Sex & Relationships

The Joy of Sex Toys: How Vibrators Stopped Being 'Shameful' Secrets

Once considered shameful, the vibrator has become a common part of most people's sex lives. Turns out we like sexual pleasure.

I had my first encounter with a vibrator in my mid-20s.

Fairvilla Megastore, the most prominent adult retailer in Orlando, Fla., at the time, had a big, bright Plexiglas case with a bunch of vibrators in it, each corresponding to a button on a panel. A sign invited customers to "Try before you buy."

After pussy-footing around for a few minutes, I pushed a button, bleating and jumping away as the corresponding toy hula'd and buzzed. I was raised around the animatronics of Disney World fergodsake, but all those talking ghosts, bears and Abraham Lincolns hadn't prepared me for this salacious, gyrating wiener.

As I recovered myself, I heard trills of laughter -- a young couple had been watching me the entire time. For all three of us, it was Discovery Day.

In the ensuing 20 years, much has changed. I now have a blog on which I often talk about, and sometimes review, vibrators. Better adult stores now all take products out of the boxes and putting them right into customer's hands so they'll know what kind of bangs they'll get for their bucks. And the buzz on vibrators, culturally and in real life, has gone from a whisper to a joyous scream.

If Apple's approval of a vibrator app for the iPhone wasn't enough, the embrace of the once-shunned sex aid was recently confirmed by two studies from the University of Indiana (on one men, one on women), which found that 53 percent of women and 45 percent of the men between 18 and 60 have used vibrators and that those who had were more apt to safeguard their sexual health.

Female vibrator users were more likely to have had gynecological exams in the last year or to have performed breast self exams in the last month. Recent male users were more like to have performed a testicular self-exam and scored themselves higher in most of the five domains of sexual function (erectile function, orgasmic function, sexual desire, intercourse satisfaction and overall satisfaction).

There was no significant difference in vibrator use between men who identified as straight and those who identified as gay or bisexual. The study, which queried 2,056 women and 1,047 men, is the first  to publish nationally representative data on vibrator use and was funded by Church & Dwight Co. Inc, makers of Trojan products (condoms, pleasure rings, etc).

When you consider the stigmas vibrators held in the past, this rate of use isn't just a jump, it's a shuttle launch. Writing in the New York Times about the Indiana study, Michael Winerip notes that vibrator use was cited as "not appreciable" by an Alfred Kinsey report in 1953 and "less than 1 percent" by Shere Hite in 1976.

A subsequent 1992 survey from the University of Chicago said that only 2 percent of women had bought a vibrator in the past year. Even recognizing that "bought" and "used" are significantly different, for the numbers to shoot that high that quickly represents a significant change in our attitude toward sexual pleasure.

Turns out we like it.

"Vibrators are part of who we are as a culture now," says Metis Black, president and co-founder of Tantus Inc., a sex-toy company specializing in hand-made, pure silicone products. "When we started Tantus 11 years ago, we were going for 30- to 50-something women; that was thought to be the audience." Younger women, she says, were thought to be with younger men, who might be threatened by the idea.

"But if you look at the (Indiana) study, young women and men have no qualms about using a sex toy." she says. In fact, the age group with whom vibrators are most popular, both men and women, are 23-44. "They're influenced by their mothers, by movies and television," and are aware that vibrators are "normal."

Dr. Ian Kerner, sex and relationship counselor, author of numerous bestselling books on sex and relationships, including "She Comes First," and a contributor to the Today show and Cosmopolitan, says in a phone interview that he "absolutely" recommends vibrators as tools for sexual health and sees several factors as responsible for the increase in our comfort with them.

"Vibrators are more fun and more friendly, and women have a much greater sense of their own sexual self-entitlement," he says of the perfect storm of cultural factors that have brought the buzz to the fore and made vibrators "smooth, curvy, all the colors of the old Macintosh computer."

Another factor, he says, "is the ongoing feminist sexual revolution," of which we have a pop-cultural manifestation in Sex and the City, wherein the rabbit vibrator is as much an accessory ... as anything else, so a lot of taboos have been dismantled by popular culture."

Although devices being used for sexual pleasure have been around for thousands of years -- a dildo thought to be about 29,000 years old, dating from the Ice Age, was found in Hohle Fels, Germany, in 2005 -- the idea of women using them was socially anathematic.

