Hallie Lieberman is a sex toy expert. When I first told people I was interviewing an expert in vibrators, cock rings, and dildos, everyone had the same question: how does one become an expert in that?
The answer is simple: Lieberman saw a sex toy when she was 12 years old and her mother freaked out and refused to tell her what it was. The story is beautifully and hilariously told as the preface to her book Buzz: The Stimulating History of the Sex Toy. Since that moment, she has worked in a sex toy shop, wrote numerous college papers on the subject, and received her Ph.D. with a dissertation on the history of sex toys.
She continued her efforts to explore that history and the stigmas that still swirl around sex toys in Buzz, which was released in late 2017. I spoke with the historian about the stigmas of sex toys, how America isn’t really as progressive as we think, and, of course, her toy recommendations for both men and women.
Adam Vitcavage: Your book goes in depth about the history of sex toys dating back many, many years. Let’s focus on the modern era. How have the stigmas on sex toys shifted? What can we learn from society through the scope of sex toys?
Hallie Lieberman: We can learn a lot through the scope of sex toys in that all technologies mirror human interest and politics at the time. The big shift was sex toys being presented as objects to improve a heterosexual marriage. They were presented as objects to strengthen traditional gender roles. They were worn by men who had impotence. Dildos were really sold as strap-ons for men even though that’s not how they were being used.
We changed from that to talking more openly about sex toys being used for masturbation and reflecting not just heterosexual marriage and reflecting gay culture and the rise of non-binary people. You see sex toys that aren’t as gendered anymore.
You see a little more acceptance of female sexuality, homosexuality, non-binary, and fluidity in sexuality.
AV: As this shift happens and we become more progressive, were there any spikes in acceptance throughout the decades thanks to pop culture?
HL: I think in some ways we aren’t getting more progressive. In some ways we are not that liberated. In some ways we were most accepting of sex toys in the early-1900s when vibrators were sold everywhere. There were tons of advertisements in the Chicago Tribune and Popular Mechanics and in Sears. No one was saying what they were, but then they also came with vaginal attachments.
I don't think we have necessarily become progressive because still, even with something like Fifty Shades of Grey, the narrative is a man uses the sex toy on a woman and sex toys aren’t masturbation devices. Every time we talk about them in that sense, it becomes more controversial than if we were talking about sex toys as a couples' toy.
Look at the development of sex toy technologies that communicate wirelessly over the Internet. The classic example is a flesh light that is Internet-enabled where the man has that in one city and the woman is in another and she has a vibrator. However she moves the vibrator, the flesh light moves in the same way. That technology is more about keeping couples together as opposed to letting men and women figuring out their sexuality.
Even today, you’ll see sex toys being promoted by Orthodox Jews and Christians as ways to enhance sexual relationships.
Back to your thing about spikes in pop culture, there are definite things you can point to. In the 1970s, blow up dolls were a thing all over pop culture. Like in Joan Rivers’ directorial debut, in songs, in television shows, in Woody Allen films…they were a thing.
My theory is that they were a way to talk about the changing gender roles in men and women. At the time women were getting more status and were more sexually liberated. Blow up dolls were a kind of way to put women in their place and show them that they were still objects and men could control their sexuality.
Another spike was of course “Sex and the City” in 1998. That lent more visibility for sex toys.
AV: Was that the last big cultural moment for sex toys until Fifty Shades?
HL: It was, but what is interesting is that Fifty Shades was about classic gender norms, but “Sex and the City,” the vibrator is presented as inferior to a man. It was to stop Charlotte from masturbating all of the time because she wouldn’t be able to meet a real man.
In both instances, the sex toys weren't presented as something a woman could use on her own to just masturbate with as an empowering thing to learn about.
Since then, you have seen sex toys in “How I Met Your Mother,” “Grace and Frankie” for older women, “Broad City” with the pegging stuff, and some other examples. You see them used as weapons in video games, which is fascinating to me.
AV: So the straight community isn’t as progressive as they think. What about the queer community?
HL: The queer community has always been on the forefront. Treasure Chest was the first boutique sex toy store in the United States and it was started by two gay men. The community was really on the forefront of normalizing sex toys. During the AIDS era, some educators said to use sex toys to help prevent the spread of AIDS. They’ve always been ahead of the straight community.
Even today, research shows more lesbians use sex toys more often than straight women. Gay men use more sex toys than straight men. There is less of a stigma with sex toys in the queer community. Transgender people have used sex toys like packers. There is more of a normalization.
AV: What do you feel is the pushback with the straight community?
HL: One of the reasons is the threat of female sexuality. The double standard of Viagra not being controversial and can be marketed on TV with Bob Dole and no one freaked out about it. It’s even covered by health insurance. You can even have a vibrator ad on TV. That Bob Dole ad first aired in 1998, which was the same year that Rabbit vibrator episode of Sex and the City aired on HBO. It was on a cable network and presented vibrators negativity.
It comes down to female sexuality. The idea that a woman can make herself orgasm still freaks some men out. Not a lot of men, but some. It puts into question the role of masculinity and the control of female sexuality. That’s why there are all of these abortion laws and contraceptive laws: there is this need to control female sexuality. Sex toys are the physical embodiment of sexuality that is not controlled by a man.
AV: If America isn’t progressive, what countries are?
HL: Oh, yeah. There are areas less liberated like you’d expect like Pakistan. Germany is way more liberated and has been since the end of World War II. Europe overall is open. You'd see ads everywhere. England is even more liberated to some extent than we are. Our Puritanical background still affects us. Laws from the 18th century have stayed on the books for hundreds of years. We just have this fear of sexuality in the United States.
AV: I hope America is moving toward liberation for all. Where do we go from here, sexually?
HL: For sex toys, one of the things you’re seeing is the move toward non-binary sex toys. Getting away from the pink for girls thing is a small step. We are going away from gender categories. We have more of an acceptance of anal sex among men and women, but particularly among women. It’s becoming more of a thing women talk about and do. It seems like we are getting more accepting of sexual minorities. There is still backlash though.
Anytime with new technologies, we have this utopian thought that they will make the world better. That’s what those wireless sex toys could be. We can make relationships last longer. There are people who say these technologies are ruining relationships.
I think the biggest thing sexually moving forward is going back to what Kinsey was trying to get people to believe in the 1940s. It’s that our sexuality is on a spectrum. Most of us aren’t 100% gay or 100% straight. It took us more than a half-century to recognize that. The future is accepting that we can have a variety of sexual experiences. We don’t have to label ourselves as gay or straight. That’s a very American thing to have to label things. Even with gender fluidity, we have all of these labels for it.
AV: And what are some sex toys that you could recommend us?
HL: The wireless Magic Wand is one I would recommend for women. I would say The Womanizer, an unfortunate name, which is a clitoral suction device. Eva from Dame Products is a device meant to wear during sex. It was invited by Janet Lieberman (no relation) and Alexandra Find at MIT. The Fun Factory brand, in general, is highly recommended.
For guys, and this isn’t an exciting answer, but flesh lights are still the gold standard for male masturbation. I would also suggest that men try butt toys and prostate stimulators.