A vibrator is a sex toy that is used on the body to produce pleasurable erotic stimulation. Most 2010-era vibrators contain an electric-powered device which pulsates or throbs, which is used to stimulate erogenous zones such as the clitoris, rest of the vulva or vagina, penis, scrotum or anus. There are many different shapes and models of vibrators. Some vibrators designed for women stimulate both the clitoris and the vagina. Some vibrators designed for couples stimulate the genitals of both partners.
The electric vibrator was invented in the late 19th century as a medical instrument for pain relief and the treatment of various ailments; one account gives its first use at the Salpêtrière hospital in Paris in 1878, with Romain Vigouroux cited as the inventor. English physician and inventor Joseph Mortimer Granville, who also developed an early model, asserted his own priority in the invention and has been described as the 'father of the modern electromechanical vibrator'. Mortimer Granville's 1883 book Nerve-vibration and excitation as agents in the treatment of functional disorder and organic disease describes the intended use of his vibrator for purposes including pain relief, the treatment of neuralgia, neurasthenia, morbid irritability, indigestion and constipation. These early vibrators became popular among the medical profession and were used for treating a wide variety of ailments in women and men including hysteria, arthritis, constipation, amenorrhea, inflammations, and tumors; some wounded World War I soldiers received vibrotherapy as treatment at English and French hospitals in Serbia.
Vibrators began to be marketed for home use in magazines from around 1900 together with other electrical household goods, for their supposed health and beauty benefits. An early example was the 'Vibratile,' an advert for which appeared in McClure's magazine in March 1899, offered as a cure for 'Neuralgia, Headache, Wrinkles'. These advertisements disappeared in the 1920s, possibly because their appearance in pornography, and growing understanding of female sexual function, made it no longer tenable for mainstream society to avoid the sexual connotations of the devices.
Academic debate over possible early use for female sexual stimulation
Historian of technology Rachel Maines, in her book The Technology of Orgasm, has argued that the development of the vibrator in the late 19th century was in large part due to the requirements of doctors for an easier way to perform genital massage on women, often to 'hysterical paroxysm' (orgasm), which was historically a treatment for the once common medical diagnosis of female hysteria. Maines writes that this treatment had been recommended since classical antiquity in Europe, including in the Hippocratic corpus and by Galen, and continued to be used into the medieval and modern periods, but was not seen as sexual by physicians due to the absence of penetration, and was viewed by them as a difficult and tedious task. Maines writes that the first use of the vibrator at the Salpêtrière was on hysterical women, but notes that Joseph Mortimer Granville denied that he had, or ever would, use his invention for this purpose; additionally, Maines states that the true use of these medical vibrators, and the vibrators marketed for home use in the early 20th century, was not openly stated, but proceeded under 'social camouflage'. One example of suggestive advertising given is a 1908 advert in National Home Journal for the Bebout hand-powered mechanical vibrator, containing the text "Gentle, soothing, invigorating and refreshing. Invented by a woman who knows a woman's needs."
Other historians disagree with Maines about the historical prevalence of genital massage as a treatment for female hysteria, and over the extent to which early vibrating massagers were used for this purpose. The idea that stimulation to orgasm was a standard treatment for female hysteria in ancient and medieval Europe has been disputed on the grounds of being a distortion of the sources, and cases of this treatment in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and of the use of early vibrators to perform it, have been described as a practice that if it occurred at all, would have been confined to an extremely limited group. Maines has said her widely reported theory should be treated as a hypothesis rather than a fact.
The vibrator re-emerged due to the sexual revolution of the 1960s. On June 30, 1966, Jon H. Tavel applied for a patent for the "Cordless Electric Vibrator for Use on the Human Body", ushering in the modern personal vibrator. The patent application referenced an earlier patent dating back to 1938, for a flashlight with a shape that left little doubt as to a possible alternate use. The cordless vibrator was patented on March 28, 1968, and was soon followed by such improvements as multi-speed and one-piece construction, which made it cheaper to manufacture and easier to clean.
