Category Archives: Sex Toy History

Guess Who Finished Her Dissertation on the History of Sex Toys?

Dildo TrophyAfter 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):

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Let’s Rebrand the Butt Plug!

Young's Rubber rectal dilator, circa 1890's, Courtesy Smithsonian Institute's National Museum of American History

Young’s Rubber rectal dilator, circa 1890’s; Courtesy Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of American History

Butt plugs get a bad rap. And they shouldn’t. While vibrators have served as feminist symbols of liberation, and cock rings are manufactured by major corporations, the butt plug remains on the sidelines as the outcast, the pariah, the sex-toy-that-dare-not-speak-its-name. The butt plug is a cultural joke. But in many cases, people’s mockery of the butt plug is caused by terror that they would enjoy using them.

One reason the butt plug is so repugnant to a wide swath of the population is simply its association with the rectum. But it’s larger than that. Mocking butt plugs is one way people confirm their heterosexuality, while insisting that their anuses remain utilitarian.  Straight men often see anal sex with their girlfriends as a cool and edgy variation on vaginal intercourse, and the assumption is that men are the instigators who are getting the bulk of the pleasure from the act.  But a butt plug carries no such camouflage, and behind every man’s purchase lies the gnawing question: “If I get off on a butt plug, will that make me gay?” While straight women ask themselves: “Can a woman who uses a butt plug still be considered feminine?”  

Even in the most sexually progressive corners of American popular culture butt plugs aren’t wholly accepted.  Witness the words of Hannah, the main character from the controversial HBO show Girls, who defines her sexuality in relation to the toy: “I feel like I’ll do almost anything sexually. I feel like the only thing that I won’t ever do again is a butt plug.”

Its disorienting name also doesn’t do it any favors. Butt plug manages somehow to contain within its nine letters both the juvenile and the antiseptic, garnering images of arcane plumbing tools and cartoon adolescents, boisterous gastroenterologists and giggling toddlers. We don’t call dildos vagina plugs or cunt corks, so why do we call the rectal equivalent a butt plug? It’s related to both the shape of the sex toy and its storied history. Continue reading

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Why Technological Innovation Always Leads to Masturbation

Young's dilators

Young’s Rectal Dilators from the late 1800s. These rubber butt plugs were made possible through the vulcanization of rubber.

One of the questions that my dissertation aims to answer is why technological innovations are nearly always followed by sexual innovations. The discovery of the rubber vulcanization process in the mid-1800s led to the production of dildos. Electrification in the late 1800s was quickly followed by the invention of the electromechanical vibrator.  The invention of Bakelite plastic led to innovative vibrator casings.

If technology is an extension of human faculties, as Marshall McLuhan argued, if it is driven not by an autonomous force but by very human desires for love and sex, community and connection, then it would make sense that new innovations in materials are followed by new sexual products. What drew me to the topic of sex toys in the first place was a naive hope, shared by inventors, that someday the inexplicable mysteries of the universe could be solved through human ingenuity, that sexual intercourse and masturbation, two of the most enjoyable activities that a human being can engage in, could be improved if only we spent some time designing the perfect sex machine.  And it is this same sort of optimism that I’ve seen in early 1930s brochures for Bakelite plastic, touted as the material of a thousand uses, one of which was to enclose our vibrators in beautiful, yet durable cases. There is a downside to this optimism; it burdens our technologies with expectations that they can never live up to. But what interests me is not the fact that our expectations always fail, but that our expectations never change.

When a new technology is developed, we always think that it will elevate us above our animal nature, yet we end up burrowing deeper into its recesses.  Inventors claim that their new technologies will create world peace. Yet, in reality, something very predictable happens. Instead of using technology to better humanity, we use it to improve our sex lives. For example, the internet was supposed to revolutionize education, but instead it improved masturbation. Few celebrate this. But the glut of pornography on the internet should not be ignored. It shouldn’t necessarily be championed either. It’s not a black-and-white issue. As Richard Randall argues, the pornographic imagination has always and will always exist. The human erotic imagination is messy and beautiful, revolting and sublime, but we shouldn’t be ashamed of it. It should be treated as a uniquely human trait and not dismissed as an aberration. It is our job to understand it, to study it, and to acknowledge it as one of the defining features of our existence. Continue reading

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