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Unpacking the past and discovering the future of vibrators

An antique illustration of three men with facial hair out of the 1800s. The man on the left is sitting in a chair, holding a box in his lap and turning a crank on the box's side. On the righthand side of the illustration, one man is sitting in a fabric chair, leaning back with his eyes closed and his feet resting on a table in front of him with his knees bent at a 90 degree angle. The third man is holding a metal tube on the seated man's abdomen. The metal tube is connected by a wire to the box that the man on the left is cranking.
Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images
1891 A description of the vibrator (Engl. pat. 1890. No.4390.) and directions for use / C. H. Liedbeck Published: 1891
Demonstration using the vibrator, 1891

Vibrators have been around since the 19th century. Before they were marketed primarily as sex toys, they were sold as general health devices … and now they’ve become a tool for sexual health research.

The story you may have heard about the invention of the vibrator in the 1880s (keywords: hysteria, doctor-patient stimulation, tired wrists) is actually only that: a story. The real history is a little less titillating … but much more reflective of political and cultural attitudes towards sex.

Host Anita Rao unpacks the “vibrator myth” with sex historian Hallie Lieberman. Hallie is the author of “Buzz: The Stimulating History of the Sex Toy.”

Anita also talks with Anna Lee, co-founder and head of engineering at Lioness, a sexual wellness company with a “smart” vibrator that uses biofeedback data to track arousal and orgasm. Anna describes how the Lioness vibrator contributes to sexual health data for people with vaginas.

Special thanks to the listeners who contributed their thoughts to this episode!

Three Types of Orgasm
(no, we don’t all climax the same!)
with descriptions from Anna Lee

1. The Ocean Wave
During orgasm, the pelvic floor muscles rhythmically contract and relax.

“The most common [orgasm type] and the one that's cited the most often in research …  You'll see a squeeze, relax, squeeze, relax, that's the same height of force, and then the same drop in force.”

2. The Avalanche
In the lead-up to orgasm the pelvic floor muscles are very tense, then they steadily relax during orgasm.

“You're still having that rhythmic squeeze and relax, but it goes down in force over time. So you see the slope downwards.”

3. The Volcano
The pelvic floor muscles hold a lower tension and then more “explosively” tense and release during orgasm.

“We call it the classic movie-esque kind of orgasm, how it's usually portrayed in movies or shows … What we see is that there's less of a rhythmic contraction, but you see this huge explosion of force up and then a huge drop in force, like a spike in the data.”

Please note: This episode originally aired March 17, 2023.

Updates: Lioness released Pleasure Wrapped, a 12-month compilation of pleasure data, in December of 2023, and D Hartmann researched "Are All Orgasms Created Equally Regardless of Age?", a journal article published in May of 2023. Lioness is also launching "sexperiments" in their app this month. Every month, users can come together and experiment with different variables to see how their orgasm data changes (i.e. edging, cannabis, caffeine and more).

Hallie Lieberman’s story on The Handcuff Man was just published at The Atavist.

Kaia Findlay is the lead producer of Embodied, WUNC's weekly podcast and radio show about sex, relationships and health. Kaia first joined the WUNC team in 2020 as a producer for The State of Things.
Anita Rao is an award-winning journalist, host, creator, and executive editor of "Embodied," a weekly radio show and podcast about sex, relationships & health.