Dressing Desire

What role do clothing inventions play in shaping who and how people desire?

Sexuality is political. Restrictions on people’s sexualitywho and how people desireaffect people’s freedom as particularly queer scholars have argued (Ahmed 2017, Sheller 2014, 2012; Puar 2007).

For people living heteronormative lives and in heteronormative relationships, it may be relatively easy to assume that intimate relationships are just that: private and personal. However, those who ‘deviate’ from this ‘path’ (Ahmed 2006, 2017) have often had to painfully experience how their intimate relations with other bodies are scrutinised, dismissed or policed and, as a result, have had their own bodies violated in various ways.

When in late March of this year Virginia governor Ralph Northam signed a bill to ban conversion therapy for minors, the southeastern US state became only the twentieth in the nation to protect young people’s right to individual sexuality outside of heteronormative binary frameworks of one man and one woman. At the same time, on the other side of the Atlantic, an increasing number of towns, cities and even whole municipalities across Poland have been declaring themselves as LGBT free zones. The supporters of this development in Poland, including president Andrzej Duda who was just recently re-elected, vocally oppose queerness and all that they regard as connected to it including comprehensive sex ed in schools, gay marriage and Pride parades.

In such an environment, it is obvious that who or what we desire, our erotic fantasies and sexual relations may not only directly affect our standing within a particular group or community, but also the types of rights one is granted by the nation state – be that legal partnership, the right to inherit a longtime partner’s legacy, or the possibility of adopting children.  

We have been exploring the clothing patent archive for what it can tell us about desire and sexual identities

A keyword search of ‘sex’ across the POP dataset reveals an interesting selection of patents through which we hope to explore how different bodies ‘matter’ (Butler 1993), how their sexuality is construed and how erotic agency may enable people to perform a variety of acts of citizenship outside deterministic legal and nationalist frameworks. 

An analysis of clothing patents in the database offers insight into the many ways clothing and the patent archive might be used as part of a variety of practices that deploy sexual and erotic agency to undo the gender, racial, and sexual inequalities that uphold normative orders (Sheller 2012, 22).

As I outline in more detail below, patents that perform such work may include erotic dress as well as sexually stimulating underwear. Likewise, patents like an 1870 ‘Self-Protector’ from the US devised to stop people from masturbating also speak to the ways that clothing inventions have been used to consolidate and reproduce hegemonic norms and beliefs.  

Here at POP we are keen to find out more about the role clothing patents play in the shaping of such acts of citizenship and the way different bodies perform citizenship through the erotic 

The Self-Protector secures the sexual organs in a small pouch in the crotch area that is fastened to a band around the hips and then padlocked to prevent access to the genitals as well as the removal of the device. According to the 1870 inventor, Daniel P. Cook from Connecticut, this was necessary in order to stop people from masturbating which was not only seen as unhealthy but as a vicious and self-degrading act (Pat. US104117A). 

US104117A Self protector

In contrast, this 2013 German ‘Hygienic Masturbation Glove’ has been specifically designed to aid men in the performance of masturbation. The glove is specially constructed to make it possible to cradle an erect penis in the hand by means of a special pouch insert while, at the same time, protecting the wearer from coming into contact with any discharge or bacteria from the genitals (Pat. DE102012101358A1). DE102012101358A1_hygienic masturbation glove

For women, this 1998 patent of a ‘Feminine Garment with Sexual Stimulation Effect’ similarly offers help with masturbation and stimulation of the clitoris through a string of beads that is positioned across the crotch and fastened to a belt (Pat. CA2234553A1).   

men's sexually stimulating underwear

These clothing inventions, unlike anti-masturbation devices, recognise masturbation and sexual self-stimulation as part of a range of erotic practices and pleasures that may be pursued with a partner or in solitude. Erotic pleasure in this context is not pathologised. Instead, the garments are meant to support and aid the pursuit of these pleasures.  

For Black feminist theorist Audre Lorde, the pursuit of such erotic pleasures is a radical act.

For Black feminist theorist Audre Lorde, the pursuit of such erotic pleasures is a radical act. On the one hand, it resembles a reclamation of pleasures that have historically been denied women, and in particular queer women of colour. On the other hand, Lorde regards the erotic as an important catalyst for personal consciousness and recognition of a personal sense of fulfilment and power.

