From Encyclopedia of Sex and Sexuality
Also known as massagers, vibrators are mechanical devices used for erotic stimulation leading to and including orgasm. While some vibrators may be used on males as well as females, they are primarily designed for the stimulation of the female genitalia. Some manufacturers have attempted to develop vibrators to bring the male to climax, but these have not proved satisfactory. The appearance on the market of vibrators or massagers designed specifically for sexual stimulation is of recent vintage—dating from the 1940s. However, massagers for muscle relaxation and skin toning go as far back as the early 1900s. These may also have been used for sexual stimulation, but it was not the intent of the manufacturers. Almost all vibrators and massagers used for sexual stimulation may be classified into five types: 1) “Swedish massagers,” 2) phallic shaped, 3) pistol grip, 4) wand, and 5) oscillators.
 Swedish Massagers
One of the oldest of these devices to have made the transition from being used solely for muscle relaxation to now being used also for sexual stimulation was one that men and women were exposed to through professional massaging sessions and in barber shops. This is the “Swedish” type massager (one that is strapped to the back of the hand) and originally used for neck and facial massage, as well as muscle relaxation. These are not easy to use on oneself, except on the front of the body. Because they are heavy and strapped on over the hand, they are too awkward to use anywhere on one’s back and are best used on another person. Their greatest value lies in that the vibrations of the motor are transferred to the user’s fingertips. The vibrating effect of the fingers magnifies the sensitivity that the massaged skin feels, and most people prefer to be massaged by human fingertips rather than something artificial, especially in the genital area.
 Phallic Shaped
Phallic-shaped plastic cylinders, about 6 inches long and battery powered, appeared in the 1940s. They seem to have been designed for insertion into the vagina as a penis substitute. This association left little doubt as to the primary function of this “spot massager,” as it was sometimes advertised. Some sex educators and therapists have claimed that phallic-shaped vibrators seem to be more the product of male fantasy than designed for effective use by women. While some women use them as dildos, they are not generally considered to be as effective as other types of vibrators for stimulation and reaching orgasm.
 Pistol Grip
In the early 1960s another type of massager became more readily available for sexual stimulation. These were usually called spot, scalp, or skin massagers (or just plain “massagers”), since they included attachments and instructions for massaging various parts of the body but no mention of sexual stimulation. However, the advertisements for them placed in sex magazines and sex newspapers defined their more pertinent usage.
The pistol grip massager looks something like a hand-held electric mixer. Instead of mixing attachments, however, there are small, non-revolving attachments, or adapters, good for massaging the scalp, face, or small areas of the body and for sexual stimulation. According to the description in the booklet Good Vibrations, a pistol grip massager is “shaped somewhat like a hairbrush [or small hair blow dryer] … with [a] vibrating head. … The metal vibrating shank is mounted on a piece of flat metal at the end of [the] coil so that, when the switch is on, it vibrates at … [about 30 cycles per second]. The coil-operated vibrators come with four to six plastic attachments of varying flexibility which slide or snap onto the shank.”
These vibrators can often be found in drug or department stores and in the mail order catalogs of the larger department store chains. Some brands also provide deep heat, but some women find that this may become a distraction when using it for erotic stimulation. The most useful ones have an attachment that is about 1 to 1 1/2 inches in diameter with a convex surface for broader areas of skin, or an attachment that is about 3/4 inch long and shaped like a skinny egg for more precise stimulation of the genitalia. Some massagers have both attachments.
The wand vibrator has a long cylindrical body, or handle, about 12–14 inches long, with a vibrating head on the end (about 3 inches in diameter) that looks like a door knob or a slightly flattened tennis ball. The vibrating head is attached to the body by a short flexible neck. It can be used in a number of ways for erotic arousal, and is probably the best type for a relaxing self-massage as well. The wand is designed to self-massage parts of one’s back. There are also attachments available that can enhance its use for sexual excitation through insertion into the vagina, but the wand massager itself is not designed for penetration. These massagers are used all over the world and are manufactured by major international companies and readily available in most large department stores. Some models have rechargeable batteries rather than electric cords, allowing for greater flexibility of use. The wand has been reported to be especially useful by couples during coitus by placing it between the two bodies, close to the genitals, and allowing the vibrations to enhance stimulation.
