A feminist technology is one that empowers women, particularly in an area with significant inequality between men and women. One major area of gender inequality is sexuality. In our culture, the majority of men don't feel ashamed about masturbating and can talk about it openly, but it is much more taboo for a woman to masturbate and especially to admit to doing so. Additionally, most men don't have any difficulty achieving orgasm and male orgasm is seen as very important because it is necessary for reproduction. In contrast, a significant portion of women will never achieve orgasm in their lifetime, and some men have even doubted the existence of the female orgasm. The vibrator helps to eradicate these inequalities. The vibrator is a feminist technology because it makes orgasm easier to attain for women and empowers women to not feel ashamed about masturbation and sexuality.
The vibrator was actually invented for very anti-feminist reasons. In the 1800's, many women were suffering from a variety of symptoms that today would most likely be categorized as depression or anxiety. Doctors at the time disliked dealing with these women's problems, which they saw as irrational and categorized under the term "hysteria" (Loomis). To help relieve these symptoms, many doctors would perform genital massage until the women achieved orgasm, although they did not recognize that it was an orgasm. This took a very long time for some women, and because male doctors were irritated with dealing with female patients, a steam-powered massage machine was invented to speed up the process in 1869.
During this time, the vibrator was seen as a completely asexual device. Men generally believed that female sexuality could only be expressed through penetration of the vagina, and so did not believe that the vibrator was bringing sexual pleasure to these women. However, when pornographic films began featuring vibrators, this shattered the myth that vibrators could not be used for sexual purposes. Society at this time saw female sexuality as very dangerous. In fact, some doctors argued that women shouldn't be allowed to ride bicycles because the pleasure they might receive from them was an "unacceptable moral hazard" (Loomis). As a result, vibrators disappeared from the markets in the 1920's and didn't reappear until the 1970's.
As an artifact, I would argue that the vibrator is feminist. Due to a combination of biology and lack of education about female anatomy, there is an inequality between men and women in their ability to achieve orgasms. Generally, women have a harder time reaching orgasm, and the vibrator helps to repair this inequality. As Johnson said, "the materiality of artifacts is extremely important because it can facilitate or constrain equitable gender relations," and in this case the vibrator facilitates a more equal standing of the genders. Even in the 1800's when female sexuality was seen as a moral hazard, women were using these machines and achieving orgasm. We don't know if they saw their experiences as sexual, but either way these women were having orgasms, and the majority of them probably would not be doing so without these machines. Aside from being pleasurable, orgasms are important because they carry a number of health benefits. Having the ability to achieve orgasm was liberating for these women, and therefore the technology that brought it about is feminist. Even though it didn't change the social view on female sexuality at the time, it allowed women to get around that social inequality and experience orgasm.
Some feminists have the opinion that technology is dangerous to feminism. Someone with this view could make the argument that women who use vibrators are using a machine to achieve sexual pleasure and therefore are not truly discovering and interacting with their bodies, and that using this machine is not liberating because it implies that they need a machine to achieve orgasm. If our society were more egalitarian, it might be the case that women would understand their bodies well enough to give themselves orgasms without a machine. In this way, the vibrator could be viewed as repressing for women, because it provides a crutch which prevents them from discovering and pleasuring their bodies on their own. However, I think these arguments are overshadowed by the positive impact of the vibrator. Without vibrators, there would be many women who never experience orgasm. Even if they could do so without a vibrator, in our culture many of them simply would never discover that. The existence of the vibrator corrects for the fact that women in our society generally have a much harder time achieving orgasm.
One possibility Johnson mentioned for defining feminist technology is focusing on "technologies that favor women, rather than merely equalize". The vibrator is definitely an example of such a technology. The vibrator allows women to have a sexual experience that men simply can never have. In this sense, the vibrator does not merely level out the inequality by helping more women achieve orgasm, it allows women to have orgasms that are far more pleasurable than what a man can experience. This elevates that part of female sexuality to a level above male sexuality.
The vibrator also has a very significant impact as a sociotechnical system. A very significant social side effect of the vibrator is that it provides a vehicle for women to express their sexuality. In our society it's very taboo for a woman to talk about
masturbating, but it is much more acceptable for a man to talk about masturbating. Jokes about male masturbation are common on television or in movies, but female masturbation is rarely mentioned. The invention of the vibrator helps to bridge this gap. Women feel much less ashamed to mention that they own a vibrator then talking about masturbation directly. The existence of vibrators also encourages many women to explore their sexuality. Because these items are sold in stores, women realize that other women are masturbating too and will feel less ashamed of it. Without this physical symbol, there is no proof that female masturbation is common because talking about it is so discouraged.
Layne argues that a feminist technology is one that empowers, not just benefits women. The ability to achieve orgasm certainly qualifies as a benefit, but one could argue that this does not qualify as empowering to women. However, the ability to talk openly and not feel ashamed about sexuality and masturbation certainly is empowerment. The vibrator helps women feel more comfortable with the idea of masturbation, and so this empowers them to be as comfortable with their sexual desires as men are.
Someone who views technology as dangerous to feminism could argue that using vibrators to talk openly about masturbation is giving in to the social norm that women don't talk about touching their vaginas. However, if we think about this in practical terms, vibrators allow women to talk about masturbation, which is a step up from not talking about it at all. They can even serve as a stepping stone: becoming comfortable with the idea of using a vibrator can help women become comfortable with masturbation and sexual desire in general.
The vibrator is also significant because it is an evidence against the outdated theory that the female orgasm is nonexistent. At one point in history, the existence of female orgasm was doubted by many male doctors. The nonexistence of female orgasm has huge implications for female sexuality and equality. If women can't achieve orgasm, many people won't think it's important that sex be pleasurable for them. This would mean that the only purpose of sex for women is procreation, which furthers the idea that women's only purpose is childbearing and caretaking. However, the existence of the vibrator completely disproves the belief that female orgasm is a myth. With the use of a vibrator, the vast majority of women can easily achieve orgasm, while without it that might not be the case.
Overall, the vibrator is a very feminist technology. It allows women to have a sexual experience unattainable by men, and also helps them feel more comfortable their sexuality. It could be argued that women are not touching their bodies directly as a result and that is restricting to them, but I believe the positive impact of the vibrator in de-stigmatizing female sexuality overshadows this concern.
Loomis, Erik. "The Strange, Fascinating History of the Vibrator" AlterNet.
Johnson, Deborah G. "Sorting Out The Question of Feminist Technology."
Layne, Linda L, Sharra L. Vostral, and Kate Boyer. "Feminist Technology." University of
Illinois Press. Urbana, Chicago, Springfield. 2010.
Blog credit: a feminist teacher and sexologist @nipxprincess2