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Subjects of the Visual Arts: Dildoes  

Women with dildoes are represented in many cultures (for example, Japan and Mughal India), but to date we know most about their representation in Europe.

The ancient Greeks displayed a phallos during certain religious rituals. Women could be in charge of this cult object, and the legend of Isis credited that goddess with inventing it. The Greeks also had specific words for a dildo (olisbos or baubon). Sappho may refer to "receivers of the olisbos" (Fragment 99.5); Aristophanes' comedy Lysistrata speaks of women satisfied by the leather devices.

Vase paintings depict women, primarily alone, putting dildoes to sexual use. One instance may show a woman with a strapped on dildo about to enter a woman from the rear. Another strap-on is probably present in a damaged painting from a Pompeian bathhouse.

A few medieval manuscripts show women plucking "fruits" from a phallus tree. For centuries Catholic penitentials condemned women who possessed "instruments."

By the fourteenth century, secular writers such as Boccaccio and Sercambi envisaged women wielding them either alone or with each other, and in 1534 Aretino's orgy set in a nunnery had novices using glass dildoes (Ragionamento I). A decade or so earlier, an engraving by Marcantonio Raimondi pictured a standing nymph calmly penetrating herself with one.

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, court gossip in France and England mentioned women owning what was frequently represented as a salacious import. The English word "dildo" is first recorded around 1592, in a poem by John Nashe. John Donne in his licentious elegies also refers to dildoes. In the eighteenth century, Fuseli drew a woman wearing one, while pornographic hacks pictured ladies openly shopping for dildoes.

Whether in Renaissance carnival songs, or modern pornographic photographs, the dildo is most frequently represented by way of humorous "phallic symbols" such as vegetables or bottles.

So-called phallic substitutes might be regarded as threatening in misogynist polemic, but comments in other genres such as comedy and medicine indicate more complex attitudes. Notably, Greek satyrs or male youths are occasionally shown with dildoes, and men brandish them in some pornography.

Today, sex toys are parodied (for example, by the lesbian cartoonist Alison Bechdel) and sold to people with a wide variety of sexual interests. Lesbian theorists discuss appropriation of an object that does not have to be seen as inherently masculine.

Patricia Simons


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An ancient Greek vase painting depicting a woman using dildoes.
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   Related Entries
arts >> Overview:  Classical Art

Ancient Greek and Roman art represents a variety of homoerotic experience in several different ways.

arts >> Overview:  European Art: Medieval

Ranging from depictions of acts "against nature" to representations of sexual ambiguity, queer medieval art may be richer than is generally recognized.

arts >> Overview:  European Art: Renaissance

The various cultural patterns, especially the conditions of artistic production and the types of subjects and themes represented, provide a great deal of evidence about Renaissance sexuality and art.

arts >> Bechdel, Alison

Cartoonist Alison Bechdel is best known for her long-running comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, which has run in alternative gay and lesbian newspapers for nearly two decades.

literature >> Donne, John

England's supreme poet of heterosexual love in the late Renaissance, John Donne also wrote a series of homoerotic verse letters to a young man and a remarkable dramatic monologue in a lesbian voice.

arts >> Fuseli, Henry

Swiss-born Henry Fuseli spent most of his life in England, where he established a reputation as an artist of great originality and where he painted pictures of both heterosexual and homosexual subjects.

literature >> Sappho

Admired through the ages as one of the greatest lyric poets, the ancient Greek writer Sappho is today esteemed by lesbians around the world as the archetypal lesbian and their symbolic mother.


Butler, Judith. "The Lesbian Phallus and the Morphological Imaginary." differences 4 (Spring 1992): 133-171.

Clarke, John R. Looking at Lovemaking. Constructions of Sexuality in Roman Art 100 B.C.-A.D. 250. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.

Findlay, Heather. "Freud's 'Fetishism' and the Lesbian Dildo Debates." Feminist Studies 18 (Fall 1992): 563-579.

Kilmer, Martin F. Greek Erotica on Attic Red-Figure Vases. London: Duckworth, 1993.


    Citation Information
    Author: Simons, Patricia  
    Entry Title: Subjects of the Visual Arts: Dildoes  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated February 7, 2004  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2002, glbtq, Inc.  


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