A brief book review by Kat Merwin
The book: Buzz: A Stimulating History of the Sex Toy
Author: Hallie Lieberman, Ph.D.
I like to think of myself as relatively knowledgeable about sex researchers—especially those who also write books on the topic—yet I hadn’t heard of Hallie Lieberman prior to reading this book. After reading this incredible book, I’m even more shocked that I wasn’t aware of her works! Not only was this book incredible informative, it was also an entertaining read (i.e., it was the best of both worlds!).
Emma Rees, author of The Vagina: A Literary and Cultural History, may put it best in this review of Buzz: “A masterclass in how to make academic writing engaging and relevant. From Ancient Greece to Fifty Shades via a profusion of frustrated conservative attempts to police sexual activity, Buzz is at once historical survey and manifesto. Lieberman’s style is simultaneously informed and informal, often very, very funny, and occasionally deeply poignant.”
In Buzz, Hallie Lieberman provides an illuminating and witty history of sex toys, with a specific focus on a period during which the USA experienced a large cultural and legal shift: the 1950s to present. Lieberman takes sex toys out of our bedside tables and puts them center stage. We learn about the competitive (and politically dicey) production and sale of sex toys—including Lieberman’s own experiences as a sex toy salesperson!
Fun fact: did you know that as of 2017, sex toys were still illegal in Alabama?
Amongst chapters about masturbation, porn empires, and sex-toy shops, Lieberman weaves in feminist, queer, and (dis)ability issues and how the sex-toy industry rose to the occasion (erection pun intended). I found this particularly relevant given the recent news of the company Lora DiCarlo, a woman-run start-up who designed a revolutionary hands-free sex toy (names the Osé) for females that mimics the sensations of “a human mouth, tongue, and fingers.” The company was awarded a Consumer Electronics Show 2019 Innovation Award in the Robotics and Drone product category. This award was later revoked because the toy was deemed “immoral, obscene, indecent, profane, or not in keeping with the Consumer Technology Association’s (CTA) image” —even though the CTA has allowed sex dolls for men and virtual porn for men in previous years. As Lora DiCarlo stated, “you cannot pretend to be unbiased if you allow a sex robot for men but not a vagina-focused robotic massager for blended orgasm.” Unfortunately, it seems that sexism and gender bias about sex-toys and sexuality in general is alive and well.
One of my favourite parts of the book details how Ted Marche, a talented ventriloquist and engineer began making prosthetic penis attachments (i.e., devices for impotent men to strap on during sex in the pre-Viagra era) which then led to a family business of designing and producing dildos marketed to women. Another particularly stand-out feature is how Lieberman details and talks about how sex toys evolved from marital aids to symbols of women’s rights and female liberation to tools in the fight against HIV/AIDS to methods of political protest (remember the butt plugs and blow-up dolls used to protest Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election?).
To sum up, Buzz is a sex-positive, informative, normalizing, and *stimulating* book about the history of sex toys. While Buzz is largely geared towards a general audience, I believe it is also an appropriate and relevant read for researchers and clinicians alike. If there is one message to take away from this read, it is that sex toys can be an important part of exploring one’s sexuality—and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that!
If you are intrigued by the post and want to learn more about this book or other works by Hallie Lieberman, I encourage you to check out her website, www.hallielieberman.com, for some general perusing about sexuality (she has some excellent blog posts and resources on her site).