From Acacia and Honey to Steam Vibrators: The Long History of Contraceptives and Sex Toys | New


In our early cultures, humans wanted more sexual options that weren’t just for childbearing. Our ancestors quickly began to develop sex toys and birth control methods, a fine science that developed over a long period of time – and a lot of fun.

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

“Lysistrata” a Greek comedy originally performed in 411 BC. Although no actual dildos have survived from this era, researchers found that back then, they were mostly made of stitched leather.

In “Lysistrata” the term used is “olisbos, “ coming from the ancient Greek word “olisthánein”, meaning to slip into it.

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 late 19th century. The poem describes a sexual encounter between narrator Tomalin and his lover Mistress Frances, ending with the narrated description of a contemporary dildo before it was used on her.

When the industrial revolution came, vibrators became all the rage, but not as a personal sex toy. Instead, they were first used as a medical device. Although it was originally invented to relieve pain, it quickly became a remedy for female hysteria, an outdated catch-all term for the problems women of the day had.

Medical vibrators of the time included the first electronic steam vibrators that doctors used to give pelvic massages. Vibrators at home of the time were then marketed for massage, beauty, and women’s health – all three repeated in various euphemistic labels for the use of modern vibrators.

The records of early contraception are much more hazy, which can be largely attributed to the decay of materials and many eras of religious bans on contraception as a whole. Despite this, there is various methods preserved in ancient writings that indicate the materials used for contraception. Many non-European cultures practiced alternative contraceptive methods such as the external course (sexual activity without penetration) or fertility monitoring through menstrual cycles.

In the ancient world, other methods of contraception often included the use of natural materials inserted into the vagina. For example, the 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 of them were unsafe to use.

Condoms from the pre-industrial world were made from various natural materials. King Minos of Crete has been documented to use a goat’s bladder. The ancient Egyptians used linen cases as condoms, but apparently only to prevent sexually transmitted diseases. As in Egypt, many condoms in the ancient world, from Rome to China, were used to prevent STDs rather than as contraception.

In the early part of the 20th century, the birth control movement in the United States was started with the goal of supporting low-income women and reducing the difficulties associated with repeated births and self-induced abortions. The legal battles fought and won in this movement have not only paved the way for more open conversations about sex, but also the wider range of birth control options we have today.

The past use of contraception and sex toys, although often rooted in trial and error, has led to the modern understanding and practice of sex as a whole.

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