Should you try a sex toy this Valentine’s Day?

Sex toys have become more popular, thanks to ’50 Shades of Grey.’ Is there a place for them in your bedroom? Read on to find out

Should you try a sex toy this Valentine's Day?

Source: Best Health magazine, January/February 2013; Image: Thinkstock

What should I ask my husband to get for me this Valentine’s Day? Flowers? Dinner out? Or some ‘You. Are. Mine.’ metal handcuffs, courtesy of the new sex toy collection based on Fifty Shades of Grey?

I personally don’t think I’d like to be paddle-spanked or locked to bedposts, but apparently a gazillion women have suddenly discovered these possibilities for fun. And business in sex aids and props is bullish.

The Fifty Shades line by U.K. company Lovehoney launched in November, and includes the ‘Submit To Me Beginners Bondage Kit,’ the ‘Sweet Sting Riding Crop’ and the ‘Twitchy Palm Spanking Paddle.’ Each product includes a quote from one of the Fifty Shades trilogy (by British writer E.L. James), in case customers forget why they would want it: Slowly, he slides the mask onand I’m blind, reads the text accompanying the ‘All Mine Deluxe Satin Blackout Blindfold.’ Then there’s ‘Spank me, please’Sir,’ I whisper. That goes with the aforementioned Twitchy Palm item, if you hadn’t guessed.

Women who aren’t into this stuff are nevertheless feeling more comfortable in general about bedroom playthings, to judge by the success of products like ‘We-Vibe.’ This is a vibrating thing invented by an engineer in Ottawa, and it’s selling like hotcakes. A silicone-encased, C-shaped contraption that simultaneously massages the clitoris and the G-spot during intercourse, We-Vibe claims ‘to give pleasure to the man, as well. It looks kind of like a hair clip. Only, not.

Another hard-to-describe Canadian invention you might ask for this Valentine’s Day is the ‘Magic Banana,’ which looks nothing at all like a banana and more like the handle of a purse. Anyway, it’s a loop. ‘Squeezing action on the loop provides a unique and pleasurable way to build your inner strength,’ says the website, ‘while the curve gives extraordinary stimulation for your G-spot.’ In other words, it can be used for doing Kegel exercises and as a sex toy. That must be why it’s ‘magic.’

This upsurge of interest in enhancing our sensual lives got me thinking about the history of sex toys. Traditionally, at least in Western culture, women themselves have been the sex toy. Not long ago, the idea they might want to be spanked or vibrated for sexual pleasure was more or less unheard of. It is, indeed, a peculiar fact that the most sexually satisfied women through large swaths of history were religious celibates and widows. Why? Because physicians from the fifth century BC onward, according to historian Rachel Maines, regularly diagnosed such women with ‘hysteria.’ It was considered a disease related to sexual deprivation in the absence of marriage’which, today, we might call sexual frustration’that could be ‘treated’ by massaging of female private parts, either by a midwife or a physician. (There was a 2011 Maggie Gyllenhaal film called Hysteria on this very subject.)

Hippocrates was the first to diagnose hysteria in 450 BC. A little later, Plato and his ancient Greek brethren believed hysteria had to do with the uterus somehow creeping and wandering all about the body like an escaped amoeba, threatening strangulation as it entered the windpipe, as described in Plato’s famed dialogue Timaeus. It appears to have never occurred to male physicians that the ‘treatment’ they administered was a sexual act; they thought women were capable of actual sexual pleasure only during intercourse with their husbands.

Even Freud, who thought this ‘hysteria’ was related to repressed and childish sexual fantasies, assumed female desire was pathological unless it was expressed through intercourse. (My personal wished-for sex toy, Viggo Mortensen, stars as Freud in 2011’s A Dangerous Method, which explores this subject well.) And here is French psychologist Jean-Michel Oughourlian’s 1991 description of how female orgasm was viewed for millennia: ‘What is a hysterical crisis? On the clinical level, excito-motor paroxysmic accidents accompanied by convulsions and crises of inhibition with loss of consciousness, lethargy or catalepsy.’

So, basically, women who were married off extremely young to men they didn’t love (and probably couldn’t stand, half the time) were deemed to be sexually healthy since they were having intercourse…whereas women who got to be massaged to orgasm on a regular basis while otherwise maintaining their independence were viewed as pathologically ill. Crikey, are men dumb.

The first mechanical vibrator was invented at the end of the 19th century (perhaps the doctors who specialized in ‘female disorders,’ bringing several patients every day to paroxysm, were thrilled’they may well have been suffering from the first cases of carpal tunnel syndrome). These things were huge, and were powered variously by foot pedal, steam engine and electricity. I recently saw a few on display at the Museum of Sex in New York. They had about as much in common with today’s We-Vibe, and the like, as a toothbrush does with a car wash.

One of them, the ‘Eskimo Vibrator,’ featured an enormous metal dome, maybe six inches across, with bristles attached to something akin to a shower head. (Unclear where the Eskimo motif comes in.) Another, ‘Macaura’s Pulsocon Hand Vibrator,’ resembled a giant egg beater’thing. And the third trophy in the museum’s collection, ‘The Premier Vibrator,’ appeared to be a hairdryer fronted by a doorknob. No, thanks!

Electricity in houses quickly led to personal use by consumers. ‘The first home appliance to be electrified was the sewing machine in 1889,’ notes Rachel Maines in her book The Technology of Orgasm, ‘followed in the next 10 years by the fan, the teakettle, the toaster and the vibrator.’ In 1899, women’s magazines were advertising the ‘Vibratile’ as a treatment for ‘Neuralgia, Headache, Wrinkles.’ Coded language in the ads, stressing women’s ‘irresistible desire to own it,’ and how it could be used ‘in the privacy of dressing room or boudoir,’ gave ladies the nudge-nudge about this so-called health product that was officially asexual.

When home vibrators began showing up in pornographic films in the 1920s, the jig was up, and all the ads vanished from mainstream magazines. The device didn’t resurface until the 1960s when’at last’it was a frankly acknowledged sex toy.

Dildos, for their part, have had a more straightforward identity stretching all the way back to prehistoric times. They have been made of silver, ivory, India rubber and wood, and were sold at market in the Middle Ages as ‘love gods’ or ‘love birds.’ In the 18th century, according to sex historian Havelock Ellis, they were sold in France as ‘consolateurs’ (or comforters) and even featured a squeezable scrotum. Apparently, it was acceptable for women to want such imitations. Even nuns bought consolateurs.

The Museum of Erotica in Saint Petersburg, Russia, features the mummified penis of Rasputin, the ‘Mad Monk,’ who persuaded members of the czar’s inner circle to combine orgies with flagellation”driving out sin with sin”in order to come ‘nearer to God.’ I have no idea what that means, but it’s the closest I came to finding a historical whipping game à la Fifty Shades of Grey. I don’t know if times have changed, but they’ve certainly grown less confused.

I did once buy my husband a pair of edible underpants, and they just looked so ridiculous on him that we laughed until we cried. Perverse it may be, but for me it’s humour’not horsewhips’that works on Valentine’s Day.

This article was originally titled "Sex toys through the ages" in the January/February 2013 issue of Best Health. Subscribe today to get the full Best Health experience’and never miss an issue!