Hallie Lieberman’s Buzz: A Stimulating History of Sex Toys is a wild ride (no pun intended) from start to finish. Based on her experience selling sex toys at in-home “Passion Parties” and her dissertation on sex toy history, Lieberman recounts how sex toys have been used to both liberate and oppress people throughout U.S. history. Along the way, she busts several common myths about sex toys and shares some fascinating facts.
Buzz proves that sex toys have never been just about sex. The way they’ve been sold, used, and legislated has reflected many different societal hierarchies and power dynamics. “Sex toys soaked up the meanings of whoever was promoting them,” the book reads. “In one context, they embodied liberationist radical feminist values, while in another, they symbolized traditional gender and sexual roles. Feminists championed them for masturbation while traditionalists promoted them for monogamous heterosexual sex. Sex toys symbolized gay liberation in the Pleasure Chest and disability rights through Gosnell Duncan’s newly renamed company Scoprio Products. Sex toys were always political, but the politics they embodied was up for grabs.”
In case you don’t have time to read it, here are some facts about sex toy history that I learned from the book.
1. The First (Possible) Dildos Existed At Least 28,000 Years Ago
A penis-shaped object was found in Germany’s Hohle Fels cave 28,000 years ago, but archaeologists can’t agree on whether it was a dildo or just a tool-making instrument. Either way, it didn’t have to be shaped like a penis, so it likely had some sexual connotations, even if they were just visual. Then, there were the “phallic batons” found in Eurasia from the Ice Age, which lasted between 40,000 and 10,000 BCE. Again, archaeologists debate their purpose, with some saying they were used to penetrate young women in “ritual defloration” ceremonies.
2. Vibrators Were Not Invented To Treat Hysteria
It’s a commonly cited fun fact (and the subject of a play and movie) that vibrators were invented for doctors to treat so-called “hysteria” in women. But Lieberman found that they were actually first used to treat a range of medical problems like diabetes, sciatica, constipation, and back pain in both men and women. They weren’t primarily used on the genitals, though they were sometimes used on men’s perineums to increase their sex drives.
3. Sex Toys Used to Be More Popular Among Men
We usually think of sex toys as primarily for women. But back when vibrators were medical devices, doctors were more worried about men using them than women. Once they begun being marketed for pleasure, sellers often emphasized their potential to please men, since a woman masturbating was threatening. One of the most popular products Lieberman sold was a male masturbation sleeve.
4. One Of The First Dildo Companies Was For People With Disabilities
Gosnell Duncan, a paraplegic, was frustrated with the lack of help his doctor gave him to revive his sex life after his injury. He found that many people with disabilities felt the same way. So, he started his own business to provide strap-on dildos to people who weren’t able to have sex using their penises and mouth-held toys to quadriplegics. Even today, many people with disabilities feel that doctors as well as sex toy companies aren’t providing adequate assistance with their sex lives.
5. Multiple States Have Outlawed Sex Toys
When Lieberman sold sex toys in Texas from 2003 to 2005, they were illegal. Sex toy shops developed creative ways to get around this, like having customers sign forms saying they were using their purchases for medical or educational purposes. Texas’s sex toy ban was overturned in 2008, but Alabama’s remains.
From all these stories, one thing is clear: We may have come a long way since vibrators were considered purely for medical use or men’s pleasure, but the specter of our patriarchal, sex-negative past still haunts us.