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sex toys, sex dolls, sex history, realism, graphics, gender, women, sexism

Playing with "Real Women"

A Sexual Prehistory of Realism in Video Games

Bo Ruberg (University California, Irvine)


“Woman’s Stomach with Artificial Vagina” reads the bold-face headline of a full-page advertisement produced in roughly 1908 (fig. 1).1 Part of a collection of erotic ephemera that was previously housed in the infamous Private Case at the British Museum, the text survives today in the archives of the British Library, though the advertisement itself is written in French.2

Figure 1

A 1908 advertisement for a “woman’s stomach with artificial vagina.” (London, British Library, album 7, item 8; image courtesy of the British Museum)

While no information about the particular seller who produced the ad remains, research for my book Sex Dolls at Sea: Imagined Histories of Sexual Technologies tells me that it was most likely published and mailed by a manufacturer of “rubber goods” (a euphemism for sex-related items made of vulcanized rubber) based in Paris, where many such businesses operated between the 1850s and 1920s. For a small fee, interested customers could write to these businesses to request illustrated catalogs of “special apparatuses for intimate and secret usage by men and women”—as one seller, advertising in the pages of a Parisian newspaper in 1895, described their offerings (fig. 2).3 Depending on the company in question, these goods could include anything from contraceptive devices like condoms and cervical caps (fig. 3) to items clearly designed for sexual pleasure, like dildos, anal toys, and—as evidenced in this advertisement and elsewhere—artificial vaginas.4

Figure 2

An 1895 advertisement for condoms and other “special apparatuses” from Parisian manufacturer and seller Maison A. Claverie. ( La Grisette , August 10, 1895, 3; Gallica, Bibliothèque Nationale de France digital library)

Figure 3

An advertisement for a rubber condom with a reservoir tip from a 1905 illustrated catalog for sexual items seller Société Excelsior. (Société Excelsior, Catalog general d’articles de préservation intime a l’usage de deux sexes [Paris: Faubourg Poissonnière, 1905], 102; image courtesy

The ad for this artificial vagina promises that it is both technologically advanced and highly realistic. The cost of the “complete apparatus,” as listed at the bottom of the advertisement, is 100 francs: the equivalent of roughly $500 to $1,000 USD today. If that price tag seems steep, consider the many elaborate features with which the item supposedly comes equipped. Even though it only represents a lower torso without legs, not a full-body sex doll, the advertisement assures readers that it gives men the “complete illusion of realness,” offering “sensations as sweet and voluptuous as those from a real woman.” The details of the item’s anatomy are described in sumptuous detail: “The secret parts of the mound of Venus are covered with abundant and silky hairs. The labia majora, the labia minora, and the clitoris offer themselves up for covetous looks with their tempting rosy color.” Apparently, the inner workings of the item are even more impressive than its outer appearance. According to the ad, the vagina has folds that provoke “ejaculatory spasms.” Meanwhile, a “lubricating apparatus” somehow positioned inside the artificial vagina can be filled with a “warm and oily liquid,” which is excreted through the vaginal walls “in the same way that the feminine glands pour themselves forth in the moment of orgasm.” The firmness of the item can itself be adjusted to suit its user’s taste, we read, via a pneumatic tube. To conclude, the seller assures potential customers that this is the only such item on the market that “exactly represents the copulatory organs” and is “capable of giving the perfect illusion of reality.”

