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Massagers-cum-Toys: The reverberating history of the vibrator

The prevailing history of the vibrator is shrouded in night-time mystery and buried deep beneath duvets.

Art by Deaundre Espejo.

The prevailing history of the vibrator is shrouded in night-time mystery and buried deep beneath duvets. Buzzing softly between whispers for almost two hundred years, vibrators have only recently rushed to the fore as symbols of sexual liberation – albeit for mostly straight white women à la ‘The Rabbit’ in Sex and the City. But these objects have a more electrifying past within Western scientific discourses, existing as instruments for cultivating communities of pleasure and celebrating diversity. This culture of splayed-openness, which over half of us adult Australians take for granted, is distant from the sheltered privacy of the bedroom.

The pink and purple, twisting and turning, rounded and rubber vibrators we know today are a far-cry from the devices fixed with immovable generators and confined to doctors’ surgeries in Victorian England, invented by physician Joseph Mortimer Granville. Believing that vibrations powered the nervous system, Granville’s percuteur aimed to calm stomachs, clear sinuses and rejuvenate tired muscles. Contrary to historian Rachel P. Maines’ now defunct thesis that nineteenth-century physicians used vibrators to massage clitorises and cure female hysteria, Granville targeted his device exclusively toward men. These strict gender binaries created a paradox amidst the emerging crisis of ‘new masculinity’ — a reactionary movement against the perceived over-civilisation of men into bookish and scrawny ‘effetes’ caused by the Industrial Revolution. As such, the vibrator initially constructed the same patriarchal ideals of sexual aggression, body-building and personal care that it would eventually be co-opted to resist.

By the early 20th century, the vibrator was made portable; it could be taken home and held in one’s hands. As domestic appliances, vibrators emerged as the epitome of care, beauty, motherhood and femininity, having previously enjoyed success as upper-class symbols of modernity and new-age science. 

Most importantly, their meanings were markedly non-sexual. 

When US manufacturing conglomerate Hamilton Beach began advertising its New-Life Vibrator in 1912, it affirmed the technology’s place in a three-hundred-page manual concerning Health and How to Get It. By the following year, the addition of a vibrating attachment to the Duntley Vacuum Cleaner had fomented its connection to family values in the Anglo-American imagination.

But these marketable ‘massagers’ became time-saving tools in more ways than one. Quotidian depictions of Polar Cubs on billboards and back pages may have allowed advertisers to avoid direct charges of supposed immorality, but their sexual connotations were loud and clear. While the phallic attachments and vibrating belts pioneered by Hygeia Vibratory Co. in 1902 vaguely promised to increase “vital power”, articles in Woman’s Home Companion stated that “all the pleasure of youth… will throb within you.” Of course, these gendered codes did little to empower the ‘modern girl’ or her ‘fallen sisters’ beyond their overt eroticisation. Yet when the Journal of the American Medical Association declared that “the vibrator business is a delusion and a snare” in 1915, the vibrator market reactively pivoted towards the service of international holistic therapy. At no other point would vibrators move so subversively against the professionalisation of medical discourses and their anti-masturbatory rhetoric.

These new meanings stimulated nascent feminist and queer subcultures around sexual experimentation and self-determination. At a time when doctors were obsessed with pathologising sexual practices, the vibrator reconnected bodies with the stories of intimacy pulsing between them. As the first safe and accessible sex toys, vibrators materialised an embodied experience of sexuality: of touching the innermost parts of oneself, liking it, and learning to love it. Buttressed by the Kinsey Reports’ 1953 findings that sexuality was best mapped on a spectrum, the vibrator became proof of the inexistence of ‘deviant’ or ‘perverse’ identities. Sex was realised as desire, eliciting enough excitement to begin filling the gaps left by historical experiences of lack.

It was not until the 1970s that these sex-positive attitudes climaxed into the general consciousness. When Betty Dodson opened the final day of the 1973 National Organisation for Women’s Manhattan conference with a sentence placing ‘cunt’ beside ‘masturbation’, she affirmed that taking control of one’s sexuality meant taking control of one’s life. Sex shops by and for women, like Joani Blank’s San Francisco shop Good Vibrations, swept through a newfound passion within society for female independence. In spaces like the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, attachments of contested body parts like dildos and butt plugs navigated gender dysphoria and parodied ‘penis-in-vagina’ stereotypes. But non-binary and trans histories outside galleries and archives remain scarce. In many ways, each vibrator holds the weight of these stories in its ridged contours and battery packs, resisting the essentialisation of these sexual and social identities. As author C. Riley Snorton argues, they reflect a “movement with no clear origin and no point of arrival.”

For all the vibrator’s stubborn dedication towards a single end-point, its history is anything but linear and straight-forward. It is theatrical, controversial, pervy, and impervious – and increasingly less hidden behind narratives of sickness and sin. From the timeless sophistication of the Hitachi Magic Wand, to the chic novelty of the Lelo Gigi, there still remains so much potential for even more radical discoveries.