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Yes, There Are Historical Sex Toys In Museums

Yes, There Are Historical Sex Toys In Museums

Think dildos are a 21st century invention? Nope, our ancestors were pretty horny and there’s archeological evidence to prove it. It might feel strange to think of generations past wielding a sex toy whilst wearing a ruff or toga, but humans have been finding ways to ramp up the XXX factor since before we could say “harder!”. In fact, you might not have spotted them on your past visits, but museums across the world do in fact store examples of what are sometimes delicately described ‘domestic masturbation devices’. Such prudishness in the academic world has often seen the sometimes obvious intended use of such objects ignored in favour of a more safe-for-work explanation. However, these examples really do exist and prove that thirst is eternal. Join us to traverse just some sex toys that have been discovered from days of yore…

 

MY BIG FAT GREEK...

Take a closer peek at the Ancient Greek pots in your nearest history museum and you might just spot a depiction of an “Olisbos”, a dildo-esque object crafted from softened leather, stuffed with wood and polished for a super tactile finish. Their use is depicted as part of various sexual acts, from anal to oral copulation, on the culture’s iconic red and black amphora pots. The Romans weren’t shy of a little visual stimulation, either. So much so that the National Archaeological Museum in Naples actually has a collection, Gabinetto Segreto, or Secret Cabinet, of erotic artworks. Previously kept under lock and key, it includes ancient mosaic peep shows of Pompei and Amphoras (ceramic urns) depicting homosexual sex in action.

The Romans are also believed also to have used various objects, such as carved phalluses made of stone or wood, for sexual pleasure. Not so long ago, a nearly 2,000 year old wooden object was discovered here in the UK and was at first claimed to be a darning tool. However, researchers have revealed it might well be the first known example of a Roman sex toy. Fun fact: they weren’t adverse to wearing cocks, either - penis symbols were often turned into coveted jewellery (we went deep into this trend here!). Bonus: it’s not just a heternormative trend. The British Museum’s collection includes The Warren Cup, a Greco-Roman silver drinking cup featuring a same-sex erotic scene. Acquired for £1.8million, it’s been heralded as a masterpiece - and derided as a forgery, too. Whatever the truth, it’s quite the dinner party conversation starter…

 

I'M YOUR BOY, YOUR 18TH CENTURY TOY

Religious stigmatisation of sex has long lasting effects, and still continues today. However, that doesn’t mean that pleasure was off the menu entirely in the 1800s. You might have seen the social media furore around one of the most intriguing sex toys in an arts collection. The Science Museum in London acquired an 18th century ivory dildo, which features realistic shaft detailing and the ability to manually ejaculate an inserted substance. Aside from being technically interesting, its origin story really gives an insight into the resilience of the female pursuit of pleasure - it was found stuffed inside an armchair in a convent on the banks of the Seine, in Paris… 

Ivory dildo, possibly French, 1701-1800 Science Museum Group © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum

Ivory dildo, possibly French, 1701-1800. Science Museum Group. © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum.

 

STIFF UPPER LIPS (AND BEYOND)

In the 19th century, history saw a new focus for sex toys. You might have heard the oft-repeated story of doctors prescribing use of vibrators to treat female patients’ hysteria. A controversial diagnosis, the condition was used as a blanket term by the male-dominated medical field and symptoms could include everything from depression, mood changes, an enjoyment of writing to sexual desire. A 1999 book popularised the theory that doctors used these devices to massage women’s clitoris to induce orgasm, however, this has been called into doubt in recent years.
Whilst these early vibrators were recommended for use as a hysteria treatment in the 1900s, there is no evidence that it was on an erotic basis - with backs and necks more likely to be focused on officially. That doesn’t mean that unscrupulous doctors didn’t do this (or patients discover this for themselves), of course.

Regardless of this controversy, it’s known that vibrators such as those held by The
Antique Vibrator Museum in San Francisco were marketed as ‘innocent’ body massagers, but quickly became a popular household item for other reasons.




However, the humble dildo wasn't put out of business by the innovations in the vibe department. Despite lacking a motor, the good old 'in and out' method of masturbation remained a winner, with The British Museum in London holding a fascinating example of a  20th century Japanese
dildo box
. Aside from a variety of options for any mood, it displays quite astonishing craftsmanship compared to the rubber wonders at eye level in your local high street’s sex shop. 

 

NAUGHTY NOUGHTIES

Fast forward to the 20th century and beyond, and sex toys have become an integral, and ever-more-accepted element of our sexual life. It’s partially thanks to the democratisation of opinion via social media, increasingly liberal TV programming (hello, Aimee testing toys in Sex Education) and an increasingly sex-positive perspective on how we get our kicks. Inspiringly, our collective fascination with sex continues at a cultural level.  Yes, even the humble Rampant Rabbit is now part of the UK Science Museum’s collection. Want to explore? Why not try: 

  • The Museum of Sex (home of the inflatable boob installation by Bompas and Parr) in NYC hosts contemporary art exhibitions and retrospectives featuring cultural mementoes reflecting an ever-evolving sexual perspective. 
  • Founded by Deborah Sim, Co-Founder and Creative Director of Coco de Mer, The Museum of Sex Objects in London, interweaves storytelling and social history around fascinating objects, the UK Fetish Archive.
  • The UK Fetish Archive documents fetish, kink and BDSM as part of the Bishopsgate Archive, with regular Lates to showcase and explore their physical collection. Date night, anyone?

Despite stigma and shaming, sex toys have been, and continue to be, a constant in human sexual exploration. We salute the cultural collections, both independent and institutional, for ensuring our pursuit of pleasure is documented and preserved for generations to, er, come...

 

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