In the 1980s and 1990s vibrators became increasingly visible in mainstream public culture, especially after a landmark August 1998 episode of the HBO show Sex and the City, in which the character Charlotte becomes addicted to a rabbit vibrator. Appearing in a regular segment on the popular US television series The Oprah Winfrey Show in March 2009, Dr. Laura Berman recommended that mothers teach their 15- or 16-year-old daughters the concept of pleasure by getting them a clitoral vibrator. Today, CVS, Walgreens, Kroger, Safeway, Target and Walmart are among major national US chain retailers that include vibrators on store shelves.
As of 2013, rechargeable vibrators were beginning to be manufactured to reduce the environmental impact of battery-operated vibrators.
Research published in a 2009 issue of The Journal of Sexual Medicine demonstrates that about 53% of women in the United States ages 18 to 60 have used a vibrator. A 2010 study in the Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy found that 43.8% of heterosexual males in the United States had used vibrators. 94% of these men had done so as part of foreplay with their partner, and 82% had done so as part of sexual intercourse. Among non-heterosexual men, 49.8% have used vibrators.
Vibrators and orgasm
Vibrators may be recommended by sex therapists to women who have difficulty reaching orgasm through masturbation and/or intercourse.
Couples may also choose to use a vibrator to enhance the pleasure of one or both partners. There is a device available that functions as a small vibrator specifically meant for couples to use during intercourse.
Types of erotic vibrators
Some vibrators are marketed as "body massagers"—although they still may be used, like the ones sold as adult sex toys, for autoeroticism. Some vibrators run on batteries while others have a power cord that plugs into a wall socket. There is also a vibrator that uses the flow of air from a vacuum cleaner to stimulate the clitoris. Modern versions of old musical vibrators synchronize the vibrations to music from a music player or a cell phone. Some luxury brand vibrators are also completely covered in medical grade silicone with no exposed control panels or seams. Although proper cleaning is required for any sex toy, having fewer places for bacteria to grow reduces the chance of infection.
While some companies sell significantly larger dildos and vibrators, most that are marketed for vaginal or anal insertion are sized around the average penis size.
There is a wide range of vibrators but most of them fall into several broad categories:
Vibrators for disabled people
Disabled people can find that vibrators are an essential part of their sex life for two reasons: First, it might be the only way to get sexual satisfaction due to impaired arm and hand function. Second, for some disabled men, the use of a vibrator is their only way to provide a semen sample for in-vitro fertilization.
Legal and ethical issues
The possession and sale of vibrators is illegal in some jurisdictions, including India, although they are sold online.
Until recently, many American Southern and some Great Plains states banned the sale of vibrators completely, either directly or through laws regulating "obscene devices". On Valentine's Day, 2007, a federal appeals court upheld Alabama's law prohibiting the sale of sex toys. The law, the Anti-Obscenity Enforcement Act of 1998, was also upheld by the Alabama Supreme Court on September 11, 2009.
In February 2008, a US federal appeals court overturned a Texas statute banning the sales of vibrators and other sexual toys, deeming such a statute as violating the right to privacy guaranteed by the 14th amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The appeals court cited Lawrence v. Texas, where the U.S. Supreme Court in 2003 struck down bans on consensual sex between gay couples, as unconstitutionally aiming at "enforcing a public moral code by restricting private intimate conduct". Similar statutes have been struck down in Colorado and Kansas. As of 2009, Alabama is the only state where a law prohibiting the sale of sex toys remains on the books, though Alabama residents are permitted to buy sex toys with a doctor's note.
An American bioethicist and medical historian, Jacob M. Appel has argued that sex toys are a "social good" and that the devices, which he refers to as "marital substitutes", play "an important role in the emotional lives of millions of Americans". Appel has written:
I cannot say whether more Alabama women own vibrators than own Bibles. If I were guessing, I would suspect that a majority derive more use out of the vibrators. Certainly more pleasure. Nor does there appear to be any remotely rational basis for keeping sex toys out of the hands of married adults, or single adults, or even children. Now that we are relatively confident that masturbation does not make little girls go blind, or cause palms to sprout hair, exposure to sex toys shouldn't harm them. On the list of items that I might not want children to be exposed to in stores—guns, matches, poisons, junk food—sex toys are way down the list.
In popular culture
The historical fiction film Hysteria features a reworked history of the vibrator focusing on Joseph Mortimer Granville's invention, and the treatment of female hysteria through the medical administration of orgasm. Its historical accuracy has been criticised on the grounds that Granville's vibrator was for male pain relief.