From Breadsticks to Camel Poop: A Queer(ish) History of Dildos

Strap on in—it’s a long ride.

If sex work is the oldest profession, then dildosmith must serve as a close second. While the constant technological innovation around sex toys might seem like the product of a fairly sexually liberated society, the low-tech toys we lovingly call dildos are part of a long, proud lineage stretching back tens of thousands of years ago.

From a polished Paleolithic penis stone to modern silicone styles, our stalwart friend the dil’ has taken many shapes over its 30,000-year existence. Let’s explore some of the highlights.

The OG Paleo Diet

We might think about the Stone Age as a thoroughly depressing time in which our ancestors did nothing but hunt, eat, and fuck. But lo! There was much more of an emphasis on “fuck” than many of us realize. Paleontologists found a long, polished dildo dating back to the Paleolithic era, meaning that cave ladies weren’t just staring at the floor while their mates were out hunting. Nor were they waiting to be dragged by the hair into a cave (though I’m sure hair-pulling was part of somebody’s good time).

This prehistoric dil is our sex equivalent of the cave paintings, but in this case, we’re dealing with a different Cave of Wonders.

Sharing Is Caring

The Greeks and Romans had a complicated relationship with the phallus. At once worshipped and mocked, male genitalia was considered all-powerful yet grotesque, belonging to the realm of mischief and mayhem. If you’ve ever wondered why Greek and Roman statues feature such underwhelming displays of manhood, it’s because a huge cock was considered comical.

Priapus, the Greek God of fertility, agriculture, and the penis (nope, I’m not kidding), was largely a mischievous, comic figure. Like Pan and his Satyrs, the lore surrounding Priapus was all about the large-dicked God pulling one over on the ladies, in a way that, today, comes across as distinctly rapey. Still, there’s all the evidence in the world that Greek and Roman ladies loved their dils.

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The double-ended dildo? A Roman invention, of course. There was a quite-queer culture of dildo-sharing that took place between women of certain stature, and when men went off to war they would even gift their women with dildos to satisfy them while they were gone, just in case you’re wondering where the inspiration for “Lysistrata” came from. We’re thinking this probably caused problems for men who came back expecting a warm welcome only to find their wives holed up in bed like Charlotte with her rabbit vibe in Sex and the City.

The Ancient Greeks and Romans were also famous for their orgies and creative ways to enjoy sex in public. Combining food and sex was a wonderful Roman pastime, but not quite as wonderful as the Greek invention of olisbokollix, or “bread dildos,” which would be slathered in olive oil for easy entry, if not quite ribbed for her pleasure. Good luck keeping a straight face at Olive Garden from now on.

Til’ Death (dil)Do Us Part

The Egyptians loved to carry around dildos made of dried camel dung and preserved in resin, but there’s little evidence that they carried their sex toys into the afterlife with them. The unearthed tomb of a 2nd-century Han dynasty royal revealed that large jade dildo buried among his effects, along with other instruments of sexual pleasure, then considered necessary tools for the afterlife. Listen: ghosts need to get off, too.

Keep Kama Sutra and Carry On

While the famous ancient Sanskrit sex guide-cum-self help book known simply as the Kama Sutra may be the most well-known ancient erotic text, but it certainly isn’t the only classic text to touch on the subject of dildos, of course. Everyone from Plato to Shakespeare covered dildos in their writing, if scantily. In “The Shoemaker,” a dialogue by Herodas, two women discuss a “red-stitched dildo” that they’ve been passing around, with one woman remarking of her enemy, “I wouldn’t give her a rotten dildo, no, not even if I had a thousand!”

The Italian writer Aretino, one of the first (and finest) writers of modern erotica, talks about nuns using dildos for sexual relief in the 1500s in “The Secret Life of Nuns.” The famously raunchy 17th-century poet John Wilmot, the Second Earl of Rochester, wrote frankly about dildos, bolding naming one of his attributed poems “Signior Dildo.” It’s about—you guessed it!—a horny Italian beloved by every woman he meets.

