Thu | Jun 24, 2021

Vibrators: then and now

Published:Sunday | March 18, 2012 | 12:00 AM
Today's vibrating sex toys come in a variety of shapes and serve many purposes.

Heather Little-White, PhD, Contributor

Compared to 20 years ago, vibrators have made a quantum leap from therapeutic cure for hysteria (sexual tension) in women to sexual aid. The development of vibrators reveals the changing views on the relationship of men and medicine towards women. Vibrators are a combination of science, medicine, design, technology and social history. They have taken their place in the lives of men and women, some of whom have come to depend heavily on them for sexual satisfaction.

Early history indicates that there was a strong belief that sex deprivation led to illness. Hippocrates, the father of medicine, believed the womb was not a fixed organ, but that it wandered throughout the body, searching for trouble. It was his view that during orgasm, the womb "grips" the windpipe, causing women to pant hard and breathlessly. Further, it was believed that women's complaints about nervousness, fluid retention, insomnia and lack of appetite was caused by a womb blockage which some Greek doctors attributed to sex deprivation, especially among exceptionally passionate women. (


Massages were used to help women reach orgasm as the touching of the genital organs led to twitching yet pleasurable pain. Subsequently, women were freed of the torment they were experiencing. What a difficult and time-consuming way to achieve an orgasm though? For doctors, it was very tedious and the time spent in administering treatment was not a lucrative activity. Masturbation was not readily accepted in those days as it was thought to be immoral and that it weakened the mind and body. Women, especially those suffering from hysteria, real or imagined, were not allowed to touch themselves as this was a considered a job for men: husbands and doctors exclusively.

Pelvic showers

Spas provided hydrotherapy treatment that helped women climax more quickly. Pelvic showers directed forceful gushes of water directly at the clitoris that supposedly made women climax in just four minutes. The pressure of water stimulated the nerve endings in the clitoral area leading to an almost instant orgasm. Women who had difficulty in climaxing during marriage were advised to do horse-back riding, driving in rickety vehicles or sit in rocking chairs.

In 1880s, a giant electric vibrator was invented which proved to be a better solution than hydrotherapy. The use of steam power was explored and a vibrator called the Manipulator was developed. This was in the form of a desk in which a part was cut out so that a woman could fit her pelvis. Special parts were installed to simulate her sex organ with steam-powered vibrations.


Still frustrated with their hysteria, women wanted assistance for a chronic disease from their doctors. It was believed that while the hysteria condition could not be cured, the condition could be soothed. As a result, a need for cheaper and more available devices arose and several versions of vibrators were developed - some steam-powered, battery-charged to the street current-powered vibrators. Vibrators at the time were operated by doctors and produced up to 1,000 pulses per minute. There were several types - mobile, floor attached as well as those which dangled from the ceiling.

Home vibrator

Sexologists later realised that women's pleasure did not have to include penetration. They questioned the lack of encouragement to use masturbation as a relief for sexual deprivation which has been associated (probably wrongly so), with the cause of hysteria. This led to development of the vibrator for home use at the start of the 20th century.

In 1902, Hamilton Beach developed the first take-home electric vibrator, the most sought-after 'appliance' after the sewing machine. By 1917, there were more vibrators sold as health and beauty aids more than toasters in homes across the world. Later, vibrators were sold undercover as massagers, nail buffers, hairbrushes, back scratchers, and even vacuum cleaners. It was until 1920 that the media blew the cover on these aids and publicised them as sex aids so that vibrators became mainstream items.

The first devices were quite humongous and loud, but heir design improved over time and miniatures were made. Advertisements promoted vibrators to cure hysteria as well as deafness, polio and impotence. An advertised feature was that vibrators "made women's faces glow" after use. Today, there is a wide variety from which to choose and men and women can indulge in personalised sexual pleasure.

Sex toys

Latest research data indicate that 44 per cent of women between the ages of 18 and 60 use sex toys as do 20 per cent of men. Women are comfortable talking with their partner about sex toys. One out of five women masturbate at least once a week, while 60 per cent of them use vibrators. The largest number of women had their first encounter with a sex toy at the age of 20. (

The sexual revolution continues as women become more open about their sexual needs and problems. The use of the Internet has played a major role in this as people in an anonymous setting can freely express their desires and sexual queries through forums, blogs and comments on adult websites.

Realistic vibrators

Vibrators have become popular because they are easily available. Vibrators can be discreetly purchased from the hundreds of options online after you have researched the product to see exactly what you want. Even though today a lot of vibrators are available in different shapes, sizes and contours, some women prefer a realistic dildo or vibrator to fanciful shapes. The penis-like vibrators make them think that they are having actual, real sex, which is the reason they stand mighty and powerful even today.

However, some women are turned off dildo-type vibrators as they are not discreet or are they aesthetically pleasing. Women want novelty vibrators that can add a difference to their sex lives. (

There have been changing perspectives on sexuality. As such, vibrators are widely accepted as are the changing attitude to sexual orientation, masturbation, bondage and discipline. The future of vibrators is bright as long as vibrator manufacturers know how to satisfy women's desires by changing the features of the vibrator with time and emerging sexual practices.

Send comments/questions to: