Sex toys through history

Some months ago the movie Hysteria was showing, a light hearted romantic comedy set in London in the 1880's. The story is about how the British physician Dr Joseph Mortimer Granville, played by Hugh Dancy invented the first mechanical vibrator.

From the time of Hippocrates to the Victorian area, diagnosis and treatment of women's problematic "hysteria" was a consistent theme in the medical literature. This so-called disorder was diagnosed when women exhibited symptoms such as anxiety, irritability, fluid retention, insomnia and erotic fantasies.

The physicians believed that a woman's display of mental or emotional distress was a clear indication of her need for sexual release. Genital massage became a standard treatment for hysteria, the objective was to induce "hysterical paroxysm" (better known as orgasm) in the patient. This treatment demanded both manual dexterity and a lot of time, so when this portable vibrator was available the physicians were very pleased with their efficiency, convenience and reliability.

The Science Museum in London has a collection of more than 40 early vibrators which were widely advertised at the time. In 1918 Sears, Roebuck & Company offered a vibrator attachment for a home motor that would also drive a mixer, a churner or sewing machine. In 1922 the portable vibrators were promoted as "delightful companions".

These days, vibrators and other sex toys are part of most couples lives and we buy them at unprecedented numbers. They are available in classy adult shops, from on-line retailers and sometimes sold at Tupperware-style home parties.

But how healthy are these toys? Devices designed for pleasure may seem harmless, but they can lead to a variety of nasty maladies. The main concern is what they are made of. Many popular erotic toys are made of polyvinyl chlorides (PVC) plastics which release toxins during their manufacture and disposal and are softened with release toxins during their manufacture and disposal and are softened with phthalates, a controversial family of chemicals.

Unlike other plastic items that humans use like medical devices or chew-friendly children's toys, sex toys go largely unregulated and untested. In recent years testing has revealed the potentially serious health impacts of phthalates. Studies on rats and mice suggests that exposure could cause cancer and damage to the reproductive system. Minute levels of some phthalates have been linked to sperm damage in men. In 2005 two published studies linked phthalate exposure in the womb and through breast milk to male reproductive issues.

Controversy over the health impact of phthalates has raged for years in Europe and the US. In Germany the Green Party has called for new laws regulating sex toys. According to Der Spiegel on-line in January 2011, German officials warn that these toxic substances can enter the body through mucous membranes and lead to a host of health problems, such as infertility, hormone imbalances, diabetes, and even obesity.

In 2004 the European Union banned phthalates in products intended for infants, and the US followed suit in 2008.

In the US sex toys are mostly unregulated, but US expert Stefanie Iris Weis, author of Eco-Sex: Go Green Between the Sheets and Make Your Love Life Sustainable, advises to look for toys made from medical-grade silicone, and opt for vibrators with rechargeable batteries for a more eco-friendly choice. Glass sex toys, commonly made from clear medical grade borosilicate or hard glass, are also marketed as a safe and nontoxic option.

Several children's toy makers and sex toy operators are among the first retailers in Australia to promote their products as being phthalates-free. Heidi Zuegn from the female and couple friendly Adult store MaXXX Black in Newtown states: "We are the only store in Australia to be phthalates free; which means all our toys are hypoallergenic and body safe."

But with increased use comes increased mishaps. According to a study published in the USA in 2009 in the Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, thousands of people, mainly in their 30s sustained injuries and needed help retrieving their sex toys. These numbers only include people willing to recount to triage nurses their stories of erotic adventures gone wrong; actual injury rates are likely much higher.

Dr Gordian Fulde, the director of Emergency at St Vincent's Hospital has a Monday column in Sydney's Daily Telegraph where he describes what sort of accidents happened over the weekend. His staff mainly treats people who are hurt when fuelled by alcohol or illegal drugs. He never writes about unfortunate lovers who got carried away, probably a too graphic topic to write about.

Matty Silver is a Sydney-based sex therapist and relationships counsellor.

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