Wilmot wasn’t the only horny one in merry ol’ England. During the 1700s, the criminalization of dildos and sex toys would lead savvy Brits to stealthily make their own, while the noblewomen of Japan enjoyed similar pleasures, many of them well-documented in the shunga art of the time.

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Titans of Industry

The Industrial Revolution, which started in 1760 and continued for the following 60-80 years, necessitated the invention of almost all the wonderful things we take for granted today. That includes electric light, central heat, modern plumbing, and most importantly, battery-operated vibrators. This electric sensation—rumored to be conceived of by Cleopatra way back in the day—changed the game for good, forcing the humble dildo to come out of its shell and adapt to modern-day needs.

The 1800s ushered in another crucial development in dildo history: the process of rubber vulcanization, by which the material is made more elastic and supple. This paved the way for many 19th- and 20th-century inventions, the most important being the hygienic (and much more comfortable) rubber dildo. The tire company Goodyear brought this practice to light in 1844, shortly after which rubber dildos and butt plugs started being sold commercially (advertised, of course, as “dilators”).

A Very English Sex Ring

The Victorians had their share of sex scandals, including but not limited to the notorious Cleveland Street affair of 1889, which caused the Crown to crack down on anti-homosexuality laws. Though dildos weren’t involved (that we know of, at least), the scandal connected group sex to some of the most prominent political figures of the day, including the “ardently heterosexual” Prince Albert Victor of Wales.

In the words of famously sex-positive Victorian Oscar Wilde, “the only way to get rid of a [10-inch] temptation is to yield to it.”

Pussy’s Out of the Bag

After the “female hysteria” craze of the pre-Freudian era, men and women were starting to accept that sex might not be such a terrible thing after all. At least, not terrible enough to warrant the use of so many Victorian anti-masturbation devices. In the late 1890s, several devices like “massagers,” and a steam-powered monstrosity known simply as “The Chattanooga,” helped doctors “examine” female patients by way of genital stimulation. If that sounds fishy, that’s because it was. In an era where doctors didn’t seem to believe that women were people, or that men should masturbate, sexual health and education were seen as solutions to the “problem” of sex, which many doctors believed to be a deadly one.

By the 1920s, of course, everything changed. The famously decadent society described by writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and John Dos Passos led to a much franker relationship to sex. That didn’t mean, of course, that women weren’t slut-shamed to the ends of the earth when they so much as looked in a guy’s direction. It did mean, however, that the dildo had a literary renaissance of sorts, showing up in works—and very queer contexts—ranging from Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer to Hemingway’s own The Garden of Eden.

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Groovy, Man

After the sexual revolution of the 1960s, dildos and vibrators could finally start to be advertised as what they were: sex toys, not “massagers” or “stress relievers.” Actual instruments that you buy in order to get off.

Of course, this didn’t mean that the road ahead wasn’t bumpy for sex toys and their buyers. While feminist sex stores and queer sex toy purveyors were popping up in the 1970s to meet a newly liberated market of young women and men, large parts of America were simply not cool with this. Even today, in some towns in Georgia and Alabama, anti-obscenity laws actually forbid the sale of sex toys, creating yet another reason for young people to flock to the coasts.

Sex Toys of the Future

In a post-Sex and the City age, we tend to take our sex where we can get it. In the air, on the ground, in the bathroom, at an Emoji Movie screening. This means that dildos and vibrators have changed to meet the needs of the working millennial on the go. A dildo that looks like an alien? Check. A rhinestone-studded, celebrity-endorsed vibrator that fits in your purse? Check. A toy that doubles as a necklace? De rigueur.

As sex toys come, go, and adapt, one thing remains certain: We’ve come a long way from having to sit on the washing machine like Betty Draper. Unless that’s your thing, in which case, totally cool.

Henry Giardina is a writer living in Los Angeles.
@punkgroucho