The sex toy seems like a relatively new invention in society. After all, it’s a bit weird to think that these things may have existed during our parents’ and our grandparents’ time. In fact, they have been around for thousands of years. So not just your grandparents, but even your most distant ancestors had access to sex toys.
Today, the use of sex toys worldwide has never been higher. The global sex toy market is only expected to keep growing, increasing by 9% to reach around $52.7 billion by 2026.
Not only are people buying more of these devices, but it’s also easier than ever to get one. eCommerce platforms like Amazon sell every kind of toy imaginable, so the thrill of owning one is just a few clicks and a short wait away.
But who invented them, and how did they come to be in existence? It turns out, the history of toys like the dildo is much longer than most people know (yes, pun intended).
Several years ago, archeologists unearthed evidence that suggested people from 2,000 years ago might have enjoyed using accessories during intimate activities. Researchers found phallic-shaped bronze dildos and jade butt plugs from the Han dynasty, the second imperial dynasty of China that ran from 202 BC to 220 AD.
According to Yizheng Museum exhibition curator Fan Zhang, these objects weren’t always used for sexual purposes. For instance, the butt plugs were originally intended for sealing up a corpse to prevent nasty leaks.
However, Zhang did clarify that people still used dildos and the like. “Usable bronze dildos are still relatively rare finds, though far from unheard of, and they are occasionally found in elite tombs. They were all definitely made for use, and we can speculate based on their various bases how they were worn.”
“They’re all bespoke, and the ones we have here might have been laced into place with leather or silk thongs, though it’s not clear if they were designed for men or women — they’re not heavy at all — though the phallus without the ring form was likely for a man since it was found in a king’s tomb.”
Talk about getting kinky during ancient times!
The Ancient Greeks, on the other hand, had to get creative when they wanted to spice things up. Since there weren’t many options for sex toys, so they had to make do with what was there: bread.
According to Vicki Leon, the author of The Joy of Sexus: Lust, Love and Longing in the Ancient World, both men and women used this biodegradable sexual aid. She describes the origin of the breadstick dildo, which started in an ancient bakery with a girl who had a creative mind and plenty of time to spare. After experimenting with the bread dough, she created the olisbo-kollix: the breadstick dildo.
In those days, folks didn’t categorize themselves neatly into heterosexual, bisexual, or homosexual — they just did what was pleasurable for them. Not only were they resourceful, but they were also environmentally responsible!
Kofun Period, Japan
Around 500 AD, during the Kofun period of Japan, another erotic invention was created. Enter Ben Wa balls, which are tiny weighted metal balls that contained mercury. This made intercourse more pleasurable for males as the mercury caused sensations that led to orgasm.
Women eventually caught on and created larger balls to move around freely inside the vagina. The constant massaging of the vaginal walls meant more intense feelings during sexual arousal.
Also called love balls, Benoit balls, and other names, this sex toy is still very popular today — minus the mercury, which is now known to be toxic. Modern Ben Wa balls are made of metal, plastic, latex, glass, or even jade.
Beginners can start with smaller balls before upgrading to larger, heavier ones. And while people mostly use them at home, some are daring enough to use them out in public!
The Italian Renaissance did not just produce some of the age’s finest art and cultural contributions. It also created some of the first literary pornography in Pietro Aretino’s work Dialogues, where the first reference to the modern-day dildo appears.
It stems from the Italian word “diletto,” meaning “delight.” Hot and bothered Italians also used olive oil as lubricant! While the diletto was nowhere near as comfortable as today’s well-designed models, it still proved to be quite popular and showed no signs of slowing down.
The 18th and 19th Centuries
Sex toys during the 18th and 19th centuries started to become more technologically advanced. In France, the clockwork vibrator or the “tremoussoir” was invented. It was a handheld device that functioned using a wind-up key, purchased mainly by physicians to treat a condition called “female hysteria” — otherwise known as being horny.
Fast-forward to the 1880s in Great Britain. At the time, a doctor named Joseph Mortimer Granville invented a device meant for men to treat pain and other ailments. This would eventually become the first electric vibrator. Contrary to popular belief, he did not create the vibrator to treat women’s hysteria. It was meant to cure tuberculosis and eliminate wrinkles, among other uses.
But this didn’t mean that people were oblivious to how the device was capable of causing sexual excitement. Folks probably caught on and had a few ideas on how to use their vibrators for a different kind of relief (wink, wink).
The 20th Century to Present Day
By the turn of the last century, more than a dozen sex toy models were available. These devices were primarily vibrators powered by electricity, hand cranks, water-power, or batteries.
For most of the first half of the 1900s, vibrators continued to be advertised strictly for massages on less sensitive body parts. It wasn’t until the 1950s and 1960s that the vibrators familiar to us today started becoming more mainstream. They were openly sold on the market, but not without some controversy.
When the 1980s rolled around, Japanese company Vibratex boldly went where no other company selling vibrators had gone before: It released The Rabbit, which provided both clitoral stimulation and vaginal penetration.
Their toys were shaped like animals since they technically weren’t allowed to sell outright sex toys. The stigma surrounding vibrators and other sex toys continued to diminish from that point on, and today’s technology makes it easier than ever to have a great experience with any of these devices.
Breaking the Taboo
Even though sex toys are more widely accepted today, they are still considered a bit taboo, even in cultures that are considered more progressive. This is especially applicable to conversations that revolve around women’s sexual and reproductive health.
Case in point: It took sex toy company Dame a three-year lawsuit against New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority before they could finally display their ads for female pleasure on the subway. When compared to an approved ad depicting erectile dysfunction using an image of a cactus, there seem to be more hurdles to jump through.
However, this isn’t to say that there is no progress. The way we discuss things like menstrual health, menopause, and even fertility are approached more openly. But the topic of pleasure still seems to be an inappropriate one.
Perhaps this is because anything sexual is regarded as an intimate act, so discussions on what goes on in the bedroom are expected to be private. However, this doesn’t have to mean that talking about pleasure should be completely off the table.
There are many good reasons to normalize having safe and open conversations about how to live a healthy and satisfying sexual life. This may include being more informed and understanding one’s personal preferences and boundaries. Whether that involves sex toys or not is up to you.
The Benefits of Sex Toys
We can start these conversations by talking about the benefits that sex toys have on an individual’s sex life and health. Here are some ways that sex toys can have a positive impact:
Sex toys lead to more sexual satisfaction. Folks who have used sex toys report having better quality orgasms and masturbation, leading to better overall satisfaction with their sex life. Toys allow you to explore and experiment with your body to understand what brings you pleasure and satisfaction.
Sex toys can boost sleep quality. Sex and masturbation release feel-good chemicals in the brain, such as oxytocin and endorphins. Both of these can relieve stress and help people feel calm. Using a toy can help you reach orgasm more effectively and improve your sleep quality overall.
Sex toys help boost one’s confidence. Sex toys allow you to get intimate with yourself. This contributes to a greater appreciation of your body and feeling more positive about your appearance.
Sex toys improve relationships. Sex toys are a great way to incorporate variety in bed. Using these devices can help couples communicate their desires more clearly and experiment, leading to more openness and trust.
As history shows, toys have always added an exhilarating thrill to people’s lives. Whether they are openly accepted or not, finding ways to add pleasure and satisfaction to our sexual experiences is here to stay. The good news is that more people are becoming curious and experimenting with novel ways to do so, including buying and using sex toys.
And if there’s anything that these toys can teach us in sex and love, it’s that there are other exciting possibilities waiting for us on the other side.