It's been a rocky climb out of that to the stage where Oprah features frank midafternoon discussions of sex with therapist Dr. Laura Berman, who has her own popular line of vibrators. Pleasure, unattached to politics or even popular culture, is an idea we're warming up to (and if not, KY makes a gel for that).

Pleasure, though, was not the admitted initial purpose of vibrators. They started as a cure. The disease was desire.

For hundreds of years, women had been being diagnosed with "hysteria," a term that dates to the days of Hippocrates (who recommended marriage as a cure). In The Technology of Orgasm: Hysteria, the Vibrator and Women's Sexual Satisfaction, author Rachel P. Maines describes "hysteria" as producing symptoms of "chronic arousal: anxiety, sleeplessness, irritability, nervousness, erotic fantasy, sensations of heaviness in the abdomen, lower pelvic edema and vaginal lubrication."

What was being categorized as a disease were "symptoms" of female sexuality, and that had long been something to be afraid of rather than embraced.

In For Women Only, Elisabeth Bummiller and Drs. Jennifer and Laura Berman (of the Oprah show; the Bermans are sisters) point out that the Christians who followed the Greeks and Romans "deemed sex unsavory and women as a threat to male salvation." The Renaissance, they say, did help the idea of enjoyable sex within the confines of marriage, but the Victorian era brought everyone back to square one.

Many saw masturbation as a disease, and both sexes suffered horrors, including circumcision and even clitoridectomy, over the societal fear of it as described in The Unfit by Elof Axel Carlson: "The revival of the clitoridectomy in the late 19th century was associated with the erroneous belief that the sewing treadle stimulated the clitoris and led to masturbation."

Women weren't expected to like sex but to "endure" it. "At the same time," For Women Only says, "hysteria was apparently pandemic." And, strangely enough, the cure was orgasms -- "hysterical paroxysm" -- either with a husband or furnished by a doctor.

Manipulating all that female genitalia was time consuming for busy MDs, and so arose the world's first popular vibrator, the steam-powered Manipulator in 1870, which made the job more efficient. In-home vibrators became available in the early 20th century, and Vivienne Parry in the U.K. Times writes that leaflets suggested they didn't cure just hysteria but "deafness, polio and impotence."

Later in the century vibrators were about, but not out.

"The vibrator became what academics like to call camouflaged technology," Teresa Riordan writes in Slate magazine. Packaging still touted massaging effects and avoided equations with sexual pleasure. Popular vibrators, Riordan writes, "doubled as nail-buffer kits, hair brushes, back scratchers and some that were designed as attachments for vacuum cleaners."

Though these disguises continued into the 1970s, the '60s saw a couple of major changes: The sexual revolution and the Pill. As this new physical and emotional power over our sexuality evolved into the desire for self-knowledge and pleasure it makes sense, Metis Black states, that the 1970s saw the beginning of the actual sex-toy industry

Though by the time women were ready to explore their choices, there weren't tons of choices to explore.

"At the time, you probably had two or three suppliers," she says, and there was no aesthetic value whatsoever. "They weren't packaged as anything other than to get it from China to the stores, and the stores weren't places that you or I would put our foot in.

"They were in the worst neighborhoods, purely for males, places you could get a Super-8 video for a stag party. The stigma attached to those places and those toys is one that it's really hard to remember."

And companies usually "didn't have the input of someone who played with the toys" when they were designed. To this day, she says, companies get catalogs from manufacturers and say, "Oh, that one's shiny, it looks pleasing. We'll get 10,000 of those." The input of bloggers who are doing free reviews or being given toys to review without payment are providing much-needed honest input. Canadian sex educator and TV personality Sue Johanson alss is someone who has offered straight-up vibe talk.

The idea of a being a groundbreaker in the art of masturbation sounds like the stuff of bad jokes, and that is a great, great credit to the people who made an obvious joy of what was once an embarrassing secret. It means we see self-pleasure as a given, and, like lots of other things we take for granted (within the last century women weren't allowed to vote, remember) someone had to have the nads to pipe up and give us a new model.

Betty Dodson discovered the joys of vibration in 1965 when then-partner Grant Taylor got the idea that the scalp massager used by his barber would be fun for quite another purpose, Dodson writes in Orgasms for Two: The Joy of Partnersex.

This new idea lead the innovative artist and author to introduce electric vibrators at the first NOW conference on sexuality in 1973.

