Plastic PleasureHallie Lieberman On the Liberating Future of Sex Toys

There are few products with as much meaning attached to them as sex toys. From their legal prohibition in Alabama to their status as symbols of liberation for feminists like Betty Dodson, the way the United States has treated sex toys can teach you a lot about its culture, which are the dots Hallie Lieberman aims to connect in her first book, Buzz: A Stimulating History of the Sex Toy.

Lieberman sold sex toys through in-home “Passion Parties” in Texas from 2003 to 2005, when they were illegal in the state, often using coded language for the products. She had to say “massager” instead of “vibrator,” call the clitoris “the man in the boat,” and convince women sex toys would help them please men. To research the fraught history that led to such restrictions, she enrolled in the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s mass communications doctoral program.

For her dissertation on sex-toy history, she investigated the ways patriarchy, sex negativity, and religion have made people shy away from adult products or limit their use to committed relationships. In the course of her research, she also found that sex toys have been used to help women be sexual on their own terms, validate LGBTQ people’s sexuality, and allow people with disabilities to experience pleasure. Buzz holds all these complexities at once, showing how our cultural view of sex has evolved since the days when male-owned companies monopolized the market and still needs to evolve.

I talked to Lieberman about the past and future of sex toys, what we still get wrong about them, and the political connotations surrounding masturbation.

What was the most surprising thing you learned while researching for this book?

The story of sex toys isn’t from repression to liberation. One of the reasons we’re so accepting of sex toys now is not necessarily because we’re so accepting of women’s masturbation. A lot of the sex toys fit into female gender roles and are sold as couples’ toys that can enhance a sexual relationship between two people.

Hallie Lieberman and Buzz bookLeft to right: Author Hallie Lieberman and the cover of Buzz: A Stimulating History of he Sex Toy (Photo credit: Pegasus)

What are the biggest myths about sex toys?

One is that you’ll get addicted to a sex toy, like the “Turtle and the Hare” episode of Sex and the City: You won’t leave the house or you’ll only be able to get off by using a sex toy. Another myth is that sex toys are only for women, and there’s this idea that men won’t benefit from sex toys. The other myth that still exists is that sex dolls and sex robots will replace human interaction and relationships. We’ll love them so much that we won’t want a partner.

What’s behind all the stigma around sex toys? Why are we so afraid of them?

A big part of the stigma of sex toys comes from the idea that they’re used by women for masturbation. The idea that women masturbate is shocking to people, and the idea that women could enjoy masturbation just as much or more than sex with a person is threatening because it symbolizes that women don’t need men or partners for sexual pleasure. This is a symbol of female independence. There’s this idea that sex should be for procreation; there’s all these people fighting against abortion and birth control. The idea that sex needs to be for reproduction is so strong in our country. Sex toys allow women to have pleasure for fun and not have to worry about babies.

Do you agree with Betty Dodson and other feminist sex toy advocates that masturbation empowers women?

I don’t think it necessarily does, but for me, it did. It especially [empowers] women who’ve never had an orgasm or never orgasmed during sexual activity with a partner. It’s absolutely a game changer because having their first orgasm changes their whole idea of sexuality.

A theme that kept coming up in the book was men finding vibrators threatening, while there’s no fear that masturbation sleeves will replace women. Why is this?

Historically, a man is supposed to bring pleasure to a woman: Sex should be within marriage; the way a woman should get pleasure is through sex with her husband. So, if you give a woman a vibrator, the fear is that she’ll learn how to please herself, she won’t need that man, [and] it’ll blow up society. We’ve been more accepting of male masturbation; that’s why that’s not as threatening. Men mastubate. It’s a trope from pop culture. It’s funny. It’s accepted. They have not historically always relied on their wives for sexual pleasure. We have records of [men] going to prostitutes and using other outlets, so they’re usually allowed a richer sexual life.

Do you think this double standard affects women in other areas?

That’s what Betty Dodson was talking about: It was an economic exchange. You got married, gave sex to your husband, and that was for him only. You were handing over your sexual being in exchange for financial security.

a stock photo of BDSM cuffsBDSM cuffs (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Have sex toys changed this economic model of sex?

If you look at the more mainstream sex toys—Fifty Shades of Grey, home parties—it’s all about using sex toys to keep your man from straying, as opposed to something you just do on your own. There are a ton of progressive sex-toy stores and sex-toy companies out there, including Fun Factory and Dame Products, that are all about all genders and all sex-toy uses. But the mainstream idea that a lot of people encounter is more repressive or traditionalist, seeing sex toys within traditional family values. You see that too with the Orthodox Jewish embrace of sex toys [and] the Muslim embrace of sex toys.

But I did learn one of the keys is meeting people where they are. There’s a Muslim woman who owns Please in Brooklyn. She’s an FGM [female genital mutilation] survivor, and she gets a lot of Muslims in her store. People are uncomfortable with masturbation. You want to meet people where they are, but you don’t want to perpetuate this one way of thinking about sex toys.

You wrote that “sex toys were always political, but the politics they embodied was up for grabs.” What politics do you see sex toys embodying right now?

I don’t know if you’re familiar with the sex-toy campus carry: To protest the campus carry laws, students have been carrying around dildos, and some sex toy companies have donated them. You can call it the “make love, not war” idea. There’s an artist, Matt Haughey, who replaces sex toys and pictures of Republicans with big dildos. There’s efforts to make sex toys a form of political protest, like the Donald Trump butt plug by a Mexican artist.

Then there’s a packer used by trans people because being trans in our culture is political. It means this is a person who’s not going to fit within the gender roles we have given them. Sex toys continue to embody feminist politics. A lot of the companies out there, especially sex-toy retailers like Good Vibrations, SHAG in Brooklyn, Please in New York embody feminist values, including the value of female independence.

A bunch of different stores use sex toys as symbols of gay sexuality, which is unfortunately political. Double dildos embody lesbian sexuality—or men’s fantasy of what lesbians do in bed. If you look at double dildos or how nonfunctional they are, they have this idea of what a lesbian is that is not based in reality. There are sex toys for different groups. People are disappointed that there aren’t a lot of sex toys for people with disabilities or overweight people. The Hey Epiphora blog talks about a lot of sex toys not working for bigger women.

The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. 

by Suzannah Weiss
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Suzannah Weiss is a writer whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Village Voice, Vice, Salon, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, Elle, Marie Claire, Seventeen, Bitch, Bust, Paper Magazine, and more. She holds degrees in Gender & Sexuality Studies, Modern Culture & Media, and Cognitive Neuroscience from Brown University, which she uses mainly to over-analyze trashy television and argue over semantics. You can read some of her work at www.suzannahweiss.com and follow her on Twitter at @suzannahweiss.
 

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