Lorde describes the erotic as an internal sense of satisfaction to which, once we have experienced it, we know we can aspire to while also recognising that in honor and self-respect we can require no less of ourselves’ (2007, 54). Sexuality and erotic pleasure then not only shape people’s sense of self, but also of what they can do, their sense of potential and capability. 

In this sense, the erotic may be an important stimulus for acts of citizenship to take shape – for people to claim not only space and rights they have been previously denied within existing legal and social systems but also new forms of embodied relationships with themselves and others. Here at POP we are keen to find out more about the role clothing patents play in the shaping of such acts of citizenship and the way different bodies perform citizenship through the erotic 

A more recent patent is a 2016 Argentinian invention by Claudia Leticia Caramuttia for a pair of underpants has been specifically created for people with medical conditions that require them to carry an ostomy bag at all times in order to collect feces and other types of discharge from their stoma (Pat. AR104727A4). Arguably, the ostomy bag and the tube that attaches it to the stoma can make sex a rather fidgety exercise and may lead to anxieties about potential spillages should the tube and bag accidentally come undone. For this reason, the pants here are constructed with an opening in the crotch area to allow for access to the sexual organs while at the same time securing the ostomy bag around the hip area in a special pouch. The invention thus not only recognizes the sexual desire of people with this particular disability, but aids them in the performance of sex. 

AR104727A4 - disability sex briefs

This 2016 American invention for ‘Dildo-Rabutt Gear for Lesbians, Pegging and Masturbation’ by Leonard Storch similarly acknowledges the erotic agency of queer women and attempts to cater to their pleasure (Pat. US9510995B1). As a result, such garments craft space for queer erotic agency regardless of existing socio-legal frameworks around sexuality that may, for example, prohibit lesbians couples from adopting children. 

US9510995B1 - dildo pants for lesbians

Indeed, we may wonder to what extent clothing inventions like this one actually subvert unequal heteronormative socio-legal structures through the very act of patenting itself. What claims to citizenship are inventors (as well as the wearers of these garments) making as they register their inventions? What does it mean to patent within a politico-legal system that is dismissive if not outright hostile (as the new ‘LGBT free zones’ in Poland suggest) of non-normative sexuality and erotic agency?   


Ahmed, S. 2006. Queer phenomenology: orientations, objects, others. Duke University Press. 

Ahmed, S. 2017. Living a Feminist Life. Duke University Press. 

Butler, J. 1993. Bodies that matter: on the discursive limits of “sex”. Routledge. 

Lorde, A. 2007 (1984). Sister outsider: essays and speeches. Crossing Press Berkeley. 

Puar, J. K. 2007. Terrorist assemblages: homonationalism in queer times. Duke University Press. 

Sheller, M. 2012. Citizenship from below erotic agency and Caribbean freedom. Duke University Press. 

Sheller, M. 2014. Performances of Citizenship in the Carribean. In E. Isin & P. Nyers (eds.), Routledge Handbook of Global Citizenship Studies (pp. 284–294). Routledge. 



Pat. AR104727A4. Claudia Leticia Caramuttia, Argentina, ‘Prenda Interior Para Personas Ostomizadas’, 9 August 2017. Accessed at the EPO, Espacenet www.epo.org 

Pat. CA2234553A1. Luis Fernandez Alvarez, Spain, ‘Feminine Garment with Sexual Stimulation Effect’, 19 February 1998. Accessed at the EPO, Espacenet www.epo.org 

Pat. DE102012101358A1. Volkan Altinbasak, Germany, ‘Hygienic article for assisting hygienic masturbation with glove’, 22 August 2013. Accessed at the EPO, Espacenet www.epo.org 

Pat. US104117A. Daniel P. Cook, USA, ‘Self Protector’, 14 June 1870. Accessed at the EPO, Espacenet www.epo.org 

Pat. US9510995B1. Leonard Storch, USA, ‘Dildo-Rabutt Gear for Lesbians, Pegging and  Masturbation’, 6 December 2016. Accessed at the EPO, Espacenet www.epo.org