[Book Review] “Buzz: The Stimulating History of the Sex Toy” by Hallie Lieberman

Image result for two and a half stars

I was beyond excited when I saw that there was a history book all about sex toys! Credit goes entirely to the fabulous Sarah Brynn Holliday (read her work, she’s great) for bringing this book to my attention. I still don’t really understand how there wasn’t any buzz (pun entirely intended and I’m not sorry) about it in the online sex positive sphere. It seems to have almost slipped under our collective radar, somehow.

The cover of "Buzz: A Stimulating History of the Sex Toy" by Hallie Lieberman

I read this book on holiday over the course of a few days. My overwhelming impression was one of being, well… underwhelmed. I wanted to love it, and I felt it was full of promise, but the finished result didn’t quite hit the sweet spot. (Yes, that was another sex toy joke.)

Firstly, let’s talk about what I did love…

I found Buzz a really accessible read. The tone is lively and the pacing and structure good. The language is not overly academic, and the 15 chapters break the book nicely into bite-sized pieces.

I did learn some gems of fascinating information. Like, did you know that the first silicone dildos were designed and made by a disabled Caribbean immigrant, who was heavily involved in the disability rights movement and set out initially to make sex aids for disabled people? Because I sure didn’t. (His name was Gosnell Duncan and if you don’t want to read the entire book, you can find a brief outline of his story here.)

I also learned that the founders of Adam & Eve also created the abortion rights organisation that would become Marie Stopes International, that dildos were illegal in parts of the USA as recently as 2003 (!), and that the founder of Doc Johnson, Reuben Sturman, was a violent criminal and a tax-avoider and eventually died in prison. There was some genuinely fascinating and little-known history in this book, and for that it is to be applauded.

I’m glad Buzz exists. Sex-related history is so under-studied and stigmatised. But it wasn’t enough and it wasn’t as good as I wanted it to be. I hope it paves the way for much better and more complete works to come.

So where did Buzz fall short?

The first thing that really upset me about this book was that there is information in it that is simply untrue. “Nearly all sex toy companies today … make their toys from body-safe materials.” Uh. Do they? (No, unfortunately, they do not). And this goes beyond inaccurate – it’s actually dangerous. Educators, writers and sex geeks like me know that the industry is still jam packed with horrible toxic toys that can do serious harm to our bodies. The average layperson, though, doesn’t know that. They might read this book and think they can go and pick anything up off a shelf at a sex store or from the internet and it will be self for their body. This simply isn’t true and is perpetuating really harmful misinformation.

Secondly, I felt the title misrepresented the book. It should really have been called “A History of the Sex Toy In America.” For a book that bills itself as a general history, it is painfully US-centric. The UK is mentioned maybe once or twice, and any other countries barely get a look-in at all. It’s frightening how often I want to remind some American writers that there is a world outside the USA.

Thirdly, it’s very cis-centric. Trans people are barely mentioned – and, upsettingly, completely excluded from a section about the Stonewall riots. Non-binary and genderqueer folks are completely absent. It’s all about “men and women” (and “penis = man, vulva = woman” in the main, at that).  Bisexual people are also largely absent, and bisexual men completely so.

Finally, this might be a petty complaint, but Buzz is also riddled with spelling and grammatical errors. I can excuse one or two typos, even in a published book, but Buzz contains so many it’s ridiculous. I’m really surprised it got past an editor.

The verdict:

Kinda like a buzzy vibrator: vaguely stimulating but quickly becomes annoying. A somewhat interesting book with a few shining sections, but disappointing when you look a bit deeper. Buzz probably would have made it to three or even three and a half stars for interesting history, but the trans erasure and the misinformation about toy safety really killed it for me. Two and a half out of five.

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[Book Review] Approaching the Swingularity by Cooper S Beckett

★★★★★ – five stars.

Yes, you read the title correctly. Swingularity. As not only a Cooper/Swingset fangirl but a devotee of all things puntastic, how could I resist?

The cover of Approaching the Swingularity by Cooper S Beckett

This is actually Cooper’s second novel about swinging and follows directly on from his first, A Life Less Monogamous. I read them more or less back to back but, at the author’s request, I am reviewing the newer one first. Swingularity can also be read as a stand-alone, though I’m of the opinion you’ll get more from it if you read ALLM first. I’m going to keep this review as spoiler-free as possible, but a few plot/character points may need to be disclosed in order for it to make sense.

Approaching the Swingularity takes place during one week at Aphrodite’s Resort & Spa, a fictional swingers’ resort I’m informed carries “more than a passing resemblance” to Desire. It follows several couples, most notably newbie-ish swingers Ryan and Jen (the focus of A Life Less Monogamous) on their first trip. Joining them are scene veterans Bruce and Paige, and first-lesbian-couple-to-attend Alejandra and Crista. There’s also a storyline following the trip’s leader, Raymond, who struggles to play the jovial, sexy host while dealing with some intense personal pain.

Swingularity is definitely an erotic novel. It’s raunchy, it’s explicit and it’s hot as hell. Particular highlights, for me, were Ryan and Jen’s outdoor fuck in the middle of a summer storm, and Bruce and Paige’s very erotic “couple’s massage.” There’s more sexy fuckery (and some of it quite kinky!) than you can shake a flogger at. But it’s also a lot more than an erotic novel.

The author has thought the characters through and realised them beautifully. They all have foibles, flaws and the occasional fuck-up of epic proportions. I fancy the pants-he’s-probably-not-wearing off Bruce, but his actions when an old flame re-appears in his and Paige’s life had me going, “you FUCKING IDIOT” at the book. The relationships, too, are beautiful and real – sometimes painfully so. The struggles within and between the couples are magnified in the intensity of the resort. Sometimes tensions stretch nearly to breaking point. But there’s also love and hope that shines off the page. I was genuinely rooting for the characters to work through their troubles end up happier and healthier for them.

And crucially, more often than not, the sex serves the plot, not the other way around. Without giving too much away, there’s a scene where a hitherto-straight man explores his interest in sex with another man. The result is in turns sexy, uncomfortable and ultimately gut-wrenching.

It’s also deliciously inclusive. I mentioned to Cooper that this novel is – sadly, one could say – more inclusive than the real-life swinger communities I’ve encountered thus far. There are gay and lesbian characters and bi men,  not just the endless straight-men-and-bi-women-only trope that is all too common in the swinging world. Characters of colour feature, as well as at least one trans character. There are older characters, younger characters, fat and skinny, able bodied and disabled. And there are a huge variety of sexual proclivities, preferences and levels of experience. I wish, how I wish, that the real life swinging community where I live was more like this. I’d probably have more sex if it was.

I would be remiss, too, to not mention how funny this book is. There’s a particularly hilarious incident about half way through involving an obnoxious podcast host and a jellyfish. And, of course, the banter between the major characters kept me giggling throughout. I’ve long stood by this sentiment and Cooper seems to agree: sex is hilarious and we shouldn’t take it overly seriously most of the time.

In short: I laughed. I cried. I wanked furiously. And now I’m telling you all to go out and buy this book so you can do the same.

Full disclosure: I received a free copy of the book in exchange for an honest review. This does not impact my views in any way which are, and will always be, my own. If you enjoyed this post and want to see more of my work, please consider becoming a patron or buying me a coffee.

Announcing: Sexy Summer Book Club

I met Jenny Guérin on the Sunday morning of Eroticon and we hit it off straight away. On Monday afternoon, she found me in the Starbucks at St Pancras, waiting for my train home. At the time, I was devouring Girl On The Net’s How a Bad Girl Fell in Love. A delightful conversation about all kinds of things followed, including our favourite sexy books and those we’re desperate to read. Out of this conversation we decided to create a “Sexy Summer Book Club” and we’re excited announce that the website has lauched today!

An open book on a sandy beach in the sun. For a post about Sexy Summer Book Club .

As Jenny says: The Sexy Summer Book Club is a celebration of new erotic writing. Each month of summer we’ll be discussing, and writing about, a recent publication from memoir, self help and erotica.”

How to join in:

All you need to get involved is an internet connection and the ability to get your hands on the 3 texts. You can take part from anywhere in the world. To get involved, email sexysummerbookclub@gmail.com and we’ll add you to the mailing list to receive prompts, links to others’ work, announcements of the forthcoming books, and other sexy literary bits and pieces. If you tell us your Twitter handle, we’ll add you to the discussion chat too.

We’re also pleased to announce that the book for June is the one that sparked this whole conversation: Girl on the Net’s How a Bad Girl Fell in Love. There are prompt questions and suggestions for response pieces on the website under the ‘June’ tab. Send us your responses and we’ll publish them online in June.

