Historical Sex Toys

Interview with Sex Toy Historian Hallie Lieberman

Even as a teenager I tried to make female masturbation socially acceptable.

It comes as no surprise our cave dwelling ancestors tried to satisfy their sexual curiosity by sticking objects in their genitals and vice versa. Science has actually dated objects believed to be sex toys to very ancient history of over 30 thousand years ago. The comprehensive narrative of how the ancient stone cock came to be a hi-tech vibrator, told through stories of the giants on whose shoulders we stand today, is a subject of a very special book called Buzz, written by a historian Hallie Lieberman. Hallie is a renowned expert who obtained her Ph. D. with a dissertation on sex toy history, but also a real trooper for our cause – with some hard-core field experience in selling sex toys in Texas while it was still illegal. We felt a person of such enthusiasm deserved her message to be spread here.

Historical Sex Toys

It took some real enthusiasm to sell sex toys while they were contraband; how did you get around the prohibition?

Mostly by not using the word “vibrator” (except when I slipped up) and using “massager” instead. I also initially used the words they taught us to use to desexualize sex toys and not mention masturbation directly: things like “man in the boat” for clitoris and “that special place” for genitals. For masturbation I would say things like “alone time” or “solo fun.” It was so ridiculous and draining to find ways to not talk about sex while talking about sex. I wasn’t able to keep up the charade for very long.

I love the preface to your book with the “first encounter” episode describing how you found a vibrator in a hotel room. How much of your lifelong love affair with sex toys has been programmed in you by your parents telling you that you “don’t need to know” what it was?

I have to admit that a lot of my interest was initially spurred by my parents’ response to that sex toy. Any object that would cause my parents to freak out that much made me sit up and think that it must have a kind of power. It was immediately a forbidden, magical object that had the power to cause my parents to become undone. As I grew older, I started sneaking into sex toy stores once I got a car. I was about 16; they didn’t ID. It was a whole world of the forbidden; of the things my parents hadn’t wanted me to see. But it wasn’t just my parents that forbid sex toys; they were also legally restricted to people under 18 which made them more appealing. By this time I was masturbating which I quickly realized was taboo. I tried to talk to my friends about it and they either said they didn’t do it cause they had boyfriends or said it was a sign of my loneliness. Yet I figured that there must be a lot of lonely people because there were these sex toy stores all over Florida. At the time I vaguely remember men talking about masturbation more than women, discussing circle jerks, things like that. It seemed to be more socially acceptable for guys to talk about. But I leaned into the weirdness. Even as a teenager I tried to make masturbation for women more socially acceptable. I didn’t know that I was part of a line of women who’d tried to do this earlier, like Betty Dodson and Dell Williams who basically changed the view of female masturbation among some in the feminist movement. I bought a t-shirt that said “masturbation is not a crime.” I wore a Pee Wee shirt in honor of Pee Wee Herman’s arrest for masturbating in a movie theater. Then I started making shirts with my friends. We made one for Team Masturbate; it had an acronym

  • Motivation
  • Ability
  • Strength
  • Teamwork
  • Understanding
  • Responsibility
  • Banana
  • Athleticism
  • Team Management
  • Enthusiasm

Stone penises are very old, some go back as far as 30 thousand years, and there is circumstantial evidence they might have been used as dildos, but the story gets more complicated from here – instead of pure pleasure seeking they were often used in ceremonial settings, like the worshipping of Shiva Lingam in India or the Greek cult of Dionysus. How prevalent was the ceremonial dildo and what are some of its oldest examples?

It’s hard to know how prevalent the ceremonial dildo was, but it’s clear that many cultures and religions worshiped the phallus. In Ancient Egypt women wore phallic symbols around the waist to worship Osiris, a sun god, who was also sometimes depicted with an erection.

Some of the oldest examples are Dionysian rituals where penis bearers would march through the streets hoisting wooden phalluses into the air.

