The May issue of Good Housekeeping UK is making ripples on the internet because it has an article about vibrators in it. The three-page piece gives advice on what to look for when buying a vibe, how to bring it into the bedroom during sex, and the summary of a survey that asked 100 women between 30 and 80 to give five sex toys a go and see which one did the trick best. The British media is loving this, and while it’s definitely wonderful that magazines about the home are focusing on other aspects of well-being for the adults who reside in them, some of the comments remind me of the sentiments that followed the world’s discovery that mothers who blog were reading and enjoying the erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey.
There’s a pervasive belief that women past a certain age — and especially if they’ve had children — are incapable of experiencing pleasure or understanding it. The term “pearl-clutching” which we throw around so often might be used these days to describe any person who needs to come to grips with modernity, but it continues to rely on the same imagery — that of a woman, middle-aged at least, likely a mother, and most definitely a prude.
And yet this isn’t the first time vibrators have appeared in a magazine targeted to middle-aged women in the home. In the late 19th century, after the vibrator went from an apparatus that looked like something out of a steampunk graphic novel, technology advanced to a place where mechanical versions could be sold directly to consumers. General Electric even made one. And these devices were sold not in discreet catalogs, but in Sears & Roebuck mail-order catalogs alongside bicycles, cars and sewing machines. And like bicycles, cars and sewing machines, vibrators were also advertised in magazines, including Women’s Home Companion, National Home Journal and Hearst’s — which today is a media empire and owns Woman’s Day, O and the aforementioned Good Housekeeping. These ads called the vibrator soothing, useful in improving a woman’s sense of well-being, and capable of making years disappear from her face.
(I hate to break it to you like this but the ladies who bought them probably wore pearls.)
The devices would be a mainstay in magazines and catalogs until after the 1920s when they started to fade away as a result of backlash toward the perceived licentiousness of the age. Societal norms, you see, are a living thing not at all unlike language and religion. They evolve to accept things or cast them out. So while we should be pleased that vibrators are back and in far less euphemistic terms in the home journals, we should really knock it off with the suggestion that women over a certain age have no idea what self-pleasure is about.
Header image by Cody Hoffman.