Female entrepreneurs and sex educators were behind the popularisation of sex toys. File image
Female entrepreneurs and sex educators were behind the popularisation of sex toys. File image

#SexColumn: The evolution of sex toys - from shrouds of shame to a symbol for feminism

By Time of article published Jun 25, 2021

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By Sharon Gordon

Sex toys have come a long way since the first recorded phallic-shaped object which by all accounts is from 30,000BC. Yes, you read right, we are not the first to discover the joys of sex toys!

This particular dildo is made out of siltstone and can be viewed at the Natural History Museum in Berlin. It is alleged that they were used for fertility rights and to breach the hymen so there was no fear when penetration was had for the first time. I think it’s the best idea ever – imagine not having any fear about having sex for the first time.

The first vibrator was developed during the Victorian Era. In fact, vibrators were considered a perfectly acceptable household appliance till about 1936. They were the 5th household appliance to be electrified and came before the hoover and the toaster. I think we had our priorities right!

It is alleged that Helena Rubenstein and Elizabeth Arden used vibrators in their health Spas until about 1933. And then the wheels fell off. A vibrator was used in a porn movie, and we lost the protection of called them medical devices.

Since toys have been shrouded in shame, become a symbol for feminism, and were promised to spice up your marriage. In some counties they are still illegal

Despite the first sex toy dating back to the ice age, in some countries today — including Vietnam, Saudi Arabia, and Malaysia — owning a sex toy is illegal. While most of the west don’t have laws against people using sex toys; there is a move in the States to shame the shops selling them by making licensing more difficult and by having to brand the windows with the words ‘Sex Aid!’

in Alabama, US, it’s still forbidden to own a sex toy of any form.

From the 60s to the 2000s, the sex toy has become a symbol for various — and sometimes conflicting — movements. From sex-positive feminism in the 60s, to gay rights in the 80s, and monogamous marriage in the early 2000s.

Sex toys, like any technology, reflect the greater culture. They symbolize politics and in the 1960s and 70s, sex toys became symbolic for the feminist liberation that symbolized women ‘s independence and their ability to give themselves sexual pleasure outside of men — making women feel like they didn’t need to depend on men for anything, be that financially or sexually.

One of the greatest fears we still have today is that sex toys will replace men. It’s a fear as old oas the toys themselves.

Back in 1703, Lord John Wilmot wrote a poem called “Signior Dildo,” elegantly outlining why he was so fearful of the sex toy. Going back even further to 411 BCE, it’s clear dildos sparked worry in men even then. In a Greek play, “Lysistrata,” women go on a sexual strike in order to convince their husbands to end the war, and one woman worries the strike isn’t enough, so replaces her husband with a dildo.

During the feminist wave in the 1960s, research from William Masters and Virginia Johnson, physiology researchers, found that women have stronger orgasms during masturbation than they do during sex. They found that vibrators actually produce more reliable orgasms for women and that really, really threatened men and the whole idea of heterosexual relationships because the whole idea is that the man was supposed to provide women with sexual pleasure.

When sex toys became popular in the ’70s, most companies were owned by men, which was reflected in the design. Sex toys were phallic in shape, with an emphasis on size. This design approach makes no sense when you look at the biology behind arousal for clitoris owners.

They were typically flesh coloured — which meant Caucasian flesh — and focused more on penetration than stimulation, something that’s a focus for female-led companies.

The lack of female influence in the creation and production of sex toys throughout history led to sexist and objectifying industry marketing and an occlusion of female sexuality in the toy design, something many refer to as having a “male gaze.”

Although vibrators existed in the 70s, they were marketed as ‘health products’ rather than sex toys.

Female entrepreneurs and sex educators like Dell Williams (the first woman to own and operate a sex toy company) and Betty Dodson (a sex educator from the 60s) and me, who started Lola Montez a female friendly adult store in South Africa, were behind the popularisation of toys. We focused on stimulating vibrators that came in a variety of shapes and colours — something that proved popular with women.

The shift in sex toy design — from intimidating eight-inch, veiny, Caucasian flesh-coloured dildos to friendly-looking, colourful toys — started in 1965 with a collaboration between Dell Williams and Gosnell Duncan, a paraplegic man who was unable to have an erection after an accident at work.

At first, Williams refused to sell dildos in her store stating anything phallic-shaped was a symbol of the patriarchy — she even banned men from visiting her store, until she was sued and had to let them in. But after Duncan suffered an injury that was detrimental to his sex life, they moved away from the realistic-looking dildos, to more approachable, unnaturally coloured, and smoothly-textured dildos that we have today — they were the first designs to use silicone, a material used in almost every toy today.

Less phallic and more more stimulating is the design choice today. We’ve seen an increase in couple toys from the likes of We Vibe and Satisfier. These are toys that can be worn during penetrative sex.

The latest technology is ‘air wave technology’. It simulates oral sex and Womanizer (the first to market) almost guarantees orgasm. Satisfyer, We Vibe, Lelo and many more have copied the technology and now have their own design. If you feel like a good laugh you should read the review on one such toy.

Don’t forget to watch my video on the evolution of sex toys. Please subscribe, comment and share. I know it’s hard … but we are all sexual being and really shouldn’t be shamed for learning more. I dare you!

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