The buzz around vibrators is reaching a fever pitch these days. In Alabama, six women recently challenged a law passed in November that bans the sale or distribution of sexual devices. (The ACLU is fighting the Alabama decree.) Dong dealers face up to $10,000 in fines and a year of prison or hard labor; in jail, they presumably take your batteries along with your shoelaces.
Still, though at least 12 other states have passed similar legislation against sex toys, there's no law preventing their use. One retailer, the 22-year-old Good Vibrations in San Francisco, reports annual sales hitting more than $5 million. The boom is due, Vibrations reports, to the rise of e-commerce. Shy customers no longer have to sneak into sex shops; they can just boot up goodvibes.com.
It's rather poetic in a McLuhan sort of way; this new technology (the Internet) is rescuing the old technology (vibrators). And as author Rachel Maines reports in her historical tome, The Technology of Orgasm, published in January, vibrators are way old indeed. The first model came out in the late 1880s, shortly after the iron and the sewing machine, and was marketed as a therapeutic home appliance. "Vibrators were contemporaneous with the toaster," Maines says, adding that "a woman cannot live by toast alone."
Electromechanical massagers have come a long way since turn-of-the-century physicians used penile-looking contraptions to treat women for so-called hysteria. Today in Japan, the mecca of masturbation tools, there's no shortage of inspiration for new and unique designs. It seems every time these manufacturers see something, they think, "Hmm, wonder if we can rub that against a clitoris and make it vibrate?"
Vibrators come in the shape of cultural icons: Santa Claus, Satan. There are vibrating eggs, vibrating balls. Most recently, there has been a Noah's ark of vibrating animals: butterflies, rabbits, and the conveniently shaped dolphins. Understandably, no rhinos.
But like any effective rocket, a vibrator is only as good as its engine. Because the shafts are seldom larger than life, however, there's little room to play with. For this reason, most battery-operated devices contain an ingenious bit of technology that's equal parts Radio Shack and Barbarella: a thumb-sized oscillating motor.
These tiny engines are not easy to examine, since they're usually encased in hard plastic. I had to run over the Smoothie—an ultrasmooth multispeed stimulator—five times in my car just to crack it open. Inside the tip, I found the guts of many high school science projects: a spool of thin copper wire surrounding a tiny metal rod. At the tip of the rod is a small, off-balance weight. The battery's current causes the rod to spin the weight, which oscillates and buzzes and vibrates. Bliss is centripetal motion.
Mubuchi, a Japanese company that makes motors for cameras and garage-door openers, is the Rolex of vibrator motors. Though most consumers might not know the difference, American companies like Vibratex sure do. According to general manager Dan Martin, Vibratex works closely with the Japanese to build love machines that, like good Spinal Tap amps, go to 11.
One of the most popular innovations since the introduction of battery-operated vibrators has been the Rabbit Pearl. Made of translucent pink vinyl, the Pearl has a "tickler" in addition to a shaft. Each has its own motor, with the one in the shaft customized to rotate as well as shimmy.
When the Rabbit Pearl was featured on a recent episode of HBO's Sex and the City, starring Sarah Jessica Parker, the Pleasure Chest in New York's West Village was inundated with requests. The same phenomenon happened, says owner Brian Robinson, after Howard Stern featured a new remote-control-operated vibrating panty on his show.
Whether a vibrator uses a sleek Mubuchi or the latest in waterproof microchips is irrelevant to customers, Robinson says. "People aren't coming in and saying, 'I want something that moves'; they say, 'Oh my God, what would that feel like?'" It's this passion that might be driving sales of the Auto Arouser, a device that plugs into a car lighter.
But one classic vibrator has outlasted all the innovations. The Hitachi Magic Wand Household Electric Massager, one of the best-selling items out there, actually harks back to the first era of inconspicuous home appliances. For true connoisseurs, the electrical option is a no-brainer. Compared to battery-operated devices, says Maines, electricity delivers "all the power of Niagara Falls."
And, yes, the river runs through Alabama. Despite the cock-a-doodle crackdown, so-called appliances like the Magic Wand are readily available in the state. "Clearly [the Wand] is a straightforward product," says Gerry Corbett, Hitachi's head of corporate communications. "There are no implications of anything beyond standard health care use." But of course.