The History of the Dildo

11 August 2019

Content Warning: pornographic content, sexism and misogyny

Ever wonder how ancient humans passed all those cold nights in stony caves, or when we realised a little added buzz could go a long way? Well, welcome to the history lesson they’re still refusing to teach. From forgotten literary works to surprising archaeological discoveries, it’s clear our ancestors were getting down with their bad selves long before Christian Grey. So, without further ado, let’s jump in our time machine and get ready for the ride of our lives. It’s time to learn about the D™.

Stone Ages

Turns out siltstone isn’t simply good for knapping flints: the oldest known dildo, made of siltstone, is 30,000 years old. It was unearthed in a German cave in 2005, causing quite a stir: archaeologists struggled to find a non-sexual use for the object. Unlike other tools from the Palaeolithic period, this object was “highly polished”, suggesting that this smooth stone phallus was made for starting a whole different kind of fire. Similar prehistoric representations of male genitalia have been found across the globe, many in pieces or worn at the tip from overuse.

Ancient Greece

The ancient Greeks knew all about the joys of olive oil long before Jamie Oliver made it cool, but what they were doing with it was anything but ‘extra virgin’. Olisbokollikes were dildo-like breadsticks used in Greece before the year 5 BC. Before using an olisbokollix to sexually pleasure themselves, ancient Greeks would smear the breadstick with olive oil for lubrication.

References to everything from these breadsticks to double-ended leather dildos can be found in contemporaneous literature and art. For example, A Quiet Chat, a mime by Herodas, features an argument between a group of women about who next gets to use the dildo. The women sing the praises of the almighty leather phallus, its ability to satisfy their sexual needs and that “the men certainly have no rams like those”.

From this early history, dildos could therefore be considered a popular object of empowerment for women, allowing them to take control of and explore their sexuality. Despite their openness, however, ancient Greeks still abided by strict rules of who could use a dildo on whom. As it was considered a “masculine” act, women were not allowed to penetrate men.

Ancient India

This infamous Kama Sutra, believed to have been written around 400 BC to 200 AD, offers wisdom on the art of living well: how to live a life both emotionally and sexually fulfilling. Among detailed descriptions of sex positions lies a brief mention of dildos. Here, men were advised to use strap-on dildos if they found themselves unable to satisfy their sexual partner. In contrast to what might be expected today, there was no implied sense of emasculation associated with the use of these sexual aids. Instead, the ability to satisfy one’s sexual partner by alternative means was often celebrated and encouraged.

Europe, 16th to 18th Century

But here’s where things take a turn for the worst for our good friend The D™. The dildo went from a celebrated aid for sexual fulfilment to an object of fear and scandal.

Here, dildos start to be linked with emasculation (giving Sigmund Freud all the material he would need two centuries later). This anxiety is concisely captured in Thomas Nashe’s 16th century poem The Merrie Ballad of Nash, His Dildo. Being overly excited to see his lover on Valentine’s Day, the speaker ejaculates as soon as he lays eyes on her in the brothel. And, because she’s annoyed, dissatisfied and #feministgoals, the woman reaches under her bed and whips out a dildo. She praises the dildo for always “standing stiff” and never threatening to impregnate her, all while getting herself off in front of her humiliated admirer.

Unsurprisingly, this anxiety contributed to Men™ outlawing the dildo. From 1670, dildos were seized at English customs. Adding to Men™’s fear that the dildo would replace their almighty was the fear that the Englishmen’s cock would be proven inferior to that of the Italian man, as Italy was known to be the biggest manufacturer of the dildo to the point that they were known as ‘Signor Dildo’. Not only were ‘Signor Dildos’ banned, but many Englishwomen were prosecuted for owning and creating makeshift dildos in their absence.

Japan, 17th to 18th Century

On the other side of the globe, erotic pictures and books called shunga were the height of popularity. Shunga depicted men and women in a state of arousal, masturbation and engagement in sexual acts. In one of these images, a group of women can be seen shuffling through a collection of dildos at a marketplace. A few of the friends giggle, while another is seen shifting through the assortment earnestly, telling the storekeeper that “this is a bit small,” and that “I want a big one”.

One thing abundantly clear and in contrast to Europe is that here, dildos were certainly not viewed as a contemporaneous threat. Instead, a rather playful and relaxed approach was taken. But, even after sex toys and shunga were barred in 1722, they both continued to thrive on the underground market.

18th to 19th Century

Another earth-altering creation was born in France, 1734: the Vibrator™.

Plato’s theory of the “wandering womb” believed that the womb sometimes just moved around the body, driving women into hysteria. Hippocrates decided in 5 BC that the best cure was to stimulate their sexual organs and end their sexual deprivation. By the 18th century, doctors were still attempting to cure women deemed “hysterical” by telling them to sleep with their husbands or ride a horse—and if those options weren’t available, they literally took matters into their own hands with a “pelvic massage”.

Cue, le trémoussoir: the first vibrator invented to save doctors’ aching hands. This first design was essentially a large, jolting table which women sat on, and was used from France to the US. In the final years of the 19th century, the invention was made portable by Dr Joseph Granville. Granville’s Hammer (as it was colloquially called) was not only sold to physicians but was also marketed as a “home appliance” which promised to relieve aches, ease pains and enhance beauty.

The ‘60s to Now

And in the 1960s, two important inventions arose: the silicone dildo and the magic wand.

In 1965, Gosnell Duncan revolutionised The D™. After sustaining an injury that left him paralysed from the waist down, Duncan found that he could not find a safe penile substitute. Despite the fact they were sold as medical aids, dildos at the time were low-quality and made out of rubber, meaning that they couldn’t withstand heat or washing. Duncan worked with a chemist to create the silicone dildo, hoping to provide a better and safer option for people with a disability. It took off, and the silicone dildo soon became the immensely popular and inclusive toy that we know today.

Soon after, a Japanese company called Hitachi released their Magic Wand. While originally marketed as a “back massager”, the wand’s attention has generally been directed much lower. The wand was popularised by the sex-positive movement in the late ‘60s, with sex educators such as Betty Dodson outlining how to use the wand to stimulate the clitoris and bring women
to orgasm. The toy has continued to enjoy immense popularity, selling out completely in 2002 after it featured in an episode of Sex and the City. Its success is notable: in 2008, The Scientific World Journal published research which found that 93 per cent of women who suffered chronic anorgasmia (where a person cannot ordinarily achieve orgasm) could reach orgasm using this magical device. And they say that romance is dead.

The takeaway message from all of this? People have been sticking things here, there and everywhere around them way before we even knew what shame was, so there’s no point being a Blushing Betty about it now. Wave your dildo around with pride. Talk to it, nurture
it and tell it a bed-time story. That thing has game, and everyone should know it. And your vibe? Set it on high and enjoy the ride. I don’t know about anyone else, but I thrive on the knowledge that an item that was once used to oppress and demean a women has become a strong source of sexual empowerment (and personally, there’s nothing that does it for me more than the thought of Freud tearing out his hair, staring wildly into the abyss, while screaming “wHaT dO wOmEn WaNt?!”). So, if sex toys were something you’ve ever been curious to try, rest assured that there is (at least) a 30,000-year history of people right there with you: give your curiosity the happy ending it deserves.


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