The History of Sex Toys: Part 1

November 11, 2015
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The History of Sex Toys: Part 1

Since the first day that human beings saw an erect penis, chances are at least one of them thought, “That’s great, but how can I recreate that later for my own private use?”

Masturbation is instinctive. We have sexual needs and desires, and the apparatus is completely available, so at the first sign that it actually felt really good to do it, it’s only logical to expect people to chase that feeling again and again.

The first dildos known to man date back to the Upper Paleolithic era. Now, much discussion has been generated because some archeologists have questioned whether these were actually sex toys or if they had more religious or utilitarian uses. But judging by the size and shape of some of these, they really looked like dicks. Sexual symbolism was all over the place, too, and cultural and moral hangups wouldn’t really be a thing until much later, so most likely these doubts were probably based on today people’s incredulity regarding Ice Age sexual freedom. These dildos were made out of stone or bone — materials hard enough to withstand heavy use. 

The oldest reported dildo to date was found in a German cave a few years ago. It’s an eight-inch stone phallus that is presumed to be around 28,000 years old; probably just giving some old dude the right to say, “they just don’t make them like they used to, do they?”

Later on, the Greeks and Romans were known to use dildos, as well; both for pleasure and religious reasons — hey, if you’re going the polytheist route, there’s nothing wrong with worshipping a little sex toy or two. Depictions of their use were documented dating back to the 6th century B.C., both for masturbation purposes and in couple play (or orgies, mostly in the case of the Romans). The Greeks called their phallic substitutes olisbos, and men would give them to their wives before going to war in hopes they’d remain faithful, but also to prevent them from going bat-shit crazy once they had no access to a real penis.

You see, it was believed that a displaced and discontented uterus caused women some serious ailments that made them act in unexplainable ways. Keeping an olisbo around to prevent this was just common sense for Hippocrates and like-minded fellows. The word for uterus in Greek was “hystera”, and so the term “hysteria” was born.

Hysteria (2011)

In fact, by the second century, a well-respected Roman doctor (or the day’s equivalent) named Galen determined that hysteria was caused by sexual depravation. Naturally, married women could go to their husbands in hopes of solving the problem, but what about the unmarried or religious ones? Galen suggested a pelvic massage as treatment, offering to relieve women of all these maladies with his own hands (very literally), a practice that would remain a staple in dealing with “unstable” women for way longer than anyone would expect.

Meanwhile in Asia, where wealthy men had the right to have many wives, the commitment of satisfying them all proved exhausting and insufficient. Handing them dildos and letting them take care of it on their own seemed like a nice compromise for these guys. The primitive materials were long gone in China, though, as some of these dildos were made of bronze and other expensive metals.

Ben Wa balls were invented in Japan around 500 A.D. They were intended to be put inside the vagina during sex, as the goal was to provide men with more pleasure, but ladies got to reap the balls’ benefits this time.

Around 1200, the Chinese came up with cock rings. Unlike today’s rings, they were more flexible back then, due to them being made out of the eyelids of goats — and still had the eyelashes on them, for that extra tickle that Chinese men grew to love. By the 16th century the Chinese cock ring had evolved greatly into a much more aesthetic-oriented value. They were usually made of ivory or jade, and had carved dragons in them. Chinese people took their cock ring business pretty damn seriously.

But back in the western world, the pelvic massage to treat hysteria was surprisingly still very much in vogue for centuries. We’re talking about roughly 1700 (give or take a hundred) years of continued accepted practice. Women who would show any signs of crazy behavior were dubbed as hysterical and were prescribed a pelvic massage. By the 17th century, it was estimated that hysteria was the most common disease after fever.

But just how serious was the dreaded illness? Well, during the Victorian era it was deemed an epidemic. Hysterical women were the norm, and the pelvic massage was still the known “cure” for it.

Even though it was already the 19th century, when a woman was perceived by the doctor to be acting irrationally and the symptoms weren’t particularly clear, the default diagnosis would still be hysteria. Recurring erotic fantasies and “excessive” vaginal lubrication were both additional symptoms of hysteria.

Because the times allowed everyone to live in blissful ignorance and it was a commonly recognized ailment, there was no major taboo about the whole thing. It wasn’t perceived as a sexual thing; it was medical. These poor souls needed some kind of relief and they were going to get it — for a fee, at the doctor’s office, that is. By stimulating their sexual organs, the doctors would witness all of this crazy twitching, moaning and screaming — obviously all acts of a clear basket case. After these “hysterical paroxysms” (that’s how they’d call orgasms) would finish, the patients reported to feel much better. Go figure!

Additionally, husbands didn’t seem to question the practice, probably just happy that their “hysterical” wives seemed less nagging all of a sudden. Because God bless medicine.

The History of Sex Toys: Part 1

But most doctors weren’t going into this in the sleazy way you’d think — granted, most women who could afford weekly treatments for hysteria were rich old housewives, not your average 20 year old hottie. Physicians often complained about fatigued hands and wrists, as the method was quite time-consuming and tedious. Of course, maybe having a bored doctor fingering them behind a little curtain in a cold office wasn’t the most happily orgasm-inducing of places, but there was no suggesting a more pleasant, sexually-welcoming environment back in those days.

An American physician called George Taylor simplified some of his colleagues lives in 1869, when he invented the first steam-powered vibrator, which he dubbed The Manipulator, a monstrous piece of engineering that promised to steadily stimulate women’s parts on its own, saving many doctors from developing a very likely — still undiagnosed by then — carpal tunnel syndrome.

Of course, The Manipulator was a beast of a machine, and not exactly a quiet or relaxing thing to be around, so the engine had to be in a different room, and the stimulating part had to go through a hole in the wall into the office, essentially turning the whole scenario into a twisted industrial version of a glory hole.

Thankfully, by the early 1880s another British doctor called Joseph Mortimer Granville patented the first electromechanical vibrator, a “portable” tool that worked with a 40lb battery. Ironically, Granville was vehemently opposed to his invention being used for women’s pelvic massages, instead claiming that its purpose was always to treat male skeletal muscles only. In hindsight, this may have been Granville’s way of coming out of the closet, but it’s so hard to tell with Victorian-era men!

No one cared about Granville’s wishes. The machine worked efficiently on the ladies’ privates, and soon enough the doctor hand massages were a thing of the past.

There was even a (not so good) movie about this, starring Maggie Gyllenhaal, and loosely based on real facts. Titled Hysteria — a film in desperate need of a good porn parody with a decent budget, if I may say so — it depicts the British society of 1880 and the events leading to the invention of the vibrator.

The old “hysteria” diagnosis would be obsolete shortly after that, but it would still take a good number of years for society to be more open about sex toys and self-pleasure. Even now, we’re still working through some general hang-ups. There have been too many years of imposed guilt and shame; it’s not easy to shake off the remnants of that, but we’re still trying, one deviancy at a time.

In the next installment, we’ll dig into the 20th century, the evolution of sex toys as we know them nowadays, some endearingly weird shit and what the future might hold. So recharge those batteries — figuratively and literally — and we’ll see you next time!

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