The 30,000-Year History of the Sex Toy

Photo-Illustration: Photos: Getty Images

The history of the modern dildo is longer than you think (pun very much intended). As Hallie Lieberman puts it in her new book Buzz: A Stimulating History of the Sex Toy: “Thirty-thousand years ago, our ancestors had been hunched over carving eight-inch-long penises out of siltstone.” What exactly these phallic stone objects were used for is up for debate among various archaeologists, of course (some argue the earliest versions were used to sharpen tools), but their size and shape seem more than a little coincidental.

Many millenniums later, objects clearly designed as sex toys are still veiled behind euphemistic and tongue-in-cheek marketing. Obscenity laws prevented the straightforward sale of sex toys more recently than you might think — a town in Georgia just overturned such a law earlier this year. Early sex toy distributors got around the law by selling their wares as “novelty items” or, in some cases, “marital aids.” (Fair enough.) Even today, the Japanese brand Hitachi won’t acknowledge what its most famous product — the Magic Wand — is really used for.

Hallie Lieberman earned her Ph.D. in media studies from the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where she wrote her dissertation on the history of sex toys — work that informed her new book. Buzz takes readers along for the long, hard journey (sorry, sorry) that led to the creation of the modern sex toy — from early newspaper ads claiming vibrators would help with “indigestion,” to the partnership between a male disability activist and a queer female sex-toy shopowner which resulted in the cuter, purple-er dildos we see so often today.

From the book, I gather that you were surprised by how regressive some of the history of sex toys turned out to be.
I went into the project thinking it’d be a story about the shift from oppression to liberation. It didn’t happen that way. In a way, we were more liberated in the late 1800s and early 1900s, when sex toys were advertised everywhere, like in the New York Times. They were just disguised as other things. When sex toys came out of the closet, or became more openly sold, in the 1960s, they were seen more as dangerous devices — this sort of magic wand that symbolized female liberation. We’re only able to fit them into the culture if they’re representing traditional gender roles. You see that even today. Yes, 50 Shades of Grey was great for publicizing sex toys, but at the end of the day, it’s really a message about a woman submitting to a man, and a man using sex toys on her — not a woman discovering her sexuality independent of a man.

In the book, you have examples of sex-toy ads that appeared in newspapers decades ago, but they were marketed as tools for treating massage or indigestion — was that all euphemism? Did their makers know what they were selling?
There are no records about what the sellers really thought. I’ve been trying to find them for a decade. But what you can infer when you compare these ads to other ads in the early 1900s is that [the ones for dildos and vibrators] were so much more sexual. If you look at other newspaper ads, they did not have women in low-cut tops like they did in vibrator ads. They’re definitely distinguishing it for the consumer that there’s something sex-related there. They also knew they were designing phallic devices that were meant to be inserted in women’s vaginas. I think they must have had some idea.

Why do you think that, as we’ve become more transparent about what sex toys are for, it’s become less likely that we see images of them in public? Like, I would keel over dead if I saw a vibrator ad in the New York Times today.
I think the key as to why it’s still scandalizing and why we can’t put them in the paper is that the idea of female sexual pleasure and female sexuality unmoored from the male is still threatening and still freaks people out. What’s interesting is that you see the Harvey Weinstein story all over the paper. We see stories about women being violated, sexually harassed, raped — we’re okay with talking about women’s sexuality when women are the victims of male sexual predation, because it fits into our idea of women as passive and men as active. But when we think of women as owning their sexuality and having sexual agency and being able to create their own pleasure, that threatens these deeply held beliefs.

It seems like a lot of the sex-toy marketing even now is geared toward reassuring men that they won’t be replaced.
That’s a theme that runs through 500 years of sex-toy history — longer than that, because you see it in Lysistrata. There are two ways that this works: One is that they’re sold as couples’ toys, so you have this big dildo or vibrator and it’s sold as something to enhance partnered relationships. But it kind of strains credulity that that’s why most people buy those things. And then you also have the marketing that says, “This isn’t going to replace him!”

I can’t believe how far back dildos appear in art. I almost expect to read you’d found proof of them on caveman walls.
What’s kind of amazing is that we have evidence of a dildo-like object that’s 28,000–30,000 years old. We think of these things as new, but you see dildos on Greek vases and in Japanese art. This has been a topic we’ve been thinking about for hundreds and thousands of years. I think it’s important to recognize the history because it gives a more nuanced view — this isn’t a sign of the decline of civilization. Dildos have been a part of human culture since the beginning of human culture. They are a tool we humans have used for a very long time, and they need to be taken seriously.

It seems though like there’s this struggle between between taking it seriously but also making it fun and nonthreatening for consumers, but also not infantilizing them either.
There are so many infantilizing toys that look like woodland creatures or cupcakes. There are ones that look like Popsicles and radishes. I’m all for fun in sex toys, but it’s a hard balance to strike. A big part of the problem is the term “sex toy,” because it makes women’s sexuality sound frivolous. A lot of people have been trying to find another term to replace it, but it’s hard. One of the ones we talked about was “pleasure product.”

Watch: An Illustrated 30,000 Year Evolution of the Sex Toy, based on Hallie Lieberman's 'Buzz.'

