For as long as sex toys have been around, we’ve been laughing at them. But why we think they’re funny is difficult to explain. If you asked a group of people to explain why they laugh at dildos, you’d be met with blank stares. (Or you’d be forcibly removed from your family reunion. Don’t ask).
In an attempt to understand the mechanics behind sex-toy humor, I recently read Gershon Legman’s Rationale of the Dirty Joke. In the book, Legman argues that one of the functions of humor is that it allows us to discuss taboo subjects in polite society. We can joke about sex in venues where we can’t talk seriously about it because the humor “absorbs and controls… by means of laughter, the great anxiety that both teller and listener feel in connection with certain culturally determined themes.” Following this logic, we joke about sex toys because it’s the only way that our society allows us to discuss them without facing societal repercussions.
One of the earliest records of dildo humor is from the Greek poet Herodas, who was writing in the 3rd Century BC. In a bawdy sketch titled Mime , a woman (Metro) is asking her friend (Koritto) where she bought her dildo. Koritto responds to Metro’s question with a rhapsodic description of her sex toys: When I saw them, my eyes swam at the sight—men don’t have such firm pricks! Not only that, but its smoothness is sleep, and its straps are like wool, not leather. As is typical of much dildo comedy throughout history, the humor is related to men’s fears of penile inadequacy, a fear that given a choice, women would prefer the smooth, perpetually hard dildo to the flawed and fallible penises of their partners.
Nineteenth-century American sex-toy humor echoes these themes on a greater scale. An 1860s-era ad for The Dildoe: or Artificial Penis from The Grand Fancy Bijou Catalogue, describes the dildo as a Champion of Women’s Rights, which is a joke playing off of the woman’s suffrage movement of the time. The joke lays bare the fear that the emancipated woman would become so self-sufficient that she wouldn’t need men anymore: She’d just purchase an artificial penis and call it a day.
This fear of female autonomy returns in an elaborate sex-toy joke from the early 1900s. The joke comes in the form of a patent application for a sex toy called The Delighter, which the writer described as the greatest harmless and noiseless satisfier of the age. The patent (shown above) features a drawing of an odd-looking machine– which looks like a cross between a fire hydrant and the Sybian–penetrating a spread-eagled woman. The tagline exemplifies the fear of female emancipation: ev’ry woman her own husband.
The humor of The Delighter is tame compared to many of the early 20th century jokes about sex machines, which involve the devices destroying the woman as a punishment for the double sin of masturbation and using a machine to do so, according to Legman.
One of the examples he gives is this 1938 song about a sex machine:
It was a case of the biter bit,
There wasn’t no method of stopping it;
His wife was split from tail to tit—
The whole damn contraption went up in shit.
This joke displays a more extreme version of the penile-inadequacy fear seen in Herodas; it’s a fear that mixes penile inadequacy with technophobia. Because the anxiety produced by the image of a woman masturbating with a powerful machine is so strong, the only way of alleviating it is by killing her at the end of the song.
Sex toys have been such an enduring source of humor because the sex toy is a tangible representation of women’s sexual desires. Implicit in a dildo or vibrator is a critique of the penis. The idea that faux genitalia exists that pleasures women more than the penis is a terrifying thought to men. The only way to reduce the anxiety that the sex toy creates is by laughing at it.