Breaking Down Getting Off: The Industrial Design of Vibrators

An in-depth look at the vibrator industry and the limitations of its heteronormative roots.

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Squat, round, and colorful, at first glance Jimmyjane's Form line looks like paperweights or designer toys, the kind of thing you'd pick up at the MoMA Design Store for a playful friend or particularly precocious child. Form 2 looks like it has bunny ears; Form 5 seems more aquatic-inspired, with two silicone petals emerging from a cylindrical base. Press a button, and each whirs to life with a gentle buzz — yes, they're designer toys, and they're meant to go on your privates. Or, you know, wherever.

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"Our Form line is named that way so that each customer can envision it how they want," said Carolina Formoso, an industrial designer at Jimmyjane. Form 2's bunny ears contain a motor each, resulting in extra-powerful vibrations for whatever occupies the space between, be it clitoris, nipple, or perineum. The pocket-size toy (Jimmyjane's best-selling product) is small enough to hold between two bodies, buzzy enough to get a person off on its own, and abstract enough to leave on the nightstand. The Form series, in this abstraction, offers a blank slate. Its design doesn't dictate who uses it, where they use it, or who they use it with.

The sex-toy industry seems to largely be the domain of straight, cis women, perhaps because that's how the personal vibrator originated. Toy marketing is largely pink and hetero — one of the industry's most popular e-commerce sites is called Adam & Eve, and on almost any brand's website you'll need to navigate through categories for women (phallic toys and vibrators) or men (masturbation sleeves, cock rings, and maybe the occasional prostate massager). Toys for couples, it's implied, are for heterosexual couples. However, in 2016, there are a number of ways to use a toy, which can come in all shapes, sizes, and textures to suit any arrangement of bodies and partners. This flexibility arguably makes sex toys some of the queerest tools in the world, despite their heteronormative marketing. And the increasingly creative industrial design behind sex toys has led to a vast possibility of sensations, offering orgasms and experiences outside the scope of traditional partnered sex.

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I've never believed that sex with a partner has anything to do with orgasms, perhaps because I figured out how to get myself off while relatively young. Though sex and orgasms were known to converge, sex seemed to be mostly a complex social interaction, fraught by the convergence of my own emotions and other people's feelings. Achieving solo orgasm was largely mechanical, initially thanks to the ever-reliable tag team of my first and middle fingers. Later, after I was old enough to buy one, I got the job done with the assistance of a matte purple vibrator. It was six inches long and multispeed and branded — somehow, this didn't bother me — by Hustler.

Achieving solo orgasm was largely mechanical, initially thanks to the ever-reliable tag team of my first and middle fingers.

The personal vibrator was initially developed as a medical treatment for "feminine hysteria" in the late 19th century. (Dildos have been around for a lot longer — stone phalluses have been found dating back to the Upper Paleolithic period, or 30,000 years ago.) "Hysteria," which comes from the Greek hysteros, or uterus, was a catchall term for a sickness originally (and hilariously) attributed by Hippocrates to a "wandering uterus," which, as it migrated, filled the female body with its poisonous vapors. By the Victorian era, the medical understanding of hysteria was that it was a bothersome feminine condition, eased only by a "hysteric paroxysm" — that is, an orgasm.

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As masturbation was discouraged and the general mode of male-centric penetrative sex rarely resulted in female orgasm, the usual Victorian treatment for hysteria was a doctor- or midwife-administered genital massage, conducted in office. Beleaguered, sexually frustrated women patients were good for business — they neither died from their illness nor fully recovered, but required regular appointments. However, doctors complained of hand and wrist fatigue, and thus, the hands-on model proved unsustainable. Alternatives were sought: a French wind-up device called the Tremoussoir; a cumbersome, steam-powered American invention called the "Manipulator"; and, eventually, an electromechanical vibrator patented by Dr. Joseph Granville in 1880.

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Finally: a solution to the problem of female orgasm. But in inventing the vibrator, these (largely male!) engineers also invented a mechanical device that relies on a kind of stimulation to induce orgasm that's far from analogous to partnered sex. With the advent of the vibrator, women suffering from sexual frustration were now able to get themselves off in the privacy of their own homes and at their own discretion. A consequence of the development of the personal vibrator, then, has been the separation of the act of sex from the act of orgasm itself. A sex toy makes physical the act and acceptance of masturbation: to hold a vibrator is to literally take your sexual pleasure into your own hands.

With the advent of the vibrator, women suffering from sexual frustration were now able to get themselves off in the privacy of their own homes and at their own discretion.

In 1902, the American company Hamilton Beach patented an electric vibrator for commercial — as opposed to medical — use. Vibrators were widely available for several decades, advertised with tongue-in-cheek copy that hinted at their sexual uses (like a "personal massager" for when you need "a little something to take the edge off things"). They fell out of favor by the 1920s, when their appearance in pornographic films stripped them of any veneer of respectability. Sex educator Betty Dodson's endorsement of the Hitachi Magic Wand as a masturbation aid during the sex-positive feminist movement of the 1960s revived the public interest in private pleasure. Though originally marketed as a general body massager, the Magic Wand — now distributed by Vibratex, after Hitachi distanced itself from the sex-toy industry in the '90s — functions as a remarkably effective clitoral vibrator. (The Dodson method recommends cushioning it against the clitoris and vulva with a hand towel.) Almost 50 years later, the Magic Wand remains one of the most recognizable sex toys.

