After writing nearly 300 pages on the history of sex toys, you would think that I would be burnt out, that I would shut down dildographer.com and open up an Etsy boutique selling artisanal hazelnut butter and cardamom-infused rum. And I did have a two-day post-dissertation melt-down (sample thought: “Now that I’ve finished my dissertation, and I’ve run out of junk food blogs to read, my life is not worth living.”) Once I clawed my way out of the post-dissertation sinkhole, I realized that devoting the past three years of my life to sex toys had not dampened my love for them, that, in fact, I loved sex toys even more than I had when I started. I guess that’s what true love is: Even when you’re at your lowest the thought of your beloved brings you immense joy. In this case, as I was weeping in bed, thinking about my uncertain future, a penis-shaped beacon shone in the distance, shiny, glittering, burning my eyes with its brilliance. It reminded me that I still have a lot of work to do on the history of sex toys, and the current status of sex toys, and the future of sex toys (sex robots remain woefully ignored by the academy). It reminded me that I have to transform my dissertation into a trilogy of books on the history of sex toys, and that if I don’t nobody will.
But first, a few insights from my dissertation (and committee members, if you’re reading this, these are your Cliff Notes for my defense):
1. For nearly two centuries, American culture has been simultaneously obsessed with sex and terrified of its power. The sex toy makes literal and visceral this contradiction in cultural attitudes towards sex. Fear of sex toys is really a fear of masturbation magnified and reified.
2. We fear sex toys because women are the most prominent users of them, making sex toys physical representations of women’s unbridled sexuality. They remind us of how powerful women’s sex drive is. A sex toy is an artifact that attests to women’s insatiability and the inability of male genitalia to bring orgasms to most women.
3. Despite our sex phobia, every time we create a new material or discover a new technology we create a new sex toy out of it. Goodyear discovered rubber vulcanization in 1844 and rubber dildos and butt plugs hit the market soon after (Usually they were called vaginal and rectal dilators). We discovered how to harness the power of electricity in the late 1800s, then we created electric vibrators within a decade. Similar stories can be told about Bakelite, silicone, and motion-sensing technology.
4. While the 21st century media may be openly discussing sex toys more than they ever have before, we have not come to terms with them because we have not come to terms with women’s sexuality and its social disruptiveness. To embrace sex toys is to acknowledge that human anatomy is flawed, that, in some cases, women prefer machines to humans. The thought is frightening to many.
The Great Irony: American culture is less comfortable with sex toys now than we were 150 years ago. Vibrator and dildo advertisements appeared more frequently in the mass media during the early 1900s than they do now.