Far from a modern phenomenon, sex-enhansing, auto-erotic tools and toys have been a part of human cultural development for at least 30,000 years--and probably longer. This article examines the evolution of such devices through the ages.
Whether you're a silent supporter with just one little bedroom buddy hidden in the nightstand, an outspoken advocate with a dozen personal devices you refer to by name, or a dispassionate aficionado with fifty "classics" on display in glass cases, this article is for you!
"Auto-erotic sex toys,” “marital aids,” “b.o.b.s (battery-operated-boyfriends)"--call ‘em what you will, mankind has had a long and illustrious fascination with devices that add excitement to sex. This point is no better illustrated than at the site of a 2,000-year-old brothel recently unearthed in Athens, Greece where a fully-stocked “sex toy” shop (stone vaginal and anal probes, penis paraphernalia, and a variety of lubricants) was discovered. But just how prevalent were sex tools to the ancient Greeks? According to numerous historic texts, sex tools--especially penis-shaped dildos--were so integral to day-to-day Grecian life that they were commonly sold in the marketplace, and men and women took them virtually everywhere they went--even into the afterlife. But far from a phenomenon unique to the Greeks, phallic sex devices were depicted in Paleolithic cave art dating back as far as 30,000 BP (indicating the discovery of sex-enhancing objects ), with the oldest known insertable tool, an 8 1/2" stone phallus, unearthed in Hohle Fels Cave, Ulm, Germany, dated to 26,000 BP--that's during the Ice Age! And comparative evidence from around the world shows that sex toys and tools are common to virtually every known culture on the planet--past and present--from Rome to China, Africa to South America.
Among the thousands of sexually-explicit pieces of art and hard-crafted artifacts left by the ancient Greeks are vases depicting women using oblisbos (auto-erotic stone dildos used presumably for both oral as well as vaginal/anal penetration) [see below]--oblisbo meaning "to glide or slip." In addition to countless ceramic depictions, these handy toys are described in literature of the time and are known to have been commonly given as gifts to women whose husbands were going off to war or who had died. The oblisbo is believed to have been the model for all subsequent dildos created through the centuries.
Beginning about 2300 BP, ancient writings from across the Middle East speak of the transition of olive oil from culinary, medicinal, and ritual uses to that of a sex lubricant (presumably for both men and women), with it quickly becoming a mainstay of brothels, commonly traded in the marketplace. Originally (and mistakenly) touted as a contraceptive, olive oil of varying consistencies and flavors, stored in amphorae like those below, have been discovered throughout the Mediterranean and Middle East in private sex rooms in many brothels and in the bedrooms of wealthy land owners. (One has to wonder if the olive pits were also put to practical use as well!)
Some six hundred years later (1700 BP), penis extender sleeves became commonly used in Asia, and were referred to in several Hindu Sutras of this period. In the Kama Sutra and its companion The Hindu Art of Love, penis extenders were advocated for men needing a longer penis (to satisfy women with large vaginas [yonis]) or to enable impotent men to please their wives (placed over the flaccid penis)--used much like a modern-day strap-on. The Kama Sutra suggests wood, leather, ivory, gold, silver, copper, and even buffalo horn as good natural substances from which to carve them--with hundreds surviving into modern times.
A century or two later the Japanese developed the handy little devices known as Ben-Wa balls. Initially a single, solid spherical orb inserted into the vagina before intercourse to increase sexual stimulation for the man, they evolved into a pair of balls, one solid, one hollow, which when inserted together bump into each other as the woman moves, and meant to be worn throughout the day to bring sustained sexual pleasure. (A variation involved one hollow ball and one half filled with mercury which when placed inside--first the hollow then the half-filled--would gently tap against the inner wall of the vagina.) These balls were crafted of silver, gold, jade, ivory, and numerous other substances--and have enjoyed a resurgence of popularity since rediscovered by the Baby-boomer generation of the 1960s.
It was during the Jin and Song Dynasties of China (800 BP) that the penis or "cock" ring became a popular bedroom accessory across Asia. ("Cock" derived from the erect, strutting behavior of a red-headed rooster.) Documents from the period describe the first rings as being made from the eyelids of goats--with the lashes still intact. The eyelid rings are said to have been tied around a man's erection, with the hardened lashes intended to add additional stimulation for the woman during thrusting. By 400 BP, penis rings were being carved from ivory and were used primarily to help men maintain erections longer. Over the next few centuries, little nubs were added to the ring to act as clitoris stimulators--giving both partners enhanced pleasure and presumably, better orgasms. Penis rings later became status symbols throughout China, with wealthy and prominent men opting for rare and exotic materials to encircle and draw attention to their members.
About 400 years later (400 BP), the term "dildo" made its way into the vernacular of Renaissance Italy, with penis-shaped--often exaggerated-in-size and including testicles--bedroom buddies becoming popular features of boudoirs all across Europe. Linguistically derived from the Greek term "oblisbo" (in Latin, "to open wide,") dildos of this era were commonly made of wood or leather, with diaries from the period explaining that liberal amounts of olive oil were needed for easy insertion. (But considering the number of such tools that have survived, lack of refinement didn't seem to prevent their regular and wide-spread use!)
In 1869 the first vaginal vibrator was introduced. Developed by an American physician, George Taylor, it was a large and cumbersome steam-powered apparatus [pictured below] which made a lot of noise and often malfunctioned at inopportune times. (Not unlike the batteries going dead in a modern "personal massager" while in mid stroke!) It was prescribed for women who were clinically diagnosed with a disorder called, "female hysteria," whose symptoms included anxiety, irritability, "pelvic heaviness," and excessive vaginal wetness--a condition for which doctors had initially hand-manipulated women vaginas (masturbated them to orgasm). This simulated intercourse device was seen as a far more efficient method than manual manipulation as "hysteria" was known to be a recurring condition and "proper" women of the era did not masturbate themselves. It should be noted that this devise was made available to the public during the Victorian Era, an ultra-conservative period of American history, during which rubber dildos and butt plugs were also introduced.
With the advent of rubber and various synthetic polymers (one human-like substance called "cyber-skin"), computerized technology, and other advances of the 19th--21st centuries, virtually any gismo or product thought to increase sexual pleasure has become reality--only limited by human imagination. Countless vibrators and dildos with a vast array of capabilities (ranging in price from a few dollars to around one hundred and sized from tiny bullet-sized to 3' "brutal" models), G-spot stimulators (some that stimulate the anus at the same time), strap-ons, double-headed butt plugs, vacuum pumps (for both men and women), automatic masturbators, life-like vaginas (aka "the sleeve"), and electronic clitoral stimulators can all be worthwhile additions to any bedroom toybox. Additionally, virtual sex has become a reality--even beyond that first introduced by the 1983 cyber-classic Brainstorm--with several reputable electronics companies now offering devices that can be attached to the penis or vagina for virtual sex through Internet connection. Researchers in England are even testing a computer chip that can be inserted under the skin to allow Internet connected individuals to link sexually--the sexual thoughts of one sexually stimulating the other. (Can virtual group-sex be far away?) And most assuredly, if history tells us anything, any number of other new toys and tools are on the sexual horizon.
For all the moral, ethical, spiritual, and religious issues surrounding the use of sex toys and tools, it seems apparent that the pursuit of sex-enhancing devices is not just an enculturated behavior reflecting our fascination with sex, but a culturally-adaptive, evolutionary expression of a hard-wired need to make every sexual encounter count. Do we need toys and tools to make sex enjoyable? Perhaps not. But then again, reproduction is about attraction and the promise of sexual satisfaction. And with a 30,000+ year history of what works, I don't expect the fascination to end any time soon!