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LHMP #419 Blake 2011 Dildos and Accessories

Full citation: 

Blake, Liza. 2011. “Dildos and Accessories: The Functions of Early Modern Strap-Ons” in Ornamentalism: The Art of Renaissance Accessories. University of Michigan Press. pp. 130-156

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Blake is looking at the history of the dildo in early modern culture not as a physical object, but as fulfilling the function of a fashion accessory. This, despite opening the conversation by stating that she is not viewing it for its symbolic purpose, but for its functional one. In passing, she notes that philosophical arguments about the function on the dildo in history have resonances with modern arguments about the symbolism and function of dildoes in lesbian relationships. Fortunately, the initial discussion that invokes a lot of Freud and Derrida soon moves on to more practical matters both physical and literary. In viewing the dildo as a “accessory” Blake is examining it, both in terms of being an assistive device, and as being a fashion statement—as a “thing” on its own rather than as a symbolic substitute for something else.

One of the values of this article are the extensive and detailed references to dildos both in legal records and in popular culture. For my own purposes, I’ll include something of a bullet point list of those references at the end of the summary.

The practical examples open with an illustration from the Marquis de Sade’s 1795 La philosophie dans le boudoir, depicting various uses of the dildo both as a freestanding object, and as a strap-on. The dildo as a “prosthesis” for a disabled man is suggested facetiously in one 17th c poem, but more typically it is an enhancement for sexual pleasure, either in addition to, or as an alternative to, the male member. This may include devices for producing a spray of warm water or milk to simulate ejaculation. (Although it is regularly emphasized in the literature that one benefit of a dildo is that there is no risk of pregnancy.) A regular motif is the use of straps to attach the dildo to the lower body—typically associated with female use.

A comparison is made between the symbolic/practical parallels between the codpiece and the dildo as fashion accessories. The codpiece had purely symbolic function as a fashion accessory and fell out of fashion due to changing images of masculinity, whereas the dildo—even if inspired as a symbolic analog to the penis, retained popularity because its practical uses were distinct and separable form its symbolic reference.

Blake asserts that the dildo and strap-on become “culturally visible” in the last quarter of the 17th century in parallel with their development as “luxury commodities” dissociated from being representations of a penis. Earlier examples of “fake and detached penises”, she claims, did not have this aspect. [Note: I’m not sure I’m buying this argument, unless earlier references to use of penetrative sex toys are being considered in a different category entirely.] To the extent that I understand her argument, she is asserting that only in the Renaissance did people start strapping dildos on for use, which is the distinction that make them an “accessory” (as opposed to a tool?).

The legal visibility of strap-on dildoes when used between women emerges on the Continent rather than England, due to differences in the legal codes. Multiple prosecutions from France and Spain are mentioned in which a woman both cross-dresses and uses a strap-on dildo to have sex with a female partner. The multiple functions of the device to enhance cross-dressing, to enable standing urination, and to engage in penetrative sex are discussed.

But the dildo could be viewed as a sexual rival for a man even when used solo. Satirical poems warn men that women who are unsatisfied will take their own pleasure in hand using a dildo. The purpose-made dildo could be viewed as a sign of sophistication when used in place of more everyday penetrative objects such as candles and vegetables. Poems list it as a luxury object that can be bought alongside other accessories such as gloves and perfume. And in addition to references to luxurious materials, some descriptions indicate additional features such as “rowels to heighten delights” as well as the previously-mentioned ability to eject warm liquid as desired.

Lest one think that luxury materials are a literary motif only, a surviving carved ivory dildo (possibly dating to the 18th century) includes a squirting mechanism and a cloth storage bag. In a somewhat confusing description of materials (leather, velvet filled with bran, wax, horn, ivory, wood, glass) Blake suggests that “soft covers could be made for ease of carrying, cleaning, or cushioning” or for “resizing” as in a poem describing “…a slender glass all covered with satten or such like most curiously and by our caves form just is measured.” Or the reference in The Sappho-an, “if too rude the polished engine seems, the velvet cov’ring keeps it from extremes…for to your choice they shall adapt the size.” Whether substance or storage case, there are references to a personified dildo being “dressed up” as in the ballad Monsieur Thing’s Origin that M. Thing might at first be considered “no person of note, because he’ll appear in a plain leather coat,” but later when taken up by the nobility they “cloathed him in satin and brought him to court.” Similarly, the dildo in Nashe’s poem is “attired in white velvet or silk.” [Note: I do wonder if some of the references to “covers” for dildos that Blake is interpreting as part of the substance of the instrument itself might not be references to carrying cases instead. It’s hard to imagine the durability and comfort of a velvet one!]

Blake explores the vocabulary of dildoes including various theories on the origin of the word “dildo.” Most attribute the first unambiguous use of the work in a sex toy sense to Thomas Nashe’s “The Choise of Valentines” in 1592. Later references attribute the origin of the word to Italy, perhaps as an adapation of diletto “pleasure”, but there’s also a long tradition of English ballads using “dildo” and related words as “nonsense” refrains, including sexual or suggesting contexts—a tradition that continued through the 17th century. The ambiguity between nonsense-rhymes and sex toys is sometimes deliberately employed to create innuendo. Although Nashe’s poem was not publicly printed at the time, it was evidently well known in circulation as other authors make reference to it. The original, full poem is clearly about “male sexual inadequacy and female sexual autonomy” but several expurgated versions were also in circulation that keep the initial sexual content but remove the references to the dildo, thus assuaging male anxieties and denying women’s autonomous pleasure. Rather than serving to focus women’s pleasure on the male member (even when the man isn’t present), the dildo can be interpreted here as representing a displacement of the male ego. [Note: Blake is referencing Valerie Traub’s interpretation here, so this isn’t necessarily a contradiction of her own position that the dildo is not a symbol.] Blake instead views it as contributing one more “choice” to the sexual options. But the poem also acknowledges that access to this option allows women to “scorn Cupid” and disdain men, which parallels one of Nashe’s themes that love poetry of the time dwells too much on frustration and pain rather than pleasure.

Scattered among various end-notes to the article are references to materials that dildoes might be made of, including velvet stuffed with bran, glass, and leather. Another note offers more vocabulary, quoting Burton’s Arabian Nights in 1886: Latin phallus and fascinum, French godemiche, Italian passatempo, diletto. Separately, French godemiche is traced to Latin gaude mihi (please me).

The article includes several figures. In addition to the illustration from the Sade book, there is a photo of an undated cloth dildo with cords attached, and a photo of a carved ivory dildo that includes a mechanism for emitting liquid, together with a cloth storage bag, attributed “possibly French, possibly eighteenth century.”

List of dildo references and descriptions in the article

  • 14th c. – unspecified record – Description of a wax model of a penis made as a votive offering, presumably as part of a religious charm against impotence or infertility. No implication of direct sexual use.
  • 16th c. - (unspecified legal records) – women caught and prosecuted for using a strap-on dildo with another woman.
  • 16th c. – Antonio Gómez (legal commentary) – Reference to a woman having sexual relations with a woman using a “material instrument.” A reference to two nuns condemned for this act.
  • 16th c. – Pierre Brantôme Lives of Fair and Gallant Ladies (book) – Describes dildoes as gentiment faconnés “nobly fashioned.”
  • 1502 – Spanish legal record – A person appearing to be a man was arrested as a thief in Valencia  and discovered to be female-bodied and wearing “a thing of a man, between her legs, made of leather” which she confessed to having used for sexual relations with a woman.
  • 1533 – France (legal record) – Two women tried but acquitted for having sex using a dildo.
  • 1580 – Michel de Montaigne (diary) – Description of a woman who passed as a man and married a woman using “illicit devices” to engage in sex.
  • 1584 – Reginald Scot The Discoverie of Witchcraft (book) – Description of the use of a wax image of her husband’s supposedly bewitched penis as a religious counter-charm against impotence. No implication of direct sexual use.
  • 1592 - Thomas Nashe (poem) “The Choise of Valentines” – A tale of a man who, after various sexual endeavors with his mistress with variable success, is dismissed in favor of a dildo. The poem then includes an extensive description of the object (not included in this article however the poem can be found online: The object is “almost two handfuls high, straight, round, and plumb” with “one eye,” made of “congealed glass” and nourished with water or milk that spurts forth. (Description not from Blake.)
  • 1598 – John Marston The Scourge of Villanies (genre not mentioned) – Describes a woman who scorns her husband, evidently for providing her with insufficient pleasure in bed, and satisfies herself “with glassie instrument.”
  • 17th c. – “News from Crutchet-Fryers” (ballad) – Description of a group of women throwing dildoes over a neighbor’s wall in order to harass her.
  • 1656 – “To a Lady Vexed with a Jealous Husband” (poem) – Warns a husband that even if he locks up his wife, “she’ll make thee cuckold with an instrument.”
  • 1672 – Samuel Butler (poem) The Dildoides – Suggests that, just as military amputees are offered artificial limbs, men whose sexual performance is impaired by venereal disease or drunkenness might strap on a dildo instead.
  • 1674 – John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester “Seigneur Dildoe” (poem) – Describes the dildo as being an improvement over the use of “candle, finger, or thumb.”
  • 1682 – “Portsmouth’s Returne” (poem) – Describes a woman shopping for “elaborately fashioned dildoes” made of “satin and velvet” with “furling water to draw’t up streight, and rowels to heighten delights.”.
  • 1684 – anonymous Eve Revived, or the Fair One Stark-Naked (novel) – Description of two girls making a dildo out of velvet, stuffed with bran.
  • 1718 – Treatise of Hermaphrodites (non-fiction book) – Describes a female couple where one fastens the dildo onto her crotch on with ribbons.
  • 1722 – anonymous (poem) Monsieur Thing’s Origin: or, Seignor D---o’s Adventures in Britain – Satirical verses describing various women using a dildo, including one verse involving a female couple.
  • 1735 – (poem) The Sappho-an – Sappho describes the historical origin and evolution of the dildo. Mentions in passing the sexual use of objects such as candles, carrots, and parsnips. References use with a “new-invented belt.”
  • 1795 - Marquis de Sade (book illustration) La philosophie dans le boudoir – An illustration of a woman using a strap-on dildo on a man, who in turn is wielding a freestanding dildo on a woman who is also interacting with other men. All dildo-mediated interactions are between a m/f pair.

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