Doin’ It for Themselves: A History of Lesbian Sex Toys

Doin’ It for Themselves: A History of Lesbian Sex Toys

Even among the fragments of the world’s oldest civilizations, archaeologists and historians have found evidence of sex toys designed for the female anatomy. The history of lesbian sex toys is intertwined with the history of all feminine pleasure. Generations of women and transgender people have found all kinds of ways to take care of their sexual desires, far away from the company of cis men, though not without controversy.

While almost every society has developed sex toys in some form, many also condemn their use. Even in the forward-thinking queer community, sex toys can divide, such as when the midcentury lesbian community roiled with debate over dildos.

Fast forward to today, the sex toy industry has gotten much better at serving queer people looking to get freaky. But let’s take a closer look at how we got here, let’s take it back to the beginning: about 30,000 years ago, give or take.

The Earliest Dildos

Many experts believe the first sex toys date back to the Upper Paleolithic period. Archaeological digs in Germany and other parts of Eurasia have uncovered phallus-shaped batons made of bone, ivory, and teeth. There is some debate about whether these relics were actually used as dildos, but there is wide consensus on sex toys that have been excavated in Greece.

Called “olisbos,” ancient Greek dildos were typically made of wood or leather. Plato described a woman's uterus as a “wandering womb” which moved through the body causing havoc. The Greeks believed that women also produced semen, which was released during sex, and that it became toxic if it didn’t have the opportunity to escape. Men leaving for war would present their brides with an olisbos to prevent any “health” issues while they were away.

The Arabian Nights mention women using various fruits and vegetables for sexual pleasure over nine hundred years ago. In the Middle Ages, a root called a “Cantonese Groin” was used, particularly in Asia, as a natural sex toy. In Europe, however, women had to be circumspect about their use of dildos as early court records indicate they were prosecuted for using “implements” for the purpose of “unnatural penetration.”

During the Renaissance, the use of dildos became common in European literature and art. Scholars debate whether our modern term “dildo” derives from the Italian “diletto,” which means “to delight,” or the Latin word “dilatare" (to open wide). Most dildos at this time were made of leather or stone, but the ruling classes fed their fetishes with dildos made of gold, silver, and precious gems.

The use of dildos continued to be a criminal offense in most European countries, and by the 18th century the punishment for using one in an “unnatural act” could be death. Marie Antoinette, much despised by French anti-royalists, was depicted pleasuring another woman with a dildo on the cover of an activist pamphlet in the latter part of the 1700s.

The Sexual/Electrical Revolution

As technology progressed and people were able to produce electricity, the world of sex toys began to open. Finally, there was more on offer than a simple, inert recreation of a penis. Vibrators have existed in many forms, and by the late 19th and 20th century, they were being sold as a home health appliance in the United States.

The French seem to have been captivated by the idea of vibration first, inventing the “tremoussoir” in 1734. The handheld device functioned with a wind-up key. The world’s first steam-powered vibrator was invented by an American in 1869, and the Brits weren’t far behind with Dr. J Mortimer Granville’s electromagnetic vibrator, patented in 1880.

Vibrator as Medical Device: The ‘Hysteria” Debate

All of these vibrators are documented as being used by physicians or sold as health or beauty products. One dominant pop-historical narrative describes doctors treating women with clitoral stimulation to relieve “hysteria.” This theory was popularized by one book, Rachel Maines’ The Technology of Orgasm, and is not likely accurate. Maines’ book was published in 2001, but further research into this theory has poked holes in it.

“I went to the same archives she went to and looked at the same sources,” Dr. Hallie Lieberman, sex toy history scholar, told The Verge, “The sources she cites do say that vibrators were used to treat over 300 hundred diseases, one of which was hysteria, but they never said that vibrators should be used on the clitoris to treat hysteria—or to treat any other disease for that matter. … Plus, her argument hinges on the fact that the vibrators were for women, and they weren’t penetrative. But when you look at pictures of the vibrators and information from that era, they had vaginal attachments and looked like dildos, and were used on men as well as women.”

Lieberman speculates that this myth caught on so quickly because  “it allows people to talk about the pornographic fantasy in public.” She also believes it perpetuates the harmful idea that women of previous generations “weren’t aware of their own sexuality.”

The Vibrator Grows Up

Vibrators might not have been used to bring patients to orgasm in a medical setting, but they were widely sold as at-home relaxation and health appliances. Presumably, women were getting up to some off-label hijinks with the machines in the privacy of their own homes, but the advertisements wouldn’t explicitly say so.

Advertising stopped around the 1920s, however, because it became increasingly difficult to camouflage what women were really doing with their “invigorating and refreshing” little friends.

The rabbit vibrator, which made its first appearance in the 1990s, was a game-changer. It provided both clitoral and vaginal stimulation, vibrating and rotating its way into the beds of millions of happy women, cis and queer alike. In order to by-pass obscenity laws, rabbits are sold in Japan with a bunny face painted on the front.

Lesbians Rejoice as Silky, Sensual Silicone Arrives

As vibrators became cheaper and easier to sell for home use, the invention of rubber in the 1950s led to the explosion of the lesbian sex toys we now enjoy. Silicone meant that dildos could be made in different colors and were no longer confined to the traditional phallus shape. Still, their use was controversial in the lesbian community prior to and during the height of second-wave feminism.

The dildo debates were existential for lesbians, Lieberman explained, and centered on “the idea that a good lesbian was not supposed to use a dildo because it was a symbol of the patriarchy.”

Liberman said this idea started changing in the 1980s, as sex toy design broadened. Today, she said “more lesbians use sex toys than straight women.”

The Next Generation of Lesbian Sex Toys

Today, some of the best sex toys on today’s market are those that are made by and for lesbians, and there is every reason to believe that trend will continue. Modern dildos come in every size, color, and material you can imagine. We have lesbians to thank for strap-on dildos, double dildos, scissoring vibrators, and more.

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