By Catarina Dutilh Novaes
A few days ago the link to an interesting piece popped up in my Facebook newsfeed: ‘Three reasons why every woman should use a vibrator’, by Emily Nagoski. I wholeheartedly agree with the main claim, but what makes the piece particularly interesting for philosophers at large is a reference to Andy Clark and the extended mind framework:
Some women feel an initial resistance to the idea of using a vibrator because it feels like they “should” be able to have an orgasm without one. But there is no “should” in sex. There’s just what feels good. Philosopher Andy Clark (who’s the kind of philosopher who would probably not be surprised to find himself named-dropped in an article about vibrators) calls it “scaffolding,” or “augmentations which allow us to achieve some goal which would otherwise be beyond us.” Using paper and pencil to solve a math equation is scaffolding. So is using a vibrator to experience orgasm.
This is an intriguing suggestion, which deserves to be further explored. (As some readers may recall, I am always happy to find ways to bring together some of my philosophical interests with issues pertaining to sexuality – recall this post on deductive reasoning and the evolution of female orgasm.) Within the extended mind literature, the phenomena discussed as being given a ‘boost’ through the use of bits and pieces of the environment are typically what we could describe as quintessentially cognitive phenomena: calculations, finding your way to the MoMA etc. But why should the kind of scaffolding afforded by external devices and parts of the environment not affect other aspects of human existence, such as sexuality? Very clearly, they can, and do. (Relatedly, there is also some ongoing discussion on the ethics of neuroenhancement for a variety of emotional phenomena.)
Indeed, vibrators are a technology developed to address certain needs felt by certain people, much as notations and algorithms (as I argued in my book Formal Languages in Logic), calculating devices, machines of multiple kinds etc. And just as with most technologies, vibrators have an interesting historical development, detailed in (Maines 1998) which remains the authoritative account of the history of vibrators (helpfully summarized in (Saul 2006)). Already in ancient Greece, manual genital stimulation was widely viewed as the best treatment for the condition known as ‘hysteria’ (which basically amounted to the symptoms of unfulfilled sexual needs in women), in order to produce what was referred to as ‘hysterical paroxysm’ – in plain words, an orgasm. The treatment was typically administered by (male) doctors or midwives, and was prescribed in particular for unmarried women (or widows).
However, and as also portrayed in the film ‘Hysteria’ (which is by the way truly, truly awful – stay away!), such treatments could be time-consuming and exhausting for those administering it, and so the idea of outsourcing the job to a non-human device seemed like a good one. Water jets were an option, but still much too impractical, and so at the end of the 19th century, with the electric revolution, the first electric vibrators were invented for genital stimulation. At first, it made everybody happy: doctors were happy because the treatment became faster and much less exhausting for them, and women were happy because, well, the results were so much better! However, at some point women realized that they did not need doctors as intermediates, and so could make use of vibrators themselves in the comfort of their homes. Indeed, at the turn of the 20th century (as documented by Maines) it was very common for vibrators to be advertised in women’s magazines alongside all kinds of other domestic appliances. How unfortunate that soon after (possibly when they began to be depicted in pornographic movies) vibrators acquired the stigma of something ‘dirty’ and promiscuous.
As remarked in the ‘Three reasons’ piece, the intensity of stimulation one gets from a (good) vibrator simply cannot be reproduced by non-mechanical, ‘human’ means, so it is a clear case of ‘scaffolding’: a device that allows humans to go well beyond what would be humanly possible without it. So what could possibly be wrong with it? One line of argumentation might be that using vibrators for sexual pleasure would be a problematic case of ‘personification’, of letting an object perform a function that is inherently human (see (Saul 2006) for further discussion on the concept of personification). (Perhaps amusingly, this reminds me of debates on computer-assisted or computer-generated mathematical proofs, which are still seen with suspicion by many.) But is this really the case? Why is obtaining and procuring sexual pleasure an inherently human function? What is wrong with letting machines play a role in the process?
Now, once vibrators were no longer a prerogative of doctors treating the symptoms of ‘hysteria’, presumably their domestic uses were typically restricted to solo situations. To this day, it seems to me that vibrator use is still mostly associated with solo use, which may explain the feeling that they unduly take the place of another person (a suspicion that, amazingly, still seems to hover over masturbation in general). And indeed, especially for women who find it difficult to have orgasms during partner sex, practicing on their own with a vibrator is one of the best ways to become more orgasmic in general (as prominent sex educator Betty Dodson has been saying for decades – she recommends in particular the Magic Wand and similar devices).
However, vibrators can be equally used for partner sex. In such situations, vibrators are not taking anyone’s place: they become part of the system through what extended cognition theorists call ‘coupling’ (never has the term been so appropriate…). In fact, this kind of coupling occurs also in the solo situations. And so, both in solo and in partner sex, vibrators can truly enhance the experience of the (one, two, or more) people involved – clearly, scaffolding at its best.