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Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast Episode 278 – The Dildo Episode

Saturday, January 20, 2024 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 278 – The Dildo Episode - transcript

(Originally aired 2024/01/20 - listen here)

Introduction

In reading published research on the social history of dildos—which was not a thing I had actually expected to find—what struck me was how the questions and themes felt similar to the discourse back in the ‘70s when I first entered the lesbian community. In fact, one of the papers I read made that very point.

What does a sex toy shaped like a phallus “mean” with respect to erotic desire, sexual orientation, and social dynamics? Does it emphasize a phallocentric view of sexual intercourse or does it emphasize the irrelevance of living men to women’s sexual pleasure? When a dildo is used, is maleness present or absent? If a woman uses a dildo to give another woman pleasure, does that masculinize her in some way? If so, what does it mean when she uses it all by herself? Does it make a difference if she uses a strap-on or holds it in her hand?

Some questions that are specific to historic discourse include: how confident are we that an object made to represent a phallus can be interpreted as a sex toy? Regardless of whether it’s used solo or by couples, did historic societies categorize the use of a dildo more with masturbation or more with sexual intercourse? And how did societies react to the use of this type of sexual aid? Did it matter who was using it…and on whom?

Liza Blake, in her article “Dildos and Accessories: The Functions of Early Modern Strap-Ons” focuses on an interpretation that, during the 16th through 18th centuries, the dildo was a fashion accessory—much like a hat or a walking stick. She argues against Freud’s view of dildos as a sexual fetish, on the logic that a fetish displaces erotic desire onto an unrelated object, while the dildo has a direct functional connection with the satisfaction of sexual arousal. Both Blake and Ula Klein (writing in Sapphic Crossings: Cross-Dressing Women in Eighteenth-Century British Literature) note the awkward ambiguities when discussing wearable dildos in the context of people who trans gender presentation, as the object may be part of a masculine social presentation without being used for sexual purposes, or may be used as a sexual aid without necessarily being worn for everyday appearance. And even the presence of both functions may or may not coincide with a masculine gender identity. Furthermore, two women together may use a dildo—including a strap-on—for sexual purposes in the absence of any sort of masculine social presentation.

So in this presentation, rather than trying to categorize those various possibilities with respect to some sort of transgender continuum, I will include all evidence regarding the use of dildos by two assigned-female persons. But the question of combining that use with male presentation is salient because it strongly affected how societies reacted to such use.

As Klein notes, although the dildo, in one sense, emphasizes a phallocentric understanding of sex, it blurs the concept of sexual difference. Rather than people being divided into those who do, or do not, have a penis, the penis becomes an optional accessory. It contradicts the image of a “natural” body and becomes one more tool with which a constructed masculinity can be assembled.

Valerie Traub points out that Early Modern women’s employment of anatomical “supplements” does not result in an imitation of man, but a replacement that emphasizes the artificiality of the gender binary, and indeed of “man” as a concept. To the extent that the dildo did become a fetish object, it was not so much for the women who were using them, but for the authorities who fixated on the phallus precisely in the context of its absence and displacement. Early Modern discourse around the use of a dildo by female couples is not about sexuality, so much as it’s about gender; not about the pleasure the women experience, but on the usurpation of male prerogatives. And that usurpation of male prerogatives was precisely the reason why the presence or absence of a dildo became a flashpoint for how female homoeroticism was judged.

It is inescapable that most (though not all) of the literature depicting dildo use was written by men for male consumption. As usual, this makes it difficult to evaluate to what extent it represents reality. Even when dildo use is included in legal testimony, one must consider that it was part of the social mythology around sex between women, and therefore was a point of scrutiny and perhaps even pressure on defendants to shape their narratives to those social myths. But all that said, there is sufficient evidence from multiple genres—including material culture—to conclude that dildos have been used for sexual stimulation for at least the last couple millennia, and were one of the options employed by women to control their own pleasure, both individually and in couples.

One theme that runs through the literature—especially from male authors—is the premise that, to count as “sex”, an act must include a penis or a penis substitute. Therefore, in some cultural contexts, penetration is the defining attribute for a sex act, though the use of a dedicated object is not required. Pleasure might be experienced without penetration, but it might not be classified as “sex.”

