Category Archives: Dildo History

One Nation Under Sex Toys

Rejected Newsweek Cover with American Flag Vibrator

Rejected Newsweek Cover with American Flag Vibrator for the February 14, 2012 issue. Image from http://newsweek.tumblr.com/

This Fourth of July, as I reside in the nation’s capital, studying the history of our regulations against sex toys and the various ways that sex toy manufacturers have attempted to evade these laws, I should have a pessimistic view of the nation. After all, my raison d’être, the motivation that keeps me going, is the belief that sex toys are objects that are symbols of American ingenuity, that dildos are proof of American Exceptionalism. In fact, as I like to imagine it, masturbators all across the country are now sublimely bringing themselves to orgasm while contemplating how lucky they are to be Americans, or simply to be humans, a part of the tool-making species that has contrived such wonderful motorized devices to speed up and intensify “the little death,” that thirty-second moment of ecstasy that has driven invention and innovation since the beginning of time.

But America has been attempting to frustrate the nation’s masturbators for the past 150 years. They’ve incinerated sex toys in fires in the mid-1800s, arrested people for selling them, shamed people for using them. Unlike the burned book, few take up the torch for the sex toy, feeling, incorrectly as it happens, that sex toys are not full of ideas and ideals, are not, in fact, objects worthy of intellectual contemplation. But all objects, however reviled, especially the reviled ones, posses the ability to become muses, to expand minds, to launch dreams. We have an idea that great literature is full of lofty intellectual ideas, that it ignores the bodily processes, that nobody farts in Shakespeare. But  literature embraces the body. James Joyce revelled in defecation, Marcel Proust lovingly described gay sex, and Geoffrey Chaucer’s characters buggered each other with plow blades. That’s not to say that sex toys are books’ intellectual equals, just that we mischaracterize classic literature. We consciously create a divide between the body and the mind, a divide that allows people to believe that they are above animals. Instead, we need to admit that we are animals with the accompanying animal instincts, but that we differentiate ourselves in our ability to think deeply about these instincts, to make choices about them, to improve upon our genitals.

But what gives me hope isn’t that most of our anti-sex-toy regulations have been lifted; it’s that Americans have always ignored them. No matter how much our government has done to stop us from using sex toys, we have continued to manufacture and market them. Even in the face of imminent arrest, American entrepreneurs have always produced and sold sex toys because they’ve believed, correctly, that deep within the soul of the red-blooded, pragmatic American consumer lies the indefatigable hope that the newest dildo or butt plug or tube of clitoral stimulation gel will change the face of orgasm forever.

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Why can’t we just call a Dildo a “Dildo”?

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.

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