How Does a Vibrator Work?

Alexandra Fine, Credentialed Sexologist, M. Psych | Written by Dame

Courtesy of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary:

Appliance

ap·​pli·​ance | \ ə-ˈplī-ən(t)s \

an instrument or device designed for a particular use or function

The definition of appliance doesn’t emphasize how an instrument or device works. Its designed “use or function” is much more important.

That makes sense. When was the last time you thought about how your toaster, curling iron or razor actually works? What matters to most users is whether an appliance does what it’s supposed to do.

A vibrator, according to Merriam-Webster’s definition, is also an appliance. But it’s an appliance which, by design, comes into contact with the most intimate parts of your body.

Why would you care how this extremely personal appliance works?

For one thing, it can be reassuring to know exactly what’s buzzing and whirring inside electronic sex toys, before you develop up-close-and-personal relationships with them. What’s even more important, though: understanding how a vibrator works helps you choose the right “instrument or device” for your desired type of sexual pleasure.

Vibrators Don’t All Do the Same Thing

Sex educators, sex therapists, sex toy manufacturers and toy aficionados can all agree that there are many different types of vibrators. If you asked each of them to describe vibrators by category, though, you’d probably see many different lists. Here’s ours.

  • External vibrators: These are primarily used for stimulation on the clitoris and/or labia. (They feel great on nipples, too.) They are often shaped differently than a traditional dildo, so they can provide stimulation over a large area, touch both the labia and clitoris simultaneously, or “surround” the clitoris with two separate tips.
    There’s an enormous variety of external vibrators to choose from. Common examples are magic wand vibrators (much more than a neck massager!), pocket rockets, split-tip or winged vibes, bullet vibrators, wearable vibrators and finger-tip vibes. Clitoral vibrators are effective toys for those who don’t require (or want) vaginal penetration, those who need clitoral stimulation in order to climax during intercourse, or for partner play.
  • Internal vibrators: These toys are intended to simulate intercourse and/or stimulate the sensitive areas inside the vagina. The best-known types of internal vibes are straightforward models shaped like a dildo or designed to resemble a penis, egg vibrators with remote controls (particularly fun to use with a partner) and G-spot vibrators designed to hit – well, you know where. (What you might not know, though, is that many researchers believe G-spot stimulation is able to produce powerful female orgasms because the G-spot is actually connected to the clitoris.)
  • Combination vibrators: Even if you’re still shopping for your first vibrator, you’re probably familiar with the rabbit vibrator from Charlotte’s infamous Sex and the City episode. A combination vibrator can take several forms but always has at least two heads, one to stimulate the clitoris and another for vaginal penetration. A few models have three heads so they can stimulate the anus as well. If your anatomy is different, there are also vibrators able to hit the perineum, scrotum and anus simultaneously.
  • Anal vibrators: Yes, you could use an internal vibrator for this purpose. But these vibrating, rotating or pulsating toys are normally thinner (for obvious reasons), and always have a flared base so they don’t accidentally get lost in the rectum. Don’t forget the lube. Some of these are shaped with a penis-haver’s prostate in mind!
  • Suction vibrators: Some might put these toys into the “external vibrator” category, but they’re designed to provide a different type of sensation. In effect, they use either gentle suction or rapidly-varying pressure to provide stimulation. Some even come complete with a moving ball that replicates the feeling of a moving tongue.
  • Penis vibrators: There are several types of vibrating sex toys designed for the penis. The most popular is a vibrating cock ring, but others include wrap-around “guybrators”. Naturally, any vibrator can be used by anyone – anywhere on the body – with a little imagination.

You’ve certainly noticed that all of those vibrators are designed to stimulate different erogenous zones and nerve endings. Some are better for foreplay, while others are best used to induce mind-numbing orgasms. Some toys designed for external play can certainly be inserted as well, but that doesn’t mean they’ll produce the same results.

That means vibrators work in different ways, in order to be most effective.

And knowing how different types of vibrators work makes it easier to choose the right toy.

The Heart of a Vibrator: The Motor

The key component of a vibrator is its motor. But not just any motor will do.

After all, refrigerators and food processors have motors, too – but it’s unlikely that you reach the heights of sexual pleasure every time you make dinner. (Yes, we’ve all heard stories about women sitting on their washing machines or dishwashers, but if they’re true, they’re probably outliers.)

By definition, a motor turns electrical energy into mechanical energy; the energy is usually used to turn a shaft. The process, as you’d expect, causes at least a small amount of vibration. But engineers who build motors usually try to minimize the vibration (or wobble) as much as possible. It’s hard to use most motorized appliances or tools if they’re shaking uncontrollably.

That brings us back to vibrators. The goal in building a motorized sex toy is just the opposite; engineers want to feature the vibrations, not minimize them. The way they do that is by turning the motor into something called an eccentric rotating mass vibration motor, or ERM.

Science geeks may be interested in how that’s done: the motor’s shaft is inserted into a weight, through a hole that’s deliberately drilled off-center. Everyone else will be more interested in the outcome: the motor is permanently imbalanced, forcing it to wobble and vibrate inside its housing.

That gives sex toy designers a lot to work with. By changing the motor’s speed, the size of the weight, how the weight is mounted, and where the motor sits in the housing, they can create vibrators that shake and wobble in many different ways and at very high frequencies.

Now you can understand why some vibrators are more powerful than others, why some buzz and others rumble, and why some vibrate smoothly while others seem to be – for lack of a better word – violent. It’s also why you probably won’t be satisfied if you rely on an electric toothbrush to spice up your sex life. The toothbrush is built to vibrate at frequency levels much lower than those required to stimulate more sensitive areas of the body.

A few manufacturers have found success with other approaches. They include sonic wave clitoral stimulators which never make physical contact with the vulva, and internal vibrators with motors and attachments which gyrate or pulse instead of simply vibrating.

Chances are, though, that your favorite vibe will rely on a motor to create pleasurable vibrations.

What Else Is In a Vibrator?

Simply putting a motor into a case (known as a housing) doesn’t create a vibrator.

The motor needs power, so the vibe needs a power source. And the user needs to be able to easily control the toy’s operation, and that requires electronics and control switches.

Power is relatively easy. A few vibrators that require lots of power, like magic wands, normally run on AC power and have to be plugged into the wall. Most, though, run on batteries. Rechargeable vibrators have built-in lithium-ion batteries which can provide as much as an hour of fun before they need a charge. Vibes with replaceable AA or AAA batteries will usually be less expensive, and will run for longer periods before the batteries have to be changed.

Controlling the vibrator is more complicated. Unless it’s a one- or two-speed toy with a simple on-and-off button switch, a small circuit board will be built into the unit. This board gives designers maximum flexibility, allowing them to provide a wealth of user-accessible features including variable speeds, different vibration modes and even programmable vibration patterns.

The circuit board is also the key to next-generation vibrators which can be controlled via Bluetooth connections, allowing them to operate in sync with online applications or be controlled by a partner anywhere in the world. Some high-end toys are even capable of learning your masturbating routines, and modifying their performance to match.

A Vibrator’s Housing and Skin

The housings and outer skins of vibrators don’t really “work” in the same way that their electronic and mechanical components do. They’re still integral to the toy’s performance, though.

The housing isn’t usually the part of a sex toy that you touch or feel. It’s normally covered by a more comfortable outer skin. That’s a good thing, because the housing is usually made from metal or plastic.

It’s important, though. The location of the motor inside the housing, and how rigidly it’s attached, play a big role in how intensely the vibration will be felt. In other words, a motor that’s able to float around the housing and is close to your sensitive areas will give you a more energetic workout than one that’s firmly bolted to the back of the vibe.

The outer skin is responsible for the tactile sensations you experience. Many materials used to make vibrator skins are relatively soft, like, silicone, cyberskin (created to feel like real skin) or jelly rubber (less common these days, because some forms of the material are toxic). Soft-skin vibrators are the most comfortable choice for penetration, and can be either textured or smooth.

