The vibrator’s long, slow march from taboo to mainstream has been all about figuring out what exactly women want

Consider the humble vibrator. Invented as a medical device in the 19th century, it has gone on to become a Mad Men plot line, a Sex and the City tie-in, a celebrity talking point and a feminist cause.

Not only are vibrators not invisible, they’re hardly even avoidable. New vibrators are unveiled to the awed public at TechCrunch conferences. They are reviewed on Gizmodo. They comprise valid talking points for celebrities, including Barbara Walters. (Walters named hers “selfie”, Alicia Silverstone endorses “eco-friendly” vibrators, Beyoncé’s is allegedly gold-plated and Maggie Gyllenhaal claims an “incredible collection”.) High-end companies market them as luxury products. One 2012 survey found that 52.5% of women used them, whether alone or with a partner, and that women who used vibrators were actually more likely to take care of their sexual health by going to the gynecologist for regular exams.

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