The History of Masturbation

by Paige Leacey

on Jan 5, 2023

Keen to know where your favourite pastime comes from, who the OG sex toy inventors were and how self-pleasure technology progressed through the ages to where it is now? Read on!

paleolithic dildo

Humans are handy creatures and for as long as we’ve been living, breathing, eating and sleeping, we’ve also been masturbating. But across ages, and all around the globe, how we conceptualise and enact masturbation has changed: we are handy, but we are also imaginative beings.

While capturing the entire history of hand relief would be a very, very long (if not impossible) undertaking, we’ve complied a few little saucy facts to give you an idea about just how long we’ve been getting jiggy with ourselves, and about the creative lengths we’ve gone to make it as pleasurable as possible.

Who invented masturbation?

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This may be among one of the most complex questions to answer about the history of human nature. Can you invent a behaviour that seems to come so organically?

Masturbation has been visually eluded to on ancient artefacts dating back as far as prehistoric times. Primitive cave paintings and engravings of solo pleasuring rituals have been found across Europe and in parts of Asia.

And the ancient Egyptians believed that that the god Atum created the universe by masturbating it into existence (if only we could have done our science projects that way).

Meanwhile, some form of self-gratification has been observed among many animal species, including cats, dogs, squirrels, deer, rhinoceroses, pigs, monkeys, and even otters.

So, what about the word ‘masturbation’? Where does it come from? Masturbation is loosely defined as the stimulation of the genitals with the hand for sexual pleasure. The word first appears in English around 1711, but that isn’t necessarily its origin. From around the 1620s, the French word mastupration pops up and is used in similar contexts. Based on how old the French language is - it can be dated back to the year 800, with the most consistent records from 1200 - it’s likely this word saw several iterations but was being used to describe the same thing.

The word onanism also appeared frequently around the early 1700s but this tended to confuse people. The word was used interchangeably to mean both masturbation and coitus interruptus (that’s the pull-out method, for those of us who don’t speak Latin). In such settings, it can be assumed that the word is, really, just referring to a spillage of semen.

In case you ever need it, a 1898 dictionary lists several other slang terms for masturbation, including to frig, bob, chuff, claw, digitate, milk, fight one’s turkey and dash one’s doodle.

Some history buffs say that previous to around 1700 masturbation wasn’t a big point of discussion - which we can hardly imagine given how much we love talking about it now. Basically, it was something that people did in their own time but was nothing worthy of taking notice of, much less analysing. Interestingly, this could have to do with the fact that, before the 1700s, spiritual beliefs that saw masturbation through a moral lens weren’t as predominant as they would become in the centuries to follow.

Ancient pagan groups of the Middle East got creative with their masturbatory traditions. They would get off in a group, ensuring a simultaneous big O, which they believed was an offering to the Gods and would yield a good crop season. An orgasmic orchestra, of sorts.

At some point, people realised they could also get the job done with a little assistance. Here is what we know about the greatest human creation ever: sex toys.

Who invented the Vibrator?

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You may have heard the story of the physician Dr Joseph Mortimer Granville, who was the “first person to invent the vibrator", which he created to treat women with ‘hysteria’ during the 1880s.

While Dr. Granville did exist, and he did patent an electric vibrator for “medical purposes”, the jury is still out on whether or not he actually used it for sexual reasons.

Some people argue that the medical journals of Dr Granville prove he invented the vibrator as a device for men, to be used on a variety of body parts to treat pain, spinal disease and deafness.

The only sexual uses he suggested were vibrating men’s perineums to treat impotence. In any case, there are many men who use vibrators today, so of course Dr Granville does have some claim to stake in the invention of the vibrator.

However, many texts about the uncanny sexual escapades of our descendants speak to the notion of genital vibration long before Dr Granville even completed his medical degree. Apparently, ancient royal beauty Cleopatra used a small box filled with bees to stimulate her vulva. Given she lived between 69-30 BC, this may have been the first ever vibrator. The tearjerker is we don’t know for sure if this legend is true.

When was the vibrator invented and what were vibrators originally invented for? We may never truly know. But whether they came from the mind of a curious Victorian doctor or the desperate desire of the Queen of Egypt, we’ve certainly come leaps and bounds in our pleasure tech since then. There are all kinds of regular vibes, rabbit vibes, clitoral vibes, massage wand vibes, G-spot vibes and sex toy kits available to those who seek sexy stimulation. The origin of the vibrator may be a contentious issue, but it’s one we are eternally grateful for.

Who invented Dildos?


So then, who invented the first dildo? That depends entirely on who you read. As you can probably imagine, there are several claims to dildo fame.

Some archaeologists say the first dildo was discovered in a German cave and used by people during the Ice and Stone Ages (for reference, the Ice Age began 2.6 million years ago and lasted until 11,500 years ago, and the Stone Age began around 2.5 million years ago and lasted until around 5,000 years ago).

This places its conception at somewhere around 28,000 years ago, consistent with the opinions of other historians who have tracked the representation of phallic shaped objects throughout many ancient artefacts and works of art of cultures across the world since that time. One example of this is Egyptian paintings from around 3,000 BC (that’s around 5,000 years ago) which depict women wearing large phallic objects around their waists to pay tribute Osiris, the god of fertility.

Try as they may, historians have tried to come up other uses for these fake penis objects, even going to far as referring to them as “Stone Age batons”. But opinion is slowly coming around to the idea that yes, indeedy, our ancestors were horny homosapiens and these objects were used for sexual pleasure.

Not only were they horny, they were also very resourceful. The primitive dildos of the French were made hollow on the inside so that they could be filled with warm milk to stimulate the feeling of a real penis, and the Ancient Greeks would cover their pleasure sticks with warm olive oil. Talk about making a meal out of it.

The true identities of the geniuses who invented vibrator (related) tools, and the masterminds who invented dildo (similar) objects, may remain somewhat of a mystery to us here in the 21st Century. But one thing is for sure, the pursuit of pleasure is a basic human need and a custom that has survived among our species since the dawn of time.

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Paige Leacey

Written by Paige Leacey.
Paige is a sexual health and relationships writer who hails from the Northern Rivers of New South Wales.

Originally published on Jan 5, 2023. Updated on Jan 6, 2023