Gender-Based Toys

On Valentine's Day: What artificial selection tells us about sexual desire

Posted Feb 13, 2014

“Desire is the very essence of man," and—I am sure Spinoza would have been happy to add—“of woman." If you find yourself hating music, art, fashion, or technology then what you are hating is a part of someone else—namely their desires.

“Society is to blame”

This just has to end well

However, it’s daft to think that desires can be created ex nihilo. They can be expanded, suppressed, and attached to all sorts of weird and wonderful things, but nothing can come of nothing. Human culture records, amplifies and transmits desires. As a popular internet meme has it “We blame society—but we are society.” For example, it’s not the fault of money that we value footballers over primary school teachers; or fast food over health. Money is innocent. Any fault lies within ourselves.

Sometimes we don’t like our creations and blame them for being created. Mary Shelley wrote a rather fine story about this tendency in us. Spoiler alert: It didn’t end well.

Human desire—when markets are given free reign—becomes more and more visible in the products we choose over others. I have already blogged about how this applies to female-led pornography—but it’s true of other products as well. Sometimes we rebel against the products themselves—as recently we have about pornography. A recent review by David Ley shows how we have been less than honest with ourselves about this.

 Evolution by creeps, or evolution by jerks?

Early teddy bear
From this...
Later teddy bear this in 100 years

One of Darwin’s inspirations was to notice that evolution—descent with modification from common ancestry—can work even faster by artificial selection than by the natural kind. We see such changes in consumer-led alterations to products like teddy bears and Mickey Mouse.

Mickey Mouse becomes cuter by the decade
Mickey Mouse becomes cuter by the decade

Both became noticeably more altricial—the technical word for cute—over a century of production. In a similar vein, the Teletubbies were the result of a conscious iterative evolutionary process that favoured and replicated elements that babies paid the most attention to, discarding the dull parts. Their creator, Anne Wood, is a child psychologist who knew what she was doing. The resultant entities may annoy the bejayzus out of adults, but those bright, primary colored, repetitive gonks are just what baby ordered.

Say, "Eh-oh"

In each of the above case small changes—sometimes unconsciously driven—led to increased sales, more positive audience response, happy baby stares, or some other form of positive feedback. As rapper Baba Brinkman puts it “performance, feedback, revision”—is the essence of natural selection.

But it is also true of artificial selection. The great Russian biologist Belyaev (1985) managed to selectively breed aggression out of arctic foxes in a few generations.

Arctice fox
Pet this and you'll never play the piano again

Not only did the foxes become domesticated, but a process of linkage disequilibrium meant that they also became cuter with each generation—developing adorable floppy ears and patches.

Arctic foxes after a few generations of selective breeding
All together now...Ahh

 "I wouldn’t start from here"

In evolving human cultural artifacts we have one big advantage over blind evolutionary processes. We can tear up existing designs and go back and produce the thing we really wanted all along. And then improve on that—like the Teletubbies. The resultant artifacts are then windows into human desires. Recently, a leading sex toy manufacturer allowed a bunch of women to do this with sex toys. None of these women were engineers and none had had professional experience. This is what they, err...came up with:

“The good old days." Before all this filth and depravity…

Sex toys have certainly undergone revisions in the last few thousand years. Yes, you read that correctly—we have sex toys going back thousands of years—such as this ice-age dildo:

Ice age sex toy
"'Ritual Object', huh? What sort of ritual would that be?"

 Although, it must be said, a number of museums tend to refer to such items rather coyly as “ritual objects." We have even had vibrating toys—of a sort when insects trapped in tubes were used in ancient Rome (Taylor & Marsh, 1996).

The use of vibrators to bring women to orgasm seemed to be a central part of neurology practice in the nineteenth century—with specialist tables used for the purpose. These orgasms—or paroxysms—were central to Freud’s ideas about female sexuality and are documented in exhaustive detail in a chapter in Rachel Maine’s excellent (and often hilarious) history of the matter (Maines, 1999). The relevant chapter is entitled “The Job That Nobody Wanted,” which says a lot about sexual repression in middle class Victorian society.

But-—long before Freud—Galen taught that frustration of sexual response in women was something that could lead to trouble. This hints that said response has functions beyond just pleasure—something that we are investigating directly. However, sexual partners can be absent, tired, inexperienced, or just need novelty and inspiration—what to do? Enter—so to speak—the sex toy.

 What do women want?

For some time in the 20th century sex toys for women orbited male expectations about female desires and dildos tended to be large, surgical pink, and somewhat rigid. Indeed, this is what a lot of people think sex looks like.

What people think sex looks like

But human sex doesn’t look like that. This is an actual MRI (a bit like an X-ray but less cancery) of a couple having sex. Note the way that the penis bends to fit the contours of the vagina—all the better to interact with sensitive areas of the anterior vaginal wall. 

Actual MRI (outlines enhanced)
What actually happens during sex (Schultz et al 1999)

So what about these modern sex toys? The ones created by women, for women. What lessons in female desire can be drawn from them?

1) Penetration. 5/6 of these toys are penetrative toys. This gives the lie to the idea that women are not sensitive inside—they report multiple areas of internal sensitivity.

2) Size. Does it matter? Well, somewhat. None of these toys are huge—unlike gay male penetrative toys. However, all the female penetrative ones have significant girth—but well within the range of most human males. And, for those who do not have access to a penis—hands never lose their erection.

3) Polymorphous perversity. Women clearly do not have one single erogenous zone—they have many. At a minimum, external parts (glans) of the clitoris and nipples are clearly important erogenous areas. The new toys cater to these. Sex partners could profit by their example.

 4) Flexibility. Modern silicone has allowed the creation of sex toys with significant ability to bend. In nature: The human penis bends to the shape of the vagina, not the other way around. I’m sure that there is a moral in there somewhere.

Happy Valentine’s.


Baba Brinkman. Performance, feedback, revision.

 Belyaev, D. K., Plyusnina, I. Z., & Trut, L. N. (1985). Domestication in the silver fox (< i> Vulpes fulvus</i> Desm): Changes in physiological boundaries of the sensitive period of primary socialization. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 13(4), 359-370. Details on studies into the worlds oldest dildo

 Hinde, R. A., & Barden, L. A. (1985). The evolution of the teddy bear. Animal Behaviour, 33(4), 1371-1373. David Leys blog Anne Woods development site where she details the construction of the Teletubbies

 Maines, R. (1999). The technology of orgasm. Hysteria», The Vibrator, and Women’s.

Schultz, W. W., van Andel, P., Sabelis, I.,  & Mooyaart, E. (1999). Magnetic resonance imaging of male and female genitals during coitus and female sexual arousal. British Medical Journal, 319, 1596-1600.

 Taylor, T., & Marshall, Y. (1996). The prehistory of sex: Four million years of human sexual culture. London: Fourth Estate. A popular review of our work at UCC into health and fertility

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