Unlikely as it may seem, there are many connections between this artificial vagina, marketed and sold more than a hundred years ago, and video games. In part, this is because video games and sex toys are themselves closely linked—more closely, perhaps, than most video game makers, players, or even scholars would like to admit. Both sex toys and video games are interactive technologies designed for play, whether sexual or otherwise. Because of their long-standing entanglements with computing, video games are more often situated under the umbrella of technology—but sex toys, too, are technologies.5 As David Parisi has shown, the development of teledildonic devices has close ties to the video game industry, exemplified by individuals like Ramon Alarcon, who was working as a product developer for gaming peripherals when he began prototyping the RealTouch.6 Today, sex toys are directly intersecting with contemporary video games through the rise and popularization of sex tech: widely available, consumer-grade items like Wi-Fi vibrators, Bluetooth butt plugs, and even rudimentary sex robots.7 Many of these items use gaming-adjacent technologies, like gamified mobile apps, augmented reality, and internet-enabled interactives between users. Thus, today’s video games and today’s sex toys quite literally look like one another. Writing about children’s creative digital labor, Josef Nguyen has argued for game studies to increase its engagement with the cultural history of children’s toys as part of video game history.8 Game studies would do well to engage not only with children’s toys but also with toys designed for adults. Indeed, of all types of toys, video games arguably have the most in common with sex toys: their fellow technologies of pleasure and intimate, playful connection.

However, the relevance of this particular advertisement to video game history goes beyond a general connection between video games and sex toys. The advertisement, with its grandiose claims to give “the perfect illusion of reality” and its self-congratulatory descriptions of its own technical apparatuses, directly parallels the rhetoric that often surrounds video games. That is, this advertisement for an artificial vagina sounds a lot like an advertisement for a video game. Like sex toys, video games have long been sold through the twin promises of technical complexity and unprecedented realism: their ability to convincingly simulate the look (and increasingly the feel) of real people, objects, and environments. Paolo Ruffino has explained how the video game industry seems compelled to regularly “predict, explain, and illustrate its own future” through presentations announcing that the latest console or big-budget video game has reached new peaks of technological advancement.9 A central, recurring figure in this discourse has been what Jacob Gaboury refers to as the “culturally situated realism” of computer graphics.10 For years, video games have been marketed as (and often celebrated for) having supposedly more realistic graphics, more realistic in-game physics, or a generally more convincing sense of being “really there” than the games that have come before them. Virtual-reality games up the ante on these claims, explicitly pushing realism beyond the realm of the visual and into the experiential. Half Life: Alyx (2020) describes itself as an opportunity for players to step inside “visceral combat”; Skyrim VR (2018) claims to offer “unparalleled immersion.”11 Like the vendor of artificial vaginas who sells “sensations as sweet and voluptuous as those from a real woman,” the creators of these games entice customers with the fantasy that their product will feel just as good as the real thing.

The trouble with this constant quest for high-tech realism—“that pursuit for the receding horizon of perfect simulation,” as Gaboury writes—is that it orients video games and their player cultures toward notions of the real that are themselves inherently discriminatory.12 “For the past thirty years, and especially since the popularization of real time 3D graphics processing in the mid-nineties,” write Stephanie Boluk and Patrick Lemieux, “the computer and videogame industry has been caught up in a graphical arms race: a dogged pursuit of ocularcentric spectacle.”13 Amanda Phillips explains, “It is a truism that the video game industry continuously strives for increased photorealism … . Developers and journalists often cast graphical fidelity as key to sophisticated performance and storytelling.”14 This focus on realistic graphics has subjected video games to something we might call, extending Janine Fron et al.’s “hegemony of play,” the hegemony of the real: a force that constrains mass-market video games to the expectation that they must be not only real games (in the sense of meeting certain design norms, as Mia Consalvo or Christopher Paul have explained) played by real gamers but that they must also be graphically realistic.15 Yet what constitutes realistic graphics is itself highly debatable and often inextricably tied to issues of gender, sexuality, and race. I have argued elsewhere that a driving force behind the development of contemporary video game physics engines has been the push to create more realistic “breast physics”—systems for reproducing the bounce of women’s breasts for the pleasure of an imagined straight male audience of players.16 Indeed, the quest to make video games more realistic is also often a quest to replicate and play with femme bodies.

What then can we learn about video games, with their promises to offer pleasure through realism, by looking at an advertisement for a seemingly elaborate artificial vagina from more than a century ago? To understand this, we need to understand more about the ad itself: the cultural context from which it emerges, its own unique history, its material qualities, and its influential place within contemporary narratives about the history of sexual technologies.

