Category Archives: history

The History of Sex Toy Humor

The Delighter

Sketch of “The Delighter.” (Circa 1920s) From the National Museum of American History Archives Center Business Americana Collection

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. Continue reading

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Let’s Give Female Masturbation a New Name

I love masturbating T-shirtJack off. Choke the chicken. Beat the meat. Spank the monkey. The rich vocabulary to describe male masturbation is directly related to our acceptance and even celebration of it. Women’s masturbation is less accepted, so the terminology used to describe it suffers as a result. If you asked a random person on the street to name euphemisms for female masturbation, they’d probably fail to name even one. I’ve read that Jill off is a female-specific term, but I’ve never actually heard anybody use it.  Since I spend a large portion of my life writing and speaking about female masturbation, I am routinely frustrated by the dearth of terms to describe it. (As you’ll note from this paragraph, I’ve always resorted to using the cumbersome phrase female masturbation).

Before we investigate alternative terms for female masturbation, it’s instructive to delve into masturbate itself. Masturbate most likely derives from the Latin manus (hand) and stupare (to defile), according to the OED. Its origins reveal that it once was a pejorative term, as many terms for masturbation are today. Etymology aside, masturbate is simply too cumbersome and unwieldy to form the basis of the go-to term for female self-pleasuring. Masturbate doesn’t so much as roll off the tongue as it does tumble in a cascade of inelegant syllables.

Not surprisingly, the Ancient Greeks had a few terms for female masturbation, one of which was clitorize, according to Rod L. Evans’ Sex-i-con Evans says that clitorize derives from the Greek kleitoris, whose etymology is uncertain but the OED says that it may derive from a Greek word meaning to shut. First-century Greek physician Rufus of Ephesus defined clitorize as “the lascivious touching” of the clitoris. In Latin there was maritate, meaning “to manipulate one’s vulva by hand; of females, to masturbate.”  It was derived from “maritus (husband), with the suggestion that one’s hand is acting as a husband,” according to Evans. Although I love the idea of having a hand husband, but I can’t imagine myself employing the word maritate in my daily life. Continue reading

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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. Continue reading

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