The Stimulating History of Sex Toys
August 9, 2021 by Justin Lehmiller
What is the oldest sex toy in existence? Why were butt plugs once marketed as a cure for asthma? Why is it still illegal to sell sex toys in some parts of the United States?
I recently interviewed sex historian and journalist Hallie Lieberman for the Sex and Psychology Podcast to dive into the fascinating history of sex toys (listen to the full episode here). Hallie is author of the incredibly entertaining book, Buzz: A Stimulating History of the Sex Toy.
In this excerpt from our conversation, we discuss the history of sex toys, unusual ways they have been marketed, and the ever-changing legal status of selling sex toys in the United States. Note that this transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Justin Lehmiller: Your book, Buzz, is all about the history of sex toys. Why did you want to dive into this subject?
Hallie Lieberman: It came from my own experience selling them—and my experience in Texas walking into a sex toy store and seeing black bars covering up words like “dildo” and “vibrator,” just like you’d see in a redacted FBI document. That kind of stuff made me think, “where did this come from? Is this recent? Have we always been like this?” And that really led me to dive into the history. I just wanted to know where the story began. That was my question, and no one had that answer.
Justin Lehmiller: So where does the story begin? How long have humans been using sex toys? What is the earliest known sex toy in existence that you were able to discover?
Hallie Lieberman: So the earliest sex toy is 30,000 years old—at least it’s the earliest thing that looks like a sex toy. These are stone tools from 30,000 years ago that were found in Germany, and these were phallic. And, of course, we don’t know how they were used. Some archeologists say they were used as spear sharpeners because they have little marks on the side, but they look like dicks. There’s no reason in my mind for why we need to sharpen spears on dicks. Like, we don’t sharpen knives on dildos in the 21st century, so it was hard for me to believe that’s what they were doing. And some people say that they were actually dildos as well. So that’s the oldest thing that some people are claiming is a sex toy.
Justin Lehmiller: So, maybe they were multi-purpose?
Hallie Lieberman: Well, a vibrator today is sold as a back massager, and you can use it like that. My boyfriend will use my Hitachi Magic Wand on his legs. I’m like, “what are you doing? That’s for my clitoris.” But yeah, they could have been multi-purpose.
Justin Lehmiller: So sex toys, seemingly, have been around for a long time. Of course, as you mentioned, there’s a lot we don’t know about exactly what people were doing with some of these artifacts.
But something else I’m curious about, in terms of you taking this deep dive into the history of sex toys, was there anything that really surprised you over the course of your research? For example, were there any older toys or advertisements for toys that you came across where you were just like, “what the fuck is that?” I say this because when I look at some things in the history of sexual health and wellness products, I have those WTF moments.
For example, Lysol used to be marketed as a feminine hygiene product. They were literally telling women to put Lysol inside of their vaginas—which is a terrible idea. And no one should ever do that. But that’s one of those things that makes me go, what the fuck? So, did you have any moments like that as you were studying and diving into this?
Hallie Lieberman: Oh my God, I had so many of those! So I was in the archives looking at this rectal dilator—they were not called butt plugs—from around 1905 and the advertisement said it would cure your asthma! That was one of those screaming-in-the-archives moments where I was like, “oh my God, people believed this?” I don’t know if people actually believed it, but it looks exactly like a butt plug today—and they would say it would cure asthma and all of your other ails. I also saw an ad that said vibrators cure deafness.
Justin Lehmiller: Wow. I’m pretty confident that butt plugs don’t cure asthma, but fascinating. Part of my sense of this is that there were prohibitions against sexual aids and pornography and all of these other things throughout history. So marketers had to come up with creative ways of getting their products into the hands of consumers, and they would do something along the lines of what you said, where maybe they would tout some type of potential health benefit associated with it so that it was more of a medical product rather than a sexual product.
We saw something similar with pornography, where if it could be argued that it had artistic value, then it wasn’t really porn. When you look at the history of porn, you see a lot of things that were distributed as pornography that were designed and created to give them some artistic elements so it could be argued that it was art and not porn. For example, photos of naked women posing with fishing poles and other things like that. Why would they be posing with a fishing pole when they weren’t really fishing?
Hallie Lieberman: It totally makes sense.
Anthony Comstock, who was working with the postal service, he would look through advertisements all over the country and look to see if he thought something was a sex toy or a contraceptive. And he would raid the offices and shut down the businesses. You had to be super careful. So, yeah, that’s one of the reasons why butt plugs were marketed in this pseudo-medical way. Vibrators, too, absolutely.
