Crave build-a-vibrator workshop at Museum of Design Atlanta

Modern-day masturbation: Atlanta native designs ergonomic, sophisticated vibrators

The only vibrator I ever owned was neon green and the complete opposite of ergodynamic. It had no curvature, two speeds, a screw-on battery cap and was purchased with the help of my early college boyfriend. It cost $12.

I was never one for vibrators and dildos to begin with, so it didn’t get used a whole lot while we were together, and less so in the years following. However, one day I had it out, and shortly before climax, the top of the screw-on battery cap popped off and popped me smack in the forehead.

Total turn-off.

I threw my cheap, ugly vibrator away and never looked back.

Fast-forward a few years later, when last fall I was asked to attend a build-your-own vibrator class at the Museum of Design Atlanta for Georgia Voice. I rolled my eyes a bit, only slightly annoyed that I was going to end up with something probably pastel pink with weird beads for “texture” and little alien prongs that some catalog designer decided to name after animals.

Then I found out I could bring a guest, and so I drug my newly single best friend along for the ride. If anyone could use some relief after the year she’d had, it was most certainly this woman.

Imagine our surprise when the design class we walked into was not something pastel and tacky with a bunch of giggling girls excited about bunny rabbits and dolphins, but rather, a classy, science-driven tutorial aimed at eliminating the taboo surrounding female orgasm. We weren’t learning how to build sex toys: we were learning how to empower our sexuality.

Crave vibrator kit
The vibrators in Crave’s build-your-own vibrator ‘kits’ are sleek, modern and small. (Photos by Dallas Anne Duncan)

From medical relief to at-home release

Atlanta native Ti Chang, who led the class, holds design degrees from both Georgia Institute of Technology and the Royal College of Art. She’s also the co-founder of San Francisco, California-based Crave, the only company that manufactures vibrators in America.

“We make vibrators, which are very complicated electro-mechanical products. It’s not a dildo, where you have silicone and you pour it into a mold,” Chang said. “Vibrators are something that are very taboo in our society, for a very long time, but I think that attitude is clearly changing.”

The build-your-own vibrator “kits” set out in front of us in the class also clearly changed from what I thought of as a vibrator. They were sleek, modern and small with forked tips.

Vibrators have a history more than a century old, beginning in the 1800s as a cure for “hysteria.” Read: desperate need to orgasm.
“One of the most commonly prescribed treatments for hysteria was manual massages,” Chang said. “Victorian women would book an appointment for a doctor to get relief, and basically a physician would manually massage them until they climaxed and would feel better. Put yourself in the physician’s shoes. That’s a lot of work.”

The first vibrators were invented by doctors as a way to make their jobs curing hysteria easier and more efficient, Chang said. They were medical apparatuses that required training to use. As electricity became more common, so did electrical vibrators — though still aimed primarily for medical use, smaller, more economical versions became available for the average consumer.

“From 1930 to 1960, the advent of motion pictures came around. This is where you get pornography, so you have these stag films … and vibrators found their way into porn films. Now, this was the very first time as a society we have a very direct correlation between pleasure, sex and vibrators,” Chang said.

It was about that time that vibrators “went into hiding,” she said. Vibrators were suddenly massagers for backs, faces and necks: pretty much anywhere else that wasn’t around the genitals.

Then the 2010s rolled around — incidentally, around that same time I became the owner of my neon green Spencer’s special. Vibrators became more mainstream again, albeit significantly more pink and kitschy. This is where Chang’s expertise came into play.

Modern-day masturbation

“We are fully embracing pleasure for what it really is, which is about female pleasure. It’s about orgasm. It’s not about reproduction; it’s not a medical disease,” Chang said. “You start to see products that are much more compact, much more modern materials, nicer designs that are just as sophisticated as anything else you would have in your life.”

The Duet Pro, Crave’s newest creation, is an updated version of the 2011 Duet that earned acclaim for being the world’s first crowd-funded vibrator. That was the one we were tasked with building during the MODA class. Much to my relief, our color choices were crimson, black and a deep aubergine.

“It’s USB-rechargeable, it’s waterproof, it’s multiple speeds,” Chang said. “A lot of times when people see this product they’re like, ‘Where does this go? Why is this so small?’ It’s because we are used to vibrators being all about penetration and that’s not really the case, especially for female orgasm. Seventy-five to 80 percent of women require clitoral stimulation to orgasm.”

That’s what those forked tips on the Duet Pro are for: to surround the clitoris. Design research for this included discussions on gap size and surface area that “allowed for the maximum amount of sensation while allowing for diversity of anatomy.” Based on market research, Chang found that women felt awkward about having to plug in vibrators to charge, so she made her compact Duet Pro USB-rechargeable, and programmable, allowing each user to set 16 different pattern and power settings as many times as they want.

As my friend put together her vibrator from the tools in front of us, we listened to Chang talk through the different elements of this electromechanical marvel. And, as much as I didn’t want to admit it when I walked in the door … I left kind of wanting my own.