What is a Sex Toy?

Wahl 2-speed all-body massager

Is this a sex toy or a therapeutic massager? How do we make this distinction?

It seems ridiculous to ask this question, nearly a year into writing my blog and my dissertation. But it’s an important one because what is and is not a sex toy is not readily apparent. Sure, you could confidently state that the devices sold on a sex-toy site like Good Vibrations, are in fact instruments that are designed to stimulate the genitals. But not all sex toys are sold in sex toy stores. Nor are all massagers that are marketed to “relieve pain and fatigue,” actually used for back massage.

So how do we judge whether something is a sex toy or a therapeutic device? Do we accept a company’s marketing claims at face value? Or do we factor in how the consumer actually uses the device?  Take the Wahl Two-Speed All Body Massager  for example. Wahl makes vague claims that the massager: “Increases circulation,” “Relieves aches and muscle pain,” and works well for “facial” and “deep tissue” massage. But nothing indicates that the massager provides women with incredible orgasms. You have to look to Amazon.com’s product reviews to find that information:

“Best. Thing. Ever. No clue how it does at massaging sore muscles, but as a vibrator it’s definitely in my top 3. Most of the time the low setting is perfect, but for an extra little something there’s a way to hold it so you can flip it to high right before you have a orgasm [sic] and I have to say it’s better than anything else I’ve experienced. A definite must for anyone.”- Anonymous

Not all of the reviews are like this, of course. But enough of the reviews are like this that there should be no doubt in any consumer’s mind that the Wahl provides an amazing clitoral massage.

How we define what is and is not a sex toy may seem like a purely academic issue, but it’s not. In the past four years, people have been arrested over such seemingly insignificant definitional problems. In 2005, when I worked for Passion Parties in Texas, if I referred to the Jelly Osaki, a large  vibrating purple phallus, as a vibrator, I could’ve been facing one year in jail for peddling an “obscene device,” which the state of Texas defined as “a device, including a dildo or artificial vagina, designed or marketed as useful primarily for the stimulation of human genital organs.”  What the law was concerned with was the intent of the designer and manufacturer, not the actual use of the product, which is much more difficult to regulate. This law was overturned in 2008, but Alabama still has an anti-sex-toy law on the books that has a clause that legalizes sexual devices if they have a “bona fide medical, scientific, educational, legislative, judicial, or law enforcement purpose.”

Again, the law focuses on the design and marketing of the device, and not the actual use. Even the Alabama Supreme Court struggles with the issue of sex toy definitions. In 2009, Love Stuff, an Alabama-based adult book store, was prosecuted under Alabama’s anti-obscenity law. They appealed the decision and lost, but the Court’s commentary demonstrates their definitional struggles:

“Any sexual device or toy can, in particular cases, have some medical benefit…That same device, however, can also be used as a purely recreational toy to spice up the sex life of one who has no significant physical or emotional difficulties in the bedroom. It is impossible to generally place these devices in one category or the other–it all depends on the individual using the device.”

Youngs Dilators Ad 1904

Is This 1904 Rectal Dilator a Sex Toy?

This is exactly the problem I am facing in studying the history of sex toys. Do I define a sex toy based on how a company markets it or how a consumer uses it? Or do I do a little bit of both? The problem is that I don’t have explicit evidence of sexual uses, so I mainly have to rely upon companies’ advertisements, which were tightly regulated by anti-obscenity statutes.

So how do I determine whether turn-of-the-19th-century consumers used vibrators and rubber rectal dilators for sexual pleasure? I have to infer these uses by seeking out sexual innuendos in advertisements, reading medical journals,poring through vice societies’ reports, examining patents, reading turn-of the century pornography, and somehow making sense of this motley cultural stew. In the meantime, I’ve created a historical sex-toy taxonomy to help me out. Please let me know if you have any suggestions for other categories or ways to make these categories stronger.

                       Historical Sex-Toy Taxonomy

1. Devices designed and marketed for sexual pleasure. e.g. French ticklers, sex dolls
2. Devices designed and marketed for medical uses.  e.g. female syringes, male enema devices like the pile pipe, rectal dilators
3. Devices purportedly designed  for medical uses but that used sexualized marketing strategies.  e.g. the electromechanical vibrator, the violet ray.
4Devices designed and marketed for both medical uses and sexual pleasure. e.g. penis pumps that were sold as impotence cures in some catalogs and masturbatory devices in others; vaginal dilators marketed for vaginismus and for masturbation.
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