Contexts that focus on penetration as essential for pleasure often downplay any emotional relationship between the women involved and focus on the dildo simply as a sex toy. In this genre, there is also a strong theme of women finding the dildo inadequate or at least less satisfying than the biological equivalent. But it could be a “make do” when men are unavailable, as in the Restoration play Sodom or the Quintessence of Debauchery, when the men of the court turn to homosexual pleasures, and the ladies turn to using dildos on each other in frustration. Another example in this vein is the anonymous novel A New Atalantis for the Year One Thousand Seven Hundred and Fifty-Eight where a sexually voracious woman is served by her French dildo-wielding maid who, on proving inadequate to the challenge, brings in a willing footman to finish the job more organically.

But even when the dildo is framed as a dispreferred alternative, there can be suggestions that women are using it in the context of a genuine romantic relationship, as in an anecdote in the 1718 A Treatise of Hermaphrodites where two young Italian women, having lost their male suitors, set up a house together as inseparable companions and take turns pleasuring each other with a strap-on dildo. When used by women in a solo context, the use of a dildo can be framed sympathetically (if with a certain amount of mockery) as in the doggerel verse Monsieur Thing’s Origin: or, Seignior D---o’s Adventures in Britain, detailing the trials and tribulations of a French dildo’s visit to London. Regardless of context, there’s sometimes a nod to the preferability of dildo use because it has no potential to result in pregnancy.

With that introduction, this discussion is going to take on four topics. First, a history of evidence for dildos and similar objects, regardless of who is using them. Then a brief look at some social attitudes toward their use, followed by legal issues specifically regarding female couples, and finally a discussion of terminology and construction.

A Brief History

In classical Greek art and poetry we find depictions and references to an “olisbos” which seems directly equivalent to dildo both in form and function. There is a possible reference to one in Sappho’s poetry, although the text is too fragmentary for context. More overtly, in a poem of the Hellenistic period, two women discuss an elaborate chain of re-gifting an olisbos from woman to woman. Sandra Boehringer concludes that this and several other representations concern the use of the olisbos for solitary gratification and is unconvinced that there is support for its use by female couples. But Nancy Rabinowitz’s article “Excavating Women’s Homoeroticism in Ancient Greece: The Evidence from Attic Vase Painting” identifies two such possible examples, one involving a woman approaching another wearing a “strap-on”, and a sexual scene in which a double-headed dildo is present.

Roman art and literature have similarly ambiguous references. One wall-painting from 1st century Pompeii may show a woman reclining naked in bed being approached by a woman wearing a dildo, but the image is damaged and faded and the interpretation is uncertain. In Lucian’s Dialogues of the Courtesans, when Megillus tells Leaena about having “a substitute of my own” for sex, this may be a reference to a dildo. More clearly, in the 2nd-4th century work Forms of Love (attributed falsely to Lucian), the author suggests, “Let women, too, love each other. Let them strap to themselves cunningly contrived instruments of lechery, those mysterious monstrosities devoid of seed, and let woman lie with woman as does a man.”

The evidence for dildos in the early medieval period primarily comes from penitential manuals that prescribe what sort of penance should be assigned for using one. Women who “practice vice” together are punished less severely than heterosexual adultery and much less severely than male homosexual activity, unless the women use an “instrument”. As noted in the 9th century penitential of Hincmar of Rheims, such women “do not put flesh to flesh as in the fleshly genital member of one into the body of the other, since nature precludes this, but they do transform the use of that part of their body into an unnatural one: it is said that they use instruments of diabolical operations to excite desire.” A version of Iphis and Ianthe revised into a moral lesson in a medieval text converts Ovid’s divinely-mediated change of sex into the use of an artificial penis substitute by the female couple.

In the 13th century, in an Italian legal record, we have an unusually detailed and candid description of the device used by Bertolina Guercia. Court testimony accused her of “using a certain mancipium with two silk testicles, conducting herself lustfully with women with this mancipium as men do with women.” The witness said that Bertolina showed him her silk virilia (i.e., dildo) and explained that she used it for sexual purposes.