"My lecture overflowed into the hallway," Dodson writes, and it led to her groundbreaking 1974 work, Liberating Masturbation: A Meditation on Selflove, later titled Sex for One, the Joy of Selfloving.

More than three decades later, Dodson is still a good-humored, forthright voice, writing and making videos, like the ones on her Web site with Carlin Ross, subheaded Dodson and Ross: Liberating Women, One Orgasm at a Time.

Many contributors to the sexual revolution are responsible for getting us where we are, and Black cites a great many pioneers as helping get us out of back rooms and bad head spaces.

One was Dell Williams, founder of Eve's Garden in New York, the first nice sex boutique ever. "Where she had found product," Black says, "she couldn't not find a space she was willing to walk into. It was really cleaning up the aesthetics and giving real information to women," including books, catalogs and sexuality workshops (Williams' papers were recently donated to Cornell University).

Another revolutionary was Joani Blank, sex therapist, counselor, teacher, publisher, entrepreneur and inventor. In 1975, she founded Down There Press, producing sex-related books, and two years later opened the now-legendary Good Vibrations in 200 square feet of space.

Now 31 years old, GV is still an industry gold standard, the first place that leaps to mind for many women wanting information, even if they've never set foot in a Good Vibrations store, but have long bought the books and gotten the catalog (if this sounds like the voice of experience, it is).

Blank even invented a vibrator herself, the Joani Butterfly, a wearable item with a raised clitoral stimulator; it's popularity is evidence of what happens when you actually get women designing the toys they're going to use. When she started Tantus, Black wanted input on her own products as well.

"It was the era of dolphins and goddesses," and toys tended to be made of a lesser-quality silicone. "Nothing was there that I wanted to play with." Another gap in the market was "they were all geared towards women. No one was looking at a couples industry."

That would change, too, but in between the daring vision of the '70s and the design-conscious '90s lies the '80s -- and the AIDS crisis.

Talking about sex was no longer a coy or snickering business -- it was a matter of life and death, and discussions about condoms, dental dams, oral, anal, homosexuality, bisexuality became more and more open. Add to this the deluge of information -- and entertainment -- that would come with the Web, and the ability of people to talk frankly about sex was bound to increase.

While that legendary Sex and the City episode about the rabbit certainly opened the dialog (and the rabbit design, by the way, isn't just to make toys look cute; the little bunny ears actually have the function of clitoral stimulation), it was still primarily about women.

Eleven years after that show aired, we have made a huge leap to couples sex toys, and nothing suggests the advance in couples' open sexual communication as resoundingly as the success of the We Vibe, a small silicone vibrator meant to be worn during intercourse, which vibrates between couples.

Invented by Bruce Murison, a mechanical engineer and inventor from North Gower, Ontario, the We Vibe was named sex toy of the year by Sue Johanson and even turned up in the gift bags at the 2009 Academy Awards.

"Vibrators play a greater role in clitoral stimulation that feels good to women," Dr. Ian Kerner says. And "Men are much more conscious and accepting of female sexuality and that female sexuality doesn't always conform to how men experience arousal or how women in porn experience arousal." He would recommend vibrators to "men who suffer from premature ejaculation or a man who is concerned that he won't be able to last long enough for his wife or partner to experience an orgasm would use a vibrator in conjunction with, or instead of, intercourse."

From socially camouflaged vacuum cleaner attachments to the stuff that couples' getaway weekends are made of, the vibrator has come a long way in the America. Well, most of America. They are still illegal in some states, like Alabama, where evidently it's preferable for you to go find some stranger to boink.

If you're single (as I am), vibrators are the reason that all those nights you have to spend alone are often all those nights you get to spend alone.

Mexico, it seems, is a little more progressive. Dr. Roger Lancaster, professor of anthropology and cultural studies at George Mason University, and author of The Trouble with Nature: Sex in Science and Popular Culture, writes in an e-mail that he was recently in the conservative city of Puebla "in Sanborn's ... a rather old-fashioned chain, sort of an upscale dime store with pharmacy and restaurant. ... For at least a few years now, Sanborns has put condoms and lubricants out on the counter. ...On my last visit, I noticed they've also put out pleasure rings (I wasn't sure what one was until I looked it up on the Internet) ..."

See? Every generation adds its spin and polish. Can't wait to see what these kids come up with next.

And if the past is any indication, it seems one stock that's safe to buy now is Duracell.

Liz Langley is a freelance writer in Orlando, Fla.