“The Perfect Illusion of Reality”: The Saga of a Sex-Toy Advertisement

On the one hand, this advertisement has historical importance precisely because it is not exceptional. For those interested in sexual histories, it serves as one of the few remaining documents evidencing a large media ecosystem of catalogs, flyers, and other advertisements for sex toys that circulated across Western Europe (sometimes making their way to the United States) during the latter decades of the 1800s and the start of the 1900s. This is a part of both sexual history and media history that has gone largely unaddressed, in no small part because materials such as these are unlikely to find their way into formal archives.17 On the other hand, this advertisement is indeed exceptional. This is for two reasons: its surprisingly widespread (mis)adoption by later authors and its own dramatic provenance.

I became aware of this advertisement through my research for Sex Dolls at Sea. The book is about how the history of sex tech is told in the present day, focusing on one story in particular, which is retold in dozens of published twenty-first-century accounts: the tale of the dames de voyage (“women of travel” or “traveling companions”).18 According to these accounts, the dames de voyage were the very first sex dolls, invented somewhere between the 1500s and the 1800s and cobbled together from leather or cloth by European sailors longing for the sexual company of women on long journeys. Many of these accounts frame these sailors’ dolls as the origin point for today’s high-tech sexual devices, most notably sex robots, claiming that credit for the invention of sexual technologies in general should go to straight white men inspired by lusty ingenuity on the high seas. The book embarks on a journey to determine whether these sailors’ sex dolls actually existed—and, if not, to find the real origins of sex tech.

As I worked over a number of years to track the dames de voyage back through a winding lineage of sources, I found that, again and again, authors were supporting this origin story with quotes from one specific advertisement. This advertisement appeared to offer for sale an artificial vagina, complete with all of the features mentioned above: the sumptuously rendered vulva, the pneumatic tube, the lubricating apparatus. Always, authors claiming to tell the history of sexual technologies said that this ad—which they had clearly never seen, but were quoting from secondhand—was proof that the story of the sailors’ doll was true. Or, to be more precise, they claimed that this ad was evidence that technologically advanced, proto sex robots were available for sale at the turn of the twentieth century, which was itself somehow proof that earlier, handmade dames de voyage did exist and had later evolved into mechanical commercial wonders. If that line of reasoning seems questionable that’s because it is. Clearly, there was more to the story. I needed to find that real, original advertisement.

Of the many obscure and unusual documents that I tracked down researching Sex Dolls at Sea, this advertisement proved to be the most difficult to find. After three years of following a bread-crumb trail from archive to archive and expert to expert, it finally—finally!—turned up in the rare books collection of the British Library in London.19 Unfortunately, due to COVID-19 travel restrictions and the fragile state of the document, it seemed that, despite having located it, I still would not be able to view it. And then, at the eleventh hour, as I was revising the book and preparing to send it off to enter production, I received a fateful email from an archivist who had taken pity on me and was now sending images of the ad and related materials. When I received them and finally saw the advertisement in question, I literally laughed for a solid thirty minutes alone in my home office. You’ll see why in a moment.

In the process of hunting for this advertisement, I also learned about the unique series of factors that led to its preservation.20 The ad is contained today in what is known opaquely as Album 7. Album 7 is a collection of “erotic ephemera” comprised primarily of catalogs and advertisements for pornographic books and sexual novelties—a total of eighty-one items, primarily from France and England, most of which date from roughly 1895 to 1910. Currently, Album 7 is housed in the British Library, but it was previously part of the British Museum’s Private Case, a collection of works “segregated from the main collection on grounds of obscenity” and hidden away in locked bookcases.21 The contents of the Private Case was moved to the British Library in 1973, where it is now available for public view. Album 7 is itself only one half of a larger collection of erotic print materials. The other half is full of pornographic and bawdy postcards, now housed at the Victoria and Albert Museum and known as the Milford Haven Collection.

