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Socially camouflaged technologies: the case of the electromechanical vibrator

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The case of the electromechanical vibrator, as a technology associated with women's sexuality, involves issues of acceptability rather than legality. The vibrator and its predecessor technologies, including the dildo, are associated with masturbation, a socially prohibited activity until well into the second half of this century. Devices for mechanically-assisted female masturbation, mainly vibrators and dildoes, were marketed in the popular press from the late nineteenth century through the early thirties in similarly camouflaged advertising. A history of the electromechanical vibrator is presented. The electromechanical vibrator emerged in the 1880s as a medical instrument designed to mechanize massage techniques used by physicians since antiquity. Among these was vulvular massage to orgasm as a treatment for hysteria in women. The sexual character of the therapy was camouflaged in medical rhetoric which characterized female arousal as a pathological syndrome from which relief was obtained in the 'hysterical paroxysm'. Manual massage was fatiguing and slow, however, and water and steam-powered methods capital-intensive; when portable vibrators powered by line electricity became available at the turn of the century they quickly became dominant medical massage technology until the appearance of vibrators in erotic films in the 1920s eroded the instrument's social camouflage.<>

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IEEE Technology and Society Magazine  (Volume:8 ,  Issue: 2 )