From Ice Age dildos to VR, an academic explains the history and future of sex toys

The first sex toys date from the Ice Age, yet selling them is still illegal in Alabama today. Throughout history, sex toys have been more than just objects, writes Hallie Lieberman, who has a doctorate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in sex toy history and is the author of Buzz: A Stimulating History of the Sex Toy (Pegasus Books). They’re a reflection of our approval, or fear, toward sexuality, and our attempts to control it.

The Verge spoke with Lieberman about the biggest urban myth around sex toys, its 30,000-year history, how sex toys have been embraced (or not) by the LGBTQ community, and more. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

We connected when your agent reached out to me after I tweeted about how surprised I was that the “Victorian doctors used vibrators to cure women’s hysteria” story was an urban legend. The theory is so widely accepted and has been in movies and plays. But it seems like all the claims trace back to one book — Rachel Maines’ The Technology of Orgasm — and her theory doesn’t hold water?

Yes, it all goes back to the Maines book. I went to the same archives she went to and looked at the same sources, and none of them said vibrators were used on women’s clitorises to cure hysteria.

The sources she cites do say that vibrators were used to treat all kinds of things, but they don’t mention hysteria. Plus, her argument hinges on the fact that the vibrators were for women, and they weren’t penetrative. But when you look at pictures of the vibrators and information from that era, they had vaginal attachments and looked like dildos, and were used on men as well as women. In men, they were used for impotence, so they had a rectal attachment they could stick up their butt and that would vibrate.

Really, there’s just nothing to back up this claim. These dildo-like vibrators were used for vaginal penetration for menstrual cramps and had nothing to do with hysteria, and there was nothing at all that said they were ever used on women’s clitorises. The vibrators were never super popular and were marketed to treat everything from sciatica to asthma and baldness.

And the other thing is that the doctors did know the function of the clitoris at that point. They knew it was sexual and women probably would have complained.

Why does this myth persist? Is it because it’s so titillating but also “real?

It is a great porn fantasy. You see this trope of doctors arousing their patients in pornography, and this is exactly that but it has an academic sheen. We like that the idea of women getting off in doctors’ offices was a real thing.

It allows people to talk about the pornographic fantasy in public. The other thing is the idea that we’re so superior to our ancestors, we’re so much more knowledgeable about female sexuality, whereas they were dumb and didn’t know about the clitoris. I think it’s both of those things that have taken hold, plus this myth that women weren’t aware of their own sexuality.

I’ve tried to kill the myth many times with my boyfriend, who is a historian of technology. We co-wrote an article that is a very careful going-through of all of Rachel Maines’ sources, and no one would publish it because they only publish new research. We’ve argued and said, “Doesn’t the historical record need to be corrected?” But it’s really hard to challenge entrenched orthodoxy and facts in academia.

So, what’s the real history of the sex toy?

The real history goes back 30,000 years to these phallic batons from the Upper Paleolithic period. The early sex toys were made of bone and ivory and teeth. They were classified by archaeologists as flint-shaping tools and found in Germany and other parts of Eurasia during the Ice Age.

There is debate. You have archaeologists debating and saying, “Oh, they have marks on them and could be used to shape flint.” But there was no reason they needed to sharpen flint on something shaped like a penis. And then you have ancient Greeks and Lysistrata, the Aristophanes play where women give up sex. The overarching theme in the history of sex toys is that it’s filled with male fear and regulation of them, though I’d note that not all cultures have this fear. For example, the Japanese had a playfulness toward dildos, and drawings in the 17th and 18th centuries showed the ideal conjugal bedroom as having sex toys.

Going back to these “phallic batons,” have the staples of sex toys stayed pretty much the same? The dildo, for example, and the vibrator?

The staples are pretty much the same. The first butt plug is from the 1850s. Around that time, that was the rectal dilator. They look identical to the butt plugs being sold today. In fact, the Sasha Grey butt plug looks exactly like one I saw in the Smithsonian.

Vibrators which came around in the 19th century, powered by hand cranks and water. They have changed their look a lot. You see these seeing huge battery-powered vibrators from 1960s with C or D batteries that look like this phallic thing, made of hard plastic. But today you’re getting non-realistic vibrators that don’t even look like sex toys. And that’s because women are entering the industry. They’re very cute, and a huge change away from realistic sex toys.

Let’s go back a bit to what you mentioned about this theme of fear and regulation of sex toys. What are some examples?

One big example was from the 19th century and Anthony Comstock. The Comstock Act from 1873 was drafted by this man who wanted to ban all contraception, all sex toys, all pornography, and he succeeded. More recently you look at the anti sex-toy laws from 1990s and 2000s, and they show this double standard with female sexual pleasure. Sex toys are illegal to sell in Alabama, and until 2008 they were illegal to sell in Texas. Meanwhile, Viagra is legal and covered by a prescription.

