A Brief History of Sex Toys

By Angela Kempf

The sex toys you can find today offer state-of-the-art conveniences. Features like oh-so-soft silicone, clitoral suction, travel locks, and rechargeability prove that sex toys, and vibrators specifically, are more modern than ever before. But sex toys have been around for a long time. Your ancestors from years ago may have found toys that enhance sexual pleasure just as empowering, fun, and handy as you do.

The history of sex toys is fascinating. So, let’s talk about what came before the ever-popular rabbit.

How Dildos Got Their Start

The oldest sex toys on record date back 30,000 years ago. Yes, dildos from the paleolithic period exist. Historians have often dreamed up alternative purposes that the ancient dildos could have served. But, chances are, they functioned at least partially as erotic enhancements.

It makes sense that sex toys have been around for so long. Psychologists often rate the need for sexual satisfaction as similar to the need for food, air, and shelter. So, once people had stable housing and a steady supply of food, it’s understandable that next on their to-do list was to create mechanisms for pleasure.

The original sex toys weren’t made from silky silicone. In fact, some of the first materials used are rather surprising. Folks from ancient times made dildos out of whatever materials were around at the moment—like chalk or even a stale baguette.

Myths Cloud the History of the Vibrator

Many people believe that medical doctors used vibrators during the Victorian era to cure hysteria. Surprisingly, this is a myth. The truth is much more empowering.

A doctor did invent the first vibrator, but its intended use was as a treatment for certain ailments for men. The doctors knew that using vibrators on women would cause arousal, so they avoided it. When doctors started promoting vibrators for sexual purposes, they targeted men as consumers. This was, of course, because women who masturbated were seen as a danger to society.

In the end, women saw the potential for vibrators to provide sexual satisfaction, and they did not need a doctor to explain it to them. The idea that men have known more about women’s bodies than women do is pervasive, but it is also inaccurate. Women sought out pleasure for themselves, throwing cultural expectations to the wind.

Modern Definitions of Sex Toys

Society’s definition of a sex toy versus a medical device continues to be misogynistic. Male libido enhancers are branded as medical necessities. Penis pumps are called medical devices—meaning you can buy them with an HSA. Products geared toward women’s sexual arousal are called “novelty items” or “toys,” and you better believe you can’t buy them tax-free. In some states, you can’t buy them at all.

Though we have made progress towards sex-positivity, sex toy use is still not an easy topic to broach. The lingering stigma means that, while most people use sex toys, they aren’t comfortable admitting it. The numbers don’t lie: the majority of women use and enjoy sex toys. If people spoke up about what they keep in their nightstands, sex toy stigma wouldn’t be so powerful.

Sex Toys Have Come a Long Way

The sex toys available today are as varied as the interests they cater to. Virtual reality sex toys are gaining traction. Other technologies like thrusting dildos and face strap-ons accommodate people with disabilities. But there is still a long way to go.

Sex toys aren’t regulated by the FDA since they are not considered medical devices. Toxic products abound. Unfortunately, this means you have to take safety into your own hands. When you select sex toys, it’s up to you to ensure they’re body-safe.

With any luck, future lawmakers will see that sexual pleasure is a health and wellness issue for all genders—not just for men. Perhaps then the FDA will regulate sex toys, and you won’t have to worry about your body absorbing toxins. Until that day comes, stay informed, and shop at stores that only sell body-safe products.


About the Author

Angela Kempf is a Denver-based writer whose sex education and travel writings have been published on a number of notable online publications. She can most often be found with her nose in a book, eating tacos, or writing feminist erotica.