WellnessThe Vibrator's History Is Central to Sexual Wellness

The Vibrator’s History Is Central to Sexual Wellness

Dakota Johnson swears by hers for a morning facial massage. Lily Allen wields hers for solo time and partnered play. Gwyneth Paltrow describes hers as a “functional objet d’art.” 

The item in question that celebrities can’t get enough of? It’s a vibrator. The pleasure tool, though, is hardly just a celebrity-supported trend destined to fall out of vogue, à la Juicy sweatsuits. Rather, these handheld dynamos, which have been around since the late 1800s, are currently booming in popularity. With the global sex-toy industry projected to reach $54.6 billion in sales by 2026 (up from $35.1 billion in 2020), vibes will account for a whopping $25.9 billion of that total, according to the firm Research and Markets.   

The industry dollars and star-powered support are pushing along a social cause that’s gaining long-overdue momentum: As Dakota Johnson said in a 2020 statement announcing that she would become Maude’s co-creative director, “Sexual wellness is a fundamental human right.”

For people with a vagina, though, that declaration comes after a storied history of orgasms being undervalued, under-nurtured, and even undermined. Common causes include a clueless (or cavalier) sexual partner and prevailing cultural taboos around female masturbation that stoke guilt and shame. It’s no wonder the “orgasm gap” between people with a vagina versus a penis is alive and well today: Research conducted in 2022 on heterosexual couples found that 97 percent of men orgasm during sex “more than half the time or every time,” while women report the same at a rate of only 72 percent.

The current ubiquity of vibrators is helping people with a vagina close that gap; it puts the power in their hands—quite literally—to better control when and how they get off. But, the tool hasn’t always been an implement for female sexual liberation and discovery. The history of the vibrator follows a long and winding journey that certainly didn’t start with an intent to center pleasure.

High-vibe beginnings

For nearly as long as there have been human beings, there have also been sex toys—or at least human-made objects that resemble sex toys, says certified sex educator Cindy Luquin, founder of sexual-health education company P2P Consulting

“Stone dildos and intimate toys have been found from 30,000 years ago,” she says. (Scientists can’t say for certain whether the oldest prehistoric siltstone phallus found was used as a sexual aid, but given its “life-size proportions,” they think it’s a good bet.) 

The buzzy innovation of the vibrator happened many centuries later, and its primary use as a sex toy could be categorized as something of a happy accident. According to sex researcher Hallie Lieberman, PhD, author of Buzz: The Stimulating History of the Sex Toy, British inventor and physician Joseph Mortimer Granville, MD, patented his electric percusser (also known as “Granville’s Hammer”) in the 1880s for reasons completely unrelated to sexual gratification. He believed healthy nerves exhibited a certain level of vibration, and if those levels were off, diseases could occur. The aim of his device, which he originally prescribed for men, was to cure—not to come. 

Given that electricity wasn’t commonplace in the home in the late 1800s, doctors exclusively operated early vibrator models to treat a number of conditions, including constipation and hearing loss, in both men and women, according to Dr. Lieberman. 

While her research has debunked the popular narrative of Victorian doctors administering vibrators to clitorises to cure hysteria, she did find that physicians would insert vibrators into the vagina to treat “female ailments.” That blanket term may have included hysteria, but she says “using vibrators to treat hysteria prophylactically seems improbable.” Doctors of the time were savvy enough to understand that bringing a patient to orgasm through clitoral stimulation was unethical, she explains: “Would a reputable doctor have done this stuff and kept their license? No way.”

By the early 20th century, members of the medical community increasingly categorized the cure-all vibrator as a piece of quackery, according to Dr. Lieberman, so manufacturers turned their sales focus from physicians to consumers. Vibrators began making their way into U.S. homes as household appliances, with ads falsely proclaiming they treated all manner of maladies. 

An advertorial for the Swedish Electric Vibrator Co. that ran in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 1907 proclaimed: “Scientists and physicians hail vibratory massage, which cures nine out of every 10 diseases, as the greatest medical discovery ever granted to suffering humanity.” The list of diseases (there are 39!) include asthma, gout, paralysis, vertigo, bronchitis, and wrinkles. 

