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BOOK REVIEW Buzz: A Stimulating History of the Sex Toy
by Terri Schlichenmeyer
2020-01-22

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By Hallie Lieberman, $26.95; Pegasus Books; 359 pages

Double-A.

It has many uses, that little word-dash-letter. It's good for future baseball players. Good for a pre-teen girl. Great, if you're a student trying to bring those grades up. And, as you'll see in Buzz: A Stimulating History of the Sex Toy, by Hallie Lieberman, if you're an adult, double-A is something you never want to run out of…

A dozen years ago, to make a little money, Lieberman found an unusual job: she was a home-party sex toy salesperson in a state where the selling of sex toys was illegal. Ever afraid of being arrested, she stuck to the "script" that the company gave her; it was stilted and full of euphemisms, and the job was demeaning and embarrassing. She felt like she "wasn't actually teaching people anything."

From her Ph.D. studies, Lieberman learned that "sex toys were ancient." Some 30 millennia ago, ancient Germans carved phallic objects, though some historians argue that sex mightn't have been their intention. At any rate, the practice of using artificial devices for sexual pleasure spread across Europe and into Asia and, soon after the Middle Ages, mentions of sex toys began showing up in literature.

Closer to home and beginning in Victorian times, rectal dilators and vibrators were made in the United States and sold as "medical devices," approved by doctors; the former were made by "respected rubber companies," while the latter were available for discreet purchase in department stores for decades. Until laws were created against it, you could even have the devices mailed to your home; later, to circumvent those and other laws meant to keep sex toys out of the hands of everyday citizens, vibrators, dildoes and dilators were sold as "novelties."

In 1965, a ventriloquist who was an engineer by profession started manufacturing sex toys; in the early 1970s, a paraplegic welder began making them for women, and advising the disabled on their use. Others joined the revolution until, in 1972 ( and though they'd long been a staple of sleaze ), sex toys gained respectability inside a narrow waterbed-store-turned-sex-shop run by two gay men, with hetero people welcome.

Of course, there's so much more to this story but here's one interesting thing about this book: while you might think it'd be titillating with maybe a few nudge-nudge-winks, that's not the case. Author Lieberman doesn't do that to her readers.

Instead, what you get is exactly what its subtitle promises: Buzz is a history of sex toys, from ancient times to modern day, and its use by straight people, the disabled, the LGBT community, and feminists. Through the narrative, you'll see how advocates tied sex toys to equality and self-confidence, and how the struggle to make the devices acceptable unfolded but is still not over ( including a surprise-not-surprise toward the end ). That's serious stuff and Lieberman offers it in a well-rounded way, though not without lightheartedness when appropriate.

This isn't a book to shock—it's meant to inform and that's accomplished, enjoyably. The prurient, the curious and pop-culture fans will love Buzz, no batteries required.


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