The Buzzworthy Science Behind Why Your Vibrator Feels So Damn Good

The Buzzworthy Science Behind Why Your Vibrator Feels So Damn Good
Source: Getty Images
Source: Getty Images

When Sex and the City's high-powered lawyer Miranda Hobbes got her hands on a Rabbit vibrator in the show's first season, she raved about its capabilities to her friends. "I know where my next orgasm is coming from. Who here can say as much?" she challenged them.

The now-famous scene marked a major moment for the sex toy industry, and it was subsequently thrust into the mainstream consciousness. But for many people, the episode simply tapped into something they were already well aware of: Vibrators are a damn good tool with which to find sexual gratification. 

Sold in virtually every color of the rainbow, with a plethora of materials, intensities, shapes and price points, vibrators abide by the Goldilocks method: Some are too this, others are too that, but then you find the one that's just right.

But they're more than just pretty toys. There's something else at work besides magic. So what's really going on inside your nightstand's favorite little buzzing resident?

Source: Giphy

As it turns out, they're relatively simple. "It's actually pretty straightforward — they're just motors," Debby Herbenick, a sexual health educator at the Kinsey Institute and a director at the Center for Sexual Health Promotion at Indiana University, told Mic. 

"Vibrators just have motors, and they run at different frequencies, and that's why you'll see some that are very low frequency, for people that [like] low-intensity vibrators. Then there are very high-intensity vibrators," which run at higher frequencies, she said. The Hitachi Magic Wand, which doubles as a back massager, is particularly powerful, she said; a study in the journal Sexual and Relationship Therapy reported it had a range of frequency of 89 Hz to 101 Hz.

"Vibrators are generally powered by eccentric rotating mass vibration motors," Janet Lieberman, an MIT graduate who serves as the CTO of Dame Products, the company behind the popular "Eva" couples' sex toy, told Mic

"Motors, at their most simplistic, are devices that cause a central shaft to spin using electricity," she said. Typically, you want a motor with as little wobble, or vibration, as possible. But a vibrator relishes in the opposite: The greater the vibration, the better. "To make a motor an ERM motor, you drill a hole off-center in a weight and press-fit the shaft into that hole. You're intentionally making the entire setup wobble as the motor spins. That's what the creates the vibration."

It looks something like this: 

Source: YouTube

"The bigger the [weight], the more off-center it's mounted and the faster you spin it, the stronger the vibration," Lieberman explained.

Displacement is also a factor. The bigger the distance a motor moves inside the housing of a product, the more powerful it will be.

Why do both men and women tend to orgasm more quickly and easily at frequencies we don't normally produce ourselves as humans?

Vibrators need an electricity source in order to make the motor spin, and most get that from batteries — AA, AAA or watch batteries, according to Herbenick. Some, like the Hitachi Magic Wand, use an outlet and a plug, which equals greater power and thus greater intensity. But, she added, they're not as frequently used because they're not quite as convenient as a more portable vibrator. 

But devices like phones and toothbrushes vibrate, too. What's the difference? "Most people's phones don't vibrate at a high frequency," Herbenick explained. "[An electric] toothbrush doesn't vibrate at a frequency that's particularly fast or strong. So although some people may at least initially experience with vibration that's available to them from something like a toothbrush or phone, especially if they're young ... most people, if given the chance, would prefer a vibrator meant for sexual stimulation."

Source: Giphy

The material used is another factor.

"There are some materials that will dampen the effect of the vibration, so it might be really intense inside, but if you have a thicker material, you [won't feel it as much]," Herbenick said. "If you take certain vibrators, like a Bullet, and you turn it on its highest setting and put it on a table, some of them will move. And that wouldn't be the case with a lower frequency vibrator."

But other companies are trying different mechanisms. Though most vibrators use a rotary motor system, others, like Hot Octopuss' Pulse sex toy and Revel Body's sonic vibrator, have expanded beyond that method. 

In his company's products, "you have a motor attached to a mechanism that causes a pad to go up and down, like a piston," Adam Lewis, the co-founder of Hot Octopuss, told Mic. The devices uses this mechanism "to deliver high-amplitude oscillations rather than low-amplitude vibrations," the website further explains

RevelBody's piston-style motor.
Source: RevelBody

The idea, Lewis said, came from medicine that has been in use for years. 

"I came across this medical report that talked about technique used to help men with spinal cord injuries," he told Mic. "I was reading this report, and it talked about this medical vibrator they used that had an oscillating pad — it doesn't vibrate; it's much more [of a] three-dimensional motion. It's more like a piston, a sort of up-and-down motion." 

Source: YouTube

Revel Body's sonic vibrator is similar. According to its website, it uses linear motors, which, unlike rotary motors, "produce pulsation, a back-and forth-vibration or force that creates high-performance vibration."

While Lewis' products are still in the minority, he believes things are changing. 

"Consumers are getting more sophisticated, [and] the types of people that are developing these products now are changing. It used to be very much dominated by the large players in the market. Now you're seeing smaller companies coming into the market with this [new] technology. You'll see the new entrants coming to the market [that work] very differently to the legacy products that have been around for years."

What about the physiology? Regardless of someone's gender, vibrators can do wonders for sexual satisfaction. But while the technology is relatively simple, our physiology is not. 

Why do both men and women eke so much pleasure out of a little bit of vibration? "We don't know!" Herbenick laughed, explaining that it's a concept we're still trying to understand.

Source: Giphy

"Ultimately, why, for example, do both men and women tend to orgasm more quickly and easily at frequencies that we don't normally produce ourselves as humans? Why wouldn't the optimal frequency be something that's more common to humans, that we produce on our own?" she added.

Moreover, we're not all the same when it comes to intensity levels. "Men tend to maybe be more responsive to higher frequency products, which makes some sense, because they have real skin on their penis, and female genitals have different kinds of tissue — we don't have regular thick skin," Herbenick said. 

Source: Giphy

Other variables, like body fat, health conditions, body hair and age can also affect our sensitivity to vibration.

"There's good reason that the products on the market have a lot of variability, because people respond to a lot of different things based on these factors," she said.

Whatever the science behind them, however, one thing is for sure: They sure do get us buzzing like bees.