During Roman times in Pompeii, phalluses were everywhere. They were on bakery signs, phalluses with wings were outside of temples, there were statues of an erect Priapus with an overly large phallus in gardens to symbolize fertility and protect the gardens from thieves. They were thought to ward off the evil eye.

During the 6th century BC followers of the Orphic cult worshiped with Likhnon; a basket that had a phallic symbol coming out of the middle of it and was filled with fruit.

Dildo-like objects were used in 4000 BCE and may have been used to worship Shiva.

Historian George Ryley Scott argued that Sioux Indians in North America used phallic symbols in their rituals. Scott also says that Aztec fertility gods were represented with a phallic pillar. Phallic artifacts associated with religious rituals have been found in numerous places, such as Nicaragua and Costa Rica.

Let’s jump a few eons and discuss more recent history – what would be the beginning of modern sex toys?

Dildos made of rubber have existed since the late 19th century; that’s probably the closest to today’s sex toys in recent time. We don’t know who used or bought sex toys at the time because nobody openly talked about it. We can tell who they were advertised to. Dildos were advertised openly in the men’s sporting press, publications that sold other items for men like playing cards, billiard balls, sometimes condoms. But the ads said that they were for women. Sometimes a dildo was called an “old maid’s friend.” I just love that term. I mean it’s derogatory now but it’s so evocative of how people thought about sex toys in the turn of the 20th century. Mostly though phallic devices were sold as health aids: they were sold in medical catalogs as vaginal dilators for conditions like vaginismus, a tightening of the vagina that prevented intercourse.

In the early 1900s, ads for “rectal dilators” (aka “butt plugs”) appeared in American medical journals and popular health magazines. They supposedly treated constipation, asthma, eczema, and hemorrhoids. Some dilators were made of metal and had a plunger at the bottom to squirt liquid into the rectum.

As far as vibrators go: electric vibrators date from the late 19th century as well. What really happened is that vibrators had existed before the late 19th century, just in hand-cranked, steam-powered, water-powered and other forms. They were used by physicians to treat all sorts of diseases, but never taken too seriously as effective treatments.

During the late 19th century, the electric vibrator was invented by J. Mortimer Granville to treat nerve problems in men and women. He believed that the body’s nerves had natural, healthy levels of vibration, and that when these levels got out of balance, disease resulted. Therefore, he created a device to cure off-key vibrations and restore “the normal harmony of rhythm” of the body’s nerves. Granville’s writings reveal that he knew that the device might have sexual uses. For example, Granville instructed doctors to use vibrators to increase sexual power in their male patients by vibrating the perineum.

So electric vibrators began to be sold to consumers started around 1899 as beauty devices for removing wrinkles and health devices for curing headaches. By the early 1900s there were dozens of companies selling electric vibrators to consumers for health uses and as beauty devices. They supposedly treated everything from constipation (with a dildo-like rectal attachment)  to sciatica, breast massage, and malaria. We don’t know who used or bought vibrators at the time because nobody openly talked about it. We can tell who they were advertised to. The electric vibrator was created for men and women to use, with the rectal attachments sold for male impotence (mentioned above) and vaginal attachments sold for women’s uterine problems. Advertisements in the early 20th century marketed vibrators to grandfathers and grandmothers and young men and women.

I’ve repeatedly read on the Internet about vibrators being used by physicians in Victorian times to treat hysteria, a concept which is basically a way to pathologize being female. Is there any truth to this story; were Victorian doctors really distributing orgasms to their patients?

No, it is a myth. Eric Schatzberg and I co-authored an article in The Journal of Positive Sexuality dismantling the myth. It was a battle to even get a peer-reviewed journal to acknowledge that the idea is false. It’s such an ingrained myth that I spent over three years to get a journal to accept a critique of the myth and nobody wants the idea to be challenged in the literature.

There is no evidence that doctors ever used vibrators to masturbate women/manually massage them to orgasm. I’ve looked through archives across the U.S. and England, studied old medical textbooks, etc., and I’ve never found evidence that a doctor used a vibrator to stimulate a woman’s clitoris to orgasm.

Such treatments would’ve been considered sexual and doctors would’ve gotten in trouble for them.

When you described the history of sex toys, it feels like a chapter in the history of feminism and sexual liberation in general. How much did the sexual liberties co-evolve with sex toys and what were the shared struggles?

Sex toys and cultural sexual evolution co-evolved together. Sex toys reflect cultural fears and beliefs about female sexuality (and male sexuality as well). There’s always been a fear that a woman would be so satisfied with a sex toy that she wouldn’t need a man. That’s still there, although the fear has lessened a bit. Ironically even though there was this fear, sex toys were designed to look like penises because the assumption was women wanted penis replacements, so when sex toys were openly marketed as sex toys beginning in the late 19th century, dildos were heralded for their similarities to penises. It wasn’t until the 1970s that designs changed, in part because women began to influence design. Struggles over the dildo within feminism during this time were really proxies for what role men could play in feminism. Did a real feminist have to shun male sexuality entirely, was that what it meant by fighting the patriarchy?

Are there typical users of sex toys or is it a society-wide phenomenon?

It’s basically society wide. Today about half of women and men in the U.S. have used sex toys, accord to Dr. Debby Herbenick’s research. 78.5 percent of gay and bisexual men have used sex toys and about three-quarters of lesbian and bisexual men and women.

Which do you think is more prevalent – solitary use or with partner?

I think solitary sex. From Herbenick’s (and co-authors) research 46 percent had used sex toys for solo use and 40 percent with a partner over the course of a lifetime. But it was more common for lesbian (69 percent) and bisexual (65 percent) women to have used sex toys with partners. 89 percent Gay and bisexual men in another survey had used dildos and butt plugs for solo sex and 66-69 percent with a partner.

Which are the wackiest sex toys you encountered in your research?

Oh wow – well the first thing that comes to mind is a solar-powered sex toy. That went off the market pretty quickly. It was around 2011 and it had this solar-powered energy source with a solar panel on it. As far as weirdest design goes: there are the ice-cream cone shaped butt plugs made by the same company that makes wine bottle shaped dildos and carrot-shaped ones. There’s also the Baby Jesus buttplug that wins an award for most offensive. Oh and there are all the pop-culture themed sex toys, like the Game of Thrones, the Cthulhu, the oviparous egg laying ones. There’s the Donald Trump butt plug an artist made as a political statement. Another interesting one was the one million dollar diamond encrusted vibrator.

I would expect someone of your professional interests to have a personal collection. Would I be wrong to assume that?

Nope! I have five vibrators from the early 20th century displayed proudly in a glass case in my living room. Some of them even have old attachments – no phallic attachments yet. I also have a violet ray device. A lot of the vibrators still work when plugged in. I try to get the newest sex toys for my own personal use as well. My boyfriend usually buys them for me for birthdays and holidays. I have a clitoral suction device (it’s not my favorite but it’s an interesting sensation), too many purple dildos to count (why they are all purple boggles me, although that seems to be a common dildo color), three “magic wands” (two plug in, one rechargeable), probably about three butt plugs, oral sex simulator, whips, bondage tape, massage oils, lubes, a liberator heart wedge, multiple strap on harnesses. I need to find a better way to organize the more recent sex toys. Most are in our workout room which also has a kickboxing bag in there, but when I punch or kick too hard they fall off the shelves.

Not sure if this is the right question for a historian, but how do you see the future of sex toys?

I see two trajectories: one towards handmade low-tech toys, the kind of hipster toys like Hole Punch and the wooden and porcelain ones; and a trajectory towards the super high-tech, sex robots, VR teledildonics. I think that more women and transgender men and women will design sex toys. There might be more male sex dolls for women and not just for gay men. I think companies are trying to get away from gender binaries when designing toys. It does seem like sex toys are more accessible than ever. It’s so easy to hop on Amazon and order a vibrator. But it’s hard to tell the quality. That’s why curated stores are now more important than ever.

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