Hitachi Magic Wand

Hitachi Magic Wand (1968)
Plastic and rubber
12”, 1.2 lbs

The vibrator was first invented as an instrument to cure hysteria, a “disease paradigm” fabricated by physicians as early as the fifth century B.C. that pathologized women’s sexuality.  The Hitachi Magic Wand was first released in 1968, and was marketed exclusively as a muscle massager, and Hitachi never recognized it as anything but. Yet women like Betty Dodson, a sex educator, and Joani Blank, the creator of the feminist sex shop Good Vibrations, enthusiastically embraced it as an effective tool to stimulate orgasm. Its popularity and promotion as a vibrator by female marketers and buyers led to the complete unhinging of its original androcentric history. The Magic Wand became a powerful symbol of female sexual independence because women took control of its product narrative.

Decoding the Magic Wand as a Symbol of Female Independence and Empowerment

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Magic Wand, perhaps the most iconic symbol of female sexual liberation and personal empowerment of the last half century. Its manufacturer, Hitachi, originally and persistently marketed the product as a simple neck massager rather than a female vibrator. Yet women enthusiastically embraced it as an effective tool to stimulate orgasm. Its popularity and promotion as a vibrator by female marketers and buyers led to the complete unhinging of its original message created by its male-dominated manufacturer. The Magic Wand became a powerful symbol of female sexual independence because women took control of its product narrative.

Encoding the Vibrator

The vibrator originated as a medical device to treat hysteria, a female “disease paradigm” constructed by physicians as early as the fifth century B.C. Derived from hystra, the Greek word for uterus,[1] Plato defines hysteria as a uterine disease which he describes as “an animal inside an animal.”[2] Physicians from ancient Greece well into the 20th century believed the disorder derived from a lack of sexual satisfaction or a “repressed desire for penetration.”[3] The symptoms list for this condition is extremely long, vague, and inconsistent from source to source. Essentially, most female emotions including nervousness, loss of appetite for food or sex, and the “tendency to cause trouble for others,” were attributed to hysteria.[4] Nineteenth century German psychiatrist Dr. Richard von Krafft-Ebing considered “failure to enjoy sex” a pathological condition among his female patients (and most contemporary doctors shared this viewpoint); therefore, he believed the best remedy for this disorder was marriage to a man, or masturbation to orgasm as a last resort.[5] During this time, physicians commonly believed that “half to three-quarters of all women showed signs of hysteria.”[6] The severity of this ubiquitous misconception and concurrent “prevalent notions about female sexuality, chiefly the fallacy that all women could achieve orgasm through vaginal penetration alone”[7] led English physician Joseph Mortimer Granville to invent the electromechanical vibrator in the late 1880s to treat hysteria.[8]

Manufacturers originally marketed vibrators as medical tools associated with hysteria. Throughout most of the 20th century, “female sexual pleasure and the perceived function of the vibrator were so disconnected.”[9] In fact, the vibrator most prominent in advertisements was called the “White Cross,” referring to the name of an Episcopalian sexual purity organization in Britain.[10] Additionally, the US Food and Drug Administration issued regulations that stated that “genital vibrators” were for the “treatment of sexual dysfunction.”[11] This definition persists in the FDA’s definition last edited in 2017. Not only were vibrators seen as medical instruments, but other uses were often prohibited by obscenity laws. Louisiana enacted anti-vibrator laws that prohibited the “promotion of obscene devices,” and in 2002 a Texas woman was charged with obscenity “after police officers located several sex toys inside her car during a traffic stop.”[12] “Obscene” uses were out of the question, and therefore, using vibrators for medical “psychological situations” were the only legitimate uses; therefore, women using vibrators for personal sexual pleasure were “either in violation of the law or in some sense dysfunctional.”[13]

The vibrator maintained its medical status even as it morphed into a desirable household appliance during the post-World War II economic boom and explosion of consumerism. Ads for the product appeared alongside those of other household objects such as a radiator, household mixer, and electric fan.[14] These ads “socially camouflaged” the vibrator’s use as a sexual tool by “emphasizing the role of the device in making a woman’s home a veritable Utopia of modern technology, and reducing the number of occasions, such as visiting her physician, on which she would be required to leave her domestic paradise.”[15] In the 1950s and 1960s, the GI Bill paid for millions of returning soldiers to attend college and an expanding manufacturing sector created millions more well-paying jobs that led to a dramatic increase in home ownership and a rising middle class.  People could now afford a plethora of home appliances such as dishwashers and laundry machines, and the vibrator rose in popularity as it took its place among other modern household appliances available to a new and growing pool of consumers.

Manufacturers commandeered the concept that vibrators are valid because of their medical value rather than their use for sexual pleasure. The Japanese company Hitachi marketed its Magic Wand, originally released at the height of the women’s liberation movement in 1968, as simply a muscle massager. As characterized by Gerry Crobett, Hitachi’s Head of Corporate Communications, “[the Wand] is a straightforward product. There are no implications of anything beyond standard health-care use,”[16] which shows the complete disavowal of its use as a vibrator. The device used to be referred to as simply “The Hitachi,” which is ironic because in 2012 Hitachi threatened to stop making the device after, as Dan Martin of sex toy manufacturer and distributor Vibratex explains, “they finally caught up to how it was being promoted and sold in the States.”[17] Because the Magic Wand is one of Vibratex’s best sellers, Martin convinced Hitachi to continue manufacturing the product without the company’s name on the product.[18] Although Hitachi employees helped celebrate the 15th anniversary of the feminist sex shop Good Vibrations in 1992 with Magic Wand-shaped chocolates,[19] Hitachi never recognized their product as anything other than a muscle massager.  In fact, in 1999 Hitachi came out with a statement reaffirming that the product’s sole use was for health care.[20]

The vibrator was encoded with a very specific message but decoded as something entirely different. The basic principal behind cultural studies scholar Stuart Hall’s theories on encoding and decoding revolve around the relationship between the producer and product, and the product and the consumer. Producers encode their objects with specific meaning that they hope will translate to the consumer through the object. Consumers decode objects to find meaning. Hall notes, however, that there is “no necessary correspondence between encoding and decoding.”[21] Generally, there are three separate hypothetical scenarios that pertain to decoding objects. The first is called “dominant-hegemonic position”[22] where the consumer decodes the object exactly if not very similarly to how the producer encoded it. The next is “negotiated position,” where the consumer acknowledges the general idea outlined by the producers, but “makes its own ground rules.”[23] The last, and most important in this context, is called the globally contrary way. This is when the consumer completely takes apart the message encoded in the object and creates “some alternative framework of reference.”[24] This is the framework in which women decoded the vibrator, and specifically the Magic Wand, as a symbol of feminine sexual independence. This message draws a stark contrast to the message encoded by the producers that seemed meant to quell female independence and sexuality.

Decoding the Vibrator

Men played a dominant role in encoding the vibrator, exemplified by Hitachi’s marketing of the Magic Wand with an androcentric, medically-based message, but women decoded it as a tool of independence and empowerment.

Betty Dodson, a sex educator and artist best known for her Bodysex workshops aimed at teaching women how to masturbate, started teaching using Panasonic’s Panabrator, but switched to Hitachi’s Magic Wand soon after its release.[25] Dodson also recommended the product in her book Liberating Masturbation, which came out in 1974.[26] Her public endorsement of the Magic Wand publicized and popularized the product as a vibrator for female sexual stimulation rather than the neck massager it is marketed as. Although Dodson is substantially responsible for the Magic Wand’s immense popularity as a vibrator, she was never compensated for her endorsements. She said it was “really shitty of [Hitachi] not to acknowledge my efforts and give me a percentage.”[27] She went on to explain that “evidently, Mr. Hitachi, Sr. didn’t like the idea that his massage machine was giving millions of women orgasms. Tough shit! It remains my favorite vibrator to this day.”[28]

Dodson’s support of the product was so effective because it was already readily available to the majority of the U.S. female population in department stores like Macy’s, typically in the small appliances section.[29] However, after taking one of Dodson’s workshops, Dell Williams tried to buy the Magic Wand at a department store and had a terrible experience when the salesman started prying into her intentions for how she planned use the product. This sparked Williams to create the first feminist sex toy shop called “Eve’s Garden” in 1974 where women could mail-order Magic Wands as well as other vibrators. Dodson also inspired Joani Blank to put the Magic Wand on the cover of her 1976 book Good Vibrations: Being a Treatise on the Use of Machines in the Indolent Indulgence of Erotic Pleasure-Seeking Together with Important Hints on the Acquisition, Care, and Utilization of Said Machines and Much More about the Art and Science of Buzzing Off.[30]

Blank became an even more important promoter of the Magic Wand when she founded Good Vibrations, a feminist sex shop in San Francisco, in 1977.[31] Before this, sex stores were primarily dark, dingy, and often focused on pornography and peep booths for male customers. These types of establishments were rapidly being “zoned out of existence.”[32] Good Vibrations started a major shift in the sex store business model by targeting women. The store “eliminated their porn inventory in favor of sex toys, painted their stores to make them lighter and brighter” and hired women to work on the floor.[33] These shifts were made to make women feel more comfortable and welcome in the sex shop environment. The vibrator specifically, and female sexuality generally, were in a sense repackaged as something positive for women. Blank purposely designed her store to have a comfortable, living room-type feel. The goal was to reinvent what sex stores insinuated about sex and sex toys, and remove feelings of negativity, inferiority and any sense of female sexuality as something dirty or shameful.[34] Good Vibrations sold Hitachi’s Magic Wands from the very beginning, and it has been a best seller since its opening.[35]

Good Vibrations’ work to shift the narrative of female sexuality generally, and vibrators in particular, as well as its mission to prioritize women’s personal needs, is in stark contrast to the marketing history of the vibrator. Previously, the vibrator was a symbol of the pathologization of women’s sexuality, a phenomenon created by men that suppressed female sexuality, but retailers like Good Vibrations transformed vibrators into a symbol of sexual freedom, putting the narrative into the hands of women. The original marketing of the vibrator used domesticity to restrict women, yet new women-focused retailers like Good Vibrations used it to encourage women to enjoy independence without guilt or shame. Hitachi’s ultimate decision to remove its name from the Magic Wand after it was decoded and re-encoded by women as a vibrator left women with complete control over the product, much like how it allows them to have power and control over their personal sexual experience.

All this being said, it is still important to note that Good Vibrations and other like stores such as Babeland have a target customer, which they describe as the “Marin House Wife,” that reinforces certain negative stereotypes.[36]  A Good Vibrations employee describes its customer as a “middle- to upper-middle-class, presumably white, suburban women who is ‘not very sexually adventurous; who maybe doesn’t have an orgasm or who doesn’t reliably have an orgasm; who doesn’t talk about sex with her friends or husband or mom; who is straight, of course; and who is interested [in sex] but really needs a lot of encouragement and hand-holding.’”[37] These strong implications about race, class, and gender work to “sexually sanitize” the vibrator in a way that places negative implications on other groups.5 Because their goal was to be seen as a clean, safe sex shop and their target market was white middle- to upper middle-class women, it suggests that other races and classes are not clean or safe. Additionally, the shift back to characterizing women in terms of domesticity is somewhat regressive. While these implications cannot be ignored, the success of the feminist-oriented sex stores lies in the fact that they effectively allowed women to decode and transform the vibrator into a symbol of independence and empowerment that was clearly not intended by its manufacturer and its marketing team.

Despite the conspicuous opposition of Hitachi, the Magic Wand became a symbol of a female sexual revolution, even becoming a pop culture icon featured in the popular TV series Sex and the City. Episode 6 of season 5 captures the success of the product’s decoding in a scene where Samantha tries to return her vibrator in a Sharper Image store. The middle-aged, white male employee asserted that the product Samantha was referring to was not a vibrator, and Sharper Image did not sell those kinds of products. Samantha laughs at his remark and remains firm in her stance. Later in the scene, other women are shyly looking through all the muscle massagers in the store while she goes through and tells them which are the best vibrators. While the scene never explicitly shows the Magic Wand, it is clear the product inspired the concept. The show’s highlighting of women openly using marketed muscle massagers as vibrators also serves to put the power of product characterization into the hands of women consumers. Figures like Samantha who unapologetically reject the intended encoded message and its connotation of female suppression to create their own message of personal empowerment highlight the true significance of the product.

An episode entitled “The Turtle and the Hare” in the Sex and the City’s first season also opens up an interesting conversation about vibrators that rejects the product’s original encoding. Describing a new vibrator that she discovered, Miranda tries to convince the other women of its power by stating “in 50 years men are going to be obsolete anyways. I mean already you can’t talk to them, you don’t need them to have kids with, you don’t even need them to have sex with.” When her friends exhibited skepticism, Miranda reminds them, “I know where my next orgasm is coming from, who here can say as much?” Here, Miranda uses the vibrator to demonstrate her independence and undermine the male role in sexual pleasure, and more broadly, the male role in general. Her use of the vibrator as something better at sex than a man represents a shift from vibrators as a tool created to try and cure women of a “female disease.” She is not using her vibrator to achieve orgasm to enjoy traditional sex with a partner; she is using it to achieve orgasm for herself.

