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Davis, California

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Column: Rings and dolls

Sex toys aren’t a modern creation. The earliest recovered dildo is a 20-centimeter-long siltstone, made during the Paleolithic “tool era.” About 28,000 years ago, someone took time off from hunting mammoths and gathering berries in order to cut and polish this large phallus. But after silicone replaced stone and the ice that marked this era thawed, sex toy construction became a lot less labor-intensive.

“Dildo,” in case you have been pondering the etymology, most likely stems from the 16th-century Italian word “diletto,” meaning “delight;” as in, “I am diletto to have purchased such an impressive diletto.” Ancient Greeks also used dildos, which they called olisbos, only the Greeks tended to lubricate theirs with olive oil.

But the history of sex toys isn’t limited to wine and spaghetti country. In 500 A.D., Ben Wa balls, insertable metal spheres that rock against each other and have the tendency to fall out at potentially embarrassing moments, were invented in Japan. Cock rings, made from the skin surrounding a goat’s eye socket — complete with eyelashes to add additional stimulation, originated in 11th century China. These rings titillated many of our predecessors as well as contemporary users who promote the dried-flesh toys as more “natural” and of a “higher quality” than similar, more synthetic cock rings.

Until the mid-1900s, hysteria or “wandering womb” was thought of as a female illness, and the symptoms included irritability, anxiety and in some cases, sexual fantasy and vaginal lubrication. Women were encouraged to visit their doctor, who would induce a “hysterical paroxysm” a.k.a. orgasm. Galen, a famous second century physician who left a lasting impression on medicine, wrote that after his treatment, his previously hysteric patient “was free of all the evil she felt.”

When masturbation became tiring on a doctor’s hands, vibrators — both electric and steam-powered — proved more than effective. Vibration treatment, whether medically legitimate or not, became extremely popular by the 20th century. At this time, the Princess of Wales owned a home medical device, a vibrating saddle, which “gave her complete satisfaction.” However, once 1920s pornography began to feature vibrators as instruments of pleasure, doctors ceased offering to masturbate their patients.

Sex toys can even be humanoid. During World War II, syphilis caused an extreme amount of wartime death, and in an effort to combat the disease, Hitler approved the use of sex dolls as a hygienic alternative to intercourse. The top-secret Borghild Project equipped Nazi soldiers, according to SS doctor Olen Hannussen, with inflatable “anthropomorphic sexmachines” that had “artificial face[s] of lust.”

Current consumers have access to all sorts of sex toys, from carved wooden dildos to the “MyVibe” iPhone app.

Sex toys certainly aren’t rare. According to a 2009 Indiana University study of adult Americans, 53 percent of women and 45 percent of men have used a vibrator at least once in their lifetime. These percentages are roughly equal to the amount of people that are married in the United States, as well as the amount of 18 to 29 year olds who vote. The anonymity of the Internet allows consumers to circumvent restrictions on the sale of sex toys, but hasn’t done away with the ignorance, silence or shame surrounding their use.

The Alabama Supreme Court decision on Valentine’s Day 2007 to uphold the ban on the sale or promotion of devices “useful primarily for the stimulation of human genital organs” epitomizes the ridiculous amount of government regulation that is present in American bedrooms. William H. Pryor, former attorney general of Alabama, claims, “there is no fundamental right for a person to buy a device to produce orgasm” while fellow absolutist Dan Ireland believes, “sometimes you have to protect the public against themselves.”

The only sex-geared shop in Davis, Aella Boutique, closed its doors last month. Because the Internet is so anonymous and convenient, consumers are choosing to buy toys in silence. When people are under the illusion of a sexless world, sexual shame flourishes.

People should be able to make, and not be made ashamed of, their own decisions because sex toy use is not something to be frightened of. The same process pushing us to ignore sexual satisfaction is what is shaming us into ignoring our sexual health. Stop this cycle of shame by getting to know your own body, with or without the aid of a sex toy.

KATELYN RINGROSE would love to be able to say “dildo” in a multitude of different languages. Please email her at knringrose@ucdavis.edu.

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