All of that sounds perhaps only moderately interesting until you learn who the original collector of these materials was: George Mountbatten, 2nd marquess of Milford Haven, a central member of the British royal family.22 As bibliographer Patrick J. Kearney explains in his published record of the contents of Album 7, George Mountbatten was the uncle and close mentor of Prince Philip, the now late husband of Queen Elizabeth II.23 When George Mountbatten died in 1938, his collection of erotic ephemera passed to his son David Mountbatten, 3rd marquess of Milford Haven. Twenty-five years later, in 1963, the younger Mountbatten was implicated in the Pruomo affair, a British political scandal centered around the questionable sex lives of a social group of which David Mountbatten was a prominent member. In the aftermath, seeking to distance himself from further salacious associations, David Mountbatten dispersed his father’s collection This is how Album 7 found its way to the British Museum and how his erotic postcards landed in the Victoria and Albert Museum, as a 2015 blog post from V&A archives blog details.24 Put plainly, the advertisement we see before us exists today because it was saved in the private stash of sexy catalogs and naughty postcards of a man who was, functionally, the uncle of the current Queen of England—and then later donated for archiving in a hurried response to a high-profile public sex scandal. So, in the end, it took no fewer than two British royals, three major cultural institutions, and one national political upheaval to lead to the archiving of what might otherwise appear to be a silly remnant of sexual history.

For me, however, what I found most surprising about this advertisement was just how ridiculously disappointing it turned out to be. I mean that in the best way possible. For years I had been reading about this fabled ad for a sex doll so realistic that it rivalled the most celebrated automata in European history. The actual images of the advertisement itself told a very different story. It turns out that the artificial vagina ad is just one of three listings for sex toys printed on a long folded sheet (fig. 4). On one side of the sheet is the advertising copy for the three items: the artificial vagina, a dildo (which comes in sizes small, medium, and large, each with their own measurements for both length and circumference), and a cockring with an attached knobbly protusion for clitoral stimulation (a bibi chatouiller in the original text, or what is typically called in English-language materials a “French tickler”). Flipping the sheet over reveals that each advertisement comes with an accompanying illustration of the respective item, a fact that no later author mentions. These appear to be reprints of ink and watercolor artists’ renderings, and they are, in their own way, strikingly realistic: rendered in careful detail and printed in full color.25

Figure 4

The full foldout sheet containing the advertisement for an artificial vagina; on the left is an advertisement for a dildo and on the right is an advertisement for a “French tickler.” (London, British Library, album 7, item 8; image courtesy of the British Museum)

If we compare the text of these advertisements with their corresponding images, it becomes clear that one of these three items is not like the other. The description of the dildo appears to closely match the dildo depicted in the illustration. The ad states that it “replicates exactly the copulatory organ of a man” and comes with “hair and testicles.” Accordingly, in the image, we see a relatively lifelike replica of genital organs, complete with hair, testicles, and dangling cloth garters for wearing the dildo as a strap-on. The illustration of the French tickler too appears to match its description in the text (even if the text makes grandiose claims about how this little nub of rubber feels so good that it leaves women deliriously drunk with pleasure). As for the artificial vagina, however, the illustration reveals something quite unexpected. Recall all of the impressive features that supposedly made the artificial vagina so realistic—that voluptuous vulva, that elaborate lubricating apparatus, the system of pneumatic tubes for perfectly calibrating the softness of one’s rubber lover. Keep that in mind as you look at the actual depiction of the real, material item for sale (fig. 5).

Figure 5

A rendering of the artificial vagina as printed on the reverse side of the 1908 advertisement. (London, British Library, album 7, item 8; image courtesy of the British Museum)

This is a far cry from “the perfect illusion of reality.” Rather than a realistically rendered pelvic area, we find instead a simple inflatable rubber cushion, curved like a lima bean, roughly sealed at the edges, with a slit-shaped pocket for insertion. The curved ends of the cushion vaguely suggest upper thighs, but nowhere to be found is the promised silky hair or the precisely delineated labia and clitoris. The advertised pneumatic tube is no more than a valve for blowing air into, similar to valves used for bicycle inner tubes. As for the apparatus for excreting oil, it is nowhere to be seen. So much for the fabled device that offers, as the advertisement itself claims, “sensations as sweet and voluptuous as those from a real woman.” In place of a wondrous sex robot avant la lettre, we find a highly abstracted and decidedly unrealistic item vaguely suggestive of a vagina—an item so basic (the ad itself does admit), it can be deflated, folded up, and carried around in one’s pocket as discreetly as a handkerchief.

