This is a special two-part article written by Maxine Lynn and Hallie Lieberman, author of “Buzz: A Stimulating History of the Sex Toy,” originally published in the September 2018 issue of XBiz Premiere and XBiz online.
If you’re searching for the origin of America’s conflicted views on sex, you may want to start in a perhaps surprising place — the patent office. Granted to innovators for new inventions, patents collectively chronicle technological developments over time. Together, patents for sex toys tell a story of changing social norms and reveal a nation’s anxiety surrounding sexual pleasure.
If someone asked you when the first butt plug was patented (a question everybody should be prepared to answer, of course!), I’m venturing to guess that you’d say, in the past 30 years or so. Yet the first U.S. patent for a butt plug is actually more than a century old, dating back to 1892 for the Young’s Rectal Dilator. Its inventor, Frank E. Young of Canton, Ohio, designed his dilator in a fashion that is still widely used for butt plugs today with a tapered, triangular head, which Young referred to as “olive-shaped,” and a wide flared base.
How and why did Young patent a butt plug in the 19th century, during a time when sodomy was illegal and homosexuality was considered a sickness? Young never admitted his rectal dilator brought sexual pleasure. In fact, he sold it as a rectal-health device, claiming it cured hemorrhoids and constipation (both of which sort of made logical sense), and absurdly, asthma. He even argued that his dilators, in conjunction with his urethral tubes, could cure masturbation. The details of how placing a thick rubber plug in your rectum could alleviate a respiratory disease and stop men from masturbating were never hashed out. Instead, Young developed a convoluted “orificial” theory of disease that all health problems originated within the rectum. Such pseudo-science allowed butt plugs to be openly sold in the late 1800s and the early 1900s. They were more visible in early 20th century culture than they are in the 21st century.
Charting the history of sex toy patents demonstrates how American sexual norms have shifted over time. Sex toys absorb meanings. In the 19th century, butt plugs could be a symbol of so-called orificial health, whereas in the late 20th century, they were mainly considered gay men’s sex toys. Yet, in the 21st century, butt plugs are made for men of all sexual orientations, women and those not fitting into any traditional gender norms. Young’s Dilators are some of the earliest examples of sex toys being imbued with meanings in order to make the devices socially acceptable.
Vibrators followed a similar trajectory. When they first appeared in the 1800s in hand-cranked, water-powered forms and electromagnetic forms, they were not presented as masturbation devices. Instead, they were touted as “health” devices. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, when the electric-motor powered vibrator came onto the scene, it was a “massaging implement,” according to one of the earliest sex toy patents, a 1902 patent for J.B. Wantz’s vibrator. Although Wantz’s device was considered a sleek option for its time, today it would seem enormous. The vibrator consisted of a long cylinder encasing a motor, which also served as a handle, adorned with a protruding knob that users were supposed to apply to the body. A plug-in cord dangled from the handle.
By 1910, multiple companies were producing electric vibrators, most of them featuring a fist-sized metal-encased motor attached to the top of the handle. They were like the later-developed popular Hitachi Magic Wands, except that the handle part wasn’t plastic, and most came with additional screw-on attachments. Vibrators were marketed as health panaceas that treated everything from malaria to gout, but they were not actually used by physicians to vibrate women’s clitorises to orgasm to treat hysteria — that’s a myth. Doctors did occasionally use vibrators on patients’ bodies (on nearly every part from eyes to rectums), but they eventually found they weren’t very effective as a medical remedy. Instead, vibrators were usually sold in the service of traditional gender norms, to women as feminine household devices — using themes of domesticity and motherhood — and to men as masculine devices that increased the strength of muscles.
Although for the most part vibrators weren’t sold openly for sexual uses, many of the devices came with phallic-shaped rectal and vaginal attachments. Companies claimed their vibrators could cure obesity (without exercise!) or eliminate impotence. They were sold to men and women, and targeted every consumer imaginable. Ads suggested buying your grandfather a vibrator for Christmas, using a vibrator on a baby, purchasing vibrators for your mother, and giving vibrators to young men.
A period of vibrator innovation followed the introduction of the electric vibrator, with a penis-shaped vibrator showing up in patents in 1911, or as the inventor called it, a vibrator with a “large mushroom head.” Nothing sexual was mentioned in the patent. Soon after, vibrators with vacuum attachments (1912), heat-up vibrators (1913), and hand-strapped vibrators (1914) appeared in patents. By 1923, a clitoral suction device snuck into a patent for a Medical Suction Device, but nothing about orgasm or sexual pleasure was mentioned in the patent, perhaps because of the judicially created “Moral Utility Doctrine.”
The Doctrine emanated from an 1817 court decision that stated that an invention could not be patented if it conflicted with the “sound morals of society.” The United States Patent & Trademark Office (USPTO) and the courts relied on this doctrine until about 1980, when a series of cases shifted away from this school of thought.
By 1930, a vibrator that dispensed massaging fluid (1926) had been patented. In 1960, a vibrating pillow was patented. The pillow patent included in its drawings an illustration of a naked woman, vibrating her buttocks with the pillow. Yet through the mid-1960s, no matter how obviously phallic or sexual the device, nothing in the patents made it clear that the devices were for sexual uses.
Then in 1968, a battery-operated phallic vibrator patent was issued. This “cordless electric vibrator for use on the human body” looked unmistakably like a masturbation device. It was a handheld vibrating penis. Surely the vibrator patent would mention masturbation, right? Nope. It wasn’t until the next year that a patent finally appeared that actually revealed vibrators were for sexual pleasure: a 1969 patent titled “Vibrator Device for Application of Vibration to Erotic Parts of Female Genitalia.” As far as I can tell, it’s the first vibrating cock ring patent issued by the USPTO. Two things about this patent are revealing: that the patented device is designed to be used during coupled sex, and additionally, that it is described as a “marital aid.”
Mind you, this cock ring was patented at the beginning of the sexual revolution, yet instead of saying that the ring, which possessed a clitoral-stimulating tongue extension, would simply increase women’s sexual pleasure (end of story), its inventor framed the ring as a marital aid that would help eliminate the so-called “social evils” of “adultery, prostitution, divorce” and “venereal disease.” The vibrator would also help “already happily married couples … retain their past happy conjugal relations.”
The best part of the patent is his assertion that the vibrator “if used by personalities of great achievements will reduce the probability of their conjugal unhappiness and allied mental strains … so that, with a tranquil brain, their genius may contribute to society.” Like many others to later enter the sex toy industry, the inventor believed his vibrator could change the world.
Yet not all U.S. vibrator patents that year mentioned sexual uses. A 1969 patent for a Hitachi Magic Wand-type device was mum on sexual uses, although around this same time, feminist and masturbation advocate Betty Dodson was touting the Magic Wand as the best device to reliably give women orgasms.
This special two-part column continues next month in our October issue with a look at the shift to sex toy patents that embraced their sexual nature.