique vibrator museum at the Good Vibes on Polk St. in San Francisco), it does a lovely job of showing the 19th century attitude towards sex that led to the development of such a catch-all diagnosis. It also illustrated a valuable truthΒ  – to ignore sex is not to eradicate the drive to have it. All it does is change the label under which the desire is classified.

Image courtesy of stuwho.wordpress.com

Image courtesy of stuwho.wordpress.com

For example, rather than needing a good fuck – because getting fucked was not something ladies, (even happily married ladies) – did at the time, women diagnosed with hysteria underwent a “treatment” wherein a physician with “special training” would manually bring about a “paroxysm”. This paroxysm would then “re-situate the uterus” and alleviate the patient’s “unpleasant” symptoms, (which could be anything from “disturbing dreams” to moodiness). In other words, the doctors would make the patient come and she would feel better.

Repeat weekly for the rest of your lives ladies, because hysteria was a medical condition that required a medical solution. It was certainly NOT the simple need for a good fucking. Heavens no.

It was out of the exhausting and comically debilitating rigors of the manual treatment for hysteria that the vibrator was born. But what began as a clinical means to an end underwent many cultural permutations over the course of the late 19th and early 20th century. The vibrator was a “personal massager” in the teens and twenties – not openly talked about, but not reviled either. Then, in the thirties and forties, it became a pornographic tool used by perverts and whores, (and housewives and mothers, but we don’t talk about that). The “personal massager” was back with a vengeance in the 50’s and 60’s – there were many sore muscles back then – but it wasn’t until the 1980’s that vibrators, and sex toys in general, came into their own.

Sweetie, that's not quite where you put it.

Sweetie, that’s not quite where you put it.

Now, well into the 21st century, we’ve got bullet vibes and vibrating dildos, that famous little rabbit and that vibrating gold standard, the Hitachi Magic Wand. We’ve got vibrating butt plugs and smart vibes that you can literally activate from half a world away, (you’re welcome long-distance lovers, tops and subs). Their use is now so far from being taboo that vibrators appear casually in everything from romantic comedies to erotica and porn. Vibrators mean anyone can have an orgasm – alone or with a friend, (or four). They mean that women, (and men), no longer have to mask their pleasure behind a medical diagnosis.

So yes, we’ve still got hangups. We’re still snarky and righteous and judgmental. But we’re also owning our sexuality – and our pleasure – more than we have in decades. And that, I think, is something to celebrate.

16 comments

  1. Thank you Malin; for these good vibrations and all other -brain&body- vibes by your delicious hand. All pleasures,to celebrate daily, send and activated from europe in return;-)

      1. Just used mine….I call it the Aqua Angel…and isn’t it just. I use rechargeable batteries because otherwise I spend a fortune on batteries…..God what am I admitting….?

  2. Reblogged this on writingthebody and commented:
    I love my vibrator. And Malin tells me that I can sing their praises. Well yes I do. My Aqua Angel is one of my most prized possessions…it has been wearing out for a long time….

    And I use so many batteries that nowadays I use rechargeables. This morning, though, even they were flat, and to my enormous joy I found one new but non-rechargeable battery – and my goodness wasn’t it bliss! I get wet just thinking about it!

  3. How timely. My first was a gift: the classic, cheap, hard plastic type. For decades, it has remained my enduring favorite for, well, decades. (Not the same one, of course.) Battery operated, with an estimated life span of about 6 months. Slips into a carry-on bag for those dirty weekends of long ago. (Although removed, once plucked from the bag and held up in plain view of EVERYONE by a confused female security person, causing me to lean in and state, “It’s a vibrator.” Over the years, other more complicated styles came in and out of vogue, but I found my latest cheap-o with batteries and a copy of The Story of O kept me out of trouble whenever I wasn’t in some dumb relationship.

    Ten years ago I was gifted with the Hitachi wand (though Hitachi has removed its name from the box now.) It plugs in and it’s lifespan is years. It’s actually a damn good massager, too.

    Back in the day a gal had to go BUY these things. The cheap-o plastic style became increasingly difficult to find. I traversed Yonge St. more than once, ducking into shops that sell plastic bums and FISTS but not what I sought.

    This is a timely post, as I recently replaced both vibrators by ordering them from Amazon! I let my fingers do the walking. Sadly, the cheap-o CLASSIC (it’s official name, now) arrived already non-functional. I complained. A new one was mailed out and I returned the non-functioning one, no postage necessary. Okay, it’s only seven bucks but it’s the principle of the matter.

    Ah the world wide web! Making it easier for a girl to get her toy collection in order without walking ten miles, barefoot, in the snow . . .

    1. That is a wonderful story! Thank you so much for sharing it. My first vibe was a little, cheap-o bullet, bought for me by an older, wiser friend for my twentieth birthday. I still remember going to Good Vibes in SF with her to pick it out. Pivotal moment, that.. I’ve got to say, cheap, little bullets are still a sentimental favorite. With so many options out there, and with it being so easy to get your hands on pretty much anything, (thank you Internet!), it’s nice to have an old friend to fall back on.. Oh, and for what it’s worth, Story of O has kept me out of plenty of trouble too πŸ˜‰

      1. I guess I should add, Story of O got me INTO plenty of trouble later on . . . when I discovered that OMG this stuff isn’t ALL fiction? Do I do it? Write it? Decisions, decisions . . .

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