Deflating the Fantasy of Realism in Video Games

I love how disappointing this item is—how anticlimactic and frankly absurd—because it serves as such a stark illustration of the vast divide between the fantasy of technological realism and the truth of technological reality. Admittedly, there are ways in which we could consider this inflatable pocket vagina, unimpressive as it may seem to us today, to be high tech. Much of the actual history of sex tech that I uncover in Sex Dolls at Sea relates to vulcanized rubber as its own revolutionary (and exploitative) technology.26 Yet the fact remains that what this advertisement promises is a far, far cry from what it delivers. It promises technologically complex, hyper-realistic ecstasy; it delivers a scratchy lima bean. This may seem like a particularly egregious example, but the larger point I am making is this: the fantasy of technological realism, whether it manifests in the sale of sex toys or the cultural imaginaries around video games, is always promising us ecstasy and giving us lima beans. This plays out across both temporal and cultural divides. Video games lauded as groundbreakingly realistic in one decade often look laughably unrealistic to players in the next. Meanwhile, the very same contemporary video games that some players might celebrate as highly realistic may look anything but realistic to other players. (I am thinking here about recurring debates about women characters’ skimpy armor in combat-based games.)27 The quest for high-tech realism in video games is always the pursuit of a constructed fantasy of the real—and the reality of what video games deliver is always, in one way or another, absurd.

Video game history is full of its own stark illustrations of the gulf between realism as fantasy and technological fact. Consider a different kind of advertisement: the full-page, color ads for Atari games that ran in North American and European gaming magazines in the early 1980s. These ads commonly featured vibrant, realistically rendered illustrations of action-packed scenes, seemingly offering a window into the equally exciting experience of playing the games they advertised. For example, an advertisement for Centipede (1981) that ran in a July 1983 issue of the French magazine Tilt is dominated by a dramatic rendering of an elf fighting off giant insects (fig. 6).28 In the foreground, a centipede’s giant, many-legged body encircles the frame. In the background, a broad, majestic rainbow cuts across a sky that glows with purple-hued clouds. The elf himself is depicted in so much realistic detail as to render him almost a caricature, with his prominent nose, his pinched smile lines, his sculpted eyebrows. Overall, the image suggests that playing Centipede will look and feel much like this scene, with its engrossing fantasy world that seems to literally surround the player. By contrast, in the lower corner of the page, we find a return to reality: a small photograph of a television displaying an actual moment of gameplay from Centipede on the Atari 2600. A magazine reader must peer closely to make out the elements on screen. There, instead of a lush visual world, the prospective player finds two-dimensional assets abstracted nearly beyond recognition: rectangles shooting, rectangles blocking, a vaguely segmented shape (the centipede) moving between them.

Figure 6

An advertisement for Centipede that ran in a 1983 issue of the French magazine Tilt features a dramatic illustration. ( Tilt , July 1983, 2; image courtesy

