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February 09, 2018

'Buzz' Explores 30,000-Year History of Sex Toys

Images of the author and her book from HallieLieberman.com CYBERSPACE—While the variety of sex toys available to today’s pleasure-seeking consumer—from internet-connected vibrators to the Fleshlight and other masturbation devices for men—can seem overwhelming at times, our prehistoric forebears took a much more straightforward approach to getting off via artificial aid. “Thirty-thousand years ago,” writes sexual historian Hallie Lieberman in her new book, Buzz: A Stimulating History of the Sex Toy, “our ancestors had been hunched over carving eight-inch-long penises out of siltstone.” But those uncomfortable-sounding stimulators were just the beginning of a millennia’s worth of sex-toy evolution recounted by Lieberman, who wrote her doctoral dissertation on the topic at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2014.  Though she published Buzz in November of last year, the book is likely to receive a boost this week, when it finally received a review this week—a favorable one—from The New York Times.  The article also reviews Vibrator Nation, written by another academic versed in sex toy history: Lynn Comella, associate professor of gender and sexuality studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. For more on that fine work, click here and here. Like Vibrator Nation, Lieberman’s book is no dry, academic study. She opens the narrative with an anecdote recounting her own first experience with a sex toy, discovering an eight-inch, cylindrical vibrator in the dresser drawer of a hotel room at age 10, and excitedly announcing to her parents that someone had left behind “a pencil sharpener.”  “‘That’s not a pencil sharpener!’ my mom said frantically, running toward me and taking it away.” Lieberman writes. “’Wash your hands.’” When the 10-year-old Lieberman asked her mother what, if not a pencil sharpener, the device actually was, her mom told her, “You don’t need to know!” But somehow, she found out, and when at the age of 19 she purchased a vibrator of her own, “it was love at first buzz.” Lieberman’s own love affair with sex toys—she later took a job selling sex toys in Texas, where the devices were until recently considered legally “obscene” soon gives way to her epic saga of the sex-toy journey through the centuries dispelling such myths as the supposed use of vibrators by 19th-century psychiatrists on their female patients to cure “hysteria” and introducing a sometimes bizarre cast of characters who have contributed to the advancement of autoerotic technology. For example, Lieberman introduces her readers to Ted Marche, a successful and popular ventriloquist of the 1950s and 1960s who even performed his act, with his trusty dummy “Georgie,” on the 1960 campaign trail in support of then-presidential candidate John F. Kennedy. But by 1965, Lieberman recounts, Marche had developed another passion in life—dildos. Or at least, making money off of dildos by designing and manufacturing a new line of high quality artificial phalluses at a time when sex toys were still outlawed except for “medical” uses. The author also profiles Gosnell Duncan, a quadriplegic from the island of Grenada who in the 1970s invented the silicone dildo—a quantum leap forward from the unsantiary and odd-smelling polyvinyl chloride dildos that came before it—as well as Dell Williams, a former advertising executive who created the first feminist-centered mail order sex toy service after a clerk at Macy’s embarrassed her as she was buying a Hitachi Magic Wand by demanding to know how she planned to use it. Lieberman also questions why, today, when sex toys have become more socially acceptable and prevalent than ever before, the feminist idea that vibrators can be used as a tool of female liberation has all but disappeared, swallowed up by Western consumer culture.

 
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