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Sure you’ve been to the Museum of Modern Art or the Museum of Natural History, but have you been to a sex museum?
The Sex Machines Museum in Prague is an erotic stroll through three floors of sexual gadgets and devices designed for the express purpose of making sex more fun and pleasurable. Dating all the way back to the 16th century (we’re talking Copernicus theorizing that the earth revolves around the sun times here), museum-goers can find steam operated vibrators, chairs with perfectly situated holes for oral sex, and dildos connected to thrusting machines.
While this particular museum memorializes the rise in the gadgetry of sex toys, there is a much longer history to be uncovered. Indeed, humans have been sexually curious and creative since time immemorial. Need proof? In France, a cave carving of a vulva dates back into prehistory; ancient Egyptians were creating pornographic papyrus scrolls back around 1150 BC; and in India the Kama Sutra, which is a Sanskrit guide to desire, had detailed descriptions for 64 sexual positions and dates all the way back to around 400 BC.
It’s actually relatively recent that sex and sexuality have become so taboo. In earlier centuries sex was, as it should be, seen an essential part of life— something to be celebrated and enjoyed. So really, it’s no surprise that the sex toys we know and love today debuted far longer ago than you might imagine.
Let’s take a virtual stroll through some of the origin stories of these pleasure objects! First up, and that with arguably the longest history, the dildo.
Ever since humans have had holes, we’ve been curious and creative about sticking things up them. Apparently scientists have been turning up dildos from excavation sites since we began digging around centuries ago. For a long time these were discussed as merely “statues” used for “fertility ceremonies”. Sex toys? What?!...Nooo! I guess we were weirded out by the idea of our ancient ancestors getting down with stone phalluses. Looking at these items today, the facts are hard to ignore. These penis shaped objects were definitely used for pleasure! Case in point: in 2005, an actual Ice Age dildo was found by scientists in a cave in Germany. Made entirely out of stone and highly-polished with ridges around the “head”, there is little else this artifact could have been used for.
Need further convincing? Ancient Greeks weren’t shy at all about their use of dildos. In fact, they were often given to women when their men left home to go fight wars. These early dildos, called olisbos, were phallic-shaped and made from polished wood and leather. They even had lube! Olive oil, a staple of any Grecian household, was the perfect slippery, long lasting lubricant to use with these early toys.
Today, dildos are one of the most diverse sex toys on the market. Made from a variety of materials, they come in all shapes, colors and sizes. There is no shrouding the dildos of today as fertility ceremony statues! They are made for pleasure and pleasure alone!
Cock rings are pretty much exactly what they sound like- a ring (made of various materials) that goes around the penis (and sometimes the balls). The purpose of such a contraption is to restrict the flow of blood out the penis, essentially making an erection harder and longer lasting. Today, there are many varieties of cock rings- some vibrate, some have multiple rings that squeeze different places on the shaft of the penis, some are one size while others are adjustable.
Unsurprisingly however, the desire for a stronger erection is not a modern day fascination. In fact, the earliest written record of the cock ring goes all the way back to China, circa 1200. Through early documentation, historians learned that men would tie goat eyelashes around their members to achieve a longer, stronger erection. Not to leave ladies pleasure out of the equation, the stiffened eyelashes of the goat were said to have been left intact on the eyelids as a way to achieve clitoral stimulation.
Innovation soon came to the cock ring and later iterations were made from leather and sinew. For royalty of the time however, things got much more elaborate and cock rings became something of a status symbol. The wealthy had them commissioned from rare and expensive materials like jade, ivory, silver, and gold. Some even had fine jewels attached. Glitzy and extra-stimulating!
While you can still find incredibly expensive, jewel-encrusted cock rings today, the most common models are made from silicone. This moldable, malleable material has opened the door for some seriously creative cock rings. Our early ancestors would have been clamoring for the cock rings of today. You can’t compare goat eyelashes to a cock ring with an attached vibrator, perineum massager, or butt plug!
Speaking of butt plugs…
In the late 1800’s, butt plugs first emerged on the scene in the medical device field. This is not to say people hadn’t been sticking things up their butts before that time, there is just no record of specific instruments used for that purpose before the 1800’s. There is however quite a bit of recorded history around Dr. Young’s Rectal Dilators. Sold in sets of four, these dilators look much like traditional butt plugs do today– a flared base with a slightly bulbous tip. Except, they weren’t marketed as toys. Instead they were marketed as a cure-all for a number of conditions from constipation to acne and even insanity. This host of claims, however, was what eventually led to Dr. Young’s downfall. In the 1940’s the Food & Drug Administration finally decided that enough was enough and shut down his operation on the grounds of “false advertising”. Oddly enough, it’s likely that this false advertising was precisely the point.
In those days, sex and pleasure were not considered important companions and pleasure in particular was certainly not discussed in the mainstream. To sell sex toys, they had to be marketed as something else entirely. It is very likely that Dr. Young and most of his loyal customers knew exactly what these dilators were good for! The vibrator eventually went through a similar marketing ploy of its own.
Today, vibrators are the most well-known and well-loved sex toy out there. It’s hard to imagine that such a popular toy was developed by doctors to use in sterile clinic environments. And yet, that is precisely the origin of the vibrators that we all know and love today.
In the late 19th century, women who came to see their doctor with anything from mild depression to fatigue were broadly diagnosed with a condition called “hysteria”. The cure, the doctors of the era decided, was, well...an orgasm. Once diagnosed, women would be prescribed a “manual pelvic massage”. This massage would happen in the doctor's office at the hands of their doctor and would last until the woman reached a “hysterical paroxysm” (an orgasm). This method of pelvic massage was thought to “break” the “hysteria” the woman was experiencing, much like a fever breaks. What was really happening? Women’s sexuality was being repressed and these doctor-prescribed orgasms were one of their only outlets for sexual release. Of course they felt better afterwards!
With so many women needing pelvic massage, and so many return patients, it was fatigue that led doctors to begin experimenting with machines that could do the work of pelvic massage for them. Looking to make things easier and more streamlined, the first prototypes of today's vibrators were born. Attempt number one was as big as a table and ran on coal. It gave doctors hands a rest, but ended up being far too much of a hassle and was rather messy and dangerous. The next attempt was a steam-operated machine but this contraption also missed the mark. Finally, in the late 19th century, battery-powered vibrators were introduced to the market. They were an instant hit and quickly became a common household appliance.
It was around this time that vibrators true purpose became clear to the consumers purchasing them. The companies making them however knew that a machine for women’s sexual pleasure was still not socially acceptable and their real purpose continued to be disguised. “Vibration promotes life and vigour, strength and beauty,” promised one advertisement from the time. The release brought on by these machines was still considered a “treatment” for a condition.
By the 1950’s the “doctors orders” had fallen by the wayside, but new advertising schemes had found another way to secretly sell this pleasurable product. Weight loss became the new secret code for getting off.
It wasn’t until the 60’s and 70’s with sexual liberation and birth of feminism that all the smoke and mirrors began to fade away. Vibrators were finally purchased and discussed for what they are— sexual pleasure toys! Today, vibrators are as easy to come by (cum by?!) as walking into your nearest pharmacy. Companies like Trojan and Lifestyles have jumped on the sexual self pleasure band wagon and are selling inexpensive vibrators in the isles of your nearest Walgreens!
While we may have new technologies, cleaner materials, and easier access to sex toys today than ever before, there is no doubt that cultures across the globe have been satisfying their sexual curiosity since the beginning of time. Whether an Ice Age stone dildo or the new air technology of Womanizer Pro, which uses suction and air pressure waves to stimulate an intense clitoral orgasm, our sexual creativity knows no bounds.