Thursday, February 02, 2006

Bad vibrations

No recent Alabama law has excited more nationwide indignation (and comedy) than the 1998 act that outlawed the sale of dildos and vibrators.

Typical was the comment by the Libertarian Party of the United States, which announced in 1999, "This law is giving us bad vibrations."

Specifically, the law "makes it unlawful to produce, distribute or otherwise sell sexual devices that are marketed primarily for the stimulation of human genital organs." The offense is subject to a $10,000 fine and a year in prison.

Soon a group of women filed suit, but in February 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to consider the case of Williams v. Pryor, so the law stands. A few other states have similar laws.

The Alabama law, incidentally, was proposed by a Democrat and signed into law by a Republican. Yes, both were men.

Rachel Maines' 1999 book The Technology of Orgasm looks at the history of the vibrator, which was invented in the Victorian era by a (male) British physician. At the time, inducing orgasm was an accepted treatment for "female hysteria," and the vibrator was intended as a labor-saving "therapeutic device" for physicians: Automating the orgasm enabled the doctor to treat more patients in a given day. Soon, however, giant steam-powered vibrators were replaced by portable electric models, and patients no longer had to go to the doctor's office to use their therapeutic "massagers." (No, I'm not making this up. Maines provides some engineering diagrams here, along with a 1910 ad for the White Cross Electric Vibrator.)

In her Salon article on all this, Janelle Brown calls the vibrator "quite possibly the most potent symbol there is of women's sexual agency." She adds: "Of course, vibrators are still often wrapped in ambiguous terminology -- you can still find ads featuring women gingerly holding pink plastic vibrators to their cheeks, apparently marketing some kind of dubious facial relaxation."

Capitalizing on this ambiguity, the Hitachi Magic Wand is sold openly in Alabama -- as a muscle massager.


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