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I’ll never forget the wall of vibrators. When facing a wall of pink and purple and black fake rubber cocks one has either to erase the experience from one’s mind, or else one has to realize you’ve pushed yourself past the point of no return and now you’re actually considering purchasing a vibrator or a dildo. I have my wife to thank for this experience however, since she was the person who took me to my first sex-shop.
Open Minds is a store that is labeled “Tyler’s Best Kept Secret,” a nickname that reveals the fundamentalist mentality of the town, not to mention the two-faced nature of my hometown. People like to fuck and masturbate but nobody likes to admit to it. Having grown up in Tyler my whole life I was shocked when my wife, then girlfriend, informed me that there was a “sex-shop” in town. Painful as it is to admit I was still virginial in my world-view, and believed sex-shops were something one only found or experienced in major urban cities like New York or Amsterdam. Sex-shops were gross, creepy places manned by sexual deviants who peddled blow-up dolls and leather gear for serial killers, or at least that’s what television and Sunday-school had taught me. That’s hyperbole obviously, but the sentiment is still true. Tyler was a sex-starved city and the thought that there might actually be a store where one could buy sex-toys and pornography was shocking, and slightly unbelievable. Nevertheless my wife insisted and, curious to see it for myself, she and her roommate took me to Open Minds and altered my world forever.
I found, after walking into the place, that the store was actually non-threatening. Yes there were dildos everywhere, but they were sold as aids for personal pleasure. There were shelves of “flavored” lube which could be opened and “sampled” without fear of catching STIs. The staff, who were eccentric in their personality but queerly normal at the same time, were happy to show us products, put batteries in the vibrators to give us demonstrations of the “levels,” and even offered us personal opinions about the varieties of lubes on display. I left the store feeling comfortable, satisfied, and most importantly, with a feeling that I had done something both for my relationship with my wife and for myself.
Ever since then sexuality is something I approach, not as a taboo, but just something people do, and I guess that’s what led me to Buzz.
Buzz: A Stimulating History of the Sex Toy by Hallie Lieberman was a book I discovered on Amazon during one of my endless searches for new materials about human sexuality. I’d love to be able to say I discovered the book at my local Barnes & Noble or the PeaPicker, but alas, as I noted before, Tyler is not really “that” kind of town. I can’t remember what I was searching for, but for whatever reasons the word vibrator or dildo was in the search bar and Buzz was the first book to appear. The cover struck me immediately. A labia-pink parenthesis held the the vertical title which hovered below another pink asterisk which was an obviously play on the lay-out of the vulva.
Any book which was willing to use punctuation to create yonic imagery (stuff that looks like vaginas) is a must own and so I hit “add to cart” immediately.
Reading Buzz I recognize that I went into the experience with a bit of bias. I am a feminist, and I am a philosophical defender of the practice of masturbation. Anyone who would argue against the physical merits of self-love are either asinine zealots or just people who just hate their body. Obviously I’m biased in this matter, some might argue because I’m a man and therefore my masturbation is far more obvious and less complicated, but in my time I’ve observed that the paranoia which surrounds masturbation is just something of a fallacy. The idea that masturbation could lead to anything other than personal satisfaction is just ludicrous, and Lieberman’s book tries to ultimately follow the same point.
One of the earliest and most potent examples involves a woman who was arrested simply for selling sex-toys:
After I’d returned home later that night, I looked up the story my mentor had told me. I learned that the arrested woman had not been some left-wing free speech advocate but a forty-three-year-old churchgoing Republican mother of three named Joanne Webb. Local police had responded to rumors that Webb was selling sex toys by setting up a sting operation. Two officers posing as a couple went to Webb’s husband’s construction business where she worked the front desk and asked to buy some sex-toys. […]
For her violation of Texas’s anti-sex-toy laws, Webb faced a possible year in prison and up to $4,000 in fines, all for selling a couple of vibrators. Passion Parties started a Joanne Webb Defense fund and raised more than $10,000 for her legal team. Webb’s charges were eventually dropped, but not before she spent thousands on legal fees. And, perhaps even worse, Webb was shunned in the community. (6-7).
This story for me personally is one of the many instances in which I have to shake my head and shudder and remind myself that as much as I love my home state of Texas, there are times that I just shudder from the level of stupidity. What’s important about this passage however is not just that the incident took place, but that the actual arrest took place in 2004. It’s easy to forget or believe that society is at a point in time where someone selling vibrators or dildos would be free to do so without legal recourse, but a book like Buzz reminds the reader that that mental acclimation is due largely the hard labor, and often pain, of a number of individuals who turned the sex-toy industry into the common-place staple that it is today.
