More than 50 per cent of American women have used one, making it nearly as ubiquitous as a coffee maker.
But as a shopping item, the vibrator is a topic that remains taboo across most of the modern world, even if the products have been around almost as long as electrical devices.
In fact, the vibrator was the fifth domestic appliance to be electrified, following the sewing machine, fan, kettle, and toaster – and it beat both the vacuum cleaner and the iron to market.
You could go as fat as to call the 1900s to 1920s the vibrator’s heyday, as the products were openly advertised in newspapers of the day, before pornography became a concern to society and vibrators,by association, sank out of the public eye.
However, in these post-Sex and the City days, the vibrator is making a come-back, with a couple of companies taking a leaf out of Apple’s design tastes, and hungering for that same level of popularity, branding, and discussion.
In an feature on The Atlantic website, Ethan Imboden, the founder of vibrator manufacturer Jimmyjane, states he is aiming to change the perception of vibrators so that a purchase of one can be as unremarkable as buying any other electrical product.
Imboden, 40, has been designing sex-toys for the last decade, aspiring to change them from cheap items that are hidden in the back of cupboards to products with a design ethic and style that, at the least, will not look out of place in a shop shelf.
The sizable market – with estimated sales at $1.3billion a year – has traditionally been filled with, as Imboden put it, ‘severed anatomy, goofy animals, and penis-pump flashing-lights kind of stuff’, and it was visiting a sex-toy industry show ten years ago which inspired him to give the market a make-over.
He said: ‘As soon as I saw past the fact that in front of me happened to be two penises fused together at the base, I realized that I was looking at the only category of consumer product that had yet to be touched by design.
‘It’s as if the only food that had been available was in the candy aisle, like Dum Dums and Twizzlers, where it’s really just about a marketing concept and a quick rush and very little emphasis on nourishment and real enjoyment.
‘The category had been isolated by the taboo that surrounded it. I figured, I can transcend that.’
Inside a vibrator: One of Jimmyjane’s products, the Form 6, which was designed as a slinky, discreet device with high-quality components
Another ad from the early 1900s, with this product advertise to both men and women
Imboden told The Atlantic that the people who buy vibrators are the same people who spend their money on the newest phones and other well-designed gadgets – they are luxury consumers.
They are also prolific – a 2009 study from Indiana University found that 53 percent of women in the U.S. – and nearly half of all men – have used vibrators, making them twice as common among adults as condoms are.
According to The Atlantic, Jimmyjane’s data also shows that men and women buy vibrators in equal numbers, and across all age groups.
The Atlantic’s writer Andy Isaacson said: ‘Jimmyjane’s conceit is to presuppose a world in which there is no hesitation around sex toys.
‘Placing its products on familiar cultural ground has a normalising effect, Imboden believes, and comparing a vibrator to a lifestyle accessory someone might pack into their carry-on luggage next to an iPad shifts people’s perceptions about where these objects fit into their lives.’
One of Jimmyjane’s competitors, Ohmibod, created this vibrator, which works with an iPod to vibrate with music
Board director Jean-Michel Valette said: ‘I had thought the opportunities for really transforming significant consumer categories had all been done. Starbucks had done it in coffee. Select Comfort had done it in beds. Boston Beers had done it in beer.
‘And here was one that was right under everyone’s nose.’
Jimmyjane’s first vibrator was a slender, cigar-case-style, 24-carat gold-plated product that ended up being sold in London’s Space.NK, and eventually Selfridges.
Other companies are getting in on the act, such as Trojan, Durex and Lifestyle, and Imboden – in the same way Steve Jobs mapped out future iPads and iPhones before his untimely death – has been considering the future of vibrators for years, once he can make the mainstream accept them as non-taboo.
He said he is working on devices that will ‘fundamentally alter the way that we interact with these products’, such as wearable sensors embedded in clothing, or bracelets that function according to heart rate, blood pressure and skin response.
Even devices that communicate between partners on a network are mooted, showing how the market may soon mature.