a personal massager mystery

Remember Consumer’s Distributing? Why were they able to corrupt our good family values by peddling what was clearly a vibrator impersonating a “personal massager”? Derrty…

If you’re pushing 25 or more, you know all about the Consumer’s Distributing catalog. The offending page made you giggle, you showed your friends and maybe even some of you had the experience of discovering the immoral instrument in your own home! Good lord!

Seriously though, could the massager/vibrator’s presence in the Consumers Distributing catalog represent a different history than that of a merchant trying to make a few bucks off a nudge-nudge, wink-wink product that everyone clearly knew was a sexual tool?

For the record, I’m a fan of any safe toy/tool/product that enhances a sexual experience. I’ve been known to own a few battery-operated devices myself (I recommend the Silver Bullet). On one hand I think it’s cool that Consumers sold vibrators… I wonder though, did they knowingly offer them as a concession for self-loving women who would otherwise not patronise a sex shop?

Over the last few weeks I’ve been intermittently bedridden with a loathsome cold that will not go away… so I’ve had some time to do some reading. Most recently I just finished the Summer issue of Bust and inside there’s an article called “the birth of vibration” that has me thinking about vibrators.

Vibrators as we know them didn’t really become openly marketed until the 1960s. Prior to that, doctors who had tired of manually stimulating their “hysterical” patients to paroxysm created the devices in the mid-to-late 1800s. At various times throughout history, women who complained of sadness, depression, erotic thoughts and so forth were commonly diagnosed with hysteria. (pretty much every ailment was linked to hysteria) The “cure” was what we today would call an orgasm. But how could a woman achieve orgasm when masturbation was commonly discouraged and clitoral stimulation during sex not practised? (screw you Freud!) Weekly visits to the doctor, that’s how!

I read that during the 17th-19th centuries, up to 3/4 of all women in the United States were diagnosed and treated for hysteria. That’s a whole lot of buff the muff going on so it’s not surprising that doctors started inventing electric devices to replace their sticky fingers. By the early 1900s, home devices were commonly advertised in women’s magazines.

One thing I forgot to mention… the “cure” for hysteria had yet to be linked to sexual arousal… unbelievable, I know. That link became apparent in the 1920s when erotic filmmakers began to use the vibrating devices as props. Once people connected the dots, vibrators as medical devices were no longer. Come now, you can’t have women going around touching themselves for the “cure” and actually liking it. Women didn’t actually morph into sexual beings until the 1960s, don’t you know?

After reading the article in Bust, the Consumer’s catalog was all I could think of. Was the “personal massager” leftover from an era when stimulating a woman’s genitalia was considered therapeutic? The difference in this case, there was no mistaking the device’s connection to “sexual arousal” – that cover’s blown, honey. We can just ignore the connection by naming it something other than what it is, a vibrator. I suppose having them disguised and available is a little better than a repeat of forcing them totally off the market, like what happened in the 1920s.

Then again, maybe Consumer’s was in fact employing a cleverly camouflaged sex-aid marketing scheme…

Either way, it’s all related to an enormous societal discomfort around female sexual health. Think about this: have you ever wondered why there’s hardly any slang for clit?

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