But just how prevalent were sex tools to the ancient Greeks?

It may be hard to believe, but the technologically advanced sex toys of today are merely modern adaptations of objects that have been around for thousands of years. Sex-enhancing, auto-erotic tools and toys have been a part of human existence for at least 30,000 years (probably longer). “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. We will examine the evolution of sex toys throughout the ages.

With the first evidence of sex toys appearing in the archeological record some 30,000 years ago with Ice Age fetish objects made of stone or bone. Records and depictions of sex toy use exist in the artifacts of ancient Greece and Rome. 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) were discovered. 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. 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 – from Rome to China, Africa to South America.

Thousands of sexually-explicit pieces of art and hard-crafted artifacts were left by the ancient Greeks depict women using oblisbos (auto-erotic stone dildos used presumably for both oral as well as vaginal/anal penetration) – Oblisbo means “to glide or slip.”  These handy toys are described in literature and were 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.  Modernized versions of the glass or silicone dildo are easier to clean but still achieve the same results.

The Olive Oil Lube

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, have been discovered throughout the Mediterranean and Middle East in private sex rooms in many brothels and in the bedrooms of wealthy land owners.

The first and most common lubes were made from vegetable oils. Early Greeks used olive oil for just about everything, including lubrication; the first written references to olive oil as a sexual lubricant date back to 350 B.C. Aristotle references the contraceptive powers of olive oil mixed with cedar oil, lead, and frankincense. From Greek texts, we also know that women would also use leather dildos lubricated with olive oil, and it stands to reason that olive oil was probably the go-to lubricant for that time period.

The Romans also used olive oil for sex and masturbation, and like the Greeks, they tried to incorporate contraceptives into their formulas. Pliny, the great Roman thinker, suggested a mixture of olive oil, pigeon droppings, and wine. Olive oil kept its popularity through the 16th century, which, incidentally, is around the time when the word “dildo” entered our vocabulary.

Personal lubricants certainly weren’t confined to the West. In Japan’s Edo period (1603-1868), couples used tororo-jiru, a slick substance made by grating Chinese yams. Early Chinese condoms made from animal intestine or treated linen were often coated with a few drops of vegetable oil to facilitate penetration.

Commercially prepared lubes didn’t become popular until the early 20th century. K-Y Jelly was introduced in 1904 as a surgical product, and it is considered one of the first modern lubricants, as it uses a base consisting of methyl cellulose and other ingredients commonly found in newer water-based products. While it was not marketed for sexual use, its manufacturer began offering a non-sterile version for non-surgical use.

The sexual revolution of the 1960s made lubricants and other products more socially acceptable, and manufacturers like K-Y quickly shopped their products to a new audience. The lubricant industry gained steam in the 1990s and 2000s, and the market now features hundreds of specially formulated products designed to please different types of users.

Modern lubricants are much safer than their forebears and much less likely to cause infections or to foster microorganism growth. We’ve certainly made major advances since the days of olive oil and tororo-jiru, and personal lubricants will continue to help people enjoy themselves in safe, new, and exciting ways for centuries to come – our modern lubricants and condoms.

Hysteria Brings About the Vibrator

The first mechanical vibrators appeared in Britain and the United States during the late 19th century, and the 20th century saw a proliferation of these devices. Of course, “sex toy” is a contemporary term that reflects these objects’ current status and usage; until the middle of the last century, vibrators in particular were created and marketed as medical devices for the treatment of a medical condition called, “hysteria” in women.

On the basis of Victorian gender distinctions, it was common for female patients to be diagnosed as suffering from hysteria. With so little power, control, and independence, depression, anxiety, and stress were common among Victorian women struggling to cope with a static existence under the thumb of strict gender ideals and unyielding patriarchy.

As you might expect, people in socially conservative societies were less likely to use lubricants (or, at least, less compelled to write about it). In the 19th century, gynecologists prescribed pelvic massages to women who couldn’t produce enough natural lubrication. The physician would massage the woman’s clitoris until she had an orgasm, at which point she was pronounced cured. These massages were also the go-to treatment for women who suffered from “excessive” lubrication, which is something of a testament to the repressive atmosphere of the time period.

During this time period it was common for women to visit doctors’ offices, spas, and springs retreats for hysteria therapies. These involved the stimulation of a woman’s clitoris until she entered a state of “hysterical paroxysm” (what we recognize today as orgasm) thereby releasing the tension that was causing her symptoms. By the latter half of the 19th century, hysteria treatment was a big business, complete with its own set of occupational hazards. Doctors treating hysterical women complained of repetitive motion injuries and bemoaned the amount of time necessary to bring some patients to climax. The vibrator was first developed as a tool to alleviate fatigue and quicken treatments, with the ultimate goal of increasing the ease and profitability of a physician’s practice. Out of this milady, the mechanical vibrator was born.

Sleeves, Extenders and Cock Rings

At around 1700 BP, penis extenders and 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.

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.

Modern Apps and Devices

As electricity entered more American homes at the turn of the 20th century, so did plug-in vibrators. They were advertised in plenty of women’s magazines and sold through the Sears & Roebuck catalogue, but were marketed as relaxation aids. The gadget’s real purpose was exposed in the first pornographic movies of the 1910s and ‘20s, eliciting some public backlash. Vibrators remained taboo until their triumphant return in the 1960s and ‘70s, thanks in part to the women’s movement. The Hitachi Wand is a modern version.

The groundbreaking HBO series “Sex In the City” ignited our love of Manolo Blahniks, Cosmos and . . . the Rabbit Vibrator. In a 1998 episode, prudish Charlotte forms a special relationship with her new toy, which eventually leads to an intervention. The storyline sent sales of Vibratex’s Rabbit vibrator (the dual-action vibe features ears that tickle the clitoris and a rotating shaft) soaring.

In 2009, Apple began approving adult applications, with MyPleasure.com’s MyVibe believed to be the first X-rated iPhone add-on. It allows you to control your cell’s vibrations (from short, quick pulses to longer, slower ones), but the iPhone’s oomph may not be powerful enough to produce an orgasm. As for the future of sex toys, We-Vibe’s (We-Vibe 4 Plus) and Lelo (Siri 2 Musical Vibe) are top manufacturers of computer-connected vibrators for long-distance lovers and vibes that are controlled with voice commands or music.

Sources:
“Restoring Perspective”
Vintage Vibrator Museum
“Sex Aids Through the Ages”

* This blog was updated on September 2, 2022 to remove or update links and information.

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