That seems maybe more embarrassing to say out loud to me. But that’s probably my problem. How does the average person get over their embarrassment over talking about sex toys — or pleasure products — with one another?
Half of Americans say they’ve used vibrators. Knowing that it’s normal should help people get over the embarrassment. But I think the best thing is realizing that we’re okay with talking about Viagra and four-hour erections on national TV. That, to me, is more embarrassing than talking about a sex toy. If we’re willing to talk about male sexuality this way, we should be willing to talk about female sexuality this way. But it’s hard. If you have a hangup about it, it’s hard, or if you were raised to believe masturbation was wrong, it’s difficult to talk about.

Speaking of Viagra — in the book you make the comparison between vibrators and Viagra, wherein both are tools to improve the experience of sex, and you argue that both should be covered by health insurance.
If we’re subsidizing something intended to enhance male sexuality, why shouldn’t we do the same for women? The reason I think we have that double standard is because of the idea that sex should be penetrative between a couple. I think women have the same right to sexual pleasure, and having a health sexuality as men, and that’s what Viagra does for men. Even if you’re making the argument that health insurance should only go toward enhancing coupled sex, which I think is a stupid argument, but even if you are making that argument, vibrators are so commonly used during coupled sex also.

Is there data as to the gender breakdown as to who buys sex toys and who uses them?
There isn’t good data on who the consumers are, but anecdotally, and from visiting a bunch of sex shops, it depends on which kind of sex toy you’re talking about. If you’re talking about ones sold at porn stores, those have naked women on the packages and they have more violent names, like “Anal Intruder” or “Hammer Dick” or whatever. Those are more often bought by men. In the more female-friendly stores like Shag in Brooklyn, or Please in Brooklyn, those are all about women. So I think there’s a mix. I think the male sex-toy industry has a long way to go, and I hope it becomes less of a stigma for men, too.

It was interesting (if not that surprising) to learn that some of the men who got into the dildo-making business were shocked that women didn’t just want dildos that looked like their dicks but longer.
Of course men would assume that women just want a bigger version of their penis. When you have women designing sex toys, they focus on the clitoris much more, and they’re not concerned about length. Women know they don’t want something hitting their cervix. Women care about girth more than length. In my research I saw multiple letters from people talking to [early dildo designers] about this, and saying, “Stop worrying about length.” Many men are obsessed with penis length.

You wrote that “For Dodson [a feminist activist], masturbation was the key to women’s liberation because masturbation was the first stepping stone to sexual freedom.” How does that work? How can such an individual act be political?
Betty Dodson and other feminists argued that women’s sexuality was entwined with economics — the idea was, you got married, and you gave over your sexuality to your husband exclusively in exchange for food and housing and being taken care of. It was an economic exchange. And it’s political because you’re supposed to get all your sexual pleasure from this man. So if you said you didn’t want to get married, you wouldn’t get that sexual pleasure. But if you had a vibrator, you could give yourself sexual pleasure.

The other thing Dodson argued was that masturbation was the way women learned about their bodies and their sexuality, that the state was suppressing women’s knowledge of their sexuality. This was before Roe v. Wade, before birth control was legal if you weren’t married. This idea that women could have sexual pleasure without fear of babies and without being in a relationship — that was very political at the time, and it still is among a lot of people.

I was both frustrated by and sympathetic to the feminist in-fighting around this issue because it strikes me as something that still happens today — men profit while women argue about which goal is the top priority. But Dodson’s position somewhat reminded me of today’s self-care movement, which is on the very individualistic side of things.
That debate — is the personal political? — has been going on in the feminist movement forever. Does change happen in the bedroom or the boardroom? If you’re just sitting at home masturbating, and everyone else is at the Women’s March, what difference are you going to make? I think the two don’t have to necessarily be diametrically opposed. I think what Dell Williams and Betty Dodson were arguing was that once you learn you don’t have to depend on men for your sexual pleasure, you are free to act on your political beliefs.

All too often we say, “Now’s not the time to talk about women’s sexual pleasure. Once we get all the political stuff taken care of, then we can talk about that.” And it’s always pushed back. Even now, you see we can talk about sexual harassment and sexual assault. But women’s sexual pleasure, well, that’s not as important. We can push that back and talk about that later. I think the right to sexual pleasure is a human right. The right to have an orgasm is a human right.

With the rise of Amazon and other stores selling sex toys online, more and more people can buy these products from their own homes. Is that a good thing or a bad one?
I think it’s a mix. I think the good thing about being able to buy sex toys in total privacy is that people may be willing to buy stuff they wouldn’t otherwise, because they’re not afraid of someone witnessing them. But on the other hand, in a sex-toy store, someone might encourage you to try something new, and also give you education and information on it. A lot of times that can’t happen if you’re just doing it online. That said, there are so many customer reviews online. I think the Hitachi Magic Wand has over a thousand reviews on Amazon.

But there’s so much crap on Amazon. A lot of sex toys are cheaply made and even dangerous. If you look at reports from different federal agencies about injuries with consumer products, thousands of people are injured every year from sex toys. A big part of this is a lack of education. Curated sex-toy stores like Good Vibes online and SheVibe are still really important. We still need gatekeepers to make sure consumers are getting the right stuff.

The 30,000-Year History of the Sex Toy