This article appears in our 2015 Summer issue, Blue. Subscribe today!
Since we live in an age when any woman can waltz into Target and emerge bearing a shopping bag full of Fifty Shades of Greyâ€“branded cock rings, Trojan vibrators, and strawberry lube, itâ€™s hard to imagine that sex toys were once controversial within the feminist movement. But 40 years ago, sex toys were highly contentious. And their path to acceptance within the feminist movement started in an unlikely place: the basement of Gosnell Duncan. In 1965, Duncan was welding the bed of a truck on his overnight shift at the International Harvester Company in Chicago when the vehicle fell on top of him. Within seconds, the 37-year-old Ã©migrÃ© from Grenada was paralyzed from the waist down. A skilled dancer and handsome ladiesâ€™ man, Duncan was devastated. He would never have an erection again. (Duncanâ€™s girlfriend didnâ€™t mind; they were married in the hospital.)
Still, Duncan was dissatisfied, and he began considering penile substitutesâ€”but in 1965, his options were bleak. As Duncan became involved in the disability movement in the late 1960s, he learned that he wasnâ€™t alone. Many other disabled people wanted to have good sex but didnâ€™t know where to turn for help. While many saw themselves as sexual beings, their doctorsâ€”not to mention the sexual revolutionâ€”did not. Even in the disability movement at large, many chose to focus on other, more â€œseriousâ€� issues. Duncan began brainstorming on his own about how he could make sex aids for the disabled.
When we spoke in 2013, Duncan told me that when he traveled to an Indianapolis disability conference in 1971, he was thrilled to see a session on sex and disability. During the session, Duncan patiently listened to speakers discuss their challenges with sex but didnâ€™t hear many solutions. He saw his chance and took it: Surrounded by his target market, he asked if they would purchase a dildo. The answer was a resounding yes. Duncan returned to Brooklyn armed with confidence and began investigating the dildos that were already on the market. â€œIn the 1970s…most dildos were made of heat-treated rubber and would melt with heat,â€� Duncan said. â€œI wanted to have a product that was different…. Something that…you couldnâ€™t [melt] by washing and cleaning it.â€� Besides the melt factor, he found many dildos were also made of irritating materials and had strong chemical odors that people were often sensitive to.
Dildos were low quality at the time for a number of reasons, the biggest being that they were technically illegal under the Comstock Law, a century-old federal anti-obscenity law that barred sending sex devices through the mail. The dicey legal status of dildos discouraged many from workingâ€”or innovatingâ€”within the industry. Dildos could be sold legally only if they were used as medical devices to assist in penetration during heterosexual sex. While Duncanâ€™s dildos fell into this category, others did not, so many companies renamed them â€œmarital aids,â€� in hopes that the technical name would stave off legal problems. On top of the federal obscenity law, nearly every state had a different law regarding the products. Georgia, for example, prohibited devices â€œdesigned or marketed as useful primarily for the stimulation of human genital organs.â€� Dildos werenâ€™t even that accepted in subcultural crowdsâ€”in the late 1960s and early 1970s, â€œfree loveâ€� didnâ€™t necessarily extend to masturbation.
But Duncan didnâ€™t care about social acceptability or legal problems. Unlike most of the men who had come before him (and they were usually always men), he didnâ€™t just want to make dildos for money. He saw himself as a healer, and he simply wanted to help. He began by investigating new, safer materials for dildos. While working as an auto mechanic, heâ€™d been impressed by the pliable silicone that didnâ€™t melt even when exposed to the intense heat of an engine. This heat resistance meant that silicone could be sterilized in boiling water, which allowed for safely sharing dildos between partners. Plus, silicone lacked the strong chemical odors found in other materials. The only problem was that the silicone used in automobile parts was not exactly safe for the body.
â€œAfter the conference in Indianapolis, I got in touch with General Electric, who at the time was making silicone, and I sent them a letter explaining that I needed a rubber-based product that is nonirritating to the human body. They put me on to a chemist in their department,â€� he said.
Duncan says he and the chemist corresponded for nine months, tweaking various formulas to get the perfect silicone: smooth, flesh-like, and safe for insertion into the human body. They finally hit on a formula, and Duncan set up a dildo lab in his basement. He began by making a model out of clay, then a rubber mold after that. The silicone dildos were produced under the brand name Paramount Therapeutic Products.
Meanwhile, the womenâ€™s movement was in full swing. Women were marching for equal pay, feminists were campaigning against misogynistic pornography, and political lesbians were choosing to shun men because they wanted nothing to do with the patriarchy.
