[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.

Buy your copy of Buzz from Amazon or your local bookstore. To support my work, become a Patreon supporter, buy me a coffee, or shop with my affiliates in the right hand sidebar. 

My First Sex Toys

This was supposed to be a quick one, written on Sunday while waiting for Mr CK to get ready for our favourite twice-yearly kink event. But it ended up getting long, then I ended up getting busy, so here it is several days late.

Thought it would be fun to share with you the first five sex toys I ever owned, what I think of them with the knowledge I have now… and what I might recommend instead.

Toy #1: Tracey Cox Supersex Bullet Vibrator

At 18 and having just moved into my own place with a boyfriend, I rushed to buy my first Actual Sex Toy, to replace the trusty electric toothbruth I’d been using until that point. Having very little money and no clue what to buy, I went for a cheap and cheerful bullet vibe. At the time, it was fine. I wasn’t quite the power queen I am today, and the toy was small enough that it didn’t threaten my boyfriend’s fragile masculinity.

Would I recommend it? Meh. I wouldn’t say “don’t go anywhere near”. It’s cheap, was pretty reliable (lasted damn near five years before it finally died as I recall,) and being made of hard plastic it’s body safe and easy to clean. But it’s also single-speed and the vibes were kinda buzzy and weak. But as a first toy, to establish that vibrating sensations were something I enjoyed, well… meet my gateway drug.

Buy this instead: We-Vibe Tango (reviewed by me here) or Lovehoney Desire Luxury Bullet are both highly recommended, very popular and body-safe bullet vibes. