Toys Are Us
By Glenn Weiser
Metroland, Feb 10, 2005

Dildos and other sex toys are very, very far from being newfangled results of the sexual revolution


Quick quiz: Which was invented first, the wheel or the dildo? You guessed it: The wheel could wait. Our remote ancestors clearly had, well, more pressing concerns. Ever since the prehistoric discovery that certain objects could enhance sexual pleasure, people of all times and places have used them. And while a look at the history of sex toys can amuse as well as dismay, it above all shows us something about ourselves.

Upper Paleolithic art from more than 30,000 years ago clearly depicts penis-shaped objects being used as dildos (the wheel, in case you were wondering, was invented in Mesopotamia around 3500 to 4000 B.C.). Some archeologists speculate that these troglodyte prototypes were made of dried dung coated with resin. By the fifth to third centuries B.C., dildos—now crafted of stone, wood, leather, ivory, or ceramics and used with olive oil as a lubricant—had appeared in Greek art and literature. Surviving examples include a vase emblazoned with a double-ended model and a third-century play in which two women extol the unrivaled quality of dildos produced in the city of Miletus, then the sex-toy capital of the classical world.

Dildos—it’s not certain whether the term derives from the Latin “dilatare,” meaning to dilate or open wide, or the Italian “diletto,” meaning “delight”—and other toys were widespread in other ancient cultures as well. Roman women are known to have turned to dildos when their husbands were off to war. In China, dildos dating back to the New Stone Age (12,000 B.C.) had been found before the recent discovery of seven cast bronze examples in a Han dynasty (206 B.C. to A.D. 25) tomb in Xian. Evidence collected there by archeologists suggests palace maids used the finely wrought tools to satisfy neglected imperial concubines or noblewomen. And the Kama Sutra (A.D. 200 to 300) mentions that metal cylinders were used as penis extenders in India.

During the Middle Ages (500 to 1450), new devices debuted, proving that human ingenuity is as limitless as lust is enduring. Ben-wa balls, invented in Japan around A.D. 500 to provide women with prolonged stimulation, originally consisted of three small spheres linked by tiny chains and tied to a silken retrieval string. Some models had clappers that rang the balls like bells as they rolled about their merry way. Over time, Japanese women used them in pairs to strengthen their pelvic floor muscles, much as Kegel exercises are done today.

An old Turkish proverb holds that “If man had created man, he would be ashamed of his performance,” and some in medieval China clearly would have agreed. To increase staying power, the cock ring was introduced there around 1200. The earliest known ones were made from goats’ eyelids with the eyelashes left intact and then hardened to increase the mans’ pleasure during intercourse. By 1600, they were made of ivory and often elaborately carved in bas-relief to depict dragons. Some rings even sported a nub on the dragon’s tongue that a skilled lover could apply to the woman’s clitoris.

By the Victorian era, in the English-speaking world at least, popular understanding of female sexuality had sunk to a level that might have appalled even a Paleolithic-era cave dweller: Conventional wisdom held that women had no carnal desires. Lust in females was termed “hysteria,” a Greek term meaning “suffering uterus,” and treated as a medical condition. Women complaining of irritability, anxiety, sexual fantasies, and “pelvic heaviness,” sought relief from physicians, who treated them by massaging the clitoris until “paroxysm,” or orgasm, was induced. Not unsurprisingly, many doctors’ offices became de facto massage parlors as repeated visits for such attention became immensely popular among the ladies.

To better alleviate hysteria (and probably save his fellow practitioners from repetitive-motion disorders as well), an American doctor, George Taylor, invented the steam-powered vibrator in 1869. Battery-driven models with attachments allowing the physician to vary the sensations were in use by the 1890s, and by 1921, magazine ads appeared promising men they could keep their wives “young and pretty” with home vibrator treatments. (To its everlasting shame, the medical profession considered hysteria an ailment until 1952.) In the 1940s, though, the vibrator had to go underground, as its appearance in pornography had made its true function obvious. It later resurfaced during the sexual revolution of the 1960s.

The Victorian era also saw the advent of butt plugs, which were originally egg-shaped and prescribed to “help prevent loss of sperm through wasteful ejaculation,” and the first rubber dildos. Modern versions of these became available after the invention of latex rubber in the 1930s.

Sex toys made headlines last July when a three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in a 2-1 decision, upheld a 1998 Alabama law banning their sale in the state. To the dismay of civil libertarians, the judges ruled that the Constitution doesn’t include a right to sexual privacy. Similar laws have long been on the books in a few other Southern states, including Georgia and Tennessee.

In another recent development, a hardy group of Russians gave a whole new meaning to the phrase “whatever floats your boat” when, for the second year in a row, contestants in the Bubble Baba Challenge near St. Petersburg competed in a whitewater rafting race using inflatable sex dolls. Some priceless photos of last year’s event can be viewed online at www.designboom.com/contemporary/sexdoll.html

One suspects that our Russian rafters, as well as the ghosts of those virile Chinese ringmasters and lonely Roman women, would agree that a few moralists like the state legislators of Alabama will always try to spoil everyone else’s erotic fun. But the long and varied saga of sex toys reveals the popularity of the belief that when it comes to how consenting adults choose to pleasure their partners or themselves, the ends justify the means.

List of Metroland Stories by Glenn Weiser                          ©2005 by Glenn Weiser. All rights reserved.

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