It was a curious experience, sitting in the Wellcome Collection cafe with a sex toy historian while our discussion took in cock rings and treatments for hysteria and whether wearing a strap-on could be construed as becoming “superhuman” (it probably can).
We were there because when I worked on a women’s fashion and lifestyle website I decided it would be interesting to interview someone about the history of sex toys. It also ended up being the more acceptable of my two pitches tangentially relating to the popularity at the time of 50 Shades of Grey (the other being “Ill-chosen hosiery from hardcore porn films”).
You can read the original piece on MyDaily (it’s a sort of bullet pointy article called “Sometimes Mr Teddy Has To Watch“) and all the information comes from said interview with Lesley Hall, senior archivist at Wellcome’s library and expert in the history of gender and sexuality. (I should probably also point out that sharing it on Facebook without being careful about the image it pulled in got me kicked off the service for sharing pornographic content so maybe be a bit cautious if you choose to like it.)
The history of sex toys is a really tricky area of research because, even more than with other types of history, it’s hard to find honest and open personal accounts to work from, hard to look outside our own cultural norms and expectations, and hard to work out exactly how objects were used when all you’ve got to go on is carving in various degrees of subtlety.
The piece ended up simply proffering the ten most curious or noteworthy nuggets because of what was appropriate for the site at the time but I wanted to communicate some of the observations in a slightly different context. They’re not intended to form an article as such, more to pick up a few things that didn’t make the final edit or deserved highlighting.
One of the most interesting for me was probably talking about the recent past and hearing how sex toys actually ended up being a commercial necessity for some businesses:
“In the early seventies companies which had been previously selling rubber goods realised that no-one was buying them because of the Pill so they were moving into the marital aids market with vibrators and various other – cock rings, sprays, things to stop men coming too soon. It was a business necessity – a rebranding of what they’re about. They’re not just about stopping babies, they’re about fun sex… but only when you’re married.”
These were mainly companies found in the backs of magazines or catalogues. Rubber goods refers to condoms which obviously suffered a dip in popularity once the Pill’s efficacy was established. Presumably once sales of marital aids took off, there was a similar financial upswing in the packaging business. Specifically regarding purchases of discreet brown boxes.
Living in a technologically privileged society where a discreet brown box and discreet line on your bank statement are a few clicks away was also made apparent when hearing about how repellent the idea of handling objects relating to sexytime was (in public) only 100 years ago. Around the beginning of the twentieth century, Hall explained, there was actually “a Home Office crackdown on continental purveyors of pornographers who were using Her Majesty’s mail to send their filth into Britain.”
The current state of affairs is not without its glitches, however. I speak as someone who has had to answer the door to a grinning postman carrying a giant (and not entirely closed) jiffy bag sack thing brimming over with a year’s supply of condoms — the direct result of a period of unemployment spent entering every single competition the internet had to offer. Unfortunately for me the anecdote does not end there.
The sack contained not only hundreds of condoms but also a bright red dinner plate-sized bas relief plaque proudly claiming in block capitals that I had had sex at Legoland, Windsor. I have not infact had sex at Legoland but the competition asked you to name some unusual place you’d had sex and I recall typing my answer rather sarcastically because what I’d actually had at Legoland was an argument. This is how I learned that sarcasm does not translate well to the plaque medium. Said plaque proved to be as indestructible as it was inaccurate and now lives in a crawlspace in my parents’ roof.
So yes, even though there was a definite lack of anonymity in the above, I am very grateful that there wasn’t the added social awkwardness of being labelled a consumer of filth and an abuser of Her Majesty’s postal service.
We also chatted about the surprisingly emotional letters men used to write to Marie Stopes about all manner of things, including how worried they were about their wives having painful periods. “In many ways Marie Stopes was an absolutely poisonous woman but she could be wonderfully sympathetic to these total strangers who wrote to her.”
It feels like the emotional side of sexual relationships gets stripped away in a lot of academic discourse so looking through the letters (as Hall did for her PhD thesis) must have been a very humanising experience. Lots of people just worrying about being normal.
Lastly, Hall cited three sexual history flashpoints over the course of the interview — inventions or events which radically altered our approach to modern sexuality. As you might expect, they all have to do with altering the consequences of sex rather than sex itself.
The earliest was the invention of cures for venereal disease – Salvesan for syphilis and antibiotics for other diseases following a little later. Suddenly sex wasn’t going to kill you.
The next was the Pill which obviously ties into women’s liberation and the idea of sex for pleasure and without the risk of pregnancy. There was also the boost to the sex toy industry as explained above.
The third and most recent is the HIV/AIDS epidemic which feels like some kind of inversion of the Salvesan flashpoint. Suddenly sex might very well kill you again. The fear wrought by the spread of the epidemic meant uncomfortable conversations about sex being forced into public spaces and necessary changes in how we talk about sex.
The interview was one of the most interesting I’ve ever done and if you ever have the chance to speak with Lesley, take it. If not Lesley has an entire website full of information and oddments. There’s also a whole page devoted to snippets regarding the clitoris. My own favourite is a quote from a clergyman’s diary that simply says:
“Sir John Brownlow’s lady abused other women with her clitoris etc…”