A while back Neutrogena, endlessly cheery purveyor of facial creams and cleansers, introduced a new product in the neverending battle against adolescent acne. It was called the Wave, a palm-sized, vibrating cleanser that supposedly made those anti-acne pads even more effective by vibrating away dirt and oil. Sold by the fresh-faced Vanessa Hudgens, who, like most sellers of skin products, looks like she’s never had a pimple in her life, the Wave promised to be a new revolution in facial cleansing.
When I saw the commercial for the first time, my only thought was that there was no way any woman was going to use that thing to wash her face.
Sarah Haskins felt the same way (see her very funny video segment on skin care at www.current.com/sarahhaskins). It all got me thinking about the various ways that certain vibrating objects have been marketed to women over the years–as weight loss devices, as massagers, as super-powerful shower heads, as washing machines (all right, those do have a practical use). Perhaps the most well-known example is the Hitachi Magic Wand, the granddaddy (grandmother?) of commercial vibrators that is still sold in pharmacies and appliance stores as a neck and back massager. Sex and the City’s Samantha was a huge fan of the Magic Wand, and hilarity ensued when she wore it out and returned it to the store, only to be told that she wasn’t allowed to refer to it as a vibrator. She then proceeded to tell various female customers exactly how every vibrating object in stock could be used for naughtier purposes.
AMC’s Mad Men aired an episode in which the advertising agency attempted to come up with a marketing strategy for a pair of vibrating underwear that was ostensibly designed for weight loss. Not surprisingly, the product’s female tester determined that it wouldn’t make anyone lose weight, but it could still sell like hotcakes. They ended up marketing it as the Relaxicizer, using ad copy that emphasized the ways in which it could make you feel “young” and “refreshed.”
Slate.com recently published a fascinating history of the vibrator (http://www.slate.com/id/2121835/), which was first made available in doctor’s offices (that might explain why so many “massagers” are still sold in pharmacies and Relax-the-Back type stores). It seems that in the 19th century a common treatment for ”female hysteria” was to be brought to “hysterical paroxysm” by a doctor. To put it bluntly, if you were a woman with any of the myriad disorders frequently diagnosed as “hysteria,” you went to the doctor, he massaged you to orgasm, and you went home. It was exhausting work, though, sometimes taking as long as an hour per patient. Hydrotherapy–basically, shooting a high-powered stream of water at a woman’s genitals–was developed as an alternative, but it wasn’t the most convenient method. So in the 1880s a British doctor invented the first electric vibrator, “an industrial-sized contraption meant to be a fixture in any doctor’s office. It was a major labor-saver, allowing many patients to reach paroxysm in less than 10 minutes.”
Over the years some doctors naturally saw the potential for profit in these contraptions. The problem was, you couldn’t openly sell sex toys to nice housewives in the 1950s and 1960s. So they became “camouflaged technologies”: “Mail-order catalogs full of household tchotchkes featured beautiful women with long, silky hair loosening their tight shoulder muscles with banana-shaped vibrators. Also popular were vibrators that doubled as nail-buffer kits, hair brushes, backscratchers, and some that were designed as attachments for vacuum cleaners.” Rachel Maines, whose 1999 The Technology of Orgasm traces the history of the vibrator, “started out studying needlework but was intrigued to discover that the backs of old sewing magazines were filled with vibrator advertisements.” Conservative housewives and grandmothers would never admit to owning a sex toy, but having an extensive collection of nail-buffers, backscratchers, and miracle weight loss underwear was perfectly fine.
Such a high level of camouflage hardly seems necessary in an age when between 25 to 50% of women say they own a vibrator. But it’s still very much out there, as products like the Neutrogena Wave, the Hitachi Magic Wand, and all those dangerous-looking shower head attachments can attest. In a way, the explanation is simple–progressive though we may be, certain segments of society still view the pleasure-seeking, self-pleasuring woman as either a bad girl or an object of ridicule. Good girls don’t seek out better orgasms, they seek love and companionship, and they’ll go along with the sex because that’s part of the price you pay for commitment. What’s a girl to do if she has a healthy sexual appetite but doesn’t want to ruin her reputation? Spend a lot of time in the shower, it seems. Or get really, really serious about acne prevention.
In the end, whether you buy your massager from Brookstone or Eve’s Garden, it’s good to know that there’s no law against using it however you damn well please. And there’s plenty of research to promote the idea that regular orgasms are great for your skin. So maybe the Neutrogena Wave really is delivering on its promise.