But a debate was going on in consciousness-raising groups and feminist magazines that didnâ€™t get as much press: dildos. Women fought over whether or not it was acceptable to use a dildo during sex play or masturbation. Did dildos represent penises? And if they did, did using one represent a submission to the patriarchy or a subversion of it?
If the personal really was political, then the devices that you used during sex were a reflection of your deepest political beliefs. If you fought against the patriarchy during the day but came home at night and fucked yourself silly with a bulging, beveined artificial dick, then you were betraying the movement. Using a dildo was an admission that women needed a phallus to be fully sexually satisfied. How could a feminist strap on a dildo in good conscience with Andrea Dworkin calling the penis â€œa hidden symbol of terrorâ€�? As she said in Pornography: Men Possessing Women, â€œViolence is male, the male is the penis.â€� And why would a feminist want to use a dildo when women werenâ€™t even supposed to get much pleasure from penetration because, as Anne Koedt argued, the vaginal orgasm was a myth perpetuated by Freud?
But the fact that many feminists disapproved of dildos didnâ€™t mean that none of them used dildosâ€”it just meant that they didnâ€™t talk about it.
â€œAnyone admitting to using a dildo today would probably be verbally castigated for enjoying â€˜phallicâ€™ pleasure,â€� wrote Karla Jay in an October 1974 issue of Lesbian Tide. â€œVerbal criticism has FORCED some sisters into a second closet.â€�
Not all feminists thought dildos were incompatible with their political values. The lesbian sex manual Loving Women (1976) encouraged its readers to regard dildos not as â€œan artifical, erect penisâ€� but as â€œany object used for vaginal stimulation.â€�
As the dildo debates continued to simmer, Gosnell Duncan was frustrated. Heâ€™d finally developed a high-quality dildo for disabled people only to discover that either the market wasnâ€™t there or he just didnâ€™t know how to properly tap into it. The ads he was taking out in disability publications werenâ€™t keeping sales afloat. His basement was filled with unsold dildos and vats of multicolored silicone just waiting to be molded into pliable artificial penises.
In the late 1970s, while scanning the classified ads of Village Voice, an ad for a new feminist sex-toy store in NYC caught his eye: â€œWe grow pleasurable things for women.â€� Duncan dialed the number and spoke with Dell Williams, the founder of Eveâ€™s Garden, the nationâ€™s first feminist sex-toy store. He told Williams about his company (now renamed Scorpio Products), but Williams wasnâ€™t especially impressed. She carried only vibrators in her store.
â€œI did sell cylindrical vibrators, but the dildos that were on the market were all of such poor quality. Their manufacturers went to such great lengths to make them look like real penises that they just ended up looking deformedâ€”a penis is a penis and plastic just wonâ€™t cut it,â€� wrote Williams, who passed away in March 2015, in her 2005 memoir, Revolution in the Garden.
Nonetheless, she offered to let him come to the store to make his pitch, a gracious invitation considering that Williams didnâ€™t allow men into her store. (Williams told me she only changed her policy after a group of men protested outside and threatened to file a discrimination suit.)
When Duncan arrived at her store, he rearticulated the benefits of silicone dildos: They retained body heat and felt more flesh-like than the older models, and you could share them between partners because they could be easily sterilized. Williams wasnâ€™t completely swayed by these arguments. Like other feminists, she took issue with the hyperrealism of the dildos on the market.
â€œWhy did a dildo have to look like a cock at all, I asked Duncan,â€� Williams wrote in her memoir. â€œDid it have to have a well-defined, blushed-pink head, and blue veins in bas-relief?â€� Williams wasnâ€™t sure that her customers would buy dildos, no matter what they looked like. But she was willing to find out. She sent out a customer survey asking her patrons what they would want in a dildo. Williamsâ€™s customers said that it wasnâ€™t about size, it was about substance: They wanted â€œsomething not necessarily large, but definitely tapered. Not particularly wide but undulated at its midsection. Something pliable and easy to care for. Something in a pretty color.â€�
Duncan hadnâ€™t manufactured nonrepresentational dildos before, but he wasnâ€™t opposed to them. He got to work in his lab and created the â€œVenusâ€� dildo. Modeled in pale pink and chocolate brown, the dildo looked more like a large crooked finger than a penis. The Venus became the first feminist dildo available to the American public through Eveâ€™s Garden.
When he poured his first vat of liquid silicone rubber into a penis-shaped mold, Duncan did not think of his dildo-making as a political act. He was seeking to solve a problem that he, and thousands of other disabled men and their lovers, faced. But in the 1970s dildos were imbued with politics, so to enter the dildo business was to make a political statement. Duncan could have refused to design nonrepresentational dildos in fanciful colors like blue and purple. But he chose to hear Williams out.
