The history of sex toys: a brief lesson

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Did you know that Cleopatra had her very own clitoral stimulator? To be clear, we’re talking about a papyrus bag filled with live bees… Nevertheless, sex toys have been stimulating sexual lust for centuries. Here’s a brief lesson in the fascinating history of sex toys.

The history of sex toys dates back to the Stone Age. In 2005, a team of archaeologists working in a cave near the Swabian Alb uncovered a stone phallus. Anthracite in color and carved from siltstone, the male sex organ-shaped object measured 19 centimeters in length by 3 to 4 centimeters in width, and weighed 287 grams. Experts estimated the prehistoric dildo to be 28,000 years old.

However, the history of sex toys often begins with Cleopatra, who is celebrated as the true pioneer of the clitoral stimulator. She satisfied her appetite for sexual pleasure with a papyrus bag filled with live bees, ants or flies. And she wasn’t alone: many women in ancient Egypt used the buzzing, organically vibrating movements of insects to stimulate their pleasure.

Post Cleopatra’s clitoral stimulator

The sex toy was cultivated in ancient Greece (like so many things that make up our modern world) sometime around 800 B.C. During that time, women pleasured themselves with the so-called olisbos: a simple, practical dildo made from clay and filled with lukewarm water. But dildos carved from wood and covered with leather have also been found dating back to this time.

During the Middle Ages, the Church maintained discipline through order and chastity. However, at the same time, the courts were hosting regular sex orgies at which pleasure-seeking guests frequently enjoyed the use of sex toys. In 12th century France, such toys were called “Godemichè” (‘fake penis’); and in Italy they were called “Dilettos” (‘pleasure’). But these historic sex toys were not only used for pleasure. They were also used to treat women suffering from ‘typically female ailments’. Stomach pains, paleness, nervousness, confusion, vaginal moisture or a well-developed fantasy – all could be remedied by inducing hysteria (in other words: orgasm). However, these tools of the medical trade became increasingly less imaginative: from the 4th century, simple wooden dildos and even vegetables were being used to treat women. Such medical practices were often carried out by nuns and widows, who would also apply (or insert) other ‘remedies’ such as garlic and ox gall. Married women were advised to increase the frequency of sex with their partners. How successful these treatments were, one can only imagine.

The vibrator as medical treatment

In an effort to alleviate the suffering of women, medical offices and health resorts were established, with trained gynecological masseurs on hand. Around the same time, hydrotherapy was developed, a technique utilizing a stream of water to pleasure or calm a woman’s clitoris. Treatment would usually last one hour per patient. Then along came George Taylor and his patent for the ‘Swedish Movement Cure’. In essence, Taylor’s machine was a table on which the patient would lie face down while a pedal or steam-powered stick massaged her vagina. The invention rapidly accelerated treatment, with sessions now lasting around 10 minutes.

The first electro-mechanical vibrator was invented by the British doctor and inventor Joseph Mortimer Granville in the late 1880s – originally as a medical tool for physicians to relieve muscular aches in female patients. The model enjoyed great popularity and marked the beginning of the fulfillment of women’s sexual needs.

The era of lustful sex toys

In the years that followed, the vibrator lost much of its medical meaning. During the 1920s, its appearance in pornographic movies presented it as an object designed exclusively for sexual pleasure. In the 1960s, the sex toy started to gain broader acceptance in society. This shift can be attributed to the opening of the first high street erotic shops, such as Beate Uhse, which launched in 1962. With the development of silicone in the 1970s, ever more and improved products made their way on to the market.

The history of sex toys more or less begins as a story of stimulants, followed by medical remedies and taboo products, and back to stimulants. Having said that, a little solo sex with your favorite sex toy can still be healing…


Author: Frieda Hintze

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