Sex and Museums: uncovering a tool of delight

Packaging for sex toy 2008/60/1-3
Packaging for sex toy , object 2008/60/1-3

As part of the Ultimo Science Festival 2014, the Powerhouse Museum hosted a night of the Science of Sex. Along with talks form Dr Karl Kruszelnicki from University of Sydney, evolutionary biologist Professor Rob Brooks, and marine biologist Professor Emma Johnston from UNSW, Museum curators brought out a selection of sex related objects from the collection. Among them were the obstetric phantom, the Madam Lash’s corset, and of course the

87/58 Electromassage machine, Ediswan E metal  glass, Ediswan, Britain, c.1935
87/58 Electromassage machine, Ediswan E metal glass, Ediswan, Britain, c.1935

As has been discussed in a previous post, the massage device was used to cure female hysteria, or sexual frustration, if the veil of cautious and deliberately nebulous Victorian language is lifted. This form of hysteria has been the subject of not only scholarly research, but mainstream film as well. The contemporary curiosity with the Victorian massage device is understandable: it allows us to laugh at the Victorian’s prudishness; however, present a much more blunt and mercenary sexual aid – a dildo – and the reaction is often quite Victorian.

A Family Planning Association of New South Wales – part of the Museum’s collection – features a phallic sex toy. It is concealed inside a plastic banana; once revealed it is a natural-looking human penis style dildo. Compared with the very applicant, unprovocative looking massage device, the dildo immediately evokes sexuality.

Sex toy, object 2008/60/1-3
Sex toy, object 2008/60/1-3

The hammer came long before the electric drill, and further, much like the first electric massagers came before electric kettles, dildos came before broom handles. A 28,000 year old dildo was uncovered in the Hohle Fels Cave in Germany recently. In fact, some anthropologists are now suggesting that there may be many small club-like objects from time immemorial which are actually what they look like: phallic sex toys. Ancient Greek art openly depicts the use of dildos, so it is clear that aided masturbation was an openly accepted practice in classical antiquity. The name dildo too, although now synonymous with the colloquial insult which places the glans penis at the cranium, comes from the Italian diletto – delight, which is a fitting, and natural name for it.

Tools of multiple use?
Tools of multiple use?

The Elizabethans have cheerfully left us available references to dildos, signifying that their use was well known in the mainstream. Top of this bill of course is Shakespeare’s reference to one in A Winter’s Tale: He has the prettiest Loue-songs for Maids … with such delicate burthens of Dildo’s and Fadings . Jonson’s The Alchemist describes a scene where Here I find … The seeling fill’d with poesies of the candle: And Madame, with a Dildo, writ o’ the walls; and even earlier in 1593, Thomas Nashe wrote in his The Choice of Valentines:

My little dilldo shall suply their kinde:
A knaue, that moues as light as leaues by winde;
That bendeth not, nor fouldeth anie deale,
But stands as stiff as he were made of steele.

So clearly, the contemporary embarrassment over beholding a phallic dildo is a regressive reflex back to a Victorian perception. The idea of an object being veiled in technology and the supposition that it could have any number of uses being more aesthetically acceptable than the undeniable honesty of an object which has but a few obvious uses really belies logic. The electro massage device’s various wands look like they could sheer a clitoris off if applied too roughly; the dildo though has quite veracious angles, or lack thereof, and certainly looks like the right tool for the job.

A relapse into stilting conservatism, as illustrated by the rise of middle-of-the-road, highly corporatised organised religion, and a government which adheres to and promotes traditionalist and exclusionist policy, will lead to much more embarrassment. The object discussed here, the dildo, was part of a contraceptive teaching kit supplied to schools by a not-for-profit agency. Thankfully, the kits are still available upon schools requesting them, and still include a dildo, so there is optimism that our up and coming generations will be educated, and free of archaic and ineffectual notions when it comes to the art of self-pleasuring.

Written by Damian McDonald Curator

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