Now, at least among more liberal people, sex toys are more accepted. And they’re even accepted among conservatives as long as they’re used to promote healthy heterosexual norms. That’s what the sex toy parties are about, you know? “You’ll enhance your relationship.” Sex toys can absorb meaning and mean a lot of things.

It seems that nowadays we have a separate double standard, where women having sex toys are “liberated,” whereas a man with a masturbation sleeve is “pathetic.” What are the origins of this?

Yes, definitely. Men are seen as sad and lonely guys who can’t get a girl if they use a Fleshlight. They’re seen as gross. That double standard is problematic for men. We accept that men masturbate and watch porn, but if they use a device, somehow that’s wrong. And I think it does go back to this idea that historically, men are in control of their sexuality. They know how to bring themselves pleasure, they have a hand.

One of the historical points is definitely the blowup doll in the 1970s. It was a cultural joke. They existed and, sure, men bought them, but the type of man who bought a blow up doll was a loser who couldn’t get another woman and was mocked. So possibly, it goes back to blow-up dolls in the ’70s and the idea that any man who would need this is not very masculine. As a caveat, sex toys have always been more acceptable among gay men.

Right, and you mentioned that sex toys are more likely to be accepted if they’re seen as promoting these “healthy heterosexual norms.” How are sex toys are marketed and perceived within the LGBTQ community?

Overall, the LGBTQ community now is very accepting of sex toys and more so in some ways than the heterosexual community, but historically they weren’t. Take, for instance, the lesbian dildo debates and the idea that a good lesbian was not supposed to use a dildo because it was a symbol of the patriarchy. That started changing in the ’80s. Today, although more lesbians use sex toys than straight women, and more gay men than straight men, the sex toy companies have not really caught up.

I was just talking to someone at a convention who mentioned that it’s odd that so many people in the queer communities use sex toys, but so few companies are marketing to them.

One of the other things that’s still striking today is that sex toys fit into gender norms. You go into a sex toy shops and there are men’s toys and women’s toys. There are some that are non-binary and more queer-friendly shops, but there aren’t enough. It was only a few years ago, [adult film actor] Buck Angel created the first sex toy for trans men who have started transition.

On the one hand, it’s great that we’re getting sex toys that are more inclusive and more well-designed. On the other hand, I’ve read an argument that these high-end vibrators are “gentrifying the bedroom” and giving us the idea that we need a lot of money to have good sex. What do you think?

I think this idea started with Gwyneth Paltrow and her sex toys that you have to be super rich to buy. I’m not against having luxury or expensive sex toys, but you don’t want to close out the market for other people. There’s a sex toy company that has a million-dollar vibrator. It’s diamonds and gold and can be worn as a pendant.

Sex toys as status symbols are a really interesting thing because, on the one hand, it’s a sign that sex toys are normalizing because you’re willing to show it off. But the other thing is that if the high-quality vibrators and sex toys are only available to women of upper or upper-middle class, that’s a problem.

Where exactly is the line between sex toys and sex aids? I was recently pitched an article about a device calledFierathat looks like a vibrator, but works a little differently, and it’s not meant to give you pleasure, but to increase sex drive. That’s a little more in the health field.

It’s hard to know where the line is because, historically, sex toys have been positioned as medical devices. The line for me is whether it gives someone pleasure. There’s an argument that vaginal weights and Ben Wa balls aren’t sex toys because people don’t have orgasms with them, and so they’re more of a health device.

[Sex store] Good Vibrations did not want to carry Ben Wa balls at first because of this reason, that they don’t help women get off, you’re just strengthening your vagina so your man can have more fun. It’s always a blurry line seeing how people package and present them. The penis pump is sold as a medical device, so you can use your health savings account to buy it, but you can’t use that for the vibrator.

What’s the future of sex toys? What are we going to see?

I’ve read market reports on sex toys, and they say that the industry is “mature.” The near future is teledildonics. Apparently, one company has a patent for remotely controlled sex toys and has really hindered innovation. It’s been going after people who wanted to create an open-source vibrator and bankrupting them. The patent expires this year, so once it expires, you’ll hopefully see a lot more companies able to enter the space without being threatened by lawsuits.

I do think we will continue to see more mainstreaming of sex toys. For example, you’ll see more things like the sex toy shop in San Francisco called Feel More that just created a “French tickler ice cream” to promote their sex toy. It’s bananas and spice flavored.

There’s VR, of course, and there’s one called iFuk that has a male masturbator, and you put it on and then put on the DVD, and it mimics the sex you see on screen. In general, there will probably be more sex toys for men, more VR toys for both, and sex robots. And my hope is that there will be more stuff for queer people, and sex dolls for women.

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