Sex toys have always been a battleground in the struggle of repressive forces and liberal, permissive values.
Exhibit A: a 20cm long, 28,000-year-old siltstone phallus unearthed from a cave in the Jura mountains of Germany in 2005. We cannot know if it was used in some kind of fertility ritual or purely for pleasure, but archeologists are confident this is the earliest sex aid yet found.
Fast forward through 23 millennia of prehistory, to the beginnings of recorded history, and we see ancient Egyptian frescos depicting women wearing impressively large phallic objects around their waist to honour Osiris, Lord of the Underworld. Five thousand years later, Julius Caesar definitely did not have religious rituals in mind when he presented Queen Cleopatra with a solid gold phallus during her visit to Rome in 46BC. Less exalted Egyptians fashioned dildos out of stone, bone, and later camel dung, which was sculpted into the desired shape and coated with a hardening resin.
Classical Greek literature is peppered with references to objects calls olisbos (from olisthánein, ‘to slip, glide’), objects which by the wives of warriors in order to experience penetration while their men were away. In his comic play Lysistrata, Aristophanes has female characters discussing the use of dildos to satisfy themselves during a proposed sex strike designed to force their husbands and lovers to negotiate a peace treaty, and in later scene one character bemoans effect of conflict on her sex life. “And so, girls, when fucking time comes… not the faintest whiff of it anywhere, right? From the time those Milesians betrayed us we can’t even find our eight-fingered leather dildos. At least they’d serve as a sort of flesh-replacement for our poor cunts!”
Depictions of heterosexual and homosexual sex, as well as sex toys, are fairly commonplace in Greek vase art. One example, from 500BC, shows a basket of phalli and an athletic, androgynous figure grasping a sizeable olisbos. Some pieces show sex toys being in group sex or in solitary female masturbation. One example, of about the sixth century BCE, shows a woman bending over to fellate a man while another man prepares to slide a dildo into her anus.
From excavations of 2,000-year-old tombs near Shanghai we know the elite of the Han Dynasty (202 BC–220 AD) possessed dildos made of jade, ivory and bronze. Some have guide holes for silk or leather thongs, from which we can deduce their use as strap-ons. Hollow dildos made of Jade were meant to release liquid to create the illusion of climax, while to prevent climax from happening too quickly, cock rings with attachments to enhance female pleasure have been dated to the Jin Dynasty (266-420AD).
Sex aids were also circulating in Renaissance Italy, typically made of leather and lubricated with olive oil, and the word ‘dildo’ entered the European lexicon about 600 years ago, originating from either the Latin dilatare (expand, or dilate) or the Italian diletto (delight). Indeed, we have evidence that sexual aids were used by randy inhabitants of every part in Europe but the pervasive, repressive influence of the Church, which discouraged any sexual activity outside of marriage, and any sex within marriage for pleasure rather than procreation, pushed the use of sexual aids underground.
Contrast this with Japan, where sex was not freighted with Catholic guilt. Sex toys were integrated into lovemaking, and beautifully illustrated instruction manuals were popular. In erotic novels, known as shunga, dildos weren’t treated as threatening penis-replacements but rather as playful pleasure objects. There are shunga showing women shopping for sex toys, masturbating with them and sitting in rooms decorated with dildos, love balls, and cock rings.
Wherever and whenever we look, prevailing attitudes towards sex in general are inextricably bound up with attitudes towards the very idea of female pleasure, and attitudes towards sex toys. At the same time as Japanese were enjoying shunga, laws were being passed in the UK to prohibit women from making dildos for themselves or others.
The first vibrator buzzed into life in 1880 when an American doctor, George Taylor, patented and sold a steam-powered contraption called The Manipulator. This being the sexually repressed Victorian era, Taylor was silent about the potential sexual application and sold The Manipulator purely as a device to massage sore muscles.
Eleven years later a British doctor, Joseph Granville, developed the first electromechanical vibrator — Granville’s Hammer — to massage muscles and treat “female hysteria” caused by “overwhelming or unmanageable emotional excess in the womb”. Common symptoms included sleeplessness, irritability, and erotic fantasies. Today it might be described as extreme sexual frustration, and the “hysterical paroxysm” that would calm the fever for a while can be translated as ‘orgasm’.
Rudimentary electrical vibrating machines that could be plugged in at home appeared in 1902. Their sexual function was thinly disguised by coded language in catalogue ads waxing lyrical about owning a “delightful companion” producing pleasure “to throb within you,” and they sold like hot cakes.
But the permissive society was still a long way off. The pushback against sexual liberalism manifested itself in the Hays Code, aka The Motion Picture Production Code, a system of self-censorship that governed the big Hollywood studios from 1934.
Hollywood movies in the 1920s could be quite risqué, and stars like Gloria Swanson and Louise Brooks projected an image of sexual confidence. Kenneth Tynan, the critic, wrote of Brooks: “She was the most seductive, sexual image of Woman ever committed to celluloid. She’s the only unrepentant hedonist, the only pure pleasure-seeker, I think I’ve ever known.” Before long, the likes of Brooks and Swanson were replaced by actresses with a more passive, demure image.
As Hollywood bowed to the moral majority by avoiding overt portrayals of sexual behaviour, so the world of sex toys remained covert. Public prudishness could not extinguish demand, however. Rubber dildos incorporating a steel spring for stiffness became available in the 1940s and, despite their imperfections, many thousands were sold.
Soon after, Hitachi unleashed the Magic Wand vibrator: 30cm long, weighing in at more than half a kilogram, and tipped with a rubberised head capable of vibrating 100 times per second. The Japanese weren’t coy about the Magic Wand’s primary function and it was popularised by sex educators like Betty Dodson, who used it in demonstrations and teaching sessions to instruct women on self-pleasure techniques. Sales zoomed to a quarter of a million a year in the US alone and ran into the millions globally. In 2016, Time Magazine named the Magic Wand “The 10th Most Influential Gadget of All Time” in a list which included the Apple iPhone and Sony Walkman.
Today, as ever, sex toys are accepted, merely tolerated, or banned depending on where you happen to be. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, the Maldives, Malaysia prohibit their importation and sale. In 2011, authorities in India made buying sex toys or bringing them into the country illegal. Massagers can be taken into India but not if they are phallic shaped. It’s laughable.
Similar disconnects between the letter of the law and reality on the ground can be seen in Vietnam and Thailand, and in the US state of Alabama where a 1998 state law banning the sale of sex toys has survived several legal challenges. In late November 2020 customs officials in West Java destroyed hundreds of sex toys as demand spiked during the coronavirus pandemic. In this attempt to hold back a wave of moral corruption, 442 items were torched including, according to news reports, a masturbation sleeve and a purple dildo.
The internet, of course, only makes the legal disconnect more jarring because one thing we can take away from studying sex toys down the ages is that however draconian the prohibitions are, and however repressive and prudish the attitudes of the authorities, the natural human impulse to sexually experiment will find a way. At the end of the day, you can’t keep a good hedonist down!
(Marquise Lana Del Wand by The Hedonist Store)
By Mr. Hedone