As I pore over the vice reports of our mutton-chopped 19th century postal censor, Anthony Comstock, I’m continuously surprised that he refused to refer to the dildo as a dildo. “Too gross to be described,” he says in a published vice report from 1882 in reference to “immoral rubber goods,” a sweeping category that included condoms, dildos, French ticklers, and odd things like fake dog poop. He didn’t feel comfortable describing them in detail, but he took pleasure in quantifying the amount of sex products that he confiscated. In 1882 alone it was 64,836 pounds.
It’s as if Comstock believed that the word itself was so dangerous that printing it could have a deleterious effect on all who read it. Sometimes in the confidential arrest reports he has scribbled the word. When he arrested sex goods proprietor Louis Beer, he noted: “The man who brought the dildoe to America.” Of course he was giving Beer too much credit because most likely the man who brought the dildo to America has been dead for 3,000 years. What would be more correct is to call him the man who brought the rubber dildo to America, but my research shows that it definitely wasn’t Beer. The father of American gynaecology, J. Marion Sims, did more to popularize the dildo than anyone else I know. In the mid-1800s, he advocated the use of dilators (now referred to as “medical dildos”) as treatments for vaginismus, a condition where the vagina spasms and tightens so much prior to sexual intercourse that a penis is unable to penetrate the wall of rigid genital tissue.
For some reason the task of avoiding the use of words like dildo, condom, and French tickler caused government officials to wax poetic about rubber sexual devices. In an 1873 speech to the House of Representatives, New York congressman Clinton L. Merriam, stumping for an obscenity bill, had this to say:
“It is terrible to contemplate that more than six thousand persons are daily employed in a carefully organized business, stimulated to activity by all the incentives that avarice and wickedness can invent, to place in the schools, and homes of our country, books, pictures and immoral appliances, of so low and debasing a nature that it would seem as if the brute creation itself would turn from them in disgust”
By avoiding using the word dildo, America’s censors ended up imbuing it with a mystical power, making dildo the word whose name they dared not speak, and whose etymology is a mystery. But the word may be making a comeback. This month postal censors made Vice magazine cover up their picture of a dildo with a DILDO sticker. Progress? Not really. We won’t be truly progressive until neither the word or the device offends.