Pharaoh Moans and Victorian Secrets: A Brief History of Sex Toys
Evolutionary fact: people value sex as much as food. So much so, our ancestors figured out dildos and fire at about the same time, thereby mastering the art of heating up their meals and, when the fire died down, staying warm in the cave even in the absence of their favorite caveman or woman. The full history of sex toys is 30,000 years long. Here’s your highlight reel.
Rock hardPaleontologists aren’t sure if the polished siltstone phallus of the Stone Age was used for ritual or insertional purposes, though we could hazard a guess: celebrations of male fertility from this era are uncommon. There’s a strong argument that these types of objects were more tools than toys, and were believed (and used!) to promote female fertility.
Pharaoh moansThere’s an old rumor contending that Cleopatra DIY-ed the first vibrator by filling a hollowed-out gourd with angry bees. In reality, it’s more likely that she used insertive toys made of polished wood or stone. There’s even record of Julius Caesar presenting Cleopatra with an ornately carved, gold-inlaid, phallic sculpture. Sure beats the hell out of flowers.
It’s Greek to meA highly resourceful and kinky bunch, ancient Greeks are reported to have fashioned dildos out of materials like leather, wood, and even bread. The penis-shaped loaves were known as “olisbokollikes.” Sounds like a pretty easy way to catch a yeast infection, if you ask me. The gluten-free variety were known as “olisboi,” and Greek soldiers were known to give them to their wives before going off to battle.
Sword in the stone... or bushIf “Game of Thrones” is any indication, the Middle Ages gave the sexual revolution of the 1960s a run for its money. Back then, a penis-shaped plant called the “Cantonese Groin” was soaked in warm water to grow and harden before being used for self-pleasure.
The dildo is rebornThe Renaissance brought with it the invention of the printing press, eyeglasses, and other essentials like the dildo. In fact, it was during this period that the term “dildo” was born. The word was derived from the Latin word “dilatare” (to open wide), or perhaps from the Italian word “diletto” (delight). Jury’s still out on that one. The rebranded “dildo” was a modern spin on the Ancient Greek olisbo, and was fabricated from similar materials. While not entirely pleasurable on their own, a few splashes of olive oil were known to help smooth things out.
The Victorian secretThe French were perhaps the first to harness the power of vibration back in 1734 with the invention of the “tremoussoir.” The handheld device functioned with a wind-up key, and was purchased largely by physicians to cure a condition called “female hysteria,” which today we call horniness. Americans took vibrators a step further to create a steam-powered version (ouch!). The Brits around 1880 went to the next level with Dr. J Mortimer Granville’s patented, electromagnetic vibrator. The Granville Hammer was created for medical massage and unsurprisingly became a popular treatment for “hysterical” women. Granville himself claimed to never have treated a female patient. Whatever you say, Doc.
20th-century sex toysI took a trip to Babeland’s SoHo location to check out their vintage vibrator collection. The oldest toy there dates back to 1909. The makers of the Arnold Massage Vibrator claimed that it cured just about everything, from deafness to insomnia. But health didn’t come cheap: accounting for inflation, this toy today would run you about $900.
Until the 1970s, vibrators were pretty much exclusively marketed for health and not pleasure. Gleeful woman commonly depicted on the packaging of these instruments belie the manufacturers’ keen understanding of their products’ off-label use.
The ‘rabbit’ habitThe development of rubber and latex in the 1950s may have been a small step for mankind, but it was a giant leap for sex toys. “Long gone [were] the days when clinicians and therapists would only recommend vibrators and other sexual enhancements for those dealing with special circumstances,” said Yvonne K. Fulbright, PhD, sexologist and author of The Better Sex Guide To Extraordinary Lovemaking. “Vibrators are for any adult, and for a whole slew of reasons.
The marriage of sexual education and technology paved the way from some truly remarkable advances in sexual pleasure. Today’s sex toys are multi-functional, like the famed Rabbit, which provides women with internal and external simulation, and comes with all sorts of nifty features. At Babeland, there’s actually a vibrator that’s sound-activated and can pick up the cadence of music or your partner’s voice to vibrate accordingly. Classic dildo-style toys aren’t waning in popularity, either. Babeland even sells a polished Norwegian moonstone dildo for those of you seeking to get off like our ancestors did.
Despite the democratization of sex toys, Fulbright noted the research on users “is still wanting;” although, I’m pretty confident no one is buying the Hitachi Magic Wand for use in a fertility ceremony. “Most women buy vibrators for themselves,” Fulbright said. “Research out of the Kinsey Institute indicates that the most popular reasons are for fun, curiosity, to spice up sex lives, to make it easier to have an orgasm, or to please a partner eager to try one. Interestingly, lesbians are likelier to start using a vibrator in hopes that their partner will have an orgasm more readily.”
On the other hand, “almost 60% of male vibrator users purchase toys for their sexual partners to use, while 13% buy vibrators for themselves. The most common reasons that men buy vibrators are quite similar to women’s: they want to have fun, spice up their sex lives, enhance their female partners’ pleasure and orgasmic potential, and to accommodate their partners’ desire to try them.”
We have come full-circle in how we think about sex toys, and in the best way possible. While you no longer need a doctor to sign off on a “pelvic manipulation,” we tend to evaluate sexual health at least partially by our ability to experience pleasure. The same could be said for mental health and health in general. Now if only we could get insurance to cover sex toys, then we’d be in really great shape.
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Julia Reiss is a writer and standup comedian who plans to use her vibrator as a tax write-off this year. Follow her on Twitter: @thereisspiece.