There is a space that exists between art and sex and it is one in which argument is a cornerstone. Categorical imperatives are constructed, morality is questioned, and artistic integrity (or lack thereof) is thrown into sharp relief. One object that resides in such a space is the "sex toy," but this was not always the case. In fact, to even utilize the word “toy” renders its history inane and its previous purposes, nonexistent. For before it became the sex toy as we now know it, it was a siltstone phallus of dubious utility, a phallic charm used to ward off evil spirits, a statue meant to promote fertility and, perhaps most notoriously, a device intended to quell “female hysteria.”
Up until 1952, which is when the American Psychiatric Association officially dropped the term from its books, it was a medical diagnosis for symptoms that included fainting, anxiety, sleeplessness, irritability and nervousness. Yes! What we now know as horniness was believed to be an ailment belonging to the triad of “hysteroneurasthenic disorders.” And what we now know as an orgasm was referred to as a “hysterical paroxysm of relief.” To paraphrase Dorothy Parker, (1893 ― 1967) in what fresh hell did these gems originate?
Before “hystera” became the Greek word for uterus, men like Plato posited that the womb was an animal that goes "wandering in every direction through the body, closes up the passages of the breath, and, by obstructing respiration, drives them to extremity, causing all varieties of disease.” This same womb, which Naomi Wolf references in The Beauty Myth (1990) is also “what the older religions feared as the ‘insatiable cunt.’” As a result, an androcentric model was adhered to for millennia, culminating in the particularly cruel practices of cliterodectomies and chastity belts.
Far less cruel, but equally insane, was George Taylor’s steam-powered vibrator called the Manipulator followed by Dr. Joseph Granville’s electromechanical vibrator. Though both are almost laughable in their provincially fueled purposes, they are almost beautiful in their complex machinery, and almost art in their purported support for progress and evolution. It is a shame that what could have otherwise been seen as products reflecting the twin triumphs of human spirit and mind, were constructed out of fear and folly.
During this time in which, as Wolf writes, “ancient medical attitudes…reached its high point in the Victorian cult of invalidism, which defined normal, healthy female physiological drives and desires as pathological,” the aforementioned vibrator was widely-regarded as a hysteria aid. But, it wasn’t long before alternate marketplaces caught on to the existence of this instrument, which has since assumed a variety of iterations from marital aid to beauty aid. Just as “sexuality follows fashion, which follows politics,” according to Wolf, the use-value of sex toys has a long history of being predicated upon socioeconomic and political variables. So when the vibrator entered the consumer marketplace in the beginning of the 20th century, women’s magazines lauded it as a general health and beauty cure-all.
In scholar Rachel Maines' 1999 book The Technology of Orgasm she writes that the vibrator also “began to be marketed as a home appliance through advertising in such periodicals as Needlecraft, Home Needlework Journal, Modern Women, Hearst's, McClure's, Woman's Home Companion, and Modern Priscilla.” But when vibrators began to appear in porn films in the 1920s for non-medical purposes, they disappeared from both physicians’ offices and the pages of respectable magazines. And, though a line was permanently crossed, it would take a few more decades, a cataclysmic war, and a sexual revolution for society to come to terms with this.
One of the tokens of the sexual revolution was Hitachi’s Magic Wand. Initially advertised as a device to aid with massage techniques, it was soon appropriated by the American artist and sex educator Betty Dodson as a device to aid with the stimulation of sex organs. Though in many ways a totally revolutionary act and a major step forward for feminists, certain toys contemporaneous with the Cadillac of vibrators were criticized by certain feminists for paying too little mind to female erogenous zones and for being phallocentric. It would take another few decades of women entering the workforce, assuming positions of power, and attempting to dismantle an outdated patriarchal system for The Rabbit to rear its multimodal self into the marketplace.
What made The Rabbit vibrator so groundbreaking (other than it infiltrating one of America’s top premium cable and satellite television networks by way of Sex and the City) was its dual function. By attaching a clitoral stimulator to a shaft, the market was, in effect, disavowing the centuries-old paradigm that put men and their members on a societal and sexual pedestal. “The role of the clitoris in arousal to orgasm,” writes Maines, “was systematically misunderstood by many physicians, since its function contradicted the androcentric principle that only an erect penis could provide sexual satisfaction to a healthy, normal adult female.” We now know this to be utter bullshit. While some women are able to plateau from vaginal stimulation, others are only able to from clitoral stimulation. Satisfaction is spawned by a whole array of shapes and sizes.
One particularly unique shape and size is the Ovipositor, which, brace yourselves, lays gelatin eggs in the body cavity of your choice. Yes, the dynamic duo that is a hollowed-out dildo and extraterrestrial ovum has attracted all sorts of people who dig things that many societies would deem abnormal. And though it’s a lesser-known fetish, it’s certainly not the only weird (and kind of wonderful) sex object of its kind. The marketplace now caters to a seemingly infinite list of sexual compulsions. Praise be.
Since the first peer-reviewed study on vibrator use in 2009, in which 53 percent of American women and 45 percent of men have used a vibrator, we have come a long way. Though there are still backward-peddling politicians and staunch conservatives who wish to ban the sale of sex toys, they are being met with increasing dissent. The history of the “sex toy,” it seems, mirrors that of sexually subversive art a la Robert Mapplethorpe, Aubrey Beardsley and Wolfgang Tillmans. Both provoke argument; both threaten to destabilize the entrenched establishment; and both recognize pleasure, in all its variations, as a vital part of the human condition.