And the guy who was doing this, marketing butt plugs this way, he had this theory of the orifice—the orifical theory of health—that everything was connected through our anus, like all of our health problems. But other doctors were like, this is bogus; he’s just using it to sell his rectal dilators. And some people said, oh, he’s trying to promote sodomy. So, there were a few people during his time who were like, wait a second, this is weird. But that was one of the main reasons that they were marketed in a non-sexual way.
Justin Lehmiller: Since you mentioned laws regarding sex toys, let’s dive into that a little bit. I don’t think a lot of people realize that throughout much of history—and even today—that the sale, possession, and use of sex toys has been regulated by law in many places.
I actually didn’t realize this myself until I started teaching human sexuality courses in colleges. Back in the day, I used to have a representative from a company called Pure Romance, which is one of those sex-toy-Tupperware party kind of companies, who would visit my class to talk about sex toys and the reps would tell us how they would have to do totally different presentations in different states in order to avoid being arrested—and it’s not like they were putting on explicit shows or anything.
They’re literally just putting sex toys on display and talking about how they work. It’s not a live sex demo. But in some places, they said they could only have all-female audiences—no men allowed—or they could only have a certain number of toys with them, or they had to talk about the toys as novelty products instead of sex toys.
Can you tell us a little bit more about those laws and whether you can still get in legal trouble today for selling sex toys?
Hallie Lieberman: Today, there’s only one state that has anti-sex toy laws, and that’s Alabama. You can still get in trouble, not for possessing them, but for selling them.
And where I live in Atlanta, three years ago it was still illegal in an Atlanta suburb to possess a sex toy. This woman with multiple sclerosis, who used sex toys and was open about it, actually had to sue the city to get that law overturned. I mean, this is three fucking years ago.
So, it’s very, very recent that we’ve gotten rid of these laws. The time you were teaching, I’m guessing, was this mid-2000s?
Justin Lehmiller: Yes, right around then.
Hallie Lieberman: In that time period, 8 to 10 states had these laws and every law was different. Like in Texas, if you had six or more dildos on you, it was considered intent to sell. And it’s like, haven’t you ever heard of kink?
So there were all of these different laws. And when companies like Trojan, around that time, came out with vibrating cock rings, there were certain states where they just couldn’t sell them, like Colorado and Mississippi. A lot of them were Southern— in Texas, of course, and Alabama. It was really crazy, this patchwork of laws. I mean, this is the 21st century. What were we afraid of?
It’s really disturbing how it’s that recent. And even today there’s still one state where selling sex toys is illegal.
Justin Lehmiller: And there were some people, I believe I read in your book, who even in the 21st century were arrested for violating these sex toy laws, right?
Hallie Lieberman : Yeah, like the woman who worked for my company! I mean, this was 2004, and I read all of these articles—Joanne Webb, I believe was her name—that said, “oh, it was because she wore miniskirts to church and so that’s why she was targeted.” That’s stupid. But whatever. She shouldn’t have been arrested. So, yeah, this was happening. And even if people weren’t arrested—which some were, but not a ton of them—it had such a chilling effect.
I mean, you saw in your classroom, the Pure Romance representative changing presentations for everything. It had that kind of effect. And what it did was lead to poor sex education, more euphemisms, more shame. So even if no one gets arrested from the laws, it affects sexual knowledge and sexual education in a really bad way.
Justin Lehmiller: That is such a brilliant point and beautifully put—the way those laws contribute further to all of this sexual shame that we already have. And when you’ve got these perceived taboos or prohibitions against talking about sex toys openly, that just makes talking about sex in general even more taboo and shameful.
The culture in which we’re embedded plays a really big role in how willing and open we are to communicate about sex and how easy it is to communicate about sex with our partners. So I’m glad to see that the laws have changed, and that for the most part, we can talk about sex toys more openly in 49 states today.
For more on the history of sex toys, check out my full conversation with Hallie here and be sure to check out her book, Buzz.
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Dr. Justin LehmillerFounder & Owner of Sex and Psychology
Dr. Justin Lehmiller is a social psychologist and Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute. He runs the Sex and Psychology blog and podcast and is author of the popular book Tell Me What You Want. Dr. Lehmiller is an award-winning educator, and a prolific researcher who has published more than 50 academic works.Read full bio >