Though there was no overt mention of anything sexual in those ads, they did often feature scantily clad women (and sometimes men) hawking the product in a tongue-in-cheek manner. It was this shift from the doctor’s office to the cozy confines of the home during which consumers likely discovered the vibrator’s use as a sexual stimulator, though the evidence is scant, says Dr. Lieberman. “When vibrators first came out, women couldn’t even vote in this country. Birth control and abortions were illegal. Mastrubation was seen as a mental illness. Women were not in control of their bodies. Were they going to be writing about masturbating? Hell, no,” she says. “All that to say, do I think people were masturbating with them? Yes.”  

Sex for pleasure gets scientific backup

Over the next few decades, the vibrator was subject to several rebrandings: first, in the 1920s as a beauty aid marketed to treat wrinkles for women, and then by mid-century, as an equally chaste scalp or back massager, according to Carol Queen, PhD, Good Vibrations staff sexologist and curator of the Antique Vibrator Museum in San Francisco. Simultaneously, research was happening in the field of human sexuality that would later inform the vibrator’s use as a device of sexual pleasure. 

Sexologist and biologist Alfred C. Kinsey, PhD, published his landmark volumes Sexual Behavior in the Human Male and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female in 1948 and 1953, respectively. As one of the first researchers to conduct large-scale studies on human sexuality, his findings—including the fact that 62 percent of women masturbated—raised eyebrows. 

“He talked about how common female masturbation was, and people were outraged,” Dr. Lieberman says. The idea of women seeking sexual pleasure for the sake of it—and without the assistance of a penis—was scandalous in the 1940s and ‘50s. 

While Kinsey made the taboo a talking point, sexuality researchers William H. Masters, MD, and Virginia E. Johnson took the discussion even further by studying the mechanics of the female orgasm. They observed study participants masturbating in their lab—using a camera-equipped vibrator they dubbed “Ulysses.” With the help of the vibrator, the Masters and Johnson research helped to dispel the notion that women who didn’t climax from vaginal penetration alone were “frigid,” but rather that they likely needed the addition of clitoral stimulation. (Up until that point, the prevailing narrative—fronted by Austrian neurologist and psychologist Sigmund Freud—was that clitoral orgasms were “infantile” and vaginal orgasms were mature and superior.) 

The body politic

As the sexual revolution and the rise of second-wave feminism began unfolding in the 1960s and ‘70s, the topic of women’s sexuality became a political one. While first-wave feminism largely centered around women’s right to vote, second-wave feminism concerned itself with taking on the patriarchal structures and norms holding women back. Folks who were part of this movement advocated for greater opportunities outside the home and increased reproductive rights. (The contraceptive pill was only approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 1960, and Roe v. Wade wasn’t decided until 1973.) Part of the grassroots approach involved holding consciousness-raising groups in women’s homes. 

“Women were getting together to talk about their lives away from men,” Dr. Lieberman says of the meetings that began popping up in the ‘60s. “They talked about their sexual experiences and abortion. It was a way to get back their power.”

Stocksy / Sonja Lekovic

Artist-turned-sex educator Betty Dodson took the meetings she hosted in her Manhattan apartment a step further by educating women on masturbation. Dodson reasoned that women couldn’t truly be liberated if they weren’t capable of providing their own orgasms or knowing their bodies well enough to tell a partner how to please them. 

Educational meetings at Dodson’s apartment were held in the nude. She passed out mirrors for attendees to examine their genitalia (many for the first time), as she guided them through an anatomy lesson. Next came a demonstration by Dodson. With her favorite Hitachi Magic Wand in hand, she would masturbate to orgasm. She then distributed Magic Wands to the assembled women so they could try them out on their own bodies.  

Dodson’s approach supported Masters and Johnson’s findings on the importance of clitoral stimulation (hence Dodson’s fondness for the Magic Wand, rather than an insertable device). In 1973, she took her message of female sexual liberation through masturbation to the National Organization for Women (NOW) convention, where it was met with a mixed reception. (Ironically, Lieberman writes in Buzz, some feminists took issue, believing Dodson’s “focus on orgasms and sexual pleasure divorced from emotional connection was a ‘male-identified’ and antifeminist form of sexuality.”) 

