thing theory (2008)

anth g6085

sex toy

maxime de turckheim (columbia university)

Sex refers to the male and female duality of biology and reproduction"

“A sex toy is any object or device that is primarily used in facilitating human sexual pleasure.”

— Definitions taken from the Museum of Sex NYC


fig 1: rabbit dildo

People and objects have intimate social relationships. From the child who develops an emotional attachment to a teddy bear, to the antique family heirloom, things and people impact on each other, but exactly who exerts agency on who (Gell, Miller, Tilley, Appadurai) becomes the greatest challenge for social scientists.

Interestingly, however, it has generally been considered socially unnatural for an individual to engage in a sexual relationship with an object. Christianity and its condemnation of contraception is an illustrative point. , The state’s role with regards to sexuality has been to constantly restrict and restrain those practices deemed too extreme or perverse. Biologically, sexual encounters and relationships are for the purpose of reproduction. However, individuals have the ability to alter and morph this process to meet their own pleasure-seeking needs. Sex has been liberated hugely from the negative religious and social restrictions previously associated with it. From about the 1960’s onwards, sexuality was being fought for in many areas of Western society, from the women’s liberation movement to the gay rights movement, individuals gained the right to a sexual identity.

With this liberation, unconventional sexual practices were incorporated into the mainstream culture through the media. A Sex and the City episode (Sex and the City Season 1 Episode 9, “The turtle and the hair”) depicting one of the main characters becoming emotionally and physically attached to the “Rabbit Vibrator”, sent sales for this object rocketing over night. Steven Shainberg’s film Secretary (2002), portraying a secretary and her boss’s sadomasochistic relationship, humanized the practice of BDSM (Bondage, Domination, Sadism and Masochism). Sex became no longer bound to the private realm: it began to inhabit all domains of people’s lives.

In this object study I wish to raise awareness to certain issues regarding the adult entertainment industry, as well as explore the materiality of a sex toy. I have always found it strange that the term “toy” was able to inhabit two opposing worlds, that of the child’s’ non-sexual plays and that of the sexualized adult play. Though I will not be dwelling into this occurrence in depth, I believe to some extent many of the terms used in the sex toy industry have developed from an infant’s early encounter with the use of objects for pleasure (though not sexual in nature). “Playing” in itself is attributed to both a non-sexual activity and a sexual one. The ability of individuals to use objects in order to carry out a short lived fantasy can be observed in child playing, where scenarios are created and re-enacted, but equally in adult role playing such as sado-masochism. Freud directly links these two phenomenons, through associating all sexual inclinations to an individual’s childhood experiences (Reik). I believe this psychoanalytical approach is very useful in addressing and explaining the co-habitation of sex and objects; it remains however, very subject centric and does not take into account happenings such as capitalism, fetishism and materiality.


history of the sex toy

Objects have come to occupy an important part of the domain of sex. From condoms to massage oils, individuals having sex are rarely able to carry it out without some kind of material presence. Those who sexually gratify themselves, through masturbation, are more reliant on things as a source of pleasure: video pornography, magazines, dildos, vibrators, all are important stimulant and eventually individuals who use these too frequently create a dependency on these for sexual gratification.


fig. 2: macuaras vibrator 1912


fig. 3: vibrator advertisement


But the negative connotations that are associated with the coexistence of objects and sex continue to persist. The practice of BDSM relies heavily on materials to generate gratification; scenarios are created and enacted in closed “private” spaces whereby objects construct the individual’s fantasy (Davidson, Weinberg,). These practices were outlawed in the 1990’s in the states of Alabama and Georgia. Legal action has been taken against individuals who are seen to be pushing the boundaries too far, as was the case in the 1990 ‘Spanner’ case whereby three men who had video taped themselves carrying out “extreme” scenarios were imprisoned. The defendants’ total ignorance towards the illegality of their activities was hugely responsible for the prosecution

Whether or not using objects for sexual stimulation is “natural” has long been debated in psychoanalysis, sociology and politics. From a historical perspective,  these objects have been in circulation since 500BC and have developed in different contexts in different ways. “Social and cultural taboos vary by locality and historic period. What is forbidden in one place is commonplace in the next. Dominant ideas about acceptable sexuality vary over time and are related to parameters of official regulation” (Quote taken from then Museum of Sex, NYC). With this in mind, it can be argued that technology has played a critical part in how people experience sexuality. The mid 19th century innovations in printing and photography allowed for the possibility for the first mass market erotica, shifting sex from the private domain to the public. Also contraceptive technology allowed men and women to now enjoy physical intimacy without fear of pregnancy. This had the outcome of normalizing the idea of sex and blurring certain concepts of gender within the domain. From this point forth, objects became increasingly integrated and accepted within the sphere of sex. An example of this is the vibrator, which was originally developed for medical reasons in the late 19th century in order to treat female hysteria. In the 1920’s the vibrator came to be sold through mail order by shops such as Sears and Roebuck in the home motor section, in order for women to carry out treatment at home.  The vibrator’s appearance and use in various “stag” films of the 1920’s and 1930’s in a way effectively shattered the medical image it had previously held and re-signified the vibrator as an object belonging exclusively to the realm of sexuality. As a result, the vibrator’s future technological adaptations were geared towards increasing the sexual pleasure and comfort produced.


fig.s 4 & 5: dildos (out of metal and latex)


The increased pace of capitalism of the 20th century, as well as technological advances generated by WWII, have revolutionized the materiality of these sexual objects, allowing them to stimulate a person both physically and mentally. Certain materials are favored when considering which sex toy to use such as metal, latex, plastic and ceramics each in a way producing different sensations. A concept I wish to explore is to what extent is the materiality of a sex toy responsible for human sexual pleasure. Why are certain materials immediately adopted by the industry often found to inhabit a huge part of a fantasy?


exploring the materiality of the dildo

Description: is a long phallic shaped object usually about 6-10 inches long (though it may vary in size) and is normally made out of a variety of materials, from plastics, to metals to glass.  It is a material reproduction of a male phallus, and is used by being inserted into the female genitalia in the hope of producing sexual stimulations.