Other Atari advertisements from this period make their promises of high-tech realism more explicit. “Interactive combat like nothing you’ve ever seen before!” promises an advertisement for Star Raiders (1979) that ran in the October 1982 issue of Atari Age (fig. 7).29 “The TV screen becomes the window of your Star Fighter—you don’t see your powerful spacecraft, you’re inside it, scanning the stars to find the deadly Zylons and challenge them to a pulse-pounding deep space fight to the finish!” This promise of “pulse-pounding” action, so realistic that it feels like the player is actually inside a spacecraft is accompanied by a fittingly dramatic image: a futuristic spacecraft hurtles through the air toward the viewer, leaving in its wake a giant, midair explosion. Not only is this game thrilling, the advertisement goes on to claim, it is also technologically innovative. “Control your ship with two separate devices—an Atari joystick and a special new Video TouchPad Controller packed with the cartridge,” states the ad (emphasis in original). Yet again, however, for a reader encountering this advertisement forty years after its publication, what stands out is the extreme difference between the experience that the ad promises and the actual product that it offers. As in the Centipede ad, we find a small image that shows Star Raiders’ actual gameplay. Rather than an enveloping vision of deep space, the game offers a flat blue screen dotted with a few spaceship-like sprites and clusters of pixel stars. As for the Video TouchPad Controller, it too appears in a small photograph within the ad, where it looks sad and out of place, like a television remote gone astray.

Figure 7

A 1982 advertisement for the Atari 2600 game Star Raiders promises to make players feel like they are really flying a spacecraft. ( Atari Age , October 1982, 9; image courtesy

Even here, in these early examples of video games’ rhetoric of realism, we can see how realism has been conceptualized alongside fantasies of controlling women’s bodies. The gendered and sexual undercurrents of these Atari advertisements becomes more apparent in ads for Ms. Pac-Man (1982). A back-page advertisement in the same July 1983 issue of Tilt mentioned above uses a layout parallel to the Centipede ad: a large, dynamic, colorful illustration of Ms. Pac-Man flanked by two ghosts takes up the majority of the page; a small photo of a television in the lower corner shows the actual gameplay of Ms. Pac-Man (fig. 8).30 As in much of the advertising for the original Ms. Pac-Man, this depiction of Ms. Pac-Man is sexually charged. She is wearing a full face of makeup and batting her lashes coyly. Leaning back, she opens her arms invitingly wide, while holding up her shapely legs and high-heeled red boots in front of her like a showgirl. Ms. Pac-Man is presenting herself for the pleasure of the (presumed straight male) magazine reader’s viewing, represented by wide-eyed ghosts that loom over her from either side, gazing at her with surprise, curiosity, and hunger.

Figure 8

A flirty back-page advertisement from 1983 proclaims, “Ms. Pac-Man is Pac-Man’s beautiful fiancée, but she plays her own game.” ( Tilt , July 1983, back page; image courtesy

The text of the advertisement expands on this flirtatious scene. “Ms. Pac-Man is Pac-Man’s beautiful fiancée, but she plays her own game,” read the large words written across the image. “Like her fiancé Pac-Man, Ms. Pac-Man devours ghosts,” the smaller descriptive text continues, “but she also has her own special diet. In addition to energy pills, pellets, and vitamins, she also eats fruit. And besides … she is so cute with that pretty little bow in her hair. Like Pac-Man, you’ll be seduced.” Casual eroticism oozes out of this advertising copy in many forms. Not only is Ms. Pac-Man beautiful, apparently, but she’s only Pac-Man’s fiancée rather than his wife, positioning her as still romantically available. Yet, ultimately, what this advertisement is most interested in is not the graphic realism of Ms. Pac-Man’s character design (she is, after all, a yellow circle) or even the interactive realism of the gameplay, but instead the affective realism of feeling seduced. The text reads like the thoughts of a distracted video game reviewer. It attempts to describe what makes the mechanics of Ms. Pac-Man unique from Pac-Man. However, it quickly veers back to the subject of Ms. Pac-Man’s own sexual attractiveness. “And besides …” (“Et puis ”), the text reads, trailing off into a pregnant pause, doesn’t she look lovely with her bow? Here, we see how the real and the sexual go hand in hand. To sell Ms. Pac-Man the game, this advertisement and others like it sexualize Ms. Pac-Man the character. Yet sexualizing her first requires making her real.