A firmer, hard-shell vibrator is more often used for external stimulation, and is commonly made from a thermoplastic polymer like ABS, although materials like Pyrex or aluminum are used as well. A hard-shell skin may also serve as the vibrator’s housing in less-expensive models.

A “middle ground” material is latex, which is almost as stiff as a hard-shell vibrator. However, it has a softer texture with more give, and is likely to feel more comfortable. Latex usually has a pretty strong odor (which is impossible to get rid of), and can cause serious problems for people with latex allergies.

That covers all of the nuts, bolts and buzzes. But just as important as knowing how a vibrator works – is understanding how to make it work for you.

Vibrator Use and Care 101

It doesn’t matter whether you’re a first-time vibrator user, or if you’ve considered buzzy sex toys integral to your sexual health and pleasure for decades. The proper use and care of your bedtime buddy will make your sessions more fun, and keep your vibrator functioning at peak efficiency.

“Proper use” doesn’t mean what you might think. The pleasure that you (and your sex partners) derive from a vibrator certainly can’t be maximized by reading an instruction manual or tutorial. Sure, it helps to understand whether your toy is designed to best work internally, externally, or in other specific ways. And it’s important to know how to work the controls, in order to adjust the vibe’s different speeds and functions.

What’s crucial, though, is to understand your own body, needs, and desires. (We’re not ignoring the fun you can have with sex toys and partners; it’s just easier to discuss solo use for now.)

Here are the best ways to ensure that your vibrator works for you.

  1. Choose the right type of vibrator. There’s no sense trying to orgasm with a bullet or magic wand if you can only climax from contact with the G-spot. And a rabbit won’t be the optimal choice if you can only be satisfied by clitoral play. Don’t worry – there’s no penalty for choosing incorrectly the first time. There’s just the fun of shopping for a more suitable toy.
  2. Wait to start your play session until it’s the right time. You’re probably not ready to go crazy in bed without getting into the mood first; in the same way, getting excited before pulling out the vibe will heighten the anticipation and let you experience the most pleasure. Whether you’re turned on by wine and candles, erotica, a warm bath or hot porn, get ready before you hit the “on” switch.
  3. Understand your tolerance levels and hot buttons. Some vulva owners proclaim that they don’t like vibrators because their initial experience was simply “turning it on and sticking it in.” Unfortunately, that approach is likely to be as satisfying as a first time fumble in a back seat.

    Think about what you like best when you’re with a partner or using your hands. Is it clitoral stimulation? The sensation of penetration and in-and-out movement? Hitting the G-spot? Oral or anal play? A mix? Now, think about the type of contact you like. Gentle or rough? Teasing, intermittent play or constant contact? You can achieve all of those goals with the right toy, the right vibrator speed and motion, and the right type of contact.

    Start with the slowest speed and very light contact; you can always dial things up if you want more. If your tolerance for direct contact is low, you can begin with your underpants on, or go even more slowly by gently moving the vibrator up your leg before touching your labia or perineum. Remember, you’re in control. The point is finding out what makes you feel terrific, not “doing it right” or “finding the best vibrator.”
  4. Experiment. Half the fun of using a vibrator is the actual sexual satisfaction. The other half is learning new things about your body and discovering sensations you’ve never experienced before. Many vibes have lots of settings and options; play with them. Always wondered if there’s an area of your body you might like to explore with a partner? You don’t have to ask (or convince) a vibrator to try something new – give it a try!
  5. Lube is your friend. Some vibrators are smoother than others, but they’re more likely to catch or pull at your skin than a “human toy.” Just be sure to use the right type of lube for the material your vibe is made from. Water-based lubes are the safest and easiest to clean up. Silicon-based lube will damage silicone-skinned toys, and oil-based lubes can damage jelly rubber and latex vibrators (and can easily gum up the controls).
  6. Be sure to clean up. Soap and warm water are just as good as the expensive cleaning sprays you see on Amazon – but either way, don’t fall asleep contentedly without giving your vibrator a good scrub and putting it away in a clean container. If you don’t, the bacteria and fungi that may find a home on your new sex toy could make future playtimes much less pleasurable.