The dildo finds its origins in 500 yrs BC Greece and was named an olisbos. They were originally made out of wood and necessitate plant extract lubricant in order to be used effectively. In 1844, the discoveries of rubber lead to a revolutionary transformation in the materiality of the dildo. It was now more easily molded into the representation of the male genitalia and its newfound smoothness was emulative of human skin. World War II can be credited for the explosive innovations in sex toys largely due to government scientists developing innovative material for the war, such as plastic and silicone. This allowed an element of material choice for a consumer that has come to be a “key factor in the sex toy industry” (Museum of Sex, New York). Different materials are able to produce different sensations due to texture, hardness, and heat transfer quality. These innovations have led to aesthetic boundaries being pushed and sex toys being influenced by mainstream culture. 

Sex toys are marketed on different criteria depending on the nature of the object. Dildos are marketed mainly on shape and material substance. For example, metallic dildos uses the ability to cool and heat up quickly, making it a potent tool for temperature play.

Silicone and plastics are used for their smoothness and softness allowing the closer materiality of the male penis. Wood, on the other hand, the earliest material used for didlos, was popular due to its hardness and ability to be polished.

Pleasure and materiality can be seen to be a lot more closely linked than individuals believe. Though stimulation of the mind through the generation of people’s fantasies remains the most important factor, the technicality of an object-stimulated orgasm is directly related to the object. Sex toys operate on a two-fronted level: the object induced and subject induced.


sex and state

To what extent are subcultures and practices of sexual nature deemed to be acted upon by the state? One cannot engage in a discussion on sex toys without touching on the legality of the adult entertainment industry. Though legally many of these industries are protected by the First Amendment’s freedom of speech and expression, many urban areas will attempt to restrict the flourishing of these industries.    In 1993, the New York City Division of City Planning conducted a study of the adult entertainment industry in the city. The study concluded that in areas where there was a concentration of adult industry commercial spaces, the presence of these produced negative secondary impacts such as increased crime, decreased property values and reduced commercial activities. This allowed the City of New York to impose restrictions on the location and size of adult industries allowing them to only be located in commercial and manufacturing areas. It was also important that they localize away from “pure” institutions such as churches and schools.  Many businesses in the adult entertainment challenged this and eventually went to court (most notably was the 1998 court case Stringfellows NYC vs. the City of New York). The court eventually ruled in favor of the New York City Council, on condition that the latter could provide adequate proof for restricting the industries development in certain localities.

The state has played a huge role in the negative public view held by the adult entertainment industry. The gentrification of an area would inevitably generate an increase in residential homes and a decrease in the presence of adult entertainment commercial spaces creating “ghettoized” concentrations of these. Consequently, this has in turn created an increased secularization of people engaging in these practices. BDMS for example has come to exist almost exclusively exist as a sub-culture counter public (Warner), governed by a strict rule of conduct and a specific notion of decency that would not be deemed acceptable in public spaces (The Society of Janus is the most important of these).  The negative depiction in the media of public figures being associated with “extreme” sexual practices has further necessitated the isolation and self-preservation of these subcultures.  Sexual choices and activities are protected by the state (First Amendment and various local constitution such as Article 1, Section 8 of the New York State Constitution) but are also mediated by the latter (practices deemed obscene are illegal). Does state intervention within the domain of sex; necessitate creations of counter publics for these to flourish? This is largely dependent on the context in which these occur.


the context sexuality

So how is sexual subjectivity and objectivity produced? Debra Curtis addresses this problem through her study of “sex toy parties”, Tupperware style gatherings for working and middle class women. This was an approach adopted by the adult entertainment industry to market sex toys to women, who felt threatened by the male dominated environment of sex shops. Curtis also explores how the production of sexual subjectivity is articulated within the sex toy industry, and how desires are produced by the market place resulting in sexual innovation. Through her ethnographic findings, Curtis is able to demonstrate the importance of certain historic and social processes for the formation of sexuality, and its construction across time and space. Sexual subjectivity is “always in the making” and individuals attempt to construct this within particular social structures. This view would, to some degree, explain the importance of sex toys for the construction of this subjectivity. From a the historical perspective I have discussed earlier, it can be assumed that the increase of technology generate by the accelerated capitalism that defines much of the 20th century lead in a way to objects and things increasingly co-inhabiting together in all domains of an individual’s life. This in turn allowed for the re-definition of the sexualized subject now able to construct itself through the use of objects.



Benjamin, Jessica (1980) “The Bonds of Love: Rational Violence and Erotic Domination”  Feminist Studies

Curtis, Debra, 2004 “Commodities and Sexual Subjectivities: A Look at Capitalism and Its Desires” in “Cultural Anthropology”

Davidson, Ethan “SM: An Introduction

Hall, Lesley, 1999 “Sexual Cultures in Europe: Themes in Sexuality” (Manchester University Press).Reik, Theodor, 1941 “Masochism In Sex And Society”, (Pyramid Books, New York) 

Warner, Michael, 2005, “Publics And Counterpublics”  (Zone Books, New York)

Weinberg, Martin, 1984 “The Social Constituents Of Sadomasochism” in “Social Problems, Vol.31, No.4”, (JSTOR)





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other sources

“Sex in Design”, Museum of Sex New York, NY. Visited on 03/13/2008