The 1970s also saw the establishment of several female-founded sex shops, including Eve’s Garden in New York and Good Vibrations in San Francisco. (Up to that point, women in search of stimulatory devices had to shop either through mail-order catalogs or at male-focused adult bookstores, complete with peep-show booths in the back where customers would masturbate while watching porn.) These new women-owned shops created safe and comfortable shopping environments for patrons. 

Eve’s Garden’s original location was nestled in proprietor Dell Williams’s Manhattan apartment, before later moving to an upper floor of a nondescript office building in midtown. (Williams was inspired to open her boutique after an uncomfortable shopping experience at Macy’s, where she went to purchase a Magic Wand after attending one of Dodson’s workshops.) 

Good Vibrations’ founder, Joani Blank, also took care in selecting the location for her first outpost. “Joani chose the Mission District for the original Good Vibrations store,” Dr. Queen says. “Our neighbors included the Women’s Building; Artemis Cafe; Old Wives Tales, a women’s bookstore; Osento, a women’s bathhouse; and a lesbian bar. Good Vibrations was also pretty low-profile to begin with. Many neighbors likely didn’t know we were there for quite some time.”

However, that wasn’t the case for the store’s Berkley location, which opened in 1995. “There was a kerfuffle led by a neighborhood church,” says Dr. Queen. “We prevailed but had to negotiate with the city. We had to stage the store so as not to have a problem with zoning-imposed limitations.” Progress was happening, but work to normalize and celebrate pleasure still needed mainstream support.

The pop-culture buzz 

Vibrators got another big boost in the 1990s, when a pink translucent model dubbed the Rabbit (featuring a twirling shaft for internal G-spot stimulation and bunny ears for external clitoral stimulation) landed a co-starring role on the HBO series Sex and the City. In the season one episode “The Tortoise and the Hare,” perpetually pragmatic Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) introduces uptight Charlotte (Kristin Davis) to the vibe with the promise of guaranteed orgasms. Charlotte soon becomes infatuated—and she wasn’t the only one, according to Dr. Queen.

“I was on the schedule to work the morning after that show first aired, and when I arrived, there was a line down the block,” she recalls. “The Rabbit vibrator really got a boost in its fan club thanks to that show.”

Sex and the City

A later SATC episode found Samantha (Kim Cattrall) trying to return her vibe to The Sharper Image after it goes kaput, only to be told that the store does not sell vibrators—they only sell neck massagers, the snippy sales clerk declares. Samantha has to agree to the verbiage before the associate will allow her to exchange the item for a new one. 

Though neither plotline painted vibrators in the most positive of lights (Charlotte: “I’m scared if I keep using it, I’ll never be able to enjoy sex with a man again!”), Dr. Queen says these depictions were still vital in mainstreaming vibrator use and acceptance. “People learn more about sex via pop culture than they do in sex ed classes or in sexuality communities,” she says. “It’s the main way our society invites us to ask ourselves how we feel about a certain thing. That is really why it was so important for Sex and the City to show a vibe.” 

Vibrators have popped up on numerous shows since, including How I Met Your Mother, You’re the Worst, Unreal, and Grace and Frankie, among others. Primetime reality TV got its own vibrator moment in 2021 when Bachelor contestant Katie Thurston showed up on night one to meet suitor Matt James with her favorite toy clutched behind her back. She coyly told James she brought something from home that was “really special” to her that helped get her through the pandemic, and she hoped to “pass the torch” onto him, finally revealing the vibe (carefully obscured by ABC censors’ little black box, of course). The gesture earned a hearty laugh from James and titters from fellow contestants spying from an upstairs window. Thurston’s loud and proud sex positivity—especially on a modern dating show that remains rather prudish in its stance on intimacy—earned her praise from many Bachelor fans.