Buzz is not a book simply about the way that dildos and vibrators have been made or used over time. In fact the book is largely an exploration of the sex-toy industry during the 20th century, the economics of the industry which often was a turbulent non-stop legal battle, and ultimately how vibrators crafted a difficult feminist philosophy that often reverted back to the same question: are vibrators a replacement for men?
When it came to vibrators, there was some reason for men to be concerned. Their fear was nor completely unfounded. As one customer wrote to Eve’s Garden, “P.S. My lover is afraid a vibrator will replace him—he may be right!”
Did vibrators cause women to end their marriages? At least one letter to Dell Williams points to yes. Can the vibrator be solely to blame? Probably not. As Louis C.K. says, “No good marriage has ever ended in divorce.” But vibrators may have offered the push to get women to open their eyes to another world of sexual possibility. Vibrators did change women’s lives for a very simple reason: they gave women the first orgasm of their lives. These weren’t teenagers either; they were women in their thirties and forties. A first orgasm is memorable at any age, but to have one after years of sexual relationships is even more profound. These women began to question why, after decades in a relationship, they had never felt sexual satisfaction. And they began to wonder what else their lives had been lacking, which led them to question the gender roles that had defined their lives. (182).
A piece of phallic shaped silicon with a little motor embedded inside could help an individual person reevaluate their entire life. It almost sounds ridiculous were it not for the fact that there are mountains of testimony to the contrary.
This passage is significant to the reader however, because it is a point that is repeated several times throughout Buzz, and Lieberman’s intentionally repeating this point for effect. The ongoing charge against sex-toys, specifically vibrators, is that they divorce people from real sexuality, and instead promote an artificial sexual reality where people can just pursue pleasure rather than form lasting relationships. Most of this criticism is founded in patriarchal and religious speakers who see masturbation in women as a distraction from women’s “traditional role” as mothers, baby-makers, and wives. The vibrator is a real feminist challenge to this position because if a woman discovers that sexual satisfaction can be found by simply masturbating, rather than sexual intercourse with another man, she may not be so inclined to settle down with a man who “might” give her an orgasm.
She might also consider lesbianism, but that’s for another essay.
And this is difficult for me because, while I am a feminist and I do believe women have every right to own and use vibrators without fear or guilt, as a man the vibrator honestly scares the shit out of me. The defining trait of masculinity is the ego; which is another way of saying men like to feel important and powerful. This ego is especially heightened when it comes to sexuality, as men are typically reared on action films like Commando,Predator, and The Expendables where powerful men solve problems through fighting, blowing shit up, and of course delivering women to outstanding orgasms.
The reality however is that most women fake orgasms (I know right, alert the media), and often it’s the case that vibrators are the only way they are able to get off. In my own marriage my wife and I have come to an happy understanding about our sexuality, but because I suffer from depression, and because I’m always denigrating myself emotionally and sexually the vibrator for me is often a problem. Why would a woman ever want to be with me sexually if she could just buy a vibrator? This is a question I’ve never found a satisfactory answer to, and whenever I ask my wife this question she usually tells me that I need to stop worrying and that she loves me. Because my brain is dysfunctional however, the paranoia still lingers.
The reader may question me then, why then would I take the time to read a book like Buzz? If vibrators leave you intimidated and worried about the sexual health of your relationship, why read an entire book about them? That just sounds like masochism.
To this I respond that, even if I do have my own hang-ups about vibrators I still am an ardent defender of masturbation as an act, and as a mode of personal discovery. The first time I ever masturbated the experience changed me forever, and I felt that my body was no longer what it was before. My first ejaculation was the moment in which I began to recognize that I was a person with agency, and that my body could make me feel wonderful whenever I wanted it to. If I am allowed that privilege, so is anybody else, and no one should have to fight to masturbate.
Lieberman notes then that to the feminist movement, vibrators weren’t just a challenge to patriarchy, they were a philosophical weapon for personaland political liberation. A woman who used a vibrator, and had an orgasm for the first time in her life, discovered herself and discovered that she could be who and what she wanted to be. Once a woman was in control of her own body, she could then assume agency in other areas of life as well.
