Sex toy science

How science and technology influence our most intimate devices

Dildo 

(n.)  origins uncertain: 1590s, perhaps a corruption of Italian deletto ‘delight,’ or from Latin dilectio, ‘to esteem highly, to love’ or Latin dilatare, “to open wide” or (less likely) of English diddle. –online etymology dictionary

You don’t really need advanced technology to make a dildo. All you need is a long slender piece of…anything. In fact, the oldest known [piece of something that we believe is a] dildo is estimated to be about 28,000 years old. At 28,000 years ago, woolly rhinos were running around with early modern humans, and as far as we can tell no one had figured out how to weave fibers. But they (we think) had dildos. You can see an image of a slightly younger dildo, dating back to 4000 to 6000 BCE, here (really NSFW).

And so, despite much ingenuity and materials exploration, the dildo remained similar to its origins until the game-changing invention of the vibrator. Of course, today vibrators work brilliantly, everyone is happy, and we can take our minds off of sex and go and invent other things like microwavable bacon holders. Yeah, right.

A quick history of the vibrator

As the story goes, the first vibrator was invented around 1860 to help doctors reduce the “drudgery” of messaging female patients’ genitals. You see, back then common belief was that females didn’t have sex drives or orgasms, but they did suffer from this perplexing, incurable disease called ‘hysteria.’ Symptoms included irritability, erotic fantasies, heavy feelings in the lower abdomen, and wetness between the legs. If a woman didn’t have access to a horseback riding club – seriously, horseback riding was an early treatment –the doctor or midwife would have to provide. With a little vegetable oil and some vigorous rubbing, the patient would experience an orgasm, er, ‘paroxysm,’ and with “sudden, dramatic results,” would be relieved of sexual frustration, er, I mean hysteria – at least for a while. I am sure that some of you can sympathize with how laborious and painful these numerous daily hand jobs could be for the practitioners.

The first labor-saving vibrators were steam powered and hand-cranked. It was the invention of electric devices that really saved the day. The electric vibrator’s entry into the marketplace trailed only the sewing machine, fan, tea kettle, and toaster. Makes sense, doesn’t it? Get up, cool the house, make breakfast, do a little mending, and then time for some self-hysteria treatment. One advertisement in the popular Sears and Roebuck catalog promised that “…all the pleasures of youth…will throb within you.” Twenty years later, inventors had provided at least two dozen models for the medical profession. So there you go: Medicine created the vibrator.

Sex toys – healthy, common, fun!

Historians are unsure of exactly what drove vibrators underground, but many sources cite their appearance in porn and stag films in the 1920s. Suddenly vibrators became taboo and immoral. This was not a good thing, because we all seem to need vibrators. According to recent reports in the Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy and the Journal of Sexual Medicine, vibrator use among both men and women is linked to several indicators of positive sexual function and other health-positive behaviors, including genital self-exams and check-ups. In one 2010 study of over 2000 women, researchers found that partner knowledge and perceived liking of one’s vibrator was a good predictor of sexual satisfaction in heterosexual women. Vibrators keep us healthy, people!

As long as we clean them, that is. A 2011 study on how sexual activity affects vaginal bacteria found that women who share sex toys tend to have more bacteria associated with bacterial vaginosis and less of the protective bacteria that helps to combat the disorder. Bacterial vaginosis symptoms include vaginal discharge and an increased risk for preterm infant delivery, pelvic inflammation, and HIV exposure. Perhaps related, a 2009 Journal of Sexual Medicine report found that nearly 14% of the study’s female vibrator users (totaling 147 women) did not clean their sex toys…ever!

That same paper also tells us that nearly 53% of the women in the group used vibrators, and most (nearly 72%) never experienced negative symptoms resulting from their use. Do you know what hearing that vibrators are safe and common makes it easier for people to do? Buy more vibrators of course! Slowly, sex toys are going mainstream once again. Target, Wal-MartWalgreens, and other retailers currently keep sex toys on the shelves, unless you happen to be in Alabama. In that case, you will have to use a drive-through window.

Other indicators that sex toys are becoming more mainstream include the popularity of suburban sex toy ‘parties,’ monthly boxes of toys as a more fun version of the old jelly-of-the-month club, and a Southern preacher who promotes sex toys to his congregation (he also tells the men how to make their semen sweeter). There is even Oh Joy Sex Toys, a delightful and informative comic. I’d argue that in addition to popularization through shows such as Sex in the City, scientific studies are helping to move the trend along. For this piece, I read close to 100 popular media articles. At least a dozen of these cited the 2009 study statistics on vibrator use and health.

What’s in that dildo again? 

Despite their popularity, sex toys remain unregulated. The only FDA-approved sex toy is a small device that applies a gentle clitoral suction to increase blood flow. Lack of oversight means that for many toys, manufacture is inconsistent and often unknowable. The internet bursts with stories of jelly toys that melt into pools of goo after contact with each other, or lube, or a little hot air. Sex shop workers have reported feeling ill and suffering severe headaches after days spent handling toys. In a Reddit AMA, a purported former dildo engineer recalls, “We would put every batch in a 130 degree oven to test for obvious material changes. It was amazing how often the ‘silicone’ part would just melt. [That’s 130 degrees F]…Basically when they degrade the quality, they really do not try to trick you with similar material, they go with the cheapest materials that ‘looks’ similar, and hope you do not notice.”