The oscillator is technically not a vibrator, since the stimulation it provides comes from the oscillating motion of the head from side to side—up to 3,600 movements per minute—rather than the up and down vibrations of other types of vibrators. Three heads are usually provided: a 3–inch finger-like head, a 1–inch diameter “grape cluster,” and a 1–inch cup. The oscillator, because it is the first vibrator designed exclusively for sexual excitation of the female genitalia, is more highly specialized and, many sex therapists believe, is the best for stimulation of the labia and clitoris. The oscillator is small—only 7 inches long—and shaped like an electric toothbrush, with an oscillating head and a variable speed motor. It cannot be used for wider massaging and muscle relaxation.
 A Note of Caution
If you buy a massager from a reputable store or mail order service, there will probably be a paragraph in the instruction booklet that will warn you not to use the vibrator or massager on areas of the body that are swollen. This applies to all vibrators. You also should not use it on the calf of a leg if there is any pain there. These are wise precautions to maintain because sometimes these pains or unknown swellings may conceal a blood clot which could break loose and cause harm. If you have any questions about massaging any pains or swellings, consult a physician. The use of massagers to relax muscles is so common that there is no oddity concerning someone who uses one.
During the past three decades, the use of vibrators has played an important role in the treatment of sexual dysfunctions. In sex manuals as early as 1949 it was recommended for the treatment of nonorgasmic women.
It was not until twenty-five years ago that the use of vibrators moved out of the underground press and the “do-it-yourself” sex manuals to become an instrument of sex therapy. In the late 1960s it became associated with the scientific study of sexual functioning carried out by Masters and Johnson and reported in their book Human Sexual Response. There was much reaction and controversy concerning findings by Masters and Johnson that most women in the study felt that automanipulation of the mons area with the aid of a vibrator produced the kind of stimulation that resulted in the fastest and the most intense orgasms.
Although Masters and Johnson did not discuss the use of vibrators in the treatment of nonorgasmic females, the work of the sex therapist and educator Helen Singer Kaplan did. In her book, The New Sex Therapy: Active Treatment of Sexual Dysfunctions, Dr. Kaplan notes several ways in which a vibrator may be used as an aid in the treatment of orgasm dysfunction. For one, she suggests a combined penis insertion and vibrator-assisted clitoral stimulation for those women who have difficulty reaching orgasm during coitus. For those women who have never had an orgasm, she suggests that if masturbation with fingers is not intense enough to bring on an orgasm, a vibrator will usually provide a much stronger and more intense form of stimulation. Also at later stages, when a person is learning how to transfer orgasm to the heterosexual situation, she suggests that the husband may use a vibrator, guided by his wife’s hand, to bring her to orgasm, without the pressure for her “to perform” during coitus.
Vibrators may also be used as a learning tool to discover the most sensitive areas of the body. This is not the use of a vibrator to excite the clitoris and bring on an orgasm, but rather to become more aware of how skin sensitivity varies in each part of the body. The use of a vibrator in this manner applies equally to both men and women. In this manner the use of a vibrator merely multiplies the effect of touching lightly in each area. As an illustration, if you touch the area just below your armpit with your fingers and gently rub in a circular motion, you will probably experience a pleasant, somewhat erotic sensation. If you try the same thing with a vibrator, you will notice how much more you will feel the sensation.
Now that the value of vibrators to produce fast and intense orgasms for women has become widely known, more creative uses by individuals and couples are written about and discussed. The fear that because they are so efficient some women would become dependent upon them does not seem to be borne out by the experiences of users or sex therapists. In turn, wider acceptance is leading to an increase of convenient and effective vibrators manufactured for a specifically sexual purpose. These may be found in stores and catalogs specializing in female erotica and devices.