Buzz: A Stimulating History of the Sex Toy

Hallie Lieberman
Harper Collins Publishers
November 7, 2017

Disclaimer: A review copy was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Having lived in the generally liberal city of London, England, for the majority of my adult life, I have rarely felt any restriction on my sexuality since graduating from the typical teenage angst about it. Reading Buzz: The Stimulating History of the Sex Toy by Hallie Lieberman made me realise just how much I take that for granted.

Buzz explores the history of the sex toy and, specifically, its relationship with the USA. Sex toys are one of humanity’s oldest inventions. They are referenced in the Bible, show up in Greek plays, and have even been identified among the animal kingdom. And yet despite this, they are still widely shunned in contemporary society. Buzz goes back to the beginning of humanity’s relationship with sex toys to examine how it got to where it is today.

It explores how legal restrictions manifest in such a way that they impact individuals. It takes you through specific personal stories of determined artists, manufacturers, and entrepreneurs throughout the decades to illustrate how attitudes have changed and why. The evolution of societal attitudes towards sex toys is told through the stories of specific individuals and I found that this made it simple to follow and the facts easier to digest.

It also helped that a lot of the stories included were incredibly heartwarming. Almost all of the pioneers of the sex toy industry were focused, above anything else, on the happiness of their customers. It was a family business for the Marches that expanded from not only fake genitals to prosthetics for anyone missing a body part. They became the first port of call for doctors looking for prosthetic penises for patients who had been injured, particularly during the war.

Sex toys have inherited a negative reputation from the seedier aspects of the sex industry, and Buzz is honest about this close connection, such as peep show booths. But their development has largely been one of liberation and freedom for marginalised communities. The people who fought for the legality and proliferation of sex toys did so in pursuit of women’s rights, the safety of the LGBT community, and the opportunities for disabled people to have a fulfilling sex life.

Sex toys played a crucial part in giving women the confidence to leave oppressive marriages and take their lives into their own hands. Shops that sold sex toys were some of the earliest safe spaces for gay men and women alike, in a roundly bigoted era. Most touching of all, the designers and creators of sex toys went out of their way to make products that would appeal to every taste, no matter how niche. The opened up new sexual avenues for all kinds of people, who finally felt a sense of community after a lifetime of isolation.

I love that many of the early sex toy creators were family businesses, set up purely to bring people joy. I found it fascinating learning about the people who pioneered sexual freedom for so many people. It was almost inspiring seeing just how political owning and using a sex toy can be because of the way its history coincides with so many revolutions.

It was equally interesting, if less exciting, realising just how much of the stigma surrounding sex toys is rooted in misogyny, homophobia, and ableism. Although I knew this in theory already, having the true extent of the oppression laid out so clearly made me weep for humanity as a species. I feel like I will never fail to be disappointed in mankind’s ability to hurt each other for no good reason. Most depressing of all is knowing how prevalent these backward attitudes still are, even in America, where Buzz is largely focused.

It is still illegal to sell sex toys in some states of America. In these places, people think it is a good use of police time and resources to set up to sting operations to arrest middle-aged housewives selling toys to their friends. The USA’s current administration’s unashamedly anti-feminist attitude only makes me feel like political statements on a personal level are as important now as they ever were.

I thought that Lieberman was very realistic about how much things still need to change before sex toys are wholly safe and socially accepted outside of specific heteronormative roles. But for all that, Buzz seems to me like it is ultimately written with a degree of hope.

Despite the lingering stigma, sexual liberation is in a freer, safer, and more tolerant position now than ever before. And, for the most part, we’re heading in the right direction to make things even better. Lieberman even explores just how we, as a society, can achieve our next milestones in terms of sexual expression and education for all.

This book makes me want to go out and buy all the sex toys I can afford in a display of solidarity with all the people who were arrested and ostracised for selling them. It also makes me feel grateful that I can do that if I choose to. I am glad that this book is in the world. I think it thoroughly and fairly examines a topic that deeply affects many people’s lives, but is often ignored as a factor in human fulfillment. I think that this book does a really good job of eschewing both the myths and the stigma surrounding sex toys and, instead, framing them frankly and objectively.

I want people to read Buzz and understand how sexually repressive society can be–and often still is–towards people who have few enough freedoms as it is and the real impact that can have on a life.