In response, some toy companies have developed new or superior quality materials. Crystal delights, which grew out of the virtual world of ‘Second Life’, sells borosilicate glass and ceramic sex toys that resemble hand-blown works of art.

In 2012, the Consumer Products Safety Commission set up a space where sex toy users could swap stories about toy quality or malfunctions. This is certainly progress. But what consumers needed was a safety group willing to test and report on toys independently. That need has been filled by Dildology. The brainchild of a sex toy shop manager and a science lab technician, Dildology does what the FDA and the USDA don’t – they send sex toys to labs for material testing. According to the Dildology wiki page:

We’re here because nobody else is doing it. Currently, dildo manufacturers can choose to label their product a “medical device” and submit to hefty fees and testing, or simply avoid regulation altogether. Dildology.org exists to independently verify the material content of sex toys, and to provide the results of our testing to the community and to the world at large.

Science and human ingenuity win again! Of course Dildology is not the only place making great strides in developing safer, better toys. Interestingly, many adult products are developed by people with a science or engineering background. As it turns out, engineered materials, electrical systems, sensors, and wireless communication work as well for sex toys as more traditional consumer goods.

Cool new developments in sex toy tech 

Doctor X-Treme, whose motto is “less pants, more science,” is the creator behind the X1 Orgasmatron. It’s a vibrator – a very vigorous vibrator. To get a feel for how this device is different from its predecessors, I highly recommend that you watch the videos on his website. Working through a series of 3D printed designs, Dr. X originally set out to make a powerful vibrator that did not also rock the neighbor’s apartment. X-Treme has a math and physics degree from UC Berkeley and an applied physics PhD from Yale and has worked in a government lab on quantum computing.

He explains his device through a concept called mechanical impedance matching. In the videos, Dr. X uses the analogy of hitting a bowling ball with a whiffle ball racquet, but it makes more sense to me to think of waves and resonance matching. When waves come together, they can either add in resonance, or reduce each other through dampening. The Orgasmatron is an attempt to find the resonant frequency of human flesh – specifically, human genitals. Dr. XTreme explains, “Plenty of sex machines have a much higher force/velocity ratio than your typical vibrator. So in terms of a machine that matches to different impedances, there’s stuff out there, but … thinking about the problem this way and trying to design from that standpoint, that’s a different story.”

Other examples abound. The WeVibe vibrator, designed to pleasure two partners simultaneously, was created by a husband and wife team of former Nortel employees. According to Bruce Murison, the engineer of the team, “This is, to me, not a sex toy. It’s an electromechanical device.” Before a single prototype is cast, WeVibe’s developers test prototypes on anatomically accurate digital mannequins. And although every vagina is different, “a well-designed device can fit about 70 percent of women” says WeVibe’s VP of product development. The company has hinted at a new feature that uses technology developed by NASA.

Other vibrators respond in time to iPhone music and erotic audiobooks. The ‘Squeel’ features a rotating wheel of 10 silicone tongues. Sex toys are also going DIY. With current 3D printing technologies, one can scan one’s penis and then make cast to create a perfect replica to present to a partner or lover. In an impressive and exhaustively chronicled feat of engineering, one woman hacked the wireless remote on her vibrator to respond to sonar. “This toy serves as a kind of analog bridge between two remote spaces: the column of ultrasonically-oscillating air in front of the remote, and whatever body part happens to be in contact with the vibrator. Touch that invisible space above the remote, and the vibrator touches you,” she notes.

At the Psigasm Project, another husband and wife team (one a PhD candidate in physics, the other an HIV prevention specialist) have created a dildo that doesn’t just employ scientific data – it gathers it. Custom inserts embedded with sensors measure pressure, temperature, heat flow, and blood volume density during arousal and orgasm. The data are wirelessly streamed to a computer. The first prototype, completed in 2011, managed to record and display orgasmic muscle contractions in real time. Since then, the device’s complexity has grown, and the two have gathered more data. The team hopes to “record data from people with all different anatomies, gender identities, ages, and cultures…” All of the hardware and software are distributed freely, making the project truly open source.

Probably the closest we have to the predicted cybersex of ‘the future’ can be found through the Real Touch Interactive male masturbator. It looks like a pod with a slit in the front at first glance, but inside it contains a pair of ribbed tracks, pressure devices, a lube repository, and heaters. Wirelessly connected to the receptacle is a sensor-filled dildo/joystick that can be manipulated from afar. One reviewer exclaims, “For all the amazing technology I’ve experienced in my six years and 717 articles at Gizmag, this is one of only a handful of times when I’ve caught myself thinking ‘damn, I’m actually living in the future.’”

Many of these examples force us to re-examine our relationship with ourselves and our devices. They force us to examine what sex really is. Some futurists claim that soon we will embrace robots with the same amour that most still reserve for our fellow humans. We already ‘love’ our iPhones, they argue, what is to stop us from developing intimate relationships with robots programmed to ‘love’ us back? In a Huffington Post poll, 9% of responders admitted that they would have sex with a robot if they could.

It is no wonder that our most intimate devices reflect how we feel about the role of science and technology in our lives. When prized tools were wrought of stone, our ancestors carved dildos. When trains ran on steam, so did our vibrators. Now that interconnectivity is important, so do our sex toys use iPhones and Skype-like connections. And so, with the help of science, we continue our quest to find ever more inventive ways to get ourselves off.

Now off to it, dear reader. Remember, it’s for your health.

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