A vibrator, sometimes described as a massager, is a sex toy that is used on the body to produce pleasurable sexual stimulation. There are many different shapes and models of vibrators. Most modern vibrators contain an electric-powered device which pulsates or throbs. Vibrators can be used for both solo play and partnered play by one or more people. Devices exist to be used by couples to stimulate the genitals of both partners. They can be applied to erogenous zones, such as the clitoris, the vulva or vagina, penis, scrotum or anus, for sexual stimulation, for the release of sexual frustration and to achieve orgasm. Vibrators may be recommended by sex therapists for women who have difficulty reaching orgasm through masturbation or intercourse.
Vibrators very often generate their vibrations using eccentric weights driven by a conventional electric motor, but some use electromagnet coils. 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:
Although many vibrators are marketed as waterproof, most should not be submerged. The ones designed for underwater use may be used in the swimming pool, bath or shower, or any other wet place. These vibrators may be recommended to be used with a water compatible lubricant, such as silicone-based lubricant. This is not the case for all waterproof vibrators, as silicone-based lubricants can degrade silicone vibrators. Multispeed vibrators allow users to customize how fast the vibrator's pulsing or massaging movements occur. Depending on the specific type of vibrator, the speed change is made by simply pushing a button a certain number of times, allowing users to change speeds several times during use. Bendable vibrators can adapt to the body shape, and are used to find and stimulate hard-to-reach erogenous zones. They can be shaped to act like many of different types of vibrators, like G-spot, anal, penis, or dual.
Programmable and remote-control vibrators can be worn in or against the genitals that can be pre-programmed or controlled remotely. Other vibrators come with a handheld remote that can be used to adjust speed and intensity. Smart vibrators can connect to mobile applications via Bluetooth LE connections, allowing features like long distance remote control over Internet, vibration in-sync with music, and programmable vibrations.
Some vibrators, designed to be discreet, are shaped as everyday objects, such as lipstick tubes, cell phones, or art pieces. Occasionally some women use actual mobile phones in this function. The undercover vibrators are usually relatively small and most of the time they have only one speed and are powered by a single battery.
The electric vibrator was invented in the late 19th century as a medical instrument for pain relief and the treatment of various ailments, marketed for decades without any sexual connotations, for example to be used against the skin for wrinkles, the scalp for headaches, or the stomach for indigestion. 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 and 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 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 of their appearance in pornography, and because growing understanding of female sexual function made it no longer tenable for mainstream society to avoid the sexual connotations of the devices.
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 have, used 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. In 2018, Hallie Lieberman and Eric Schatzberg published a peer-reviewed article that found "no evidence" to support Maines's claims in the book's citations. They called the wide acceptance of Maines's work "a fundamental failure of academic quality control". In 2020, Lieberman continued to press her case in the New York Times.
The vibrator re-emerged during 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". 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.
As of 2013, rechargeable vibrators were beginning to be manufactured to reduce the environmental impact of battery-operated vibrators.
In 2017 Lynn Comella, associate professor of Gender and Sexuality Studies, noted that "sex toy packaging... has been replaced by softer and more sanitised imagery... it’s now possible to buy a vibrator at many neighbourhood Walgreens". The UK pharmacy Boots followed the US pharmacy’s lead and since 2019 have been selling sex toys both online and in some stores.
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.
As the coronavirus pandemic hit in early 2020, people found themselves at home with an abundance of extra time. This sparked an interest in discovering and exploring one's sexuality. This caused the sex toy industry to benefit from a spike in sales from customers some of whom were buying toys in bulk for fear that the pandemic would shut down production for an uncertain amount of time. This raising interest resulted in vibrators being more mainstream and have better representation in popular culture opening up the conversation on women's pleasure.
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". In 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.
Sex toys such as vibrators are used in sexual activities among transgender and queer relationships.
Recent studies show that a majority of men who personally identified themselves as gay or bisexual indicated that they have used at least one type of sex toy in sexual relationships as well as individually, with 49.6% of them having used a vibrator. In Canada, people who use sex toys are more likely to identify as bisexual, lesbian, or queer. They were also more likely to report participating in alternate sexual activities, like oral sex or anal sex—which are also common situations to use sex toys, such as vibrators. Furthermore, vibrator use was among American women is significantly connected to several facets of sexual function (such as arousal, pain, lubrication), suggesting more enjoyable sexual functions. Men in similar studies are also reported believing they have heightened their sexual experiences.
Vibrators can also be used in the process of artificial insemination for queer or transgender couples attempting to start a biological family. Newly invented vibrators such as the POPDildo cater to queer, transgender, and disabled people, as well as those experiencing erectile dysfunction or serodiscordant couples who may need help conceiving.
Without proper cleaning, bacteria can live and grow on vibrators and other sex toys. This can cause the spread of STIs, most commonly vaginal and anal gonorrhea, bacterial vaginosis, and urinary tract infections. After each use sex toys must be cleaned using unscented soap and warm water. Today there are so many products that help keep vibrators clean like specialty soaps and portable UV sterilizing cases for cleaning on the go. When sharing toys it is especially important to keep them as sanitary as possible. Condoms can be used as a precaution to cover toys when using them on partners to prevent spread of STIs and other infection. Physicians can offer advice on proper vibrator care and use, including sex counselors, OBGYNs, urologists, oncologists, and specialists in conditions leading to sexual disfunction.
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.
In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play) is a play by Sarah Ruhl. It concerns the early history of the vibrator, when doctors used it as a clinical device to bring women to orgasm as treatment for "hysteria".
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.
Sunday Night Sex Show was a live call-in Canadian television show which ran from 1996 to 2005, in which callers could ask questions to sex educator Sue Johanson. Johanson was also featured on Late Night with Conan O'Brien, giving the audience a tour of her sex toy bag that included bullet vibrators, discreet vibrators disguised as key chains, and even a vibrating rubber ducky.
In season one of Mad Men, Peggy Olson is assigned to work on the marketing campaign for a type of vibrating underwear intended to help the user lose weight called the Electrosizer, which she later renamed the Rejuvinator. The show cites this device as providing "the pleasure of a man, without the man."
In Grace and Frankie, which premiered in 2015, the two title characters form a business designing and selling vibrators for seniors.