The story of the vibrator from its invention more than 100 years ago as an ostensible medical instrument to cure the “female disease” of hysteria to its popularization as a personal pleasure device for women is a fascinating tale of female empowerment and debunking of millennia-old misconceptions of female sexuality.  The public decoding of Hitachi’s Magic Wand by women in the face of strong resistance from the manufacturer make it a powerful symbol of personal freedom not only because of its function, but also because women took control of the product’s narrative away from marketers who sought to suppress its liberating message.

 

Bibliography:

Christina Hsieh, “A Brief History of the Magic Wand,” Cosmopolitan (2017) https://www.cosmopolitan.com/sex-love/a14105499/hitachi-magic-wand-history/

Christopher Trout, “The 46-Year-Old Sex Toy Hitachi Won’t Talk About,” Engaget (2014) https://www.engadget.com/2014/08/27/history-of-the-hitachi-magic-wand/

Danielle Lindeman, ‘Pathology Full Circle: A History of Anti-Vibrator Legislation in the United States’, Columbia Journal of Gender and Law, 15 (2006), 326.

Lynn Comella, “Repackaging Sex,” Vibrator Nation: How Feminist Sex-Toy Stores Changed the Business of Pleasure (2017)

Miko Alicea, “Sex Toy History: The Hitachi Magic Wand,” Sexual History Tour (2017)  http://www.sexualhistorytour.com/sex-toy-history-the-hitachi-magic-wand/

Rachel Maines, “Female Sexuality as Hysterical Pathology,” The Technology of Orgasm (1999)

Rachel Maines, ‘Socially Camouflaged Technologies: The case of the electromechanical vibrator’, Technology and Society Magazine, 8 (1989), 3-11.

Stuart Hall, “Encoding/Decoding,” The Cultural Studies Reader (1973)

 

[1] Rachel Maines, “Female Sexuality as Hysterical Pathology,” The Technology of Orgasm (1999)

[2] Ibid

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid

[5] Ibid

[6] Ibid

[7] Danielle Lindeman, ‘Pathology Full Circle: A History of Anti-Vibrator Legislation in the United States’, Columbia Journal of Gender and Law, 15 (2006), 326.

[8] Christopher Trout, “The 46-Year-Old Sex Toy Hitachi Won’t Talk About,” Engaget (2014) https://www.engadget.com/2014/08/27/history-of-the-hitachi-magic-wand/

[9] Lindeman, Pathology Full Circle

[10] Ibid

[11] Ibid

[12] Ibid

[13] Ibid

[14] Rachel Maines, ‘Socially Camouflaged Technologies: The case of the electromechanical vibrator’, Technology and Society Magazine, 8 (1989), 3-11.

[15] Ibid

[16] Lindeman, Pathology Full Circle

[17] Christina Hsieh, “A Brief History of the Magic Wand,” Cosmopolitan (2017) https://www.cosmopolitan.com/sex-love/a14105499/hitachi-magic-wand-history/

[18] Ibid

[19] Ibid

[20] Miko Alicea, “Sex Toy History: The Hitachi Magic Wand,” Sexual History Tour (2017)  http://www.sexualhistorytour.com/sex-toy-history-the-hitachi-magic-wand/

[21] Stuart Hall, “Encoding/Decoding,” The Cultural Studies Reader (1973)

[22] Ibid

[23] Ibid

[24] Ibid

[25] Hsieh, A Brief History of the Magic Wand

[26] Alicea, Sex Toy History

[27] Hsieh, A Brief History of the Magic Wand

[28] Christopher Trout, “The 46-Year-Old Sex Toy Hitachi Won’t Talk About,” Engaget (2014) https://www.engadget.com/2014/08/27/history-of-the-hitachi-magic-wand/

[29] Alicea, Sex Toy History

[30] Hsieh, A Brief History of the Magic Wand

[31] Ibid

[32] Lynn Comella, “Repackaging Sex,” Vibrator Nation: How Feminist Sex-Toy Stores Changed the Business of Pleasure (2017)

[33] Ibid

[34] Ibid

[35] Hsieh, A Brief History of the Magic Wand

[36] Comella, Repackaging Sex

[37] Ibid

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *