The vibrator is nothing new—the first model appeared in the mid-1800s—but the use and public perception of the pulsating device has changed a whole lot since it first made its way onto the medical scene. Yep, you read that right: Vibrators were originally designed as a tool for doctor-administered “emotional relief” for women. And as it turns out, those historical early adopters might have been onto something: Vibrator use is closely tied to sexual health and may even influence people’s health outside the bedroom.

The vibrator has undergone dramatic new developments in the last 20 years, notably in its adoption by male consumers and growing cultural acceptance. Our attitudes toward (and uses for) the vibrator have changed, and today people of all sexes are benefiting.

What’s the Deal?

Vibrators Then

The first mechanical vibrator made its American debut in 1869 as a housed underneath a table with a well-placed hole. These implements were used by doctors, who, prior to the invention of the vibrator, would manually stimulate female patients’ clitorises in order to temporarily relieve the symptoms of “hysteria”—an outdated medical diagnosis attributed to high strung and so-called “irrational” women (crazy, we know).

The : Doctors dreaded the task of stimulation, which could take an hour to complete, and so they pushed for the invention of a tool that would do the work for them. By 1883, the original version had developed into a less cumbersome handheld model aptly dubbed “Granville’s Hammer”. The by the turn of the century and could be ordered from the Sears, Roebuck & Company catalog.

Since that time, the vibrator has risen and fallen in cultural popularity, often along with the device’s representations in popular media. Once the vibrator debuted in pornographies in 1920, its household acceptance as a tool to treat hysterics fell out of favor and the device was , rather than respectable. Vibrators during the sixties and seventies, as the taboo concerning women’s sexuality was challenged through popular culture, in books like , and by writers such as pioneering sex educator . With the emergence of Hitachi ‘s Magic Wand (dubbed the “”) in the early 1970s, positive perceptions of the vibrator increased. By the 1990s, talking openly about vibrator usage became more commonplace thanks to “,” , and even the “”. These portrayals helped to generate open discussions about and .

Vibrators Now

Today U.S. cultural attitudes toward women’s vibrators use are, in general, overwhelmingly positive. A national survey found that both men and women hold highly positive views about women’s vibrator usage . Herbenick, D., Reece, M., Schick, V., et al. Center for Sexual Health Promotion, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN. Journal of Sex & Martial therapy 2011;37(5):329-45. Over 52 percent of women report having used vibrators, and vibrator use between partners is common in heterosexual, lesbian, and bisexual couples . Herbenick, D., Reece, M., Sanders, S., et al.  Center for Sexual Health Promotion, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN. Journal of Sexual Medicine 2009, Jul;6(7):1857-66 Herbenick, D., Reece, M., Sanders, S.A., et. Al. Center for Sexual Health Promotion, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN. Journal of Sex& Marital Therapy 2010;36(1):49-65.

Attitudes towards men’s vibrator usage are expanding as well. Although there’s scant history about commercial male vibrators or their usage, vibrators had been used since the 1970’s as a medical tool to and as a rehabilitation tool for men with spinal cord injuries . Rahimi-Movaghar,V., Vaccaro, A.R. Department of Neurosurgery, Research Deputy, Sina Trauma and Surgery Research Center, Tehran University of Medical Sciences, Tehran, Iran.  Acta Medic Irania 2012;50(5):295-9 . Sønksen, J., Biering-Søren J Sex Med. 2008 Oct;5(10):2419-30. doi: 10.1111/j.1743-6109.2008.00857.x. Epub 2008 May 7 .Courtois, F., Charvier, K., Leriche, A., et al. Department of Sexology, Université du Québec à Montréal, Québec, Montreal, Quebec, Canada. Paraplegia 1994 Oct;32(10):651-60.. In 1994, the Fleshlight debuted as the first commercially available () vibrator for men.

The ensuing popularity of the Fleshlight led the sex toy industry to focus on the potential of male consumers. Since then, sex toys targeting a male demographic have shown a substantial . Adult toy stores such as Babeland now have separate sections for male consumers (Babeland has also reported that 35 percent of its customers are men). And these toys are being used: In one study, 45 percent of men reported using vibrators for solo or partnered sexual activities Reece, M., Herbenick, D., Sanders, S.A., et al. Center for Sexual Health Promotion, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN. Journal of Sexual Medicine 2009 Jul;6(7):1867-74. In another, 49 percent of gay and bisexual men reported using vibrators, which follow dildos and non-vibrating cock rings as popular sex toys . Rosenberger, J.G., Schick, V., Herbenick, D., et al. Center for Sexual Health Promotion, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN. Archives of Sexual Behavior 2012, Apr;41(2):449-58.

Why It Matters

From the growing cultural acceptance of women’s vibrator usage, along with increasing male interest in the sex toy, the device has played an important role in American sexuality. In fact, vibrators and sexual health often seem to go hand in hand. Women who report recent vibrator use with partners tend to score higher on the Index (a questionnaire that assesses sexual arousal, orgasm, satisfaction, and pain) than women who report no vibrator use and even women who only used vibrators for masturbation . Herbenick, D., Reece, M., Sanders, S., et al. Center for Sexual Health Promotion, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN. Journal of Sexual Medicine 2009, Jul;6(7):1857-66. Vibrator use can also and is associated with practicing healthy behaviors even outside the bedroom . Herbenick, D., Reece, M., Sanders, S., et al. Center for Sexual Health Promotion, Indiana University. Journal of Sexual Medicine, 2009 Jul;6(7):1857-66. doi: 10.1111/j.1743-6109.2009.01318.x. Epub 2009 May 7.

Men who use vibrators are more likely to report participation in sexual-health-promoting behaviors, such as testicular self-exams. They also tend to score higher on four out of the five categories in the (erectile function, intercourse satisfaction, orgasmic function, and sexual desire) . Reece, M., Herbenick, D., Sanders, S.A., et al. Center for Sexual Health Promotion, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN. Journal of Sexual Medicine 2009, Jul;6(7):1867-74. Couples can take the plunge with an , which offer simultaneous stimulation, or choose a gender-specific vibrator for foreplay.

The Takeaway

Vibrators are increasingly found in bedrooms across America and offer the opportunity for solo and partnered sexual relief and healthy sexual expression. Despite their unusual history, vibrators now play an important role in the sexual lives of Americans. From steam-powered mechanisms to “magic wands” and “silver bullets,” vibrators developed alongside popular culture and reflect part of the weird, interesting history of American sexuality.

READ THIS NEXT: How Much Sex Is Too Much?