Until we get closer to the 17th century, the evidence is similar to Bertolina’s case: testimony in court records where the presence or use of a dildo is taken as evidence of criminal sexual activity between two women. (Note that this only applies in countries where such use was illegal, which wasn’t the case in England.) As we’ll discuss later, this could be the key element in whether the relationship was considered criminal, and influenced the fate of the accused. While Bertolina used her virilia for sexual purposes, she was not accused of cross-dressing. Whereas in 15th century Germany, Katherina Hetzeldorfer used her strap-on in the context of cross-dressing, passing for a man, and sexually assaulting a woman—for which she was executed.

A turning point in our evidence for dildo use was the rise of pornographic texts, starting in the 16th century. Aretino’s illustrated sexual “dialogues” included women pleasuring themselves with dildos. An illustrated edition of Nicholas Chorier’s Satyra Sotadica shows a group of upper-class women shopping in a “dildo market” with wares hung up on display as if in a butcher’s shop. Brantôme’s Lives of Gallant Ladies goes into some detail about dildos at the French court, usually in a context that mocks the women or suggests that this practice will inevitably have negative consequences. He tells an anecdote about a ruler who, “having suspicions about two ladies of his court who made use of them, had them watched so well that he surprised them, so that one was found possessed of and fitted with a large one between her legs, neatly fastened with little bands around her body, so that it seemed to be a natural member.” In another story, the apartments of the ladies in waiting were being searched for contraband weapons, and “there was one who was found by the captain of the guards in possession in her chest not of pistols but of four large, neatly made dildos.”

Up through the 17th century, there was an expectation that women had an active sex drive and would naturally seek out a means of satisfying it. In this context, the dildo was depicted as a tool used by women of all classes and sexual orientations for their fulfilment. While court records highlighted the conjunction of dildos with gender crossing, popular literature was far more likely to associate them with femme women who simply happened to be over-sexed. Sexual practices of all types treated female pleasure as desirable and essential, both for successful impregnation and for a woman’s health. But the rise of interest in dildos, shifts the context from procreation to pleasure; from medical advice to bawdy humor. In this context, the image of two femme women instructing each other in the pleasures of non-procreative sex merges seamlessly with the image of lesbians, engaging in sex with each other for its own sake (though always—in the literature—for the purpose of the male reader’s arousal).

The early 18th century doggerel verse Monsieur Thing’s Origin: or, Seignior D---o’s Adventures in Britain, details the trials and tribulations of a French dildo’s visit to London, illustrating both solitary use by women frustrated in love, and one verse involving a female couple.

One of these girls tied Monsieur to her middle,
To try if she the secret could unriddle;
She acted man, being in a merry mood,
Striving to please her partner as she cou’d;
And thus they took it in their turns to please
Their lustful inclinations to appease.

In the anonymous 1735 poem “The Sappho-an” the Greek gods have been warned that the women of Olympus are sexually unsatisfied because the gods are all dallying with boys instead of paying attention to them. The mortal poet Sappho shows up and explains to the goddesses that there are other ways to get satisfaction. An extensive catalog of techniques and implements are discussed before Sappho settles down to displaying and demonstrating an ivory dildo.

While pop culture references to dildos were often simply salacious and mocking, there was also a streak of hostility. There is a running theme throughout western history that sex between women is inherently less satisfying because only penetrative sex is the “real thing.” But the use of a dildo raises anxieties that perhaps even that handicap can be worked around, making men entirely obsolete with regard to women’s pleasure. In some literature, anxiety about dildoes stands in for a shift in understanding that perhaps women don’t actually need men to have completely satisfying sex lives. The phallus becomes separated, not only from male bodies, but from the context of masculinity entirely.

But in the later 18th century, we begin seeing the notion that the idealized woman was sexually passive. In this context, active sexuality shifted to being viewed as inherently masculine (or low-class, or foreign) and the motif arises of the dangerous, masculine-appearing woman who seduces and satisfies her female lover with the aid of a dildo. We can see these contrasting themes co-existing in John Cleland’s Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (or Fanny Hill), where the instrument is primarily a sex toy, and in the biography of Catherine Vizzani (introduced to England via Cleland’s translation and adaptation), where a young Italian woman with an exclusive sexual interest in women, cross-dresses and enjoys multiple sexual relationships with women, using a leather dildo.