Most importantly for our purposes though, like the advertisement for the wondrous artificial vagina that turns out to be an inflatable cushion, this advertisement for Ms. Pac-Man is deeply—and specifically sexually—disappointing. Anyone who picks up Ms. Pac-Man expecting to explore a romp with a flirtatious, rotund coquette with shapely legs and seductive smile is sure to be disappointed. Indeed, the very idea that Ms. Pac-Man, of all characters, would conform to normative notions of sex appeal for straight male players is absurd. Once again, the gulf between the fantasy that the game’s advertisement promises and the reality the game offers is vast. It may be tempting therefore to dismiss a piece of historical paratext like this Ms. Pac-Man advertisement or the other Atari ads mentioned as quirky illustrations of promotional hype from bygone console generations—a time when women characters were sparse and pixel stars seemed like the depths of outer space. However, the 1908 advertisement for an artificial vagina teaches us that the places where promises of realism break down—where they seem most absurd—are also where we learn the most about the constructedness of the fantasy of realism itself. If Centipede can really offer an immersive adventure in a rainbow-filled land, if Star Raiders can give players the feeling of really flying through space, if Ms. Pac-Man can really lure men and boys into her maze, then what does it even mean for video games to be real? No matter how realistic video game graphics become, no matter how closely they seem to simulate the look and feel of reality, their realness will always be a fantasy.

Bringing that fantasy to light is an important step toward upending hegemonic oppression in video games, deflating it like a vagina cushion losing air. This work helps us realize that the quest for graphic realism that has long dominated video games is driven not by desire broadly speaking but by a very specific set of desires: the desires of straight men to make video games that appeal to straight men, often by offering them the opportunity to see, control, and play with increasingly real depictions of women’s bodies. What if, instead, we stopped trying to make the graphic and interactive qualities of video games realistic? What if, instead, we allowed video games to look and feel nothing like most players expect—that is, to be shaped by alternate desires? Unsettling the dominant fantasies that surround video games makes space for alternatives: queer fantasies, feminist fantasies, fantasies of social justice, fantasies that embrace both the erotic and the absurd. A video game is like a sex toy and a sex toy is like a video game. Neither will either deliver us “the perfect illusion of reality,” but both can offer us the opportunity to play in ways that reject realness and embrace other, more radical pleasures.


1. ^ I refer to the date for this advertisement as 1908 because this is how it has been listed (as “1908?”) by Patrick J. Kearney, the bibliographer who created a record of the contents of Album 7, the collection now held by the British Museum in which this advertisement is contained. Other sources often refer to the date of the advertisement as 1907 because that is how Evelyn Rainbird lists it in her 1973 book The Illustrated Manual of Sexual Aids, though it is unclear from where she is drawing this information. References to a different copy of the same or a very similar advertisement also appear in Iwan Bloch’s 1907 book Das Sexualleben unserer Zeit in seinen Beziehungen zur modernen Kultur: evidence that some version of the advertisement was indeed in circulation by 1907. However, I use 1908 here to remain consistent with the information distributed by the British Museum. Patrick J. Kearney, Album 7: A Transcription of an Important Collection of Erotic Ephemera in the British Library (Santa Rosa, CA: Scissors & Paste Bibliographies, 2019); Evelyn Rainbird, The Illustrated Manual of Sexual Aids (New York: Minotaur Press, 1973); and Iwan Bloch, Das Sexualleben unserer Zeit in seinen Beziehungen zur modernen Kultur (Berlin: Louis Marcus Veriagsbuchhandlung, 1907).

2. ^ All translations from French to English are by the author.

3. ^ Advertisement from Parisian “rubber goods” manufacturer and seller Maison A. Claverie, La Grisette, August 10, 1895, 3.

4. ^ For an example of a catalog carrying these goods, see Société Excelsior, Catalog general d’articles de préservation intime a l’usage de deux sexes (Paris: Faubourg Poissonnière, 1905), 102, from which the advertisement shown in this figure was taken.

5. ^ Donna J. Drucker, Contraception: A Concise History (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2020), 2.

6. ^ David Parisi, Archaeologies of Touch Interfacing with Haptics from Electricity to Computing (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018), 271.

