Auto-Erotic Enhancement: The Rise Of The Sex Toy

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The clandestine story of the vibrator’s rise to social acceptance.

I remember the first vibrators that I ever saw, displayed in the windows of Blackpool novelty shops between nudie playing cards and knock-off action figures. Even as a child, gazing with wonderment at this wonderland of trash during day trips to the seaside, it seemed obvious that there must be another use for these plain white missiles beyond the shoulder massaging that the packaging suggested.

We’ve come a long way since then. The sex toy market is huge, and far from being a shameful secret, possibly discovered hidden in drawers by inquistive children, for women at least the dildo, the vibrator and all manner of exotic variations have become almost obligatory it sometimes seems. The explosion of popularity for the Rampant Rabbit some years ago suggested that any coyness had long since departed, and women could wave their sex toys with pride – either as a display of their sexual liberation or as another way to belittle their male partners (the oft-quoted claim that these toys could provide the orgasms that their clueless husbands and boyfriends continually failed to deliever). While sex toys for men still have the stigma of being for lonely losers who can’t get a real woman – despite the efforts of Fleshlights and Real Dolls to bring male masturbation devices out of the shadows – the female sexy toy is now something to be held aloft proudly, so much so that rock bands are happy to lend their names to whole ranges of the things. This is a relatively new thing – an explosion of sexual openness that came in the early 1990s, and lived alongside porn entering mainstream pop culture with celebrity stars, Porn Star fashions and Playboy branding everywhere, the lapdancing club explosion, the rise of the Lad’s Mag and a general shrugging off of the repressive ideas of the past. It couldn’t last, of course, and now we are in very dark times indeed sexually, the result of relentless campaigning by the neo-Puritans who want to turn the clock back to a time of sexual repression. But the sex toy, perhaps uniquely, seems (so far) to be weathering the storm, perhaps because it is so connected to female pleasure and emancipation – to wage war on dildos would be to wage war on women’s freedom to control their own orgasms, and no one is willing to go there..,. yet.

There are many reasons why we still see male and female marketed sex toys different of course. There’s the mere aesthetic that the dildo can embrace, one that even the best male masturbator struggles to match. There are vibrators that look like 1950s science fiction rocket ships, for God’s sake, while others could easily pass as pieces of modern art if you put them on a mantlepiece. And then there is the equal, rather unfair aesthetic that a woman masturbating with a dildo looks more in control of her sexuality than a man pumping determinedly, sweatily into a Fleshlight. In reality, there might not be any different, but perceptions are all, and men using masturbation devices are still seen as seedy, sad, unsavoury losers by many. We now live in a world where male sexuality and desire is continually attacked as toxic and abusive, while female desire is seem as empowering, and that split applies to masturbation as much as anything. Ironically, as sexual contact between men and women becomes ever more fraught with dangers and issues of proven consent (I write this as some Twitter commenters are claiming that men should now reaffirm consent with every thrust, or else effectively be rapists), the market for sex toys is probably going to boom. In a repressed and restricted age, it might feel safer to find sexual relief from a sex toy than risk being accused of harrassment by trying to find a human partner (though of course, ethicists with nothing better to do are already fretting about whether sex robots should have to give consent – which seems a bit much, especially if you’ve spent several thousand dollars on one and it then decides it doesn’t fancy you).

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It’s easy to think of the sex toy, in whatever form, as an invention of the modern age, something that came along in the sexual revolution along with porn and the pill. But of course, we’ve always had porn, and we’ve always had sex toys – they were both just a bit more clandestine in the past. And the sex toy was never commercially marketed as being solely for sexual pleasure until relatively recently – again, those vibrators on display in novelty shops in the late 1970s still clung to the idea that the Doc Johnson devices were for dealing with shoulder muscle knots. But the history of devices aimed at relieving sexual tension is a long one, often couched in euphemism and medical gobbledegook, often aimed at curing female hysteria more than bringing sexual pleasure – sometimes, only an orgasm could bring a hysterical woman back to normality, it seems. These days, a doctor using bizarre electric devices to get a female patient off would be the stuff of outraged newspaper headlines; in the Victorian age, it was perfectly normal.

Of coyurse, even in Victorian times, no one was fooled. We know that these devices have been around froever, and we know exactly what they were used for – the very word ‘dildo’ comes from the Latin for ‘delight’, which is rather charming really. The first literary reference to the dildo (that we know of) came in 411BC, in Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, but imagery in art goes back even further. The Christians might have tried to impose their own moral disapproval of sexual pleasure onto society – and astonishingly, sex toys are still illegal in some US states – but even where commercially manufactured devices have been forbidden, people have always improvised. Cucumbers and candles, wooden carvings and feather dusters – nothing sparks the inventive imagination like sexual desire.

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Goliath’s new pocket book – alternatively titled A Visual History of Lovemaking Toys or A Cultural History of Sex Toys In Photography and Illustration Throughout the Centuries – follows the patterns of previous books in the collection by being a heavily and explicitly illustrated study of sexual pleasure, here enhanced by dildos, vibrators, strap-ons, butt plugs and other devices, both commercial and improvised. As with the other books, it’s a fascinating and unrestrained look at the subject with art that dates back to 500BC hrough to modern erotic photography. The bulk of the content is vintage 20th century clandestine pornographic photography, and as ever, it’s interesting to see how little has essentially changed – sex is sex, after all, and while the technical apects and the look of the participants clearly date the material, the things that they are getting up to are essentially no different from the poses and positions of modern porn. What has changed, of course, is the aesthetic appeal and functionality of the toys themselves, from the more basic devives of the 1950s and 1960s to the extravagant creations of today.

Perhaps this is best shown in the collection of classic advertising also featured in the book. For me, this is what makes this an essential volume – porno photos are not that hard to find, but this stuff is a goldmine of retro delights. The ads of the 1920s are, unsurprisingly, entirely medical in their approach – there is no hint of sexual pleasure here. But even into the 1970s, the ads that appeared in girlie magazines were still, often, oddly clinical – a page of photographs of assorted devices with basic descriptions. By this point, there was no need to find what these devices were for, but there was still the need – or at least the instinct – to avoid any sense of the lascivious in the advertising, as if these were serious devices for serious pleasure. The other question – why sex toys aimed at women (or, at the very least, gay men) were being advertised in magazines read almost exculsively by straight men – is one that there is no definitive answer to, but I suspect that many a woman was bought a multi-speed excitor or similar as a possibly unexpected and unappreciated gift by a husband who somehow thought that it would liven up a marriage.

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Kudos to Goliath for taking what might seem like a niche subject and crafting not only a solid erotic photograohy book but also a genuinely historical look back from it. There is probably still space for a written history of the sex toy – a product that has never gone out of style and is now, weirdly, as much a part of the mainstream of women’s products as make-up or lingerie. The sex toy does seem to have outlasted fashions – even the current Woke culture, with its Victorian approach to sexual politics and romantic encounters, still seems to have time – and possibly a greater need than ever for the sex toy. Long may they flourish!

DAVID FLINT

All images courtesy Goliath Books

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