Sex Toy Patents Tell Story of Evolving Social Norms

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Sex Toys and Cultural Norms 2

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 October 2018 issue of XBiz Premiere and XBiz online.

Last month, part one of this column covered the first-ever sex toys that were patented (claiming various non-sexual uses).

By the 1970s, more individuals were openly mentioning that their vibrators were intended to be used for sexual pleasure in their patents, but they were careful to mention that the only type of sex you should be using a vibrator for was sex within marriage. One 1975 patent for what looked like an electric toothbrush with a variety of “stroking” attachments maintained that “many causes of incompatibility between married couples can be traced directly to apparent sexual deficiencies which are psychological in nature rather than physiological.”

The main way to get rid of the psychological blocks, according to the patentee, was to show men and women that there was nothing wrong with their sexual physiology. Hence the vibrator supposedly did just that by showing “frigid females” and impotent males that their “sex organs were physiologically sound.”

Devices for sexual satisfaction were nearly always situated within the context of marriage in patents of the 1970s even though this was a period of free love and women’s liberation. One “human male appliance” (AKA a cock ring) was described by its inventor as solving the problem of impotency, “which poses a very definite threat to the marital union.” A pubococcygeus muscle strengthener patent (1972) claimed that it toned vaginal muscles so “married persons [could] learn to perform their respective sexual roles as well as possible.”

However, not all of the devices were described as marital aids. One patent (1975) on a vibrator that attached to the penis was simply described as treating impotence for men “suffering from the debilitating effects of advanced age.”

What appears to have tied pre-1980 sex toy patents together was that none seemed to promote masturbation. Even when sex toy patents portrayed the devices as sexual, they were for use within partnered relationships. Norms of heterosexual marriage ran through these patents. But soon more progressive values started to show up in sex toy patents, and around the same time, the abandonment of the Moral Utility Doctrine began.

Patents shifted from claiming sex toys could strengthen marriage to promoting masturbation in the 1980s, not because the U.S. populace suddenly became open-minded about self-love, but because a new sexually transmitted disease was spreading. AIDS was deeply feared throughout society, and this fear was visible in sex toy patents. Patents suggested that sex toys could help prevent the spread of the disease by enabling people to have satisfying sex without a partner.

A prime example is a 1988 patent for a “Sexual Stimulation Apparatus.” The apparatus looks like an early version of a sex-machine, having a telescoping arm with attachments. In use, the attachment is pushed forward and pulled backward by the arm to massage the genitals of a man or woman. The patent explains that “there is a need for a sexual stimulation apparatus capable of providing a safe and hygienic sexual release, which also eliminates the fear of contracting communicable diseases such as AIDS…. Such an apparatus should enable the user to achieve an orgasm without exchanging bodily fluids with a partner.”

This sentiment was common in patent applications for sex devices of the 1980s and 1990s, and is even still seen sometimes today.

Yet, even through the mid-1990s, inventors sometimes hid the masturbatory uses of inventive sex toys in their patents. For example, in 1996, Steven Shubin filed a patent for his innovative male masturbation sleeve device that would later become branded as the Fleshlight.

Granted in 1998, Shubin’s patent disguised the invention under the title, “Device for Discrete Sperm Collection,” rather than as a masturbation sleeve. The device has an outer shell, typically shaped like a flashlight, with an elastomeric insert in an interior chamber into which a user inserts his penis. To simulate the feeling of a vagina during intercourse, the user can move the device up and down his penis. Though today, there are many companies competing in that space, Fleshlight was the first to popularize the shell/sleeve device.

The next notable sex toy innovation, from a cultural perspective, didn’t occur until the next decade, and it was for a couples toy, not a masturbation device. In 2005, Standard Innovation filed a patent for a C-shaped vibrator. The patent, which was issued in 2011, featured a clam-shaped vibrator meant to be worn by a woman during intercourse. With an arm having a vibrator inside and another opposing arm meant for insertion into a user’s vagina, the vibrator allowed a woman to have clitoral stimulation during penetrative sex, hands-free. This became an extremely popular design as women were looking for more stimulation out of sex than penetration alone.

During the mid-2010s, sex toy patents reflected social progress once again. In 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage. A year later, in 2016, Stephanie Berman was granted a patent for the device that would eventually be branded as the Pop dildo.

The Pop dildo, incorporating a bulb and interchangeable internal tubing, was intended to be an artificial insemination device. The interchangeable tubing was key, as it allowed users to simply throw away the tube after a single use and replace it with a new one so as to keep the pipes ultra-sanitary for ejecting of semen.

“Same-sex or transgender couples may not possess the necessary biological equipment, or perhaps a single woman would like to conceive without relying on a partner,” Berman’s patent application read. “Similarly, heterosexual couples may not be able to conceive where the male is unable to produce sperm.” Berman’s patent shows the growing acceptance of LGBTQIA+ families’ needs, and acknowledges that couples, whether same-sex or heterosexual, prefer to conceive in a sexy way as opposed to a clinical way with “turkey basters.”

Sexual norms for heterosexuals were also being shaken up in the mid-2010s thanks to 2015’s hit movie, “Fifty Shades of Grey” (based on E.L. James’ book published in 2011). The story about a BDSM relationship brought conversations about sex toys into the mainstream.

It got people talking — and experimenting — in the bedroom. It played a massive role in the sex toy industry’s emergence out of secrecy and into mainstream.

People, today, are no longer silent about demanding good sex or wanting to use sex toys. That development, together with significant progress in technological capabilities, has pushed the advancement and adoption of “teledildonics,” i.e. wirelessly remote-controlled sex toys.

Gone are the days where distance from one’s partner was a total obstacle to intimacy other than phone sex. Many sex toys are now controllable via phone apps where having the controller (i.e. the smartphone) can control vibration intensity of another user’s vibrator from the opposite end of the world.

Modern teledildonics has progressed beyond simple remote control of vibrators. A 2014 patent application, filed by sex toy manufacturer, Kiiroo, describes a vagina-like device, which is remotely controlled by a penis-like device. The vagina-like device has elements that constrict in tandem to squeezing a first user’s penis in response to the depth (as determined by sensors) of the penis-like device in a second user’s vagina. This appears to give the penis the feeling of sliding in and out of a vagina. Kiiroo’s products, the Onyx (the penis-like device) and the Pearl (the vagina-like device), are currently on the market in their second versions.

The next frontier in teledildonics is bidirectional control. Bidirectional control refers to two sex toys that control each other. For example, a penis-shaped device controls a vagina-shaped device while the vagina-shaped device controls the penis-shaped device. A 2015 patent issued to Sparq Laboratories, Inc. on “Systems and Methods for Haptic Stimulation” appears to be directed to exactly that. The actions of one device are echoed to the other to create a “biomimetic” experience for the users, i.e. providing a simulation of “real” sex.

Teledildonics enables humans to experience a type of intimacy with one another not imagined possible decades ago. How different, however, is the purpose of teledildonic toys as compared to the marital aids of the 1960s and 1970s? Of course, some cultural changes and innovation go hand-in-hand. The Pop dildo of the current decade and the masturbation toys of the 1980s are evidence of this. At the same time, U.S. sex toy patents also teach us that cultural change isn’t linear, isn’t fast, and isn’t always driven by technology.

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