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From Hysteria to Ecstasy: How the Once-Illicit Vibrator Evolved Into the World’s Most Joyful Toy

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News flash: women are masturbators as prodigious as their male counterparts, if not perhaps a bit more so. It didn’t happen overnight, either. In fact, women have been using sex toys for as long as there’s been sex.

  The Onanism Schism

Now perhaps you’re wondering, if all this getting off was touted as the be-all, end-all, cure-all for what ailed women, why weren’t sisters doing it for themselves? Because back then, Onanism was a huge no-no. It was okay if a doctor touched you “out of medical necessity,” but heaven forefend you should touch yourself. Twisted logic of the times decreed that women could derive no sexual pleasure without penetration, so a bit of slap and tickle by a doctor was deemed kosher. (Done laughing yet?)

This egregious canard was finally blown out of the water when early 20th Century stag films revealed the vibrator for what it was—a pleasure toy. No longer “doctor-approved,” vibrators went underground, hiding in, of all places, plain sight. Hawked from the back pages of women’s magazines and mail-order catalogues as “muscle relaxing devices,” vibrators continued to proliferate like kudzu. In the dawning days of World War I, there were more vibrators in American households than toasters.

For the next few decades, the trend of the world’s worst kept secret continued, until the new conservatism engendered by the Eisenhower era forced vibrators under the radar. Like secret pleasure agents, sex toys became “camouflaged technology,” replete with a special code language to let consumers in on what was truly what. Tricked out in clandestine Get Smart identities, vibrators came disguised as a bizarre array of innocuous items such as backscratchers, hairbrushes, and even vacuum cleaner-attachments. Oh, Hoover me baby. Yeah, right there!

This double-life continued until the 1970s, when the hippy-dippy pendulum swung back and unleashed the sexual revolution. In 1973, her trusty Hitachi Magic Wand in hand, pioneering sex advocate Betty Dodson launched a legendary series of group masturbation sessions in which women were shown the path to sexual enlightenment. Thanks to higher consciousness and heavy media coverage vibrators found themselves smack-dab into the cultural mainstream. A few scant years later, with the advent of sex-toy shops such as Eve’s Garden and Good Vibrations openly selling their wares to a hungry public, the vibrator finally came of age.

In the ’90s, vibes got an unexpected image boost from then Surgeon General, C. Everett Coop, who included them on the official U.S. Government list of condoned safe-sex activities. (Makes ya’ wonder if Ron and Nancy ever gave a Juicy Deuce a trial run in the Lincoln bedroom.) 1999 saw the culmination of 20 years’ research into the history of the vibrator as Rachel Maines’ groundbreaking classic, The Technology of Orgasm, hit the stands; and in a now-celebrated 2005 bi-coastal exhibition, cutting-edge, sexista Violet Blue vaunted the virtual virtues of “teledildonics.” Using a remote control from her San Francisco lair, Blue brought her partner (who was, at the time, strapped into an enthrallingly erotic electric chair known as “The Thrillhammer” somewhere in bowels of the Museum of Sex in New York City) to climax twice for a select viewing audience.

These days, the Internet affords consumers both privacy and near-infinite variety of product, assuring that vibes are going to be around, if not from here to eternity, at least until the world exhausts its supply of batteries, or humans evolve beyond the burning quest for hot monkey love. (Yeah, I know. Ain’t happening.)


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