Sex toys have been around since the dawn of recorded human history. Phalluses and dildos are represented in early art and literature dating back to 500 BCE Greece. The ancient Greeks are renowned for their liberal sexual practices, as well as their all-inclusive approach to sexuality. The Greeks did not discern between homosexuality and heterosexuality, and the olisbos, the world’s first known dildos, were used in the sex lives of all.
Sex toys remained embedded in eastern cultures, but took quite a hit in European cultures during the Middle Ages. The power of the church, fueled by the sporadic outbreaks of the Plague and the Crusades, led to a banning of all things overtly erotic, and the sex toy industry suffered and stagnated for fear of accusations of heresy.
During the Victorian era in the late-1800s, sexual aids came back into vogue as medical therapy to cure overly horny (or “hysterical”) women of the disease of sexual feelings. Doctors would “treat” hysterical women by manipulating them digitally until orgasm to “cure” them of their hysterics. The first vibrators were developed by the medical industry in the 1870s and 1880s to alleviate fatigue in doctors who “treated” these women with “abnormal” sexual urges (it seems that the “treatment” didn’t cure the women so much as keep them coming back for more!)
The vibrators were marketed as “massagers” for several years—often in women’s magazines—as aids to “relax” women and alleviate tension. In the 1920s, vibrators were marketed to men, but only as gifts to their wives to keep them “young and fresh.” Also in the 1920s, “blue” movies (porn) started emerging, showing women using these “personal massagers” in some very personal ways indeed.
From the get-go, pornography was directed at fulfilling or driving men’s pleasure. The idea that women were sexual beings with the same level of erotic energy as men, and that they might enjoy pornography as well, was rejected in an era that focused on Freud’s theories of sexuality and still carried with it the Victorian ideals of the chaste, motherly woman. While women were using vibrators under a thin veil of secrecy, the advent of visual pornography and erotica promoted the idea that these sexual aids were in reality sexual aids for men and their visual fantasies.
In mainstream heterosexual erotic films, sex toys have not veered far from the original track. While there are some production companies that try to market to women, the assumed audience has remained male-based. Reflective of what the adult movie industry believes its audience wants to see, sex toys in straight sex have been used primarily on women and between women, for the pleasure of the man watching (whether it be the actor in the scene or the viewer of the film). If mainstream (non-fetish) adult films are meant to represent the range of “normal” sexual behaviour, then the implication is that the only “normal” sex toy that men can use is adult films themselves.
Protecting heterosexuality, protecting the phallus
The phallic symbol is ubiquitous in Western iconography. Skyscrapers, missiles, beer bottles all mimic the phallic ideal of the strong, hard, manly dick. They are images of strength and virility and an important part of traditionally male ideals of domination and progress. The phallus stands in for the erect penis in its absence.
Before sex shops started popping up during and after the sexual revolution in North America, when one spoke of “sex toys,” the immediate implication was vibrators and dildos. It was generally accepted that these were used by women who were either unable to get a man or had lost a man to death or divorce, and who was cursed with an insatiable sexual appetite.
Sex toys for men, aside from the crude, half-joking blow up doll, weren’t introduced to the mainstream heterosexual market until the sex toy boom in the late 1970s and early 1980s. This lack of attention to sex toys for men implied that men who needed “aides” other than a willing woman to become or stay aroused was somehow less of a man. Men who wanted to experiment with toys were forced to experiment with their wives’ vibrators.
Because of the homosexual anxiety that has plagued North American culture since the Puritan European settlers arrived, discomfort arises when even the hint of another penis, or in this case, a vibrating, ever-erect phallus, is in bed with a man and his woman. Even more disconcerting is the possibility that a heterosexual man can also derive pleasure from this vibrating erection without having to question his sexual identity.
The advent of the sex toy store helped provide access to sex toy options for couples who wanted to explore and expand their sexual relationships. Walking into a sex toy shop as a couple however, can also tap into deep-seated stereotypes and insecurities about sex. First is the presence of an array of dildos, vibrators and other phalluses, many of often ludicrous proportions, feeding the stereotype that bigger, even comically so, is better. The second anxiety that a visit to the sex store can feed is the idea that if you need accessories, bells and whistles, it is because one of the partners is not being satisfied in the bedroom.
As a culture obsessed with sex and publicly and loudly discussing all of the intimate details of our lives, it is a good time to dispel these myths about men, sexuality and sex toys. First, the diversity and quality of men’s sex toys have grown by leaps and bounds in the past decade. For masturbation purposes, or to share with your partner, there is an array of “orifice” type toys to try out. Synthetic orifices of all shapes, materials, sizes and price ranges have hit the market. From $2000 sex dolls that are pliable, handpainted and real to the touch to $30.00 sleeves lined with various textures, solo sex or sex with your partner can be varied and experimental.
If you are interested in exploring sex toys that can be inserted, there are a variety of prostate ticklers that are made especially for men who do not necessarily want to have a phallus in bed with them that is not built distinctly for their purposes.
Finally, for better or worse, the Internet has blown the accessibility of sexual imagery way open. You can find what it is that reflects your sexual curiosities online without having to go to an adult video store to try and figure out where your interests are represented. Furthermore, if you are interested in exploring the ever-expanding world of sex toys, anything that is available in a sex toy store is also available for order on the Internet. This eliminates any stigma you feel might be attached to a visit to and a purchase from the local sex shop, although it can’t hurt to go in and see what strikes your fancy in person before taking your chances online!
For a most of the 19th and 20th centuries, the use of sex toys was considered a deviant form of sexual activity that distracted from the procreational aspect of sex and also interrupted the relationship between a man and a woman (or, more specifically, a penis and its rightful vagina). As recently as 1999, Alabama outlawed the manufacture and distribution of sex toys as “obscene” and unnecessary to the procreational purpose of sex. While this law has since been overturned, it speaks to some of the residual anxieties, be they religious or cultural, that still exist surrounding our needs for variety and healthy sexual satisfaction in and outside of a relationship.