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Thanks to mentions in pop culture like the appearance of Vibratex's Rabbit vibrator on Sex and the City, as well as a growing understanding of personal sexual agency, sex toys have been mainstreamed. Though toys must either be classified by the FDA as medical devices — generally a long and difficult process — or else sold as largely unregulated novelties, high-end brands like Jimmyjane, Lelo, Fun Factory, and others have been credited with bringing legitimacy to the sex-toy market, as well as approachability.

Palatable, discreet design has been a large part of the industry's acceptance. "Design has been used to make these products more approachable to a broader audience," Jimmyjane's Formoso wrote to me. "I would say our design ethos is very minimalist, modern with an emphasis on innovation and technology." The company's aesthetic is reflected in its lineup of sleek, discreet products, which have names like Iconic Bullet and Iconic Wand, referring to classic toy shapes, and the aforementioned Form series, the shapes of which don't reference human anatomy at all.

Lelo, a luxury toy brand, also takes a minimalist approach, because the company believes it's most effective. "Most of our pleasure products are kind of anatomical abstractions," said Steve Thomson, the company's chief marketing officer. "They don't directly reflect nature: they interpret it, recode it, and improve it, depending on the intended purpose of the product." For example, a toy meant for insertion will be necessarily somewhat phallic, but the shape of its head can be adjusted to provide a specific internal sensation — tapered for one experience, broad and flat for another. It helps, of course, that this minimalism also prevents sex-toy newbies from shying away from their products.

It helps, of course, that this minimalism also prevents sex-toy newbies from shying away from their products.

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Designers cite user experience as their initial impulse for toy design. "One of the most challenging things about designing for sexuality is that there is no 'one size fits all,'" said Formoso. "Sexuality is also objective, and different people interpret and experience pleasure differently." Formoso cites market research as integral to the development of new products. "We then look at technology, ergonomics, and the marketplace to understand what is missing and how we can enhance that experience at the consumer level."

Thomson told me about the design process behind Lelo's Wave series. The distinctive "come-hither" motion of each of the toys was envisioned after the first model of the Ina, a stylized rabbit vibe, was made. The original Ina didn't have the come-hither gesture, as there wasn't the technology, but it looked like it could. This curling movement, of course, comes from the experience of partnered sex — manual stimulation, and probably manual stimulation fairly similar to the kind doctors and midwives used to get "hysterical" women off in the Victorian era. However, in Lelo's care the movement has been mechanized and transformed into something not human-looking but not quite uncanny valley, either. While developing the follow-up, Thomson told me, "We discovered that we could make the technology ourselves … So sometimes the idea leads the technology, and sometimes the technology leads the idea. It's symbiotic."

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Despite their industrial design origins, sex-toy manufacturers must inevitably contend with the thicket of sex, gender, and relationship dynamics that surround their product. Jimmyjane opts for a gender-neutral approach to its branding: "We aren't dictating whether the product should be thought of as female or masculine within the name," said Formoso.

At Lelo, "We've found that the best way to engage with different sexual, gender, and relationship dynamics is to remove all of them from our creative process as much as realistically possible," said Thomson. While perhaps that holds true for the design and manufacturing process, Lelo's marketing is rigidly heteronormative. For example, one of the brand's couple's toys, Ida, is packaged with a "user guide" that includes (admittedly very tasteful and sexy) illustrations of a straight couple in various positions. The toy itself could function in a number of different positions and orifices, but you wouldn't know it by looking at the marketing material. Such user guides are crucial points of entry for first-time consumers, and though I'm sure many seasoned queer couples have already co-opted the Ida for their own pleasure, I wonder how many more people were dissuaded.

The toy itself could function in a number of different positions and orifices, but you wouldn't know it by looking at the marketing material.

It's a mistake for brands to ignore the queer community, which makes up a large proportion of sex-toy consumers. Much of the industry's biggest strides come from the queer community — for example, New York Toy Collective is a queer collective completely revolutionizing dildo and strap-on technology. And many of the industry's most vocal supporters (and critics) are queer sex-toy reviewers, like Epiphora or the Autostraddle community, whose public blog posts explain the variety of uses a toy can have and suggest ways to make toys better. Though they're explicitly tied to pleasure, sex toys also remove the body in large part from that pleasure; they are objects weighted with as much or as little association as we choose to imbue them with.

Sex toys have always existed to allow people, particularly women, to take control of their pleasure, regardless of who it is or even whether they have a partner. For me, they represent an unimaginable array of ways to feel good, and better. So why not remove the restrictive marketing surrounding their inventive design, so that we can more thoroughly embrace all possible avenues of pleasure?

Larissa Pham is an artist and writer in Brooklyn.

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