While Vizzani achieved an unusual degree of acceptance and success, it is far more likely for the records to feature lives gone badly awry, in which the presence of dildo-mediated sex is only one aspect, but becomes a locus of anxiety and an excuse for harsh measures. The strap-on dildo used by Catharina Lincken in her marriage to Catharina Muhlhahn (as well as in her other previous relationships with women) was a central feature of the 1721 court case against her, although violent interactions with her mother-in-law and her habit of switching back and forth between Catholicism and Protestantism were of greater legal significance.

Another German trial in 1802 followed similar lines. Ilsabe Bunck joined the army and twice married women while presenting as a man. Bunck’s use of a dildo for sexual relations became a major point of contention in court to determine whether it fell in the category of sodomy, but her execution was most likely due to other contributing circumstances.

The dildo fades from view in popular culture across the 18th century as it shifts from being viewed as a sex toy to being viewed as more closely associated with lesbianism. But at the same time, as a focus of social anxiety, the dildo was being displaced by the image of the lesbian with an enlarged clitoris that was capable of penetration. It was as if, once the dildo had been firmly strapped onto a lesbian body, the next step was to envision it as growing there organically. The dildo would only re-emerge into public discourse with the rise of the decadent movement’s fascination with lesbian sex in the later 19th century.

Social Considerations

As we’ve seen, social attitudes towards dildos shifted with changing perceptions of female sexuality, of the definitions of sexual acts, and of the ways in which female sexual independence challenged phallocentric assumptions and men’s relevance to women’s pleasure. When dildos are viewed as a “second-best” alternative for pleasure, used by femme-presenting women, they tend to be lightly mocked as harmless toys. But when they are viewed as a serious challenge to men’s position, the mockery becomes harsher and the spectre is raised that dildos will injure women’s reproductive systems—as Brantôme asserts—that their use will lead to licentious moral decay, or that their use represents an appropriation of male privilege.

The use of a dildo by women who transed gender placed them in the most heavily condemned group, even in places like England where the condemnation was social rather than legal. In contrast, even clearly articulated female same-sex desire was treated mildly as long as overt male signifiers were not present. At best, the dildo is depicted humorously as an independent male presence within women’s erotic space. Only occasionally, when appropriated more overtly as attachable masculinity do attitudes veer into unease. That unease becomes overt anxiety when the dildo serves as part of a more complete masculine presentation. Dildos destabilize masculinity from two angles: the ability to appropriate it, and the ability to render it irrelevant.

Another aspect of cultural response to dildos is in an element of xenophobia with the object being depicted as a “foreign visitor,” as in the poem Monsieur Thing’s Origin. This may partially motivate the peculiar fascination Europeans had with the use of dildos among secluded women in Islamic cultures, such as the story travelers told about the use of cucumbers in Ottoman harems. But such information is not limited to the writings of Europeans. In the 16th century, Ottoman scholar Deli Birader Gazali wrote, “In big cities, there are famous dildo women. They put on manly clothes, they ride cavalry horses, and they also ride kochis [covered wagons] for fun. Rich and noble women invite them to their houses and offer them nice shirts and clothing. These women tie dildos on their waist and grease them with almond oil, and then start the job, dildoing the cunt.”

Despite the focus of this present podcast, one important thing to keep in mind is that there has never been a fixed correspondence between dildo use and female homoeroticism. For every example of dildos in sapphic contexts, there’s a counter-example where the device explicitly stands in for a desired heterosexual activity that is unavailable or inconvenient. Furthermore, dildos are only one of a wide range of sexual techniques associated with female couples—though one that is highly salient because of the anxiety it produces in society. Nor is there always a close correlation between female masculinity and a preference for use of a dildo. Ann Lister—you knew I had to drop in a Lister reference at some point, right?—Ann Lister, for all that she envisioned her desire for women as partaking of some sort of inherent masculinity, never gives any indication that she used a dildo in bed and, in fact, expresses disdain for “sapphic artifices that create distance” which, in context, can be interpreted as a dildo.

Legal Considerations

Aside from social attitudes towards dildo use, depending on the era and context, there could be legal consequences that ranged from awkward to deadly. As noted previously, official anxiety around dildos was not so much about their sexual function as it was about gender appropriation. The church might frown on any sort of unauthorized sex—especially if it fit the shifting definition of “sodomy” at that moment—but the penances for women using an “instrument” for non-procreative sex demonstrate that this was considered more on the level of masturbation than adultery or fornication.

But when the use of a dildo was combined with other aspects of appropriating a male role, then both the religious and secular authorities brought out the big guns. Prosecutions for sexual activity between women are notoriously scanty in the records—far less common than for sexual activity between men. And, as noted previously, in some places such as England, there were no official legal prohibitions at all. But when we look at the legal cases addressing women’s sexual relationships, a common thread is that prosecution rarely occurs unless a penetrative instrument is involved, and the consequences are most severe when both a dildo and gender-crossing is involved.

In Louis Crompton’s classic study “The Myth of Lesbian Impunity,” reviewing legal cases in Europe between the 13th and 18th centuries, among the 6 cases he identifies where at least one of the women was executed, 4 involved both cross-dressing and the use of a dildo, one involved a dildo only, and one deliberately omits details of the sexual act from the record (but also involves other aggravating circumstances). Other researchers have added to this tally by searching legal archives. Sherry Velasco identifies a number of prosecutions for lesbian acts in Spanish records of the Inquisition, where a key element of the testimony and sentencing was whether an “instrument” had been used. If it was concluded that no instrument had been involved, there might be no prosecution, even when the women confessed to a sexual relationship. And if an instrument was used but there was no cross-dressing, the women were not always condemned. Further, cross-dressing alone—though penalized—does not appear to have resulted in execution in the absence of sexual elements. But when the two factors are combined, the default result was execution unless there were significant extenuating circumstances.

In countries where there was no legal basis for prosecuting “female sodomy,” cases where there was an intersection of gender-crossing and sexual relations using a dildo were usually categorized as “fraud” if someone took the trouble to make an accusation. In this context, the sexual aspect might be treated as a sensational “extra” but the primary concern was laying claim to a masculine gender role, including marriage to a woman.

Words and Materials

The earliest identified use of the word “dildo” for a sex toy is in Thomas Nashe’s 1592 poem “The Choise of Valentines.” Later references attribute the origin of the word to Italy, perhaps as an adaptation of diletto “pleasure.” But a competing theory notes that there’s a long tradition of English ballads using “dildo” and related words as “nonsense” refrains, including in sexual or suggestive contexts—a tradition that continued through the 17th century. This ambiguity between nonsense-rhymes and sex toys is sometimes deliberately employed to create innuendo.

But earlier, and outside the English-speaking world, what else were these objects called?

We’ve already mentioned the classical Greek olisbos. In Latin, a phallus-shaped amulet was called a fascinum from its other purpose in protecting against magic or witchcraft, but the word also appears when its used as a sex toy, as in the Satyricon of Petronius. Medieval Latin sources tend to describe it simply as an instrument or device, and we see this tradition continued in Bertolina’s mancipium using a word meaning “possession, property.” Bertolina also describes her sex aid as a virilia, simply indicating a male sex organ, and this is another strand of vocabulary where the object may be labeled with the same language used for the body part. Catharina Vizzani’s instrument is described in Italian as a piuolo which appears to mean “peg or stake.” A late 19th century source indicates that other Italian terms are passatempo (past-time) and diletto (delight), but it’s unclear how early these were used. In French the later term is godemiche, supposedly from Latin gaude mihi meaning “please me” and it may well be that this is the word represented by the abbreviation “g” in Brantôme’s late 16th century writings. Two lesbians in early 16th century Spain were called by their neighbors baldresera in reference to their dildo use—a word that (based on a very cursory search) may refer to a type of very soft leather, presumably meaning the material involved in the dildo’s construction. So, in general, terminology seems to be descriptive, with only a few contexts offering a dedicated word for the object.

We find a great deal more information on materials and even specific shapes in some cases. Leather is the most commonly-mentioned material. The early Greek poem that talked about a dildo being passed around among women described it as “beautifully stitched red leather.” The 15th century trial records of Katharina Hetzeldorfer include a fairly detailed description of her “instrument.” One of her female partners described it as “a huge thing, as big as half an arm. She thought it was like a horn and pointed in front and wide behind.” Katharina then confesses that after penetrating her partner first with her fingers and then with a “piece of wood what she held between her legs,” she said she then “made an instrument with a red piece of leather, at the front filled with cotton, and a wooden stick stuck into it, and made a hole through the wooden stick, put a string through, and tied it round.” Spanish records of 1502 and 1603 describe an instrument made of lambskin and one of leather, though the user of the latter said she stopped using it because it was painful. In 1721, Catherina Linck engaged in sexual relations using “a penis of stuffed leather with two stuffed testicles made from pig’s bladder attached to it.” Also in the 18th century, Catterina Vizzani used “a nice leather dildo, stuffed with rags” which was belted on. An archaeological find of a leather dildo from an 18th century site in Poland is about 8 inches long, stuffed with hair, has a carved wooden tip, and has two testicles attached at the base. The trial records of Ilsabe Bunck in 1802 allege she used an artificial penis made of leather or fabric, though the testimony was contradictory.

Fabric of various types is the next most common material mentioned. In addition to Ilsabe’s fabric dildo just mentioned, Bertolina’s 13th century Italian one was made of silk, with attached silk testicles. Two late 17th century literary references describe a dildo sewn from velvet and stuffed with bran, and one made from satin and velvet. Liza Blake’s article includes a photo of a surviving cloth dildo with cords for attaching it to the body, but there is no provenance attributed to it.

Two records refer to wooden implements, not counting the use of wood as an internal stiffening agent. In the 15th century, Katharina Hetzeldorfer said she used a piece of wood held between her legs before making one of leather stiffened with wood. Two Spanish women in 1603 were said to use a dildo made of cane, although they testified they used leather instead.

At a higher level of luxury, ivory had its supporters. The reference to an ivory dildo in the 18th century poem The Sappho-an may have been literary hyperbole, but there is a surviving ivory artifact of the same century, possibly French, that is hollow and includes a “squirting mechanism” as well as coming with an embroidered cloth storage bag.

Similarly smooth, but less luxurious, there are several literary references to dildos made of glass. Thomas Nashe’s 1592 poem “The Choise of Valentines” describes one as “almost two handfuls high, straight, round, and plumb” with “one eye,” made of “congealed glass” and nourished with water or milk that spurts forth. At a similar date, John Marston’s poem “The Scourge of Villanies” describes a woman using a “glassie instrument.”

Some commentaries on dildos compare them favorably to alternatives such as candles, fingers, or vegetables such as carrots and parsnips. And then, of course, there’s the infamous reference to cucumbers in travelers’ tales about Ottoman Turkey. So if we’re being expansive, we can add vegetables and candles to the catalog of more temporary dildo materials.

Part of Liza Blake’s thesis about viewing dildos as dress accessories has to do with the shift to attaching them to the body with straps. Katherina Hetzeldorfer described a simple system with a string passed through a hole in the wooden handle of the dildo and tied around the body. The majority of references to attachment methods come from the 18th century, including the use of ribbons in the Treatise of Hermaphrodites, the “new-invented belt” mentioned in The Sappho-an, and Caterina Vizzani’s use of a belt for attachment. In Emma Donoghue’s book Passions Between Women she mentions a variation where the dildo could be attached with straps to the jaw rather than the crotch, perhaps suggesting it was designed for simultaneous oral sex. I haven’t been able to track down the source of this particular example.

In addition to the basic function of being stiff enough to insert and of an appropriate size and shape, dildos might have any of a number of additional features. Some are described as having attached testicles, which may be a design feature if used for gender crossing, but in other cases simply seems to be an aesthetic choice. One description mentions “rowels to heighten delights” which is somewhat hard to envision if we’re talking about something resembling spur rowels, that is, a rotating spiked wheel used to goad a horse. A regularly mentioned feature is a mechanism for squirting warm water or milk, perhaps held in a hollow reservoir in the dildo, to simulate ejaculation. The surviving possibly-18th century ivory dildo includes just such a mechanism, and this feature is mentioned in Nashe’s “The Choise of Valentines” and in the poem “Portsmouth’s Returne.”

There are a few mentions in the context of gender-crossing of phallic devices used for urination. Katharina Hetzeldorfer used an object “like a horn” that she was said to urinate through. In the 18th century, Christian Davies said that finding a “little silver tube” that a cross-dressing solder used for urination was the inspiration for Davies to do the same. But there seems to be no evidence that the same object would also be used for sexual purposes

Conclusions

Bringing this topic back around to the purpose of the Lesbian Historic Motif Project, if you’re writing sapphic characters into history, would they have considered using a dildo for sex? What would they have thought about it? What would others think if they found out? Would it cause legal problems for them? As we can see, the answers are all over the map. Although there are large gaps in the nature of the historic evidence, there does seem to be a fairly continuous tradition of dildos being an available option, either for solitary use or for couples, and when used by couples, there seems to be a fairly continuous tradition of attaching them to the body for use. Although dildo use would fall outside of approved sexuality under the usual Christian emphasis on procreative sex, there were eras and contexts where it was considered nothing worse than a harmless amusement, if perhaps one that a woman might be teased about. Furthermore, throughout most of history there was no special association of dildos with lesbian sex. Not all lesbians used dildos and not all dildo users were lesbians. So possessing such an instrument would not be evidence about one’s sexual orientation as long as the user was not also cross-dressing. But in a significant subset of times and places, the combination of cross-dressing and dildo use could put the user in legal jeopardy, up to and including execution—not so much for the sexual transgression as for the challenge to male privilege. It’s up to you, the author, to decide where to go with all that.

Show Notes

In this episode we talk about:

  • The cultural dynamics of dildo use
  • A history of dildos in western culture
  • The social and legal consequences of dildo use
  • Terminology and materials of construction
  • Sources used
    • Arvas, Abdulhamit. 2014. “From the Pervert, Back to the Beloved: Homosexuality and Ottoman Literary History, 11453-1923” in The Cambridge History of Gay and Lesbian Literature ed. E.L. McCallum & Mikko Tuhkanen. Cambridge University Press, New York. ISBN 978-1-107-03521-8
    • Auanger, Lisa. “Glimpses through a Window: An Approach to Roman Female Homoeroticism through Art Historical and Literary Evidence” in Rabinowitz, Nancy Sorkin & Lisa Auanger eds. 2002. Among Women: From the Homosocial to the Homoerotic in the Ancient World. University of Texas Press, Austin. ISBN 0-29-77113-4
    • Benkov, Edith. “The Erased Lesbian: Sodomy and the Legal Tradition in Medieval Europe” in Same Sex Love and Desire Among Women in the Middle Ages. ed. by Francesca Canadé Sautman & Pamela Sheingorn. Palgrave, New York, 2001.
    • 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
    • Boehringer, Sandra (trans. Anna Preger). 2021. Female Homosexuality in Ancient Greece and Rome. Routledge, New York. ISBN 978-0-367-74476-2
    • Bon, Ottaviano. 1587. Descrizione del serraglio del Gransignore. Translated by Robert Withers (1625) as The Grand Signiors Serraglio, published in: Hakluytus Posthumus, or Purchas his Pilgrimes edited by Samuel Purchas.
    • Borris, Kenneth (ed). 2004. Same-Sex Desire in the English Renaissance: A Sourcebook of Texts, 1470-1650. Routledge, New York. ISBN 978-1-138-87953-9
    • Brantôme (Pierre de Bourdeille, seigneur de Brantôme). 1740. Vies des Dames Galantes. Garnier Frères, Libraires-Éditeurs, Paris.
    • Burshatin, Israel. “Elena Alias Eleno: Genders, Sexualities, and ‘Race’ in the Mirror of Natural History in Sixteenth-Century Spain” in Ramet, Sabrina Petra (ed). 1996. Gender Reversals and Gender Cultures: Anthropological and Historical Perspectives. Routledge, London. ISBN 0-415-11483-7
    • Castle, Terry (ed). 2003. The Literature of Lesbianism: A Historical Anthology from Ariosto to Stonewall. Columbia University Press, New York. ISBN 0-231-12510-0
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  • This topic is discussed in one or more entries of the Lesbian Historic Motif Project here: Dildo

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