Perhaps the best example of how far pop-culture portrayals have progressed over the past three decades comes from a scene from the Sex and the City reboot And Just Like That…  In the season one episode “Diwali,” Miranda is tucked in bed, using her vibrator, when her teenage son, Brady, bangs on the door. Without missing a beat, she attempts to carry on a halting conversation with him through the wall before he heads out for the evening. 

“It’s kind of a throwaway scene, but for someone who watched the Rabbit thing very closely, I  thought, Oh my god, they’ve completely changed their view of sex toys,” says Dr. Lieberman. “On Sex and the City, they did an intervention for Charlotte because she was addicted to her vibrator and needed to be in a relationship with a man. Now, Miranda masturbates with vibrators. She’s in a relationship. And it’s not a big deal. It’s nothing. It’s just very matter-of-fact. That was a huge, huge shift.” 

The sexual wellness revolution 

In the first two decades of the 21st century, vibrators have, ironically, come full circle, says Dr. Queen, returning to their original 19th-century purpose as a health device. With a twist, of course: This shift is due, at least in part, to our greater understanding and acceptance of the role sexual wellness plays in our overall health. Whereas sexual health historically focused on STI prevention and treatment, as well as reproductive function, the field has expanded over the years to include the mental and emotional components, too.

Woman’s hand gently rubbing exotic fruit in shape of vagina. Abstract of clitoris masturbation.

To wit, the World Health Organization (WHO), which has been regularly updating its definition of “sexual health” since 1975, offers this current wide-reaching iteration: “Sexual health is fundamental to the overall health and well-being of individuals, couples and families, and to the social and economic development of communities and countries. Sexual health, when viewed affirmatively, requires a positive and respectful approach to sexuality and sexual relationships, as well as the possibility of having pleasurable and safe sexual experiences, free of coercion, discrimination and violence.”

Yet, there is still work to be done, especially in researching sexual function in people with a vagina. It was only in 2005 when the anatomy of the clitoris was fully mapped. Experts believe that continuing research into vulvar pleasure could ultimately lead to important findings for women’s health overall. 

While larger scale-research—and dissemination of available research for practical application—is still needed, some vibrator companies are using technologies like biofeedback to give folks with a vagina actionable insights into their own unique orgasms and the factors that influence them. One example is Lioness, which was founded in 2017. Its rabbit-style vibrators come equipped with sensors that measure pelvic floor activity while in use. When synced with the app (which allows users to input tags and notes about their mood and alcohol intake, among other features), it’s possible to identify patterns in orgasms to optimize the experience and, ultimately, help shore up the pesky pleasure gap.

While bells and whistles like this are certainly a step in the right direction, they won’t matter much if vibrators aren’t a stigma-free, accessible-to-all means of self-pleasure and sexual wellness. Thankfully, the past decade has also ushered in a democratization of the market. 

Today, quality, reasonably priced vibes (think: $40 or less) now fill Amazon shopping carts and Rite Aid shelves, and the luxury vibrator market is thriving as well. Recently, retailers like Sephora, Saks Fifth Avenue, Bloomingdale’s, and Nordstrom began carrying sexual wellness items (including Dame and Maude) online, with an eye toward expanding into their brick-and-mortar outlets.

Courtesy of Dame

For Dame co-founder and CEO Alexandra Fine, being able to provide products at multiple price points is imperative. “We just came out with our most affordable vibe,” Fine says, referring to the brand’s $30 Zee bullet vibrator. “As we are growing, I can offer a more accessible product, which is so fulfilling for me.”  

Despite the increased ubiquity of vibrators, stigma still lingers. In 2019, Fine sued New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) for discriminatory practices when it refused to allow her to advertise Dame products on the subway (while accepting ads for erectile dysfunction pills). The two parties eventually settled, with Dame winning the right to post ads. “It’s one of my proudest moments,” Fine says of the settlement. 

What will it take for the stigma around vulvar masturbation—and the toys that get us off—to disappear completely? It’s a hard question that doesn’t have an easy answer, but experts agree that we just need to keep talking: about self-pleasure, about vibrators, and about what gets us off.

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