This essay will discuss the power of the vibrator in contemporary culture, as both an instrument and liberator of social control. By examining the vibrator’s historical background and modern applications, structures of power that influence how we understand our sexuality and navigate our relationship with our bodies can be brought into question. “I know where my next orgasm is coming from, who here can say as much?”, poses the character Miranda in relation to her recent purchase of a vibrator in an episode of Sex and the City entitled ‘The Turtle and the Hare’ (HBO/Warner, 1998). Her confident, open declaration of sexual autonomy is typical of the popular tv show, and prompted a dramatic rise in sales of the vibrator, in particular the Rabbit Pearl or Rampant Rabbit model – the UK sex toy and lingerie store Ann Summers sold over 1 million of the device in 1999 alone (Doyle, 2016). Far from being a topic of shame and embarrassment, self pleasure with ‘the Rabbit’ is discussed freely, encouraging female viewers to explore aspects of their own sexuality and providing a language to articulate their desires that arguably hadn’t existed in popular culture until the series. The episode reveals the contemporary shift in sexually related consumption towards a more liberated female consumer, with the Rabbit vibrator becoming an empowering symbol of autonomous female sexuality (Attwood, 2005). Yet stereotypes of femininity exist and are perpetuated by the marketing of the Rabbit vibrator, as evident in Charlotte’s elated reaction: “I thought it would be all scary and weird but it’s so cute! And pink! For girls!” (HBO/Warner, 1998). Sex for women is positioned here as stylish, safe and aesthetically pleasing, aligned to contemporary ideals of femininity that extend beyond vibrators into the mainstream media and the sex toy industry itself. Vibrators, and by extension women’s self pleasure, is increasingly being associated across various marketing pathways with a new image of the sophisticated and sexually independent woman. The loosening of the taboo around vibrators has created a new market for sex toys, with the industry increasing from $1.3 billion a year to $15 billion a year (Smothers, 2015), and transforming vibrators into a luxury item. The Swedish brand LELO, for example, sell products designed for “exquisite pleasure, inside and out”, with vibrators starting at around £120 – though they also boast a 24 karat gold plated vibrator which will set buyers back $15,000. In terms of Karl Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism, in which objects become autonomous sources of satisfaction purely through their economic rather than material value (Marx, 1867), particular brands of vibrators become symbols of economic power much like an Apple product or designer handbag. Through the commodification of the vibrator, assumptions about female self-pleasure can be challenged and capitalised on, as seen in the marketing of products such lingerie and perfume. Yves St Laurent’s Opium advert from 2000, in which the model Sophie Dahl appears alone in a suggestively orgasmic state, clutching her breast and wearing nothing but a pair of heels and jewellery, is one example. In this image, the blurring of boundaries between intimate sexual pleasure and provocative pornographic displays of auto eroticism has been depicted as glamorous, desirable and empowering to women. The fact that the Advertising Standards Agency received almost 1000 complaints about this campaign (Sowray, 2012) perhaps increases its provocative appeal, adding a touch of rebellious power. Contemporary perceptions about the vibrator, masturbation and female orgasm stem from powerful and long standing social patterns, above all the androcentric model of sexuality. This defines a legitimate sexual experience as one in which the vagina has been penetrated by the penis to male orgasm (Maines, 1999). Evidently, this conceptual framework is problematic on many levels. In an androcentric, patriarchal context, women’s orgasm is only valid if it has occurred during heterosexual coitus, thus making women’s sexual pleasure received in any way other than from the genitals of a man a subversive act. Furthermore, rejecting the notion of female orgasm leads to the mystification of the female anatomy, which has dangerous implications in the way information is provided to women about their bodies. A recent survey carried out by the gynaecological society The Eve Appeal found that 60% of women couldn’t label the vulva on a diagram, and nearly a third of women said they wouldn’t feel comfortable showing their vagina to a doctor (Scott, 2016). The historical repression of women’s sexuality can perhaps account for this deception about the female body. Cloaked in popular embarrassment, it means many women don’t know what is a normal or healthy vagina, leaving gynaecological diseases to go unnoticed and untreated. The vibrator is one tool with the potential power to combat this. Vibrator users are more likely to be proactive in looking after their sexual health, a study from Indiana University, America, discovered. For women, those who use vibrators were substantially more likely to have attended a gynaecological exam in the past year and to have