One woman’s bold case for breaking the sex-toy taboo

Powerful men have done a lot of vile things in the workplace. But of all the stories that have recently emerged, the one that really irritates Hallie Lieberman is the accusation that former “Today” show host Matt Lauer once gave his colleague a sex toy with a note about wanting to use it on her.

Lieberman has devoted her career to the study of sex toys and their positive impact on people’s lives. It’s a subject she discusses at length in her recently published book, “Buzz.”

Vibrators and other sex toys can help people get more comfortable with their bodies and achieve pleasure, Lieberman says, and that’s a wonderful thing — in one’s personal life. “I’m a big fan of sending sex toys as gifts,” she said in a phone interview from her home in Atlanta. “But don’t send them to your employee.”

The same advice probably holds for Lieberman’s book, which is based on her doctoral dissertation for the University of Wisconsin and picks up the subject a very, very long time ago.

“Before humans invented writing or the wheel, we had invented dildos,” notes Lieberman, who explains that archaeologists have discovered phallic-shaped objects dating back to the Ice Age. In a chapter surveying about 30,000 years, Lieberman points out that dildos appear in paintings in ancient Egypt, in several works by Greek dramatist Aristophanes and in the advice-packed pages of the Kama Sutra. In the 17th century, they appeared in British poetry and Japanese woodblock prints. Among the archives of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, where Lieberman was a fellow several years ago, she found an early 20th-century device for inducing male pleasure.

Despite this lengthy heritage, sex toys have managed to stay relatively under cover(s). This taboo is what first attracted Lieberman to the subject. The preface of “Buzz” recounts a family vacation when she was 10 years old and discovered an odd zippered pouch in the hotel dresser. She showed off the “pencil sharpener” to her parents, who immediately took it away and demanded she wash her hands.

The memory lingered with Lieberman during her formative years in the 1990s in Florida. One day, the then-16-year-old Lieberman took a peek inside a store called Adult Fun, which beckoned with its blacked-out windows from a seedy strip mall. Inside, she gaped at a wall of erotic merchandise, shelves of publications with unprintable titles — and an employee from her school district.

Lieberman was baffled as much as she was intrigued. “Wasn’t sex supposed to just work?” she wondered. Why would anyone need to spend money on extra stuff? Nevertheless, Lieberman decided not to walk out empty-handed.

Her fascination lingered, less a prurient interest than an academic one. As a graduate student in advertising at the University of Texas at Austin in the early 2000s, Lieberman became a sales rep for a company that threw Tupperware-like parties at customers’ homes. Except instead of selling nifty plasticware, they hawked sex toys. But there was one big problem: Selling these items in Texas was illegal. To avoid arrest and fines, Lieberman had to stick with code lingo and say that the products were sold strictly for “artistic, educational and scientific purposes.”

The situation struck Lieberman as bizarre, which is why she started digging into how that law ended up on the books. Before long, she was researching the rise of vice crusaders and the government’s role in regulating sex toys, as well as the development of key sex-toy technologies, including rubber vulcanization and electricity.

Initially, her plan for “Buzz” was to offer an in-depth examination of objects, not people, Lieberman says. But readers will find that the majority of her book is dedicated to a colorful cast of characters who have shaped the sex-toy industry in America since the 1950s.

One of Lieberman’s favorites is Ted Marche, a ventriloquist who, as she puts it, “went from a dummy to dildos.” Marche was also an engineer, and in the mid-’60s, wanted to build a device that would help impotent men. It was a risky venture in pre-sexual revolution times, but Marche found that demand for his“marital-aid” device was high. By 1976, Marche had sold nearly 5 million of them; he also donated artificial penises to children’s hospitals, where they were used to treat young boys with abnormal genitals.

If Marche was the angel of the sex-toy scene, the devil was Reuben Sturman, whose rise to dominance in the industry involved shady Swiss bank accounts, extortion and even a plot to scare rivals with bombs.

Most of Lieberman’s attention, however, is on people who embrace these devices as part of larger cultural movements. “These people wanted to change the world and used sex toys to do it,” she says.

There’s Gosnell Duncan, a paraplegic who began crafting sex toys to cater to other people with disabilities. (He also pioneered the use of body-safe silicone rubber.) Duane Colglazier, the co-founder of the Pleasure Chest chain of stores, launched a gay-oriented business during a time when homosexuality was a crime.

And Betty Dodson, a personal hero to Lieberman, tirelessly advocated for masturbation — and vibrators — among feminists. It wasn’t always a popular idea with the group’s leaders, who worried about the optics of prioritizing pleasure. The idea that women can take control of their sexuality, “it was radical,” Lieberman says. “It still is radical.”

Vicky Hallett, a former Washington Post columnist, is a freelance writer in Florence, Italy.

The Stimulating History of the Sex Toy

By Hallie Lieberman

Pegasus. 384 pp. $26.95

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