How the Vibrator Came Out of the Closet

Freud condemned the clitoral orgasm as “immature”–but at least he recognized that it was in fact an orgasm. Before that, medical science didn’t even think orgasms were sexual in nature, calling them “paroxysms,” and doctors actually prescribed them for their female patients. The practice of bringing them about by massage–first by hand, then by machine–was in vogue in the Victorian era and put into mass effect with the advent of the vibrator, which allowed doctors to “service” patients diagnosed with “hysteria” even faster.

The new Maggie Gyllenhaal-Hugh Dancy period sex comedy Hysteria looks at the invention of the first vibrator in the 1880s, which led rapidly to the devices being mass-marketed for home use. But even though more women than ever could achieve climax with the help of a vibrator, for decades feminists still had to fight to assert that it was normal and healthy to do so. Once the practice was recognized as being sexual, it was frowned upon because of the prejudice that women were supposed to climax from vaginal penetration alone. It’s a notion that persists in our popular culture–just think of every movie scene in which a man slams a woman against a wall and they achieve orgasm simultaneously.

That this is not a common scenario is indicated by Shere Hite’s ground-breaking Hite Report (1976), which found that many women pleased themselves without a penis. If women did choose a partner-in-crime to achieve orgasm, the vibrator was still a favorite option. But what those vibrators look like–and how they’re viewed–has evolved quite a bit over the past 100-plus years.

Vibrators weren’t available for home use until about 1899–if you wanted to use one before that, you had to see your doctor, and it usually cost about $2 at the time. And they weren’t advertised until 1904, when they started popping up in women’s periodicals, with such taglines as “Vibrate your body and make it well,” “Take the edge off things,” “Nature’s own cure-all” and “Magic power… will make you feel like a new person.” These ads made no mention of sex, orgasms, or even hysteria–the so-called “disease” for which vibrators were the purported cure. By 1918, the vibrator was available in the Sears, Roebuck catalog to make any housewife happy–a bargain at $6. By 1920, more than 50 different kinds had been invented, according to Rachel Maines, author of The Technology of Orgasm.

“It was a big era for the vibrator,” says Maines. “And they weren’t sexualized. It wasn’t a problem to get them. But the cat was out of the bag as soon as they were used in porn movies.” One of the first adult films to feature a vibrator was the 1920s movie “Widow’s Delight,” in which a woman rejects her suitor to go home to her vibrator. “The veil was off,” Hysteria director Tanya Wexler says. “Oh my God–who knew these were for sex? Shocker!” Once the vibrator was used in porn, it was harder to find a doctor to use one in treatment–although some continued to diagnose hysteria well up until the 1950s. Says Maines, “You can still find doctors who will do this treatment in Argentina, which makes me think it’s a great reason to go to Buenos Aires!

During the sexual revolution of the ’60s and ’70s, feminists brought back the vibrator as a means for women to find release without relying on a partner, and by 1977, the first women-centric sex store, Good Vibrations, was open for business. But in non-pornos, the vibrator was kept more symbolic, fantastic–the orgasmic Excessive Machine in 1968′s Barbarella (“It couldn’t keep up with you! What kind of girl are you? Have you no shame?”) or the Orgasmatron in 1973′s Sleeper (“You want to get in the machine now?”). Debra Winger made do with a gyrating mechanical bull in 1980′s Urban Cowboy (“Look at that! Her nipples are hard!”).

But by the late 1980s, the vibrators were coming out of the closet, thanks to open discussion about women’s orgasms in in films such as When Harry Met Sally… and Sex, Lies, and Videotape, which touched on topics like faking it and the difficulty of achieving orgasm. In 1988, a silly comedy called Casual Sex? had the audacity to name-check a vibrator when Lea Thompson said, “I’m sick of my Mighty Intruder vibrator with the flexible shaft and textured head.” But in mainstreams films, it was still a topic of shame, as in 1989′s Parenthood when Steve Martin found Dianne Wiest’s vibrator  when he was looking for a flashlight during a blackout. When one of the kids asks, “Mommy, what was that?” she’s told, “That was an electric ear cleaner.”

By the early-to-mid 1990s, it was far more common to acknowledge that a vibrator was in your possession–from the friend who confides to Sharon Stone in Sliver that she’s going to get a “plastic yeast infection” to Brian Krakow on My So-Called Life complaining that the one his parents have sounds “like a lawnmower” to Marina playfully making the most of a vibrating toy diver during her bath in Pedro Almodovar’s Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! The 1994 film The Road to Wellville featured Victorian ideas about how to achieve optimum health, including electrical stimulus to your genitals–even Matthew Broderick got a little action. More direct was the teenage girl who handcuffed her boyfriend and took out her vibrator to pleasure herself in front of him on HBO’s Dream On–”Cool,” he says–or Jennifer Aniston taking hers into the bathroom when her husband won’t have sex with her in She’s the One.

As the 1990s came to a close, fictional girls and women were more willing to experiment–Natasha Lyonne took a vibrator for a test drive in The Slums of Beverly Hills, after Marisa Tomei recommends one and calls it her “boyfriend.” But it was Sex and the City that made the vibrator a national conversation, thanks to the pivotal episode The Turtle and the Hare that popularized “the Rabbit,” plus a later episode where Samantha gives some frank advice about which devices to use (and which ones to avoid). “You don’t want that one, too many bells and whistles,” she tells one customer at Brookstone, which insists the store was only selling “neck massagers,” not vibrators. “That one actually works against you,” Samantha says. “If we wanted to work that hard, we’d get us a man, am I right?” And about another model, “No, absolutely not. That will burn your clit off.”

It was a big deal,” said Good Vibrations sexologist Carol Queen. “People could talk about sex toys and have a really honest conversation. It made it possible to say, ‘Yes, I have one.’ And I don’t think the Rabbit Pearl would have been as popular if not for [SATC].”

Sales skyrocketed, and the vibrator was officially mainstream. Gil Grissom could find one in a dishwasher on CSI and Buster could use a cleaning robot in bed for comedy’s sake on Arrested Development. Indie films continued to be more explicit in the 2000s–Shinya Tsukamoto’s A Snake in June, when Rinko uses one for a voyeuristic stalker; Michael Winterbottom’s 9 Songs, when Lisa uses one after getting a table-dance–but creative substitutes allowed bigger-release films to be more stimulating. Elizabeth Banks in The 40-Year Virgin uses a showerhead to “warm up” for Steve Carell (and then Seth Rogen). Parker Posey uses her vibrating cell phone in both Fay Grim and The Oh in Ohio–which leads her into a sex shop as part of her exploration of sexual empowerment. Alice and Dana on season two of The L Word went sex toy shopping as well–and like the girls on Sex and the City, learn way more about their options than they had ever considered. Of course, by the next episode, they also learn that it’s hard to travel with such toys–and it can be embarrassing to have airport security hold up your vibrators, dildos, and nipple clamps for all the world to see. “You can’t take these on the plane, ladies,” they’re told. “You should know better than that.” (It’s a little more acceptable now).

Still, it’s always embarrassing as well as frustrating to be walked in on (as Laney’s whole family does in Not Another Teen Movie, coming to wish her a happy birthday just as her “My Lil’ Vibrator” is getting going), called at the crucial moment (as Courtney Cox’s mom does on Dirt to remind her that she’s late for a reservation: “You better be coming!”), or to drop the remote control while your hands are tied behind your back when you’re watching porn at the same time you’re using your vibrator (as Amber Benson does in Strictly Sexual). Okay, probably that last one doesn’t happen quite as much. “Okay, you caught me,” Amber’s character says. “I mean, men are not the only ones who like to wack off like zoo monkeys.”

The 2000s also saw this idea embraced on TV. Charlotte is giving vibrators away by season three of Private Practice–the Aphrodite, to be precise, from Dr. Laura Berman’s line of sex toys. Peggy on Mad Men gets a little vibe action in a 2007 episode when Don Draper assigns her the “Electrosizer” to try out for an ad campaign. An early predecessor to vibrating panties, it’s a girdle that’s supposed to promote weight loss, but she discovers that its arousing capacity is “probably unrelated,” so she pitches the ad line: “You’ll love the way it makes you feel.” The men are confused, so Don explains, “It provides the pleasure of a man, without the man.” Even Kristen Wiig got some vibe time this month before leaving Saturday Night Live, during a Mother’s Day skit in which she is interrupted while reading 50 Shades of Grey. Of course, the hubby and kids walk in to surprise her with breakfast in bed. “Get out!” she tells them. “Look, a microphone!” one of the kids exclaim during a family photo.

Recent film has seen lots of vibrator discussion as well. Elizabeth Banks–back for another round of masturbation talk with Seth Rogen in Zack and Miri Make a Porno–explains: “I never met a man who makes me come like a vibrator does.” Berman’s vibrating panties made a big splash with Katherine Heigl in The Ugly Truth when a kid gets a hold of the remote control and gives her an orgasm during the middle of a business dinner. “Oh!  Oh, wow. Yeah! Yeah. Mmm. This ceviche, it’s so good. Quite possibly the best I’ve ever tasted. I’m going to go ask the chef about the recipe.” (“What’s in ceviche?” one of the dinner guests asks, in a callback to Rob Reiner’s mom asking to order the same pastrami sandwich as Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally…) Julianne Moore and Annette Bening use a vibrator in The Kids Are All Right. However, most films tend toward more talk than action, because too real or long of a female orgasm puts the movie at risk of getting a NC-17 rating (as This Film Is Not Yet Rated explains). So women on film are usually relegated to sex that’s all about penetration and not about the other practices that actually work for women.

Now, however, vibrators are taking center stage. Sarah Ruhl’s play, In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play, put them on Broadway, and now Hysteria places the vibrator on the big screen, tracing its invention to a freethinking woman (played by Gyllenhaal) who links female orgasms with women’s rights. “My goal isn’t to shock people, but to make you laugh,” director Tanya Wexler said. “It’s a thinking woman’s romantic comedy, and it’s just what the doctor ordered. There’s no need to hide it anymore. There’s no shame.

(From TOP LEFT to BOTTOM LEFT): Photo of antique poster advertising the doctor’s cure for women’s hysteria; photo of an early century vibrator advertisement; Photo of window display in Good Vibration’s Antique Vibrator Museum; Photo of sexologist Carol Queen from Flickr user Charles Haynes under Creative Commons 3.0; Photo of OhMiBod club vibrating panties which can be purchased at www.goodvibes.com.

Comments

  1. spyergirl4 says:

    There’s also Amy Farrah Fowler on The Big Bang Theory, who keeps offering to help Penny pick out an electric toothbrush like the one she has if she feels lonely.

  2. A very interesting article. But in the Sex and the City episode that is referenced in the article, I think Samantha is at a Sharper Image, not a Brookstone.

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