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CLASSICAL CLIMAXES: SEX TOYS IN THE ANCIENT WORLD

Updated: Jul 20


Watch out friends, this one’s going to get steamy! We’re talking about masturbation, sex toys and all that entails, so heads up before we head in!

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For as long as humans have existed, we’ve been having sex (I mean we all know that, that’s why we all exist). But as long as people have been interested in sex, they haven’t always had anyone to join for super fun sexy times (I’m sure #quarantine has some people relating). But what’s a guy, gal, or non-binary pal to do when they’re all alone and feeling freaky? You know it – it’s time for some super sexy solo action. I’m going to be focused on women today, mainly because I just can’t get enough of them, but also because we have some super evidence of ladies and their lovely sex toys, and I'm all about those visual aids.

The Ancient World had lots of words for masturbation. The Greeks called it tribein – meaning rubbing, while the Latin word masturbor – meaning to beat with your hand (!!) is where our word masturbate comes from. Although your teachers ‘n text books might not have pointed it out, masturbation is even immortalised on the walls of the ruined Roman city Pompeii, in one of my favourite Latin quotes of all time:

“When worries fill my body, with my left hand, I release my pent up fluid”

Stress wank? We’ve all been there. People really haven’t changed hey?

Let’s talk about our lovely ladies. From ancient times, all the way to... actually pretty recently, there was this theory that women could get a disease called “hysteria”. Hysteria was basically an ‘illness’, also known as the ‘wow women have zero rights and are treated as property and have zero orgasms per year and weirdly they feel bad’ disease. The symptoms of hysteria were: being uninterested in sex with their male partner, and stirring up trouble, among some other things. Sounds crazy right? Whatever could that be caused by? Anywayyyy…

By the first century CE (years 0-100), a cure for this mysterious disease had been found! And guess what it was?? Whatever could help these poor women? You’d never have seen this coming, but doctors started to advise genital massage. That’s right, the cure to the mysterious disease? Orgasms. Galen – a really famous ancient doctor – described how to carry out this complicated cure in a lot of detail, and what you should hope for: first a genital massage, then hopefully, it might end in an orgasm. That was it. A prescribed orgasm? Now that sounds pretty great. Not only did they suggest physical massage, some scholars even think that ancient public baths might have had devices for pumping water out, made especially to be just right for any poor hysterical ladies that might come swinging by. But what did these women do in their spare time? When they saw those super sexy senators and perfect priestesses from across the forum, and thought of them all night long, how did they… y’know… dial the rotary phone? Well I’m glad you asked. Ancient pottery gives us a bit of a clue, as does literature. In the third century BCE, there was a play by a guy called Herodas which explained exactly what women got up to in their pursuit of a cheeky ménage à moi. I’ll set the scene.


Two girls are chatting, called Coritto and Metro (I know – weird names, but just wait – it’ll get weirder). So Metro is explaining how she’s been getting all hot and flustered and asks Coritto: “come on, help a gal out, let me borrow your dildo??” (just friends being friends guys!!!). Unfortunately for Metro, Coritto’s already lent it to a friend, who then lent it to another friend! She’s been left empty… handed. So where’s the Ann Summers of the Ancient world then??


Well Coritto tells us you can buy dildos from a cobbler – he pretends to sell shoes, but really he uses leather in a much more interesting way. He makes such amazing dildos in fact, Coritto can’t stop talking about them, telling Metro that:

“When I saw them, my eyes nearly popped out with desire. The men certainly have none like those! And that’s not all: their smoothness – a dream; and the stitches – of down, not of thread!”

Sounds pretty good hey? Well Coritto definitely thought so. In fact, we have a lot of evidence for ancient dildos, especially the Greek ones, and their use by all our ancient guys, gals, and non-gendered pals. These dildos were normally made of leather, although apparently sometimes they used wood – hopefully avoiding splinters. While these don’t survive that well, luckily the Greeks loved to paint them, and so we have lots of evidence for all types of dildos, and not just for masturbation! Double ended dildos and strap-ons - yep, they really had those. And what’s even better – we even have pictures of both of them. People really have always been this kinky hey? But why is this important? As much as I enjoy talking about sex toys and masturbation, does it actually tell us anything useful?? Well actually, it really does. See, firstly – while strap-ons can be used in all sorts of ways, with all sorts of couples, double ended dildos are most commonly used by our women loving women- and I always do love evidence for gays in the ancient world. But more importantly, the presence of widespread dildo manufacturing suggests something – the fulfilling of female pleasure and sexuality. See that openness of female sexuality is something that we actually had to wait until second wave feminism, and the 1960s for. Before then, talking about the female orgasm and sexuality was really not on – lots of women even said that before the sexual revolution of the 60s, they didn’t even know women could have orgasms. It took the advent of second wave feminism, and the popularity of women’s meetings and discussion groups to change this. HOW MAD IS THAT?! The widespread depictions of women with dildos, it suggests that there was a certain level of sexual emancipation, and gives us a hint into the experience of women in the ancient world. Conversations like those shared between Metro and Coritto (even though it was written by a man) might reflect the shared discussions between women, and in women’s circles – which is something we don’t often get insight into. For such varieties and numbers of dildos to be made, this suggests that there were businesses catering to female pleasure – like that ancient Ann Summers - which is pretty cool in itself. Honestly, it’s just an exciting insight into a world dominated by women – which is something we never get to see in the field of ancient history. So yes, strap-ons and dildo factories made up a big part of ancient life and art – bet you never learned that at school! Women were wanking and we love to see it.




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