The Venus didnâ€™t end the dildo debates. One feminist dildo could not overturn the pervasive antiphallicism in the feminist movement. But it was a start.
Two thousand miles away, Williamsâ€™s friend Joani Blank was teaching women to masturbate. It was 1976, and Blank was coteaching sex-therapy seminars with Lonnie Barbach at the University of California-San Francisco. The goal of the seminars was to turn preorgasmic women into orgasmic womenâ€”not always an easy task.
â€œIf they were getting very aroused, and they were having a really hard time relaxing enough to just go into orgasm, which was very common, we would occasionally recommend that they try a vibrator,â€� Blank said in an interview last year.
But when the students asked where in San Francisco they could go to buy a vibrator, she didnâ€™t have a good answer. All the sex-toy stores that she knew of were seedy adult emporiums.
So when UCSF laid her off, Blank decided that she would start her own sex-toy store. In 1977 Good Vibrations opened its doors in a 200-square-foot space in San Francisco. Vibrators dotted the store, but one type of sex toy was conspicuously absent: the dildo.
In fact, Blank had secreted them away in a cabinet because she â€œdidnâ€™t want to scare away the people who were not wanting to look at dildo-y things. There were still lots and lots of lesbians who wouldnâ€™t use them.â€� The only women who got to see the dildo inventory were those brave enough to ask if the store carried â€œanything else.â€�
â€œI would say, â€˜Are you inquiring about dildos?â€™ And if they said yes, I would go into my plain brown cabinet and pull out two or three dildos that we carried.â€�
So Blank kept her dildos in hiding until the early 1980s, when she hired Susie Bright to work at the store. â€œSusie said, â€˜We gotta sell dildos here,â€™ and I said, â€˜Eww. I donâ€™t want to put them on the shelf, icky. Ugh.â€™â€�
But Bright persisted. She knew just where to get the best dildos: Gosnell Duncan. Soon Bright proudly placed Duncanâ€™s dildos on display in Good Vibrations. And not long after, Bright began consulting with Good Vibrationsâ€™ customers to discover the types of dildos they wanted. In addition to the probe-like Venus, customers were interested in having a dildo that looked like a minimalist penis, with a defined head but no veins. Duncan even named a few of his dildos after Bright.
â€œThe facts about dildos arenâ€™t nearly as controversial as their famous resemblance to the infamous â€˜penisâ€™ and ALL THAT IT REPRESENTS. The political, social, and emotional connotations of dildos have many unhappy lesbians in a stranglehold,â€� Bright wrote in the inaugural edition of her 1984 lesbian erotica magazine On Our Backs. â€œLadies, the discreet, complete, and definitive information on dildos is this: Penetration is as heterosexual as kissing!â€�
Not all feminists agreed with Bright. On Our Backs was a jab at a certain faction of the feminist movement, its title a take on the popular feminist magazine Off Our Backs.
â€œI donâ€™t want to be part of a movement that has a sense of priorities that says, â€˜Sticking a dildo up my vagina is more important than [fighting] pornography as an institution of sexual abuse for women,â€� antipornography activist Andrea Dworkin declared in a December 1985 edition of the Gay Community News.
Bright soldiered on, undeterred by Dworkin and others in the mainstream feminist movement, and by 1989 she was declaring victory in On Our Backs. â€œNow the dildo wars are over and guess what? We won. So stick it in and enjoy it.â€�
Today, women-owned sex-toy stores have spread from the coast into middle America. Chicago, Madison, Wis., and Minneapolis all have at least one. Thanks to Fifty Shades of Grey our mothers can rattle off the names of sex toys with aplomb. Ironically, it was a man who hastened the end to the feminist dildo debates and helped usher in an era where dildos, although still controversial, are no longer widely debated among feminists.
Itâ€™s difficult to fully appreciate Duncanâ€™s accomplishment now that body-safe sex toys are de rigueur, but Duncanâ€™s silicone dildos created a sea change in the sex-toy industry in the 1970s and 1980s. His invention brought dildos out of the back corners of seedy pornography stores, transforming them from poorly made and often unsafe devices into well-engineered, medical-grade implements that can be safely sanitized if shared among partners and adequately cleaned between vaginal and anal use. (Although, as a recent Broad City episode made clear, dildos that easily melt are still a problem today). It took a visionary like Duncan to recognize that dildos needed to be designed with the same concern for safety as any other device we put inside our bodies.