Review of Buzz: The Stimulating History of the Sex Toy

by | Jan 7, 2022 | Arts + Culture

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Masturbation workshop instructors, the kingpin of the sex toy industry, and a ventriloquist moonlighting as a dildo developer all request the pleasure of your company in Buzz: The Stimulating History of the Sex Toy

Unrelated to any titillating toy or lascivious act, the most shocking detail of Hallie Lieberman’s honest look at the history of sex aids in the United States? Just how long it took us to shake the moralism and catch up with the modern world. 

Vibe in your bedside drawer? Whether you picked it up at your neighborhood CVS or scored your favorite toy by shopping women-led companies like Maude or Dame on the web, the freedom to purchase them legally is a recent win.

Sex toy sales were banned in many states as late as 2005. 

Even today, those living in Alabama can be prosecuted under obscenity laws for purchasing a pleasure device.

Does the shock of sexual freedom in the United States tickle your fancy? Take a dive into Buzz, a researched exploration of the West’s most taboo subject: the dildo.

Academia Slips Into Something Sexy

Buzz Review: Blue GeodeLieberman made it her life’s work to unearth the truth behind how and why the sex industry came to grow from prehistoric cave drawings into a modern multi-billion dollar business. 

Her story begins undercover. She pimps out silicone dildos and flavored lube to home party participants in Texas- a side hustle with a serious incarceration risk. Lieberman decides to go legit and sets out to earn a doctoral degree in the subject. Her Ph.D dissertation (University of Wisconsin-Madison) then grew into the novel. 

Unearthing is an understatement. Lieberman clawed her way through dusty stacks and unmarked drawers to discover the details she shares in Buzz: The Stimulating History of the Sex Toy. 

Just how long have humans been using external objects to gratify themselves and others? 

The truth is not-so-surprising: artificial penises have been in existence nearly as long as the real ones. But the historical landmarks are few and far between. Buzz takes the reader deep into the details. It covers everything from the O.G. dildo to the role modern toys played in creating safer sex during the AIDS epidemic of the late 70’s,.

Lieberman’s novel is full of facts, data, and history but, amazingly, it doesn’t read like a clinical document. She introduces us early on in her compendium to Betty Dodson and her enthusiastic insistence that female masturbation was a political act (with the in-person, naked how-to workshops to back it up!) Hardly the humdrum of a stuffy academic! 

Vulvas Need Not Apply: Meet the Men of Female Pleasure

Buzz: Pink RosesThe sex industry was slow going in the early 20th century. Legal red tape, supply issues, and distribution hiccups plagued its growth. 

What I found most surprising? Mid-century sex toy development was led by men…for men. The heavy focus was on pleasing men in heterosexual marriages. 

Innovators like Ted Marche and Gosnell Duncan spent long hours over kitchen tables and garage benches. They dabbled with caustic materials, and poured their creativity into developing the forerunners of the clitoral stimulators we use today. 

Why are these men so interested in creating products meant for use in women’s vaginas? 

The two things you would expect: Sex…and Money.

Buzz unveils the expected capitalistic motivation to be on the leading edge of development, production, and distribution.  But unexpectedly, Lieberman balances this take with heartwarming stories of men who were committed to helping others with their sexual dysfunctions, too. 

A ventrilloquist-turned-dildo-innovator who just wanted to help people, a parapalegic assisting other differenlty-abled humans achieve satisfying sex, gay men hoping to create safer sex during an epidemic, and a Robin Hood duo selling sex toys to fund contraceptive inititives in poor countries. 

It was refreshing to see so many men in Lieberman’s chapters pursuing their work in the sex toy industry for altrusitic reasons. 

Not everyone- but some.  As the industry grew- so did the greed.

According to Lieberman’s records, if you were enjoying the sex toy industry in American during the late 20th century, your product of choice was probably going through the hands of Rueben Sturman. Sturman built an astonishing empire of pleasure products spanning the continental US and Europe. Not to give away any surprise, but the Porn King topples at the end.

These stories give Buzz the lusty intrigue of a summer romance woven from pure, jaw-dropping history.

Tits and Clits: The Women of Sexual Freedom

Silk SheetsThe women of Buzz step out of the shadows in the late 1960’s: Second Wave Feminists. Lesbians and bisexuals, entrepreneuers and educators- they bring femalecentric sex to the forefront of the conversation. They churn out all-female underground comics, sex workshops, vibe parties, all while changing the course of history. ,,

The problem? Not everyone involved thinks the focus should be on women’s orgasms. 

Despite this, the sexual revolution so famous for its vibrators and bra burnings begins to take shape. Contraceptives increase in popularity while obscenity laws receive challenge and stricken down by higher courts. 

Erotica goes mainstream when women begin to open their own sex toy ventures. Lieberman follows the likes of Betty Dodson and Della Williams as they push the sex toy industry in a feminine direction. 

I found myself cheering on their success.The metamorphosis ebbs and flows but female-run, female-centered sex toy businesses owe their current profitability to Dodson, Williams, and others who paved the path. 

My one critique of Buzz? How often Lieberman cuts back and forth between her star characters and their timelines during the fifteen chapters. As in every industry, the paths of the players frequently collide and overlap. Shaping those interactions is clearly challenging.

Still, as we round the corner toward Women’s History Month, her fascinating recount of one of the most historically restricted but culturally significant items ever to be created is worth picking up. 

Another great way to celebrate Women’s History Month? Take the leap towards Boudoir!

Fans of Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Sex and Science, and Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty will be delighted with this rumpus read- a great non-fiction pick for your galentine or book club.