Ten years ago, I was studying product design at England’s Portsmouth University. For my second year project, I was asked to study an electrical product of my choice. The idea was to study its history and analyse its design, materials, target market and production process, then propose ways to improve it. Other students in the class chose items like power tools, automatic umbrellas, and laser pens. The idea of spending months working on something so dull bored me to tears. I wracked my brains for something better to do, when my professor made a joke that would change everything. “You can study anything you want, even a vibrator!” So I did.
I Studied Sex Toys at University - Here’s What I Learned
I’m a big fan of vibrators (isn’t everyone?), and I figured I would do a much better job if I studied something that interested me. Plus, not enough research is done on female sexuality. So, I was happy to use my project to do that. It ended up being fascinating, not only because of the research I did for it, but also because of the reactions it garnered from the people around me. I wrote 5,000 words, learned a lot, and took great pleasure in making men uncomfortable along the way. In the end, the project became something of a legend at my university. Here’s how it went.
6 Things I Learned from Studying Vibrators
The First Vibrators Were Pretty Scary
These days, vibrators come in all kinds of sleek and sensual designs. However, the earliest forms of this magical product weren’t quite so easy on the eye. In fact, they resembled power tools more than anything else. They were huge, bulky contraptions, which were often so heavy and complex that they had to be carried in cases. Some were hand-cranked, while others plugged into the mains. No woman these days would want to put any of them near her vagina, that’s for sure.
They Were Used by Doctors to Treat Women for ‘Hysteria’
While vibrators are now found in most women’s bedside cabinets, they were originally placed in doctor’s offices. This is because doctors used them to administer orgasms as a form of treatment for what was then called ‘hysteria.’ During the 1800s, it was generally believed that women didn’t experience sexual pleasure. Of course, this left women frustrated, and they would visit a doctor to get some relief for their ‘symptoms,’ which included insomnia, nervousness and irritability. Until vibrators were invented, this procedure was carried out by hand and could take quite some time. Rather than being invented for women’s sexual pleasure, vibrators were originally created for the convenience of doctors.
The Rabbit Is a Timeless Classic
The project required me to do some market research, which meant going out and asking women how they felt about vibrators. When asked to choose their favorite one, the rabbit vibrator came out on top. The feedback from the overwhelming majority was that the combination of internal and external stimulation made it a winner. Is there any beating this classic design?
Some Men Are REALLY Freaked Out by Female Sexuality
It’s safe to say that my professor sincerely regretted making that joke at the start of the course. This became clear when I pulled out a vibrator and asked him to explain the mechanism to me. His hand shook and his voice quivered as he held it. He tried to maintain his composure, but it was clear that he was wondering “Has this been in her vagina?” (It hadn’t, it was an old display model from a local sex shop). Another professor was equally upset by my product of choice. I’d asked him to help me conduct a test on the hardness of the plastic. He obliged, but just as I was about to leave, he said “For your final year project, please choose something else.” Final year students displayed their projects on huge posters around the university and presented them to potential employers, so I’m sure the idea of having a giant picture of a dildo up on the wall wasn’t ideal. I was one of only two women on the course, and the rest of the class consisted of male engineering students. Each time it was time to talk about my vibrator, they all went quiet and averted their eyes, unsure of where to look. Meanwhile, I took great pleasure in filling the room with awkwardness. It was my way of taking up space.
We Don’t Talk about Female Masturbation Enough
Male masturbation is often shown or alluded to in pop culture. Female masturbation, on the other hand, well, society still isn’t as comfortable with it. So, it’s no surprise that my professors and fellow students cringed each time it was time for me to present my project. Every week, they had to witness me not only talk in depth about products used for female masturbation, but to wave them around in the classroom for all to see. In contrast, the women I spoke to didn’t shy away from the subject. Many of them expressed excitement about my unconventional project, and were more than happy to talk openly about their own masturbation habits.
There is No Other Way to Say ‘Clitoral Stimulator’
I lost count of how many times I had to write the words ‘clitoral stimulator’ throughout my report. Whether I was labeling diagrams or discussing design changes, there was no way around it. I tried valiantly to find some other ways to say it, but words failed me. There was no way I could make that term more formal or less sexual. My professor just had to deal with reading those words over and over again. I’m sure that only added discomfort, but I was OK with that.
'A' for Effort
When it was time to submit my project, my professor insisted I marked it for his attention so that no one else would grade it. He was visibly worried about other people finding out about what I studied. However, it later became a source of pride instead of embarrassment. At the very least, it made a great conversation starter. A few years later, a friend of mine overheard him giving some prospective students a tour of the university. “One of our students even did a project on vibrators!” He smiled when he said it. At the time, it was something to be swept under the carpet and talked about with hushed voices. Now, it’s something that’s proudly used as a talking point with potential students. I’m glad I made an impression.
Emma Thomas is a sex-positive writer based in Bangkok. You can read more of her writing on her blog, Under the Ropes.