We will announce the books for July and August at a later date…

For now, sign up, tweet this out to you friends, and don’t forget to share your thoughts at #SexySummerBookClub.

The image featured in this post was offered for use under Creative Commons licensing.

[Book Review] The Smart Girl’s Guide to Polyamory by Dedeker Winston

★★★★★ – five stars.

The cover of The Smart Girl's Guide to Polyamory - Everything you need to know about open relationships, non monogamy and alternative love by Dedeker Winston.

As a long-time listener of the Multiamory Podcast, I was seriously excited when Dedeker Winston (one third of the hosting team, along with her partner Jase and former partner Emily) announced she was writing a book. She and her co-hosts are funny, wise, insightful and down to Earth on the podcast, so I had high hopes for The Smart Girl’s Guide to Polyamory: Everything You Need to Know About Open Relationships, Non-Monogamy and Alternative Love  – a fresh take on the polyamory advice book, with women and female experience front and centre.

The book is grouped into chapters, which are clustered into four sections: Polyamory 101, Pre Reqs, Mastering Non-Monogamy, and Out of the Classroom, Into the World. I read it cover to cover, but you could just as easily dip in and out, picking and choosing the sections that feel most relevant to you.

Polyamory 101 covers what polyamory is (and what it isn’t,) some of the different forms that ethical non monogamy can take, and an absolutely fascinating chapter on the socio-cultural and anthropological history of non-monogamy. Dedeker also talks us through some of the common objections to polyamory, from family and friends or from society at large, and possible ways to counter them.

Pre-Reqs deals with self-knowledge, really interrogating who you are, what you want and what makes you tick, as well as the skills required to live a happy and healthy non-monomous life (it goes beyond just “communicate,” y’all!)

Mastering Non-Monogamy was the real meat of this book, for me. There’s the expected chapter on jealousy, a whole chapter on sex and the various issues surrounding it, advice on crafting positive and healthy relationship rules/agreements, and more.

Finally, Out of the Classroom, Into the World attemtps to take the theories discussed in previous chapters and apply them in real-world situations. Dedeker discusses poly dating, finding community, coming out of (or choosing to stay in!) the closet and how polyamory can intersect with a range of marginalised identities and liberation movements.

This book is not easy reading at times. Dedeker approaches difficult topics with a light touch and a healthy dose of humour, but there are parts that are unavoidably difficult reading. Though she doesn’t actually use the A-word, she candidly describes behaviour by a former partner that can only be labelled as abusive. It’s not all sunshine and light – she gives us the bad, the scary and the unshiny parts of polyamory as unflinchingly as she gives us the love and the joy. And she challenges us repeatedly to be brave, to be unfalteringly honest with ourselves and our loved ones, to do the hard work required to be stronger and better and more compassionate versions of ourselves.

What sets this book apart from the others I’ve read is that women are centred throughout. Dedeker shares her experience on the unique struggles of a polyamorous, queer, sex-positive woman and tackles those challenges head on, and encourages other women to battle outdated gender stereotypes, sex-negativity, slut shaming, rape culture and the myriad other issues that disproportionately affect women and those read as women in trying to live a non-monogamous life. But despite this female focus, the book is consistently inclusive – it makes no assumptions about age, sexuality, gender identity or relationship style. For this reason, I really think anyone interested in polyamory should read it.

Dedeker is also refreshingly non-judgemental. She shares her experiences and wisdom about what tends to work well and what doesn’t, without preaching her way as the only (or even the best!) way. She seems to intuitively understand that everyone’s experience is different and that different relationship styles will work for people, while offering principles (including self knowledge, strong communication, compassion, honesty, good boundaries) that apply in making just about any style of relationship a success.

In a landscape of non-monogamy where current trends carry a hefty dose of “you have to be a relationship anarchist or you’re DOIN’ IT RONG,” I can’t tell you how refreshing this is. [1]

I really hope this book takes its place alongside The Ethical Slut, More Than Two and Opening Up as polyamorous required reading, because it deserves to. In my view, Dedeker Winston has written quite simply the best guide book on polyamory on the market today.

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[1] I have zero problem with people who practice RA. I do have a problem with anyone – poly, monogamous, RA, swinger, whatever – preaching their way as the only correct way to be.