A Short History of the Vibrator in American Culture {Adult} ~ Kimberly Lo

Via on Mar 12, 2013
Rob Boehle via Pinterest
Rob Boehle via Pinterest

This past weekend, I caught my local community theater’s production of Sarah Ruhle’s In the Next Room or the vibrator play.

As the name implies, it about vibrators or rather how they were used in the late 19th and early 20th century as a “cure” for female hysteria.

Needless to say, this fascinating piece of history was kept out of my middle school and high school history classes. In fact, it wasn’t until I was in my teens that I even knew what a vibrator was when a boy implied that my divorced mother must be using one since she did not have a boyfriend. (Apparently, he knew this was a “fact” because his older brother had told him so.) In high school, it was a huge insult to suggest that a girl had one or used one. Usually, the girl was “ugly,” and it was implied that no guy would ever want to get with her, no matter how drunk he became. It’s probably safe to say that none of these people actually had one. When I was growing up in the early to mid-1990s, the only place to buy such things were in sex shops or via adult magazines—hugely out of reach not only for most teens, but even many so-called respectable women living where I grew up in conservative southeastern North Carolina.

Therefore, it would probably would have come a surprise to those kids—and a lot of other people for that matter—to learn that the first vibrators were used by doctors on respectable middle-class and upper-class woman for what was then considered a legitimate medical condition. Not to be left out, some men were also diagnosed with hysteria, and they were also treated via a male version of the device. (For those that would like to learn how and where they were administered, then check out this link.) The electric vibrator was a godsend to doctors who specialized in the treatment of hysteria. Prior to its invention, the doctor or his nurse had to manually apply pressure to the “special areas.” Sometimes, a treatment would last as long as three hours. By comparison, the new electric vibrator took only a few minutes.

The question as to whether or not the doctors were truly ignorant or just willfully ignorant as to what was going on here and that the patients were experiencing orgasms is subject to much debate. As a 21st century woman, my initial reaction was, “How could they not?”

However, a Victoria scholar from the University of Virginia who spoke at the panel I attended after the play referred to a survey that was taken around the time that the play was set and over two-thirds of the men surveyed responded that their wives were “frigid.” The overwhelming majority also indicated that they wish that it wasn’t the case and that their wives would enjoy marital relations. In any case, the gig was up once pornographic or so-called “stag films” came into existence in the early 20th century and vibrators were often featured in them. While vibrators were available for sale in so-called woman friendly shops like the San Francisco-based Good Vibrations, it was not until the age of the internet where transactions could take place in the privacy of one’s own home that many women felt comfortable to purchase one.

In this day and age where nothing seems taboo, and one can hardly open a magazine or view an episode of HBO’s hit series Girls without a graphic mention or graphic visual of sex, there is still a lot of hesitancy when it comes to vibrators and their usage. While there is no doubt that other popular HBO series chronicling the lives of single women in NYC also took away some of the taboo surrounding vibrators with the now legendary rabbit vibrator episode, few women in real life feel comfortable admitting that they own one much less use or have used one.

Granted, it is not something I have personally ever thought of asking my girlfriends, but there is the question of why this is so. After all, many celebs and non-celebs have talked about their sex lives and even shared graphic stories of vaginal rejuvenation surgeries. (And really, does it get much more personal than admitting you had your lady bits reshaped?) However, it seems that admitting that one masturbates and uses something artificial to achieve orgasm is too much to share. Even when discussed in TV shows, the implication is that these are for wild, single women who mainly live in big cities and/or who are just looking for fun. The idea that they can be used with a long-term partner as part of routine sex is largely unheard of.

While I personally don’t think it’s a good idea to broadcast every details of one’s personal life via Facebook or Twitter, I also do not think that this taboo against talking about vibrators and how they can help achieve a woman achieve orgasm is somewhat of a disservice.

Despite what women—young and old—are told via popular entertainment, books, and magazines it can be hard for a woman to achieve orgasm without some help. Sometimes the easiest way to accomplish this is via electricity. Some women go their whole lives without ever experiencing an orgasm which, while no one has ever died from it, is still sad. I know of at least woman who confided that she did not achieve one through intercourse until she was well into her 30s and with a man whose body was a good physical fit with hers. Not everyone is so lucky.

Along with evolving attitudes, the vibrator itself has evolved. The new high-end vibrators are light-years away from the cheap, battery-operated ones that were the mainstay of sex shops, but many of the former could even be displayed in a bathroom or bedroom without someone even realizing in passing what they were.

Still, don’t expect the majority of women to admit that they own one much less take the risk keeping in out in the open in the bathroom and risk company seeing it. For many, it’s still too taboo.

 

 

 

 

 

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Ed: Kate Bartolotta

About Kimberly Lo

Kimberly Lo is a yoga instructor and freelance editor & writer based in Charlottesville, VA. In her spare time, she enjoys needlework and photography. Connect with her on Facebook.

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