Consider the humble vibrator. Invented as a medical device in the 19th century, it has gone on to become a Mad Men plot line, a Sex and the City tie-in, a celebrity talking point and a feminist cause.
Not only are vibrators not invisible, they’re hardly even avoidable. New vibrators are unveiled to the awed public at TechCrunch conferences. They are reviewed on Gizmodo. They comprise valid talking points for celebrities, including Barbara Walters. (Walters named hers “selfie”, Alicia Silverstone endorses “eco-friendly” vibrators, Beyoncé’s is allegedly gold-plated and Maggie Gyllenhaal claims an “incredible collection”.) High-end companies market them as luxury products. One 2012 survey found that 52.5% of women used them, whether alone or with a partner, and that women who used vibrators were actually more likely to take care of their sexual health by going to the gynecologist for regular exams.
It’s odd to admit this, but vibrators may have gone way beyond not being shameful. They may just be cool.
“It was only really in 1999 that [sex toys] began to gain some respectability in the mainstream,” says Filip Sedic, founder and CEO of high-end sex toy company LELO. “That was largely thanks to an episode of Sex and the City, which featured a ‘rabbit-style’ vibrator. That episode, in which Charlotte was so enamored by her sex toy that her friends had to stage an intervention, caused a sudden increase in interest in personal pleasure products.”
By now, vibrators are not only a recognized industry, they attract major technological talent.
Sedic, for example, has a background in smartphones, and his company’s vibrators have a particularly sleek, minimalistic, future-by-Stanley-Kubrick look that unavoidably reminds one of a sexy iPhone. [Sex educator and journalist Lux] Alptraum also points to the rise of independent designers.
“There are three factors that have aggressively sped up innovation,” she says. “One of them is decreasing stigma. MIT engineers can say this is a viable career. [Factor] two is 3D printing. You can now more easily prototype, more cheaply prototype. And three is crowdfunding. People with an idea and a 3D printer can now get something made.”
With bigger budgets and easier manufacturing comes more research and development – Sedic says that LELO’s in-house designers “work with CAD, 3D modeling, clay, wood, you name it” – and with research and development comes the chance for the products to work in new ways.
If we can say nothing else about the state of the vibrator in 2015, it’s that you now have a whole lot of options.
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