Sex aids have been with us since the last Ice Age but even today the industry struggles for acceptance
Artist and sculptor Anjani Siddhartha creates a form for a sex toy mold in the design studio at the Doc Johnson factory in Los Angeles, Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images
Did you hear the one about Victorian doctors inventing vibrators? That it was to prevent repetitive strain injury from bringing women to orgasm manually, which was then a common cure for “hysteria”? Great story, isn’t it? I’m afraid it’s been disproved, but given it’s such a brilliant yarn, it’s been accepted as fact within sex-toy folklore.
In reality, as Hallie Lieberman, whose academic field of study is sex toys, shows in her new book, they can be traced back to the Ice Age (40,000 to 10,000BC). Phallic batons have been discovered in Eurasia from that era, and 28,000-year-old dildo-shaped objects made of bone, ivory and limestone have been found in south-western Germany. Penisshaped “toys” became more common in ancient Greece, and they get a mention in the play Lysistrata (411BC), although the first written record appears in the Bible, Ezekiel 16:7, in which God tells off the people of Jerusalem for making phallic images out of gold and silver and fornicating with them. Given the popularity of sex toys today, God’s message seems to have fallen on deaf ears.
Love it or hate it, Sex and the City was the spirit level for sex toys in popular culture in the 1990s and 2000s. There was Charlotte addicted to her rabbit vibrator, and Samantha buying a batteryoperated “massager” which she ended up using to soothe Miranda’s baby. But wasn’t it odd that although Samantha could buy her vibrator in a high street home electronics store, everyone involved in the transaction had to pretend it was intended to massage sore shoulders or tired calves? This was less than 20 years ago, but women and retailers have been fighting for decades to destigmatise sex toys, and make them available to browse and buy in safe, female-friendly places.
Lieberman holds the world’s first PhD in the history of sex toys, obtained at the University of Wisconsin Madison in 2014. Her thightickling - and beyond - book Buzz: A Stimulating History of the Sex Toy traces its subject from ancient Greece, through the first known instance of a condom in the 1500s, to the much talked about and disputed use of vibrators as medical equipment in the Victorian era. Then it’s on to the 20th and 21st centuries, where sex toys of all kinds are talked about and available openly in many countries, even if they are widely thought of as smutty and naughty, and are still strictly regulated.
Lieberman came to her topic through a part-time job selling sex toys. She hosted parties, much like Tupperware parties, where women could smell lubricants, hold penis rings, and get a feel for “butt plugs”. Party might be the wrong name for the event. Perhaps a research session is more appropriate, because everything that went on had to be considered as “artistic, educational, and scientific”, because this was Texas in 2004, and the promotion and sale of sex toys was illegal in five states in the US.
America’s anti-obscenity laws are the result of a long-running puritanical campaign against pornography, which shaped the evolution of sex toys, and access to them. These laws weren’t dormant. People were convicted of selling sex toys throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, and handed down sentences including 30 days in jail and a $4,000 fine (in Texas) and two years’ hard labour and a $1,500 fine (in Louisiana, later commuted to five years’ probation), all for selling vibrators to undercover cops. Before she could hold sex toy parties, Lieberman was given training on how to sell vibrators as different types of “massager”, just as they were in Sex and the City.
“It was such a weird position to be in,” she writes. “Risking arrest for selling dildos. If I lived in a repressive country under a misogynistic regime, sure, this would be expected. But I lived in America, where strip clubs abound, binge drinking is celebrated, and possession of semi-automatic weapons is legal. So why the hang-up on sex toys?” Lieberman has spent a decade investigating this question. She struggled to get her PhD adviser on board with the subject, she says, and encountered pushback during her dissertation defence, from a woman who asked her whether she thought sex toys were worth studying. She fought for five years to get published in an academic journal, and finally gave up. She eventually had a piece published in feminist magazine Bitch. It was the story of Gosnell Duncan, a wheelchair user who was unable to get an erection following an accident, who pioneered female-friendly sex toys - when he took up the cause in the early 1970s, vibrators and dildos were typically of low quality, made from irritating materials and had strong chemical smells. They were also crude models of male genitalia, an aesthetic which assumed that anyone using a sex toy was doing so to replace or supplement a phallocentric heterosexual relationship. The truth was people, especially women, were learning to enjoy sex in and of itself, within and outside of relationships, man or penis-like object notwithstanding.