done a self-examination in the past month (Herbenick et al, 2009). Moreover, regularly producing orgasm has been linked to lower rates of heart disease, breast cancer, prostate cancer and endometriosis (Komisaruk et al, 2006). These findings demonstrate the power of the vibrator as a positive tool for engaging in the healthy functioning of one’s body and fighting the misrepresentations and shame that are attached to female genital anatomy. There is now even a ‘prescription only’ vibrator called the Eros Therapy Device, designed as a female equivalent to a penis pump to treat FSAD (Female Sexual Arousal Disorder). Why then is masturbation, particularly for women, such a taboo subject? More than half of the women in the Indiana University study had used a vibrator, and yet it’s position within popular culture remains hidden, with its power to legitimize active, female sexuality as normal and healthy left greatly neglected. The assertion of a positive role for masturbation, which the vibrator could serve, is often met with shock and appal. When Surgeon General Jocelyn Elders, on a World AIDS Day Speech in 1994, suggested that masturbation should “perhaps be discussed” as a beneficial activity in the prevention of the spread of AIDS, she was consequently dismissed by the former President Bill Clinton (Jehl, 1994). In a society ambivalent and more often antagonistic towards the idea of seeing female sexuality as distinct from their reproductive capacity, unless masked in pornographic distortion (Segal, 1994), the power for the vibrator to attain a positive and practical application in sex education and medical therapeutic treatment is a very unlikely possibility. Seeped in a language of containment and propriety, attitudes to female sexuality and women’s bodies that still persist today have a strong theoretical basis in the writings of Freud, in particular, his ‘Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality’ (1905). He argues that the sexual development of women from young girls to mature adults is marked by the shift in focus from the clitoris to the vagina. Thomas Laqueur (1990) sees this as a “narrative of culture in anatomical disguise… a parable of how the body is forged into a shape ‘valuable’ to civilisation”. Freud’s theory ignores centuries of learned medical knowledge of the female sexual organs. While the clitoris contains an abundance of specialised nerve endings, it is the vagina, with its reproductive function, that he positions as the true locus of a woman’s sexuality, thus legitimizing the feminine social role in the neurological development of their genitals. It is as if the patriarchal organisation of the sexes extends inside the body, and makes the only permitted, natural sex male orientated (Laqueur, 1990). It was this discourse, saturated with androcentric Victorian attitudes to sexuality and women’s bodies, that shaped the invention of female sexual pathologies and the instrument to cope with them. Rather than the predominantly sexual function of modern vibrators, the device began as a medical instrument. In her book ‘The Technology of Orgasm: Hysteria, the Vibrator and Women’s Sexual Satisfaction’ (1999), Rachel P. Maines demonstrates how the vibrator was invented to treat a condition called ‘hysteria’. A kind of loosely defined sexual dysfunction, the symptoms of hysteria included irritability, nervousness, heaviness in the abdomen, vaginal lubrication and fainting, and was treated by doctors who performed a genital massage to produce an effect known as ‘hysterical paroxysm’ (now known as an orgasm). The first electromechanical vibrator of 1883 reduced the procedure from an hour to around ten minutes. Given the Victorian discourse surrounding sexuality and the female body, it is not hard to see how hysteria became such an epidemic amongst women, with the emphasis on heterosexual coitus which has been “consistently noted to fail to produce orgasm in more than half of the female population” (Maines, 1999). The medicalisation of female orgasm in the 1800’s arguably acts as a type of social camouflage, calling something by another name in order to make it more palatable (Maines, 1999). The first vibrators can thus be seen as a mechanism of control, used by doctors in order to protect the comfortable illusions of female sexuality and maintain power within the elite male sphere. As stated by Maines (1999), “vibrators tell us much about the societies that produce them”. The shift in the 21st century to a culture based on the sharing and receiving of digital information has brought with it a new understanding of the idea of privacy. This takes on a very different meaning when related to the intimate use of vibrators, as a recent data tracking scandal showed. The sex toy manufacturer We-Vibe was ordered to pay C$4million after hackers revealed the Bluetooth connected vibrator was tracking customers’ data without their knowledge (Hern, 2017). The We-Vibe 4 Plus vibrator was designed to be controlled remotely through an app but was found to have security vulnerabilities that meant anyone within a certain range could take control of it. While the company claim the vibrator “allows couples to keep their flame ignited—together or apart” (We-Vibe, 2014), the security issues with the app could have extremely worrying consequences for users; as one of the hackers known as ‘follower’ noted, “unwanted activation of a sex toy is potentially sexual assault” (Hern, 2016). In addition, whenever the device was activated, personal details about the sexual habits of its users were found to have been sent back to the manufacturers, including temperature and vibration intensity. The devices that we deem so private, and associate with the most intimate of activities, are returning, it seems, to the regulatory role of Victorian hysteria treatment, and with this comes the power of higher authoritative structures. It could be argued therefore that the data tracking of the We-Vibe 4 Plus is an example of the kind of disciplinary power framework defined by Foucault in his book ‘Discipline and Punish’ (1975). Citizens, he maintains, are the subject of asymmetrical surveillance controlled by the state and police their own behaviour as a result of the ever present fear of punishment: “He is seen, but he does not see; he is an object of information, never a subject of communication”. Can this still be applied to contemporary methods of surveillance, most of which is conducted through the gathering of information online? The We-Vibe customers were not aware that their data was being sent back to the company, using the vibrator in the same way that most of us operate online: on the assumption that nobody is watching. The intangibility of the internet and data surveillance takes away the power of exposure implicit in the panoptic model, therefore our actions are not normalised (McMullan, 2015). Yet the interconnectivity of our objects, known as the Internet of Things, is dramatically increasing, and with it the susceptibility to online surveillance. For example, users of Bitcoin can now sync their vibrators to their investments, with the vibration intensity rising or decreasing with the price of the cryptocurrency (Korose, 2017). By linking vibrators with online communication, it brings our physical bodies into wider networking systems in which information will inevitably end up in corporate and government hands, and thus re-introduce the panoptic model into our society. The design of modern vibrators, in particular, the Rabbit model popularised by ‘Sex and the City’, also demonstrates the extent of phallocentric attitudes to sex. While it does have an element of clitoral stimulation, its phallic shape suggests it is really only a substitute for a penis and so with each use, some imagined male presence looms over (Kelly, 1974). It is implicit even in the name, with it associations of Playboy and Jessica Rabbit, that this is a sex toy designed from a heterosexual male perspective. Contemporary alternatives to this almost universal vibrator design are becoming more accessible, however. Dame Products is one example, a company run by women who make a wearable, hands-free and non-intrusive vibrator called ‘Eva’ that sits inside the labia (Alptraum, 2016). This small but innovative device brings to mind the etymology of the word clitoris, which comes from a Greek term meaning ‘to tickle’ (Laquer, 1990), and means that women can receive the additional stimulation that has been shown to greatly increase the likelihood of achieving orgasm without intruding on the overall experience of both partners. By focusing on function over form, the vibrator brings a much neglected female perspective into an industry dominated by men. It has an empowering significance for women’s sexual pleasure as it challenges the long standing orgasm bias in male-female sexual relationships. A recent study found that heterosexual men reached orgasm in 95% of their sexual activities, whereas heterosexual women orgasm only 65% of the time (Frederick et al, 2018). Despite the fact that sex toys for vaginas are in far greater supply than those for penises, Janet Lieberman, the co-founder of Dame Products, notes that “overall in tech there’s not a lot of focus on making sure that the experience for women feels as natural as the experience for men” (Lieberman, 2016). ‘Eva’ is a practical solution to orgasm inequality, with a sleek, minimalist look that leaves behind the comically grotesque, disembodied penis of the Rabbit vibrator model for a new, positive future of vibrator design. It has been a consistent truth throughout history that the autonomous capacity of female sexuality has been repressed in the interests of male power over women’s reproductive and societal role. Yet contemporary discourse surrounding sexual culture is beginning to bring forward the vibrator as a site for expressing the power of independent, active female sexuality. Along with their medical potential, vibrators have a symbolic power within the context of androcentric attitudes to sex that still dominates Western society. As Betty Dodson (2007) states, “independent orgasms will lead to independent thoughts”; using a vibrator can be seen as rejecting the phallocentric hierarchy of orgasms for a more equal and empowered sexual experience. It will be interesting to see where innovation in technology will take the design of vibrators in the future, whether today’s discussions will be as obsolete in five years time as hysteria.