(Editor's Note: Rose Marie Pink is the owner of Friction, the feminist, queer-friendly sex toy business we wrote about in this week's Scene. She's agreed to share some of her knowledge with us today, to commemorate both The Sex Issue and — the ugh to end all ughs — Valentine's Day. Look for her recommendations for smarter, better-written alternatives to Fifty Shades of Grey in an upcoming Country Life post.)
Sex toys aren’t something we talk about very much, which is a shame. The more we know about sex toys, the more we know about how to make ourselves and our partners feel good in safe, affirming ways. It’s not a coincidence that sex toys are usually shrouded in silence. It’s a result of their strange and unexpected history.
Initially, vibrators were developed for the treatment of female hysteria, a vague illness that could have many symptoms. Described as a womb disease, hysteria diagnoses were largely a response to the startling idea that women were sexual beings. Women’s desire was labeled abnormal and unhealthy. Before vibrators, the treatment for this illness was genital massage until hysterical paroxysm (also known as, well, orgasm) was reached. But since masturbation was considered inappropriate, treatment of hysteria fell to doctors and midwives, who eventually resorted to vibrators or jets of water. (Hysteria was only taken off the books as an illness in 1952!)
While steam-powered (yes, steam-powered) vibrators were invented first, the first electric model was produced by Hamilton Beach in 1902 — only the fifth home appliance to be electrified, years before the vacuum cleaner or iron.
Seen as a medical device, the vibrator was was widely advertised in magazines during the Victorian era. After hysteria was no longer recognized, vibrators were more and more considered sexual (not medical) objects, and they were consequently pulled back into the shadows. As a result — and far from the halcyon days of Victorian newspaper vibrator ads — it is still illegal to sell sex toys in Alabama, largely due to efforts by Dan Ireland, who suggested when interviewed that while you could use firearms in a moral or immoral way, there was no moral way to use a sex toy. Hence, it was more important to ban sex toys than high-powered weaponry. Take note, though — Alabamans are allowed to buy a sex toy with a doctor’s note. Phew!
One of the oldest sex toys found by archaeologists is 28,000 years old — a highly polished carved stone phallus found in Hohle Fels. While early sex toys were commonly made of leather, wood, stone or other substances, more are now made of silicone, rubber, PVC and other derivations of plastic. However, many of these rubber and PVC items are porous and can’t be sterilized and/or may contain phthalates, an ingredient known for softening plastics that has been linked to negative health consequences. Silicone, however, does not contain phthalates, is non-porous and can be sterilized, making it an ideal material for sex toys.
Read more about the history of sex toys in Rachel P. Maines’ The Technology of Orgasm.