“There is something strange about sex toys that are made to look anatomically like a penis, when they don’t have to,” says Dr Kate Lister, a researcher at Leeds Trinity University who is working on her own book, The Curious History of Sex, and runs the popular Twitter account @WhoresofYore. “Why do we need it to look anatomically correct?” The answer is that sex aids were only considered appropriate if they didn’t threaten man’s role as the provider of female sexual pleasure.
When Gosnell Duncan was starting out, in the 1970s, it was illegal to send sex toys through the post, but dildos could be sold legally if they were for heterosexual couples to use as a medical aid to assist with penetrative sex.
Surprisingly, the free love crowd didn’t necessarily approve of masturbation. Feminists, even those such as artist Betty Dodson, who was teaching women about the liberation of masturbation, were unsure about sex toys because of the industry’s close links with pornography, which was seen as exploiting women.
Thanks to her article in Bitch magazine, Lieberman attracted some interest in her book (Lister has crowdfunded hers with Unbound). The story she tells shows how a few committed pioneers laid the foundations for a sex toy industry based on female desire, not male genitalia, such as Dell Williams, who opened Eve’s Garden, the first women-centred sex shop, in New York in 1974. Other shops such as Good Vibrations and Babeland also provided for the LGBTQ community.
Here in the UK, the scene was developing at a similar pace. Ann Summers, the best-known sex shop and sex party provider, now has 138 stores on British high streets and hosts more than 7,000 parties each year, but retailers still answer to the Local Government Miscellaneous Provisions Act (1982), which means that , often, shops are located in seedy or out-of-the-way parts of town, and large fines can be handed out if “sex articles” are displayed in windows.
In 1993, Sh! in London’s Shoreditch, which had opened a year earlier, was visited by local police who advised staff to display dildos laying down instead of standing up, because displaying any likeness to an erect penis was an offence. A year later, Sh! was taken to court for not having a sex-shop licence, which then cost £17,500, because sex shops are defined by the proportion of items for sale considered to be “sexual articles”. Sh! won, thanks to its lawyer lampooning the idea that feather dusters might be considered sexual. In the UK a shop carrying 10 per cent of sexual products can be called a sex shop, whereas in the US it’s 50 per cent.
“Ann Summers carries a lot of lingerie and other products that it can be argued are not really sexrelated so it is able to put those into store windows and not black them out,” explains Lieberman. “It’s also been able to locate its stores in better areas because it doesn’t display a lot of sex toys in the front of the stores and it puts them in the back.”
Some aspects of our attitudes to sex toys can seem retrograde, but things are progressing. Lieberman wants the US to regulate sex toys for safety and make them available on medical insurance. She also hopes to continue Gosnell Duncan’s work by starting a non-profit company that creates sex toys for the disabled.
“Britain’s doing pretty well,” points out Lister. “We’re not as repressed as we like to think. There are places in the world you definitely wouldn’t talk about female masturbation and female pleasure, but we can nip into Ann Summers and buy anal beads, rampant rabbits and cinnamon-flavoured lube. It might raise a few eyebrows, but it’s not shocking.
“There are countries where women have their clitorises cut out and their vaginas sewn shut, whereas we’re able to have a conversation about female sexual pleasure and understand that it’s important, and we should look to ourselves as world leaders in this, whether that’s discussing sex toys or physiology and anatomy.”
‘Buzz’ by Hallie Lieberman (£21.99, Pegasus Books) is out now; hallielieberman.com