7. ^ Lynn Comella, “Sex Tech and the Erotic Imaginary: Mediating Intimacies Online and Off” (presentation, Society of Cinema and Media Studies Conference, online event, March 2021).

8. ^ Josef Nguyen, The Digital Is Kid Stuff: Making Creative Laborers for a Precarious Economy (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2021), 32.

9. ^ Paolo Ruffino, Future Gaming: Creative Interventions in Video Game Culture (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2018), 3.

10. ^ Jacob Gaboury, Image Objects: An Archaeology of Computer Graphics (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2021), 38

11. ^ Half-Life Alyx, Steam, accessed May 28, 2022,; and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim VR, Steam, accessed May 28, 2022,

12. ^ Gaboury, Image Objects, 27.

13. ^ Stephanie Boluk and Patrick Lemieux, Metagaming: Playing, Competing, Spectating, Cheating, Trading, Making, and Breaking Videogames (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017), 125.

14. ^ Amanda Phillips, Gamer Trouble: Feminist Confrontations in Digital Culture (New York: New York University Press, 2020), 67.

15. ^ Janine Fron, Tracy Fullerton, Jacquelyn Ford Morie, and Celia Pearce, “The Hegemony of Play,” Proceedings, DiGRA: Situated Play, Tokyo, September 24–27, 2007; and Mia Consalvo and Christopher A. Paul, Real Games: What’s Legitimate and What’s Not in Contemporary Videogames (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2019).

16. ^ Bo Ruberg, “Queer Game Physics: The Gendered and Sexual Implications of How Video Games Move” (presentation, Society of Cinema and Media Studies Conference, online event, March 2021).

17. ^ An exception to this absence in the scholarship is: Jessica Borge, Protective Practices: A History of the London Rubber Company and the Condom Business (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2020).

18. ^ Some of the many twenty-first-century texts in which this story appears include: David Levy, Love and Sex with Robots: The Evolution of Human-Robot Relations (New York: Harper Collins, 2007); Anthony Ferguson, The Sex Doll: A History (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2010); Hallie Lieberman, Buzz: A Stimulating History of the Sex Toy (New York: Pegasus Books, 2017); John Danaher and Neil McArthur, eds., Robot Sex: Social and Ethical Implications (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2017); and Kate Lister, A Curious History of Sex (London: Unbound, 2020).

19. ^ My special thanks to the Rare Books team at the British Library and the Prints, Drawings and Paintings Department at the Victoria and Albert Museum, both of whom helped me immensely in my process of tracking down this advertisement and the related collections described below.

20. ^ The story of this advertisement’s history and preservation comes through a series of sources, including the catalog for Album 7 created by bibliography Patrick J. Kearney as referenced in n1, as well as direct correspondence with curators and archivists at the British Library and the Victoria and Albert Museum and this post: and Erika Lederman, “French Postcards: History Revealed,” V&A Blog (blog), November 2, 2015,

21. ^ “Private Case,” Collection Guides, British Library, accessed May 28, 2022,

22. ^ Lederman, “French Postcards.”

23. ^ Kearney, Album 7, 2.

24. ^ Lederman, “French Postcards.”

25. ^ It is worth noting that these illustrations are themselves exceptional. In almost all cases, catalogs and advertisements of this sort were illustrated using black-and-white etchings. I have not found another document of this sort from the period that includes such painterly images.

26. ^ For more on the history of rubber and its relationship to play, media, and colonialism, I highly recommend: Carlin Wing, “Episodes in the Life of Bounce: Playing with a Rubber Ball,” Cabinet, no. 56 (Winter 2014–15),

27. ^ Stephen Totilo, “The Problem with Women’s Armor, According to a Man Who Makes Armor [Update],” Kotaku, December 16, 2011,

28. ^ Advertisement for Centipede, Tilt, July 1983, 2.

29. ^ Advertisement for Star Raiders, Atari Age, October 1982, 9.

30. ^ Advertisement for Ms. Pac-Man, Tilt, July 1983, back page.