There are so many sci-fi-level sex toys available to buy these days that it’s easy to forget that pleasurable products have been around almost as long as humans. Well, at least we think they have. In 2020, we have suction technology replicating oral sex, actual blow job simulators, and even virtual girlfriend technology. The sheer range of innovation available to buy today was unthinkable even a decade ago.
But while sextech has really taken off in the 21st century, undertaking technical endeavours to achieve sexual pleasure is not a new concept. Sex toys – or, erm, “marital aids” – have been around for centuries (like this ‘winter dildo’ from a Japanese shunga drawing dating back to the early 19th century, from a collection called Sex Toys for Women’s Pleasure in the Bedroom).
Yet the three main types that come to mind when you think about sex toys have remained the same all this time: variations of dildos, vibrators and penis pleasurers (however, the Indonesian tradition of using goat eyelids as cock rings will make you feel even more grateful for silicone).
The colourful history of sex toys shows that these products go far beyond simply being tools to help get you off. These highly politicised objects have put people in prison and empowered a generation of women – and they still cause controversy today. Here, we separate the facts from the fiction in this short history of pleasure products.
The Ancient Greeks used bread to make dildos
For those needing to brush up on their Ancient Greek, the practice of Olisbokollix was essentially making doughy dildos. Yes, you read that right, these ol’ Grecians made dildos from hard-baked bread. The term was first recorded in the fifth century, olisbos meaning dildo and kollix meaning bread.
In her book, The Joy of Sexus: Lust, Love & Longing in the Ancient World, sex historian Vicki Leon wrote about these biodegradable phallic sticks, saying that “No one back then identified as hetero or gay or bisexual. They readily admitted to a rainbow of sensual pleasures – guilt-free.”
That settles it: never feel guilty about enjoying a nice bit of bread.
Vibrators were prescribed by doctors to treat constipation
Everyone knows that Victorian doctors used vibrators to treat ‘hysterical’ (read: sexually frustrated) female patients, right? Well, actually, that’s not 100% accurate. Vibrating machines were probably used by doctors on both male and female patients to treat a number of things, from asthma to sciatica, from baldness to constipation, but female orgasm was never the goal here.
While vaginal penetration may have occurred, the Victorian approach to using vibrations in a medical context was more about massage than masturbation, despite urban myths leading us to believe that women were queuing up outside the doctors’ office for some miraculous climactic cure.
Sex historian Dr Fern Ridell told The Guardian: “The vibrators from the Victorian period are the least orgasmic devices you have ever seen… the idea that a woman would be brought to orgasm by a device that rotates with a loud grinding buzz, and pummels you with the same finesse as a steam-engine, just doesn’t work.
“From sex toys to sex chairs, condoms and contraceptives, the Victorians had many of the things we see today. They used rubber, wood, ivory, and leather; some are delicately crafted from silver, others decorated in enamel flowers and hidden inside everyday objects, like a walking cane,” she said. Now there’s a gap in the market.
Forget batteries, one of the earliest patented vibrators was steam-powered
The Manipulator (a great name for a sex toy, tbh) was a steam-powered pleasure machine patented by American inventor George Taylor in 1869. This coal-fired contraption featured a motorised padded table with a hole and throbbing ball in the middle. According to Rachel Maines, author of The Technology of Orgasm, the Manipulator wasn’t hugely popular with doctors due to the fact it was basically a huge table, meaning patients had to be brought to the equipment to be treated, rather than offered a more portable solution. And despite patenting the thing, Taylor cautioned against women using it too much in case of “over-indulgence.”
A decade later, British inventor Dr Joseph Mortimer Granville came up with a smaller option, featuring what we’d now refer to as “attachments”, that popularised the vibrating ‘massager’ model and created a blueprint for the kinds of vibrating toys we still see today. Luckily, these days, the batteries are a lot smaller.
Despite it being one of its best-selling products since the late 1960s, Hitachi almost dropped the Magic Wand from its product line in 2016
The Magic Wand is an iconic vibrator, associated with the women’s liberation movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s – and was possibly used by your grandma at some point. (Sorry, but this is history, folks, these are the facts).
However, its manufacturer – since day one – is a little coy about the fact it’s one of its most popular products. Also known to sell washing machines, Japanese firm Hitachi almost dropped the product in 2016 due to the fact it doesn’t fall in line with its ‘traditional’ values. The Wand was magically (sorry) saved from extinction by its primary US importer Vibratex, who pretty much convinced the electrical appliance company that discontinuing the product would be bad for business, due to its timeless popularity.
The Hitachi name no longer features on the product’s branding, but this toy remains extremely popular.
Sex toys are still illegal to sell in Alabama
Owning sex toys in Alabama could land you with a $10,000 fine and a year in prison, or ten years in prison if you’ve already been caught once. This archaic law shows that sex toys remain to be a politicised object, and one that can divide courtrooms and societies.
Dan Ireland, an outspoken backer of the Anti-Obscenity Enforcement Act that was first decreed in 1998, says he supports the outright ban of pleasure products, as since “laws are made to protect the public” […] “sometimes you have to protect the public against themselves”. Despite numerous attempts to repeal the ban, Alabamians still face prosecution for possessing any object “primarily for the stimulation of human genital organs”.
But for those of us who have the privilege to buy as many as we see fit, why not check out the collection and treat yourself to something new.