Lieberman observes this as she discusses the book Liberating Masturbation by Betty Dodson, an important and recurring woman through Buzz who began workshops for women where they could masturbate and discover themselves:
Liberating Masturbation was one of the first books about Masturbation ever to be written by a woman. Merely writing this book was a political act, but the message inside it was also explicitly political. Women should masturbate, Dodson argued because “sexuality and economics” are inextricably intertwined. “Ultimately [sexuality and economics] are not separable—not as long as the female genitals have economic value instead of sexual value for women. Saving sex for lover/husband was my gift to him in exchange for economic security—called “meaningful relationship” or”marriage,” she said. Women lost in this exchange because married sex was usually unsatisfying as it was routinely missionary style, and women rarely had orgasms. Many women were faking orgasms for financial stability. Basically, Dodson was reframing an older feminist argument that marriage was aform of prostitution. Although the kernel of the argument wasn’t new, the solution to the problem was: masturbation. (145).
Buzz is a book that really digs into the complicated past and philosophies that have governed the sales, ownership, and usage of sex-toys over the twentieth century, and the fact that as a society we’re still discussing them hints at their lasting potency. People have seen concrete realities in vibrators that range from the liberating to the depraved and each person has their own experience and personal story. For myself it was going to Open Minds with my wife and seeing that wall of pink plastic cocks and discovering that, rather than be intimidated or shocked, I found myself comfortable. And looking at the closing passage of Buzz, Liberman comes to more-or-less the same conclusion.
Sex toys can’t change the world on their own. But the people making them, selling them, using them, and talking about them can. At the end of the day, I realized my obsession with sex toys wasn’t just about the technology itself, but it was about the meaning of it. Sex toys can mean so many things to so many people, and not all of these things are good. They can be used to promote monogamy or polygamy,repressive gender roles or female independence. Sex toys can be used to help handicapped people have better lives and to help women have their first orgasms. To me, sex toys symbolize hope because what I see when I look at a sex toy is the people who I profiled in this book, the people who woke up one day and wanted to change the world. And they thought to themselves that a dildo was the way to do it. I am one of those people. And I am no longer embarrassed. (292).
It may seem to the reader a ridiculous belief to see something in vibrators anything other than sex. But to this point I would remind the reader that human beings, apart from our arrogance as a species, are defined by our imaginations and our will to create meaning. Whether it was lightning bolts or earthquakes, humans fashioned pantheons of gods to explain natural phenomena, out of the stars in the sky humans developed constellations and astrology, out of animals human beings made totems to explain personalities, and out of our sexualities humans have crafted stories, myths, statuary, art, and even sex toys. Human beings are a meaning-making species, and no level of our culture is immune from that.
Dildos and vibrators are part of the larger narrative of human sexuality, and while it may be an artificial sexuality, it’s just a sign of the changes taking place in our culture that have origins to our earliest biological origins. Lieberman notes from the start that animals have been found to use sex-toys, and some of the earliest human tools discovered were dildos and butt-plugs. Sexuality and procreation is at the core of every technological innovation and Lieberman is yet another in a long line of historians and writers taking note of how humans have used sexuality to explore and expand their economics and philosophy.
The vibrator in your girlfriend’s sock-drawer may seem intimidating at first, but take heart in the fact that its probably just a feminist tool to overthrow misogynist patriarchal orders reinforced by bad pulp-fiction erotic novels that reinforce negative stereotypes about female sexuality in the post-modern period. And, just for the record, it’s also there to give her an orgasm, so don’t take it too personally.
All quotes taken from Buzz: A Stimulating History of the Sex Toy were cited from the Hardback, first-edition Pegasus Books edition.
I’ve found and provided links to several articles concerning the arrest and release of Joanna Webb. If the reader would be at all interested please feel free to follow the links below:
I’m a firm believer in supporting local business. The retail economic system is steadily imploding as giants like Google, Facebook, and Amazon are able to mass produce and outsell even massive chains like Walmart and SEARS. That’s why, if the reader is able to find the book at their local bookstore or library I would encourage them to read the book there. But if you can’t here’s a link straight to the book.
I recognize that I am not the ONLY source on the internet telling people to read books. I would to be able have that Monopoly because then it would give me more time to write, but alas I am not a solipsist and I recognize that multiple opinions are important. As such I’ve provided several links to articles about Buzz: A Stimulating History of the Sex Toy below. Please Enjoy: