Review of Buzz: A Stimulating History of the Sex Toy

I stumbled upon Hallie Lieberman’s book about the history of sex toys while poking around on Amazon for Christmas presents. I was surprised—unlike other new sex toy-related releases, I hadn’t seen a single person in my communities talking about this one. How could a sex toy history book come out without many experts in the industry knowing about it? Intrigued, wary, and anxious to dig in, I ordered Buzz: A Stimulating History of the Sex Toy immediately.

Lieberman is a former dildo slinger who wrote her PhD dissertation on sex toy history. In Buzz, she examines the history of sex toys from 30,000 years ago to the 21st century, guided by questions of how we ended up in the “sexually regressive” world of sex toys she came to know after years of working in the industry.

Indeed, large parts of Buzz analyze the mainstream sex toy industry’s adherence to gender and sexual norms at a time when companies and manufacturers instead could have promoted sexual freedom, empowerment, and liberation. Lieberman also provides a detailed overview of burgeoning sex toy companies in the 1900s and lays out the legal history of sex toys, “explicit” material, and numerous court and government battles many companies were entrenched in for years. But for me, as a sex toy connoisseur, blogger, and educator, Buzz left me wanting. I don’t think the average reader—someone who doesn’t work in or adjacent to the sex toy industry—would walk away from Buzz with a truly comprehensive understanding of the industry, especially recent history.

Buzz Basics

Buzz is well-structured: with approximately 300 pages of content plus a bibliography and endnotes, it’s just the right length. There are 15 chapters, about 20 pages each, and they all feel equal and even. History books often seem daunting, but Lieberman obviously took care to make Buzz accessible and palatable to a wide range of readers.

Lieberman begins Buzz with her personal stories of selling sex toys, first as an in-home sex toy party salesperson, then as a dildo slinger at a brick-and-mortar store in Texas when sex toys were still illegal. She then gives a centuries-spanning overview of sex toys around the world, followed by a deeper dive into sex toys in the 1800s and 1900s, with most of the book focusing on sex toy manufacturers and retailers in the United States in the mid-to-late 1900s. As Buzz progresses, Lieberman examines the women’s movement in-depth, exploring the idea of masturbation as liberation, the birth of the first feminist and queer-owned sex toy shops, and the contentious role of sex toys in the feminist movement.

Lieberman weaves in the history of sex toy companies’ legal struggles throughout the book, and positions those battles within the legal and cultural contexts of the time. She ends Buzz with a short discussion of sex toys in the 21st century and a reflection on where we can go from here.

What I Loved: Disabled Dildo Makers, Missing Magic Wands, and Feminist Founders

I have major concerns with Buzz, but there were parts of the book I found illuminating. As someone working in the field, it’s important to know the roots of the sex toy industry and its connections with feminist and sexual freedom movements—and I learned so much about the birth of the industry, including manufacturers and retailers that are still around today.

For example, I never knew that The Pleasure Chest was founded by two gay men intent on creating safer spaces for people to explore their sexuality through sex toys, or that the founders of Adam & Eve also co-founded an international abortion rights organization that’s still thriving today. I also learned that the first feminist sex shop in the United States, Eve’s Garden, was founded by an advertising executive inspired to make sex toys more accessible for women after attending Betty Dodson’s bodysex workshops.

Lieberman includes many helpful storylines that show how the sex toy industry was shaped into what it is now: differences between early companies, like those who prioritized safer toys and those who prioritized profit; the violent history of Doc Johnson founder Reuben Sturman and the incredibly tight stranglehold he had over the industry for years; how Vibratex came to market the Magic Wand after a vibrator drought in the United States; the battle feminists faced to liberate sex toys from the narrow category of “marital aids” compared to anti-sex toy “feminists” who firmly believed using dildos meant submitting to patriarchy; and how vibrators’ portrayal in the mainstream media contributes to sex toy stigma rather than empowerment.

I was most thrilled to learn that the first silicone sex toy was born out of the disability rights movement. Gosnell Duncan, a disabled Caribbean immigrant, joined the sex toy industry to make dildos for other disabled people who were disregarded by doctors and left out of the sexual revolution—and he made them out of silicone.

In Buzz, Lieberman writes:

“[Duncan] began by investigating newer, safer materials for dildos. At the time, most sex toys were made of polyvinyl chloride, which had major drawbacks, including porousness, a “plastic” smell, and the inability to retain heat…If he could develop a silicone safe enough for the body, he thought, he could create a dildo different than anything on the market. A silicone rubber dildo would be nonporous, making it appealingly smooth and capable of being sanitized between partners.” (96)

To make his silicone dildos, Duncan collaborated with a General Electric chemist. Nine months later, they hit the formula jackpot and Duncan created a test lab in his basement. His basement silicone dildo workshop wasn’t the only revolutionary thing Duncan did—he also helped make dildos more diverse.

“At the time, the standard dildo was in an off-white pinkish color referred to as ‘flesh-colored,’ which alienated all those whose flesh wasn’t the color of the dildo. It was only when Duncan, a dark-skinned Caribbean paraplegic, started making dildos that the colors and styles changed radically…Duncan experimented in his basement lab to create just the right skin colors, blending brown and black organic pigments with silicone oil.” (100)

Duncan’s silicone dildo legacy is a crucial (and also rarely discussed) piece of sex toy history. His innovation paved the way for the rise of body-safe sex toys and infused disability rights and health justice into the sex toy industry. Once his dildos became popular, Duncan turned his basement dildo operation into the now-defunct company Scorpio Products, but the mark he left on sex toys lives on.

Harmful “History”: Trans Exclusion and the Gender Binary

The sex toy history Lieberman did include in Buzz was informative and entertaining, but it wasn’t enough: there was little discussion of very recent sex toy history (in the last 10-15 years). Even more problematic for me, though, was the exclusionary language used throughout the book and erasure of marginalized and oppressed people.

Lieberman radically misrepresents what Buzz is supposed to be about—sexuality and gender. The language throughout the book is incredibly binary and focuses on “men and women” and “male and female” people. Transgender people are mentioned only a handful of times, always in reference to trans men and women. There’s no mention of non-binary people anywhere in Buzz. Even in the conclusion, when Lieberman shares her vision for the future of sex toys, she says “In a perfect world…boys and girls would be taught about [sex toys] in sex education courses.” (292)

Just boys and girls. It’s ironic and disappointing that in a book partly written to analyze the sex toy industry’s attachment to gender and sexual norms, Lieberman still adheres to the gender binary.

Further, any mention of queer people is focused mainly on lesbians and gay men, with a few bisexual women scattered throughout. Most offensive is Lieberman’s horrifyingly inaccurate retelling of the Stonewall riots: “It was the smashed beer bottle heard ‘round the world: Finally gay men and women had stood up to the police harassment that they were constantly subjected to in bars and other public areas.” (114) Uh, what? Black and Brown trans women, drag queens, and gender nonconforming butches revolted at Stonewall—and Lieberman didn’t say one word about them. Instead, she contributed to the continual erasure of trans people, especially trans femmes, at Stonewall and throughout queer history.

Glaring Omissions: Toxic Toys, Modern Manufacturers, and Blogger Contributions

Aside for brief mentions here and there, usually associated with Duncan’s silicone dildos, Buzz does not include an in-depth examination of body-safe sex toy materials. These quick tidbits are enough for someone like me who knows the ins and outs of safe sex toy products, but it doesn’t come close to being enough for the average reader. It’s irresponsible to leave this crucial information out—many people don’t realize that toxic and unsafe sex toy materials can make you sick, and that many big-name companies in the industry still sell toxic toys. Instead, Lieberman claims “nearly all sex-toy companies today target women and make sex toys out of silicone or other body-safe materials.” (287)

Lieberman is doing her readers a disservice by not delving into the details of body-safe materials. Ideally, she would have spent a chapter devoted to what makes a sex toy safe (and unsafe), what companies sell safe toys, and what manufacturers still promote toxic toys and value capitalism more highly than consumer and community safety. That’s still part of sex toy history—and social justice too. Lieberman had the opportunity to hold companies accountable for manufacturing and selling unsafe toys. She didn’t take it.

Most of Buzz focused on a small handful of companies and manufacturers—Doc Johnson, Scorpio Products (Gosnell Duncan’s company), Adam & Eve, Vibratex, and two older companies, Marche Manufacturing and United Sales—and a few feminist sex toy shops—Eve’s Garden, The Pleasure Chest, and Good Vibrations. Lieberman mentions a few other companies in passing, but doesn’t spend more than a few paragraphs on any company other than those above.

I was surprised at just how many incredible companies Buzz doesn’t even mention, like SheVibe, online feminist sex toy retailer founded in 2006, various feminist sex shops founded in the 2000s like Sugar, Smitten Kitten, and Early to Bed, or ethical manufacturers like Doxy. Once again, I feel like Lieberman is doing her readers a disservice: I know there are more excellent, equitable sex toy companies out there than the ones profiled or mentioned in Buzz, but will the average reader? Buzz is a book about the history of sex toys, but that should include recent history, too.

Lieberman also makes no mention of sex bloggers and educators working to improve the sex toy industry outside of prominent educators associated with sex shops she profiled. She leaves out proficient sex toy reviewers like Epiphora and Dangerous Lilly, who have each been blogging for a decade and educate thousands upon thousands of people about sex toy safety. Not a peep about the other countless bloggers, educators, performers, and other content creators who push the sex toy industry to sell body-safe sex toy materials and center social justice in their work and guide consumers away from bad companies and toward good ones. The sex toy industry wouldn’t be the same without the educators and bloggers who work tirelessly to make it more ethical and equitable—it’s a mistake not to include them in the history of sex toys.

Frustratingly, Lieberman had room to explore body-safe sex toys, 21st century feminist retailers and manufacturers, and sex bloggers’ role in making the sex toy industry better. She spent many, many pages retelling sex toy companies and shops’ legal battles in extreme detail—the least compelling part of Buzz for me. While including some of that history is necessary to highlight how anti-sex attitudes were (and still are) codified into law and used to discriminate, the intricacies of every drawn out legal fight were too much.

Finally, Lieberman strangely jumps between saying “sex-toy” and “sex toy” throughout the book. In my years in this industry, I’ve never seen “sex toy” written with a dash in the middle. The inconsistency was vexing. Buzz is also littered with spelling and punctuation errors. They aren’t few and far-between—I lost count of how many I found. Even Hillary Clinton’s name is spelled wrong in the final chapter of the book.

Written differently, a comprehensive history of sex toys would be an excellent asset to the sexual freedom movement. Unfortunately, Buzz just isn’t it. It’s not just about what history you include—it’s about how you tell it, who you center, and what stories you choose to lift up. Buzz is a start, but Lieberman still has a long way to go.