From acacia and honey to steam-powered vibrators: The long history of contraceptives and sex toys

When electric vibrators first became popularized in the 19th century, they were advertised to be used for beauty enhancement, massages or women’s health.

Within our earliest cultures, humans wanted more options for sex that weren’t just to procreate. Our ancestors quickly began developing sex toys and methods of contraception, a fine science that developed with lots of time — and lots of pleasure.

When it comes to sex toys, dildos seem to have been the first choice early cultures sought. Primary records of pre-industrial sex toys are scant, with plays and literature from Ancient Greece to Elizabethan England holding some of the best accounts of the usage of sex toys.

“Lysistrata” a Greek comedy originally performed in 411 B.C., was popular in its time for being an open discussion of women’s sexuality in a heavily patriarchal society — and it also mentions ancient Greek dildos. Though no actual dildos have survived from this era, researchers have found that at the time, they were primarily made of stitched leather.

Within “Lysistrata,” the term used is "ólisbos," coming from the ancient Greek word “olisthánein,” meaning to slip in.

The first use of the modern English word ‘dildo’ comes from the erotic poem “The Choise of Valentines,” by author Thomas Nashe. The poem was originally composed in the early 1590s, but it was not officially printed until the end of the 19th century. The poem describes a sexual encounter between the narrator Tomalin and his lover Mistress Frances, ending in the narrated description of a contemporary dildo before it is used on her.

When the industrial revolution came around, vibrators came into fashion, but not as a personal sex toy. Instead, they were first used as a medical instrument. Though originally invented for pain relief, it quickly became used as a cure for female hysteria, an outdated catch-all term for issues women of the time had.

Medical vibrators of the time included steam powered or early electronic vibrators that doctors would use to administer pelvic massages. At home vibrators of the era were later marketed for massages, beauty and women’s health — all three of those being repeated in various euphemistic labellings for the use of modern vibrators.

Records of early contraception are a lot more blurred, something which can be largely credited to the decomposition of materials and many eras of religious bans on contraception as a whole. Despite this, there are various methods preserved in ancient writings that indicate the materials used for contraception. Many non-European cultures practiced alternative contraception methods such as outer-course (non-penetrative sexual activity) or tracking fertility via menstrual cycles.

In the ancient world, other methods of contraception often included usage of natural materials inserted into the vagina. For example, ancient Egyptians created cervical caps using acacia leaves with honey and lint. The Greek philosopher Aristotle even suggested the use of olive oil mixed with frankincense or lead ointment applied inside the vagina to prevent conception. The effectiveness of these inserted options is questionable, and almost all were dangerous to use.

Condoms of the pre-industrial world were made of various natural materials. King Minos of Crete was documented as using a goat’s bladder. Ancient Egyptians used linen sheaths as condoms, but seemingly only to prevent sexually transmitted diseases. Similar to Egypt, many condoms across the ancient world, from Rome to China, were used to prevent STDs instead of as contraception.

In the early 20th century, the birth control movement in the United States was started in an effort to support low income women and reduce the hardships that came with repeated childbirth and self-induced abortions. The legal battles fought and won in this movement not only paved the way for more open conversations about sex, but the wider breadth of birth control options we have in the modern day.

Past use of contraception and sex toys, though often rooted in trial and error, have led to the modern understanding and practice of sex as a whole.

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