By Sexherald Staff
What is wrong with women? According to physicians dating back to ancient times, many of them suffered from something called “hysteria,” thought to be a disease related to the womb. The remedy? A good lay, or at least an orgasm.
According to Galen, a prominent physician from the second century, “hysteria” was caused by sexual deprivation. By Victorian times, symptoms included everything from dizziness to insomnia to shortness of breath, and by 1859 almost any ailment could be explained by the disease. The only remedy was orgasm through gentle massage, which most physicians found tedious, difficult to master, and time-consuming, so they referred most patients to midwives, causing the doctors to lose business. And so the vibrator and other “massaging devices” were born.
Modern-day sex toys have been around longer than many regular household appliances—the vibrator was brought into homes to treat “hysteria” before even vacuum cleaners or electric irons. A wind-up vibrator was around by 1870, and the first electromechanical vibrator came on the scene in England in the 1880s. In America, vibrators were advertised as massagers and remedies to hysteria in mainstream catalogues such as Sears, Roebuck & Co. and Woman’s Home Companion. Sears encouraged their buyers to purchase the vibrator for their wives to help keep them “young and pretty.” It wasn’t until the 1920s that they were taken off the market after stag films, or “blue” movies, began using them as props, thus revealing their connection to sexual, rather than “medicinal” uses. They didn’t reappear on the market until the sexual revolution of the 1960s.
While rubber toys have their direct roots in Victorian England, the use of sex toys dates much, much further back. The dildo makes an appearance in ancient Western and Eastern art and texts, as well as in archeological excavations, including in sculptures from ancient Babylon. Ancient Greek merchants sold olisbos—dildos—crafted of stone, wood, and leather. It is believed the dildo was given its current name by Italians in the 1500s. The Italian word diletto means, simply, “delight.” In late 17th century China, the use of a rubber sex aid was recommended to the Empress by her imperial physician. And, nature’s dildos—fruits and vegetables—have always been popular.
India can claim the early promotion of penis extenders, also known today as prosthetic penis attachments. The Kama Sutra, the infamous sex text believed to be written between the 1st century BC and 4th century AD, makes mention of these devices, called apadravyas, that fit around a man’s penis for the purpose of making it longer. In the manual, penis extenders could be crafted from wood, ivory, leather, copper, silver, gold, or buffalo horn.
Ben Wa balls, which are small balls used for massage and meditation, as well as for sexual stimulation when inserted into the vagina or anus, also have a long history. Dating from around 500 AD in Japan, early Ben Wa balls were made from metal and ivory. A versatile toy, Ben Wa balls can also be used by women to strengthen their pelvic floor muscles, much like Kegel exercises, and were reported to also be used by men to enlarge the penis. Ben Wa balls are sometimes known as Burmese bells, which refers to Western encounters with these toys at the end of the 16th century in Burma.
Other toys also have their roots in Asia. In the 13th century, Tibetan lamas introduced the Mongols to a version of the cock ring with a clitoral stimulator; it was made from goat’s eyelids with the eyelashes intact. The eyelid was tied around a man’s erect penis, much like today’s cock rings, and the eyelashes provided extra stimulation for a female partner.
An important figure in sex toy history, and specifically in the history of BDSM, is the Marquis de Sade, a French author who wrote erotic stories that gave rise to the term “sadism,” or delight in infliction of physical or mental pain on another. In 1791, he anonymously published “Justine,” one of his more influential stories for which he was imprisoned by Napoleon 10 years later. Sade wrote non-erotic philosophical essays as well, much of which was written while he was imprisioned for nearly 30 years. He believed in a free society unaffected by rules, laws or any type of restraint. Many of his essays and stories, however, were of violent pornography and sexual “perversion.” His work is often associated with the BDSM movement and its toys such as crops, whips, nipple clamps, and retraints.
From the 1920 until the 1960s, vibrators seeemingly disappeared from the catalogues and from doctor’s offices, even though “female hysteria” was still considered a real illness until being dismissed by the American Psychiatric Association in 1952. After all the prominence they had previously received, where did they go? One hypothesis put forth by Rachel Maines, author of The Technology of Orgasm, is that people started to realize that vibrators were more than just a “health and relaxation” aid, perhaps because of their appearance in stag films in the 20s and a better understanding (by physicians) of women’s sexuality.
After vibrators came back out of hiding with the women’s movement and sexual revolution of the 1960s, they were more explicitly marketed as sexual aids for women—not medical devices, but certainly quite therapeutic in many a woman’s opinion. In the early 1970s, Betty Dodson began teaching masturbation workshops using the vibrator. In the late 70s, the first sex toy shop for women was opened in California by Joanie Blank. In the 1990s, sex toys were actually outlawed in some states, such as Alabama and Georgia, and ownership of them was punishable by fines and sometimes jail time. Some of the bans were eventually overturned, however, and now sex toys are legal in almost all of the States, though their sales might be regulated or prohibited.
The current status of sex toys and their immense popularity has been enabled by catalogues, sex toy shops, and by the Internet. Television shows such as Sex & the City have further popularized them and made the language of sex toys more commonplace. Sex toy parties, where sex toys are brought to a person’s home for in-house presentations and sale, have become socially acceptable—the next generation Tupperware parties—to the point of being mentioned in Oprah’s O magazine and on the nightly news.
Today’s sexual climate is certainly the result of the sexual revolution and women’s liberation movement of a generation ago, though clearly sex toys have an even deeper past. Hopefully, these aids for our sexual health and outright sexual gratification will continue to be considered legal. Even though female hysteria has disappeared as a medical diagnosis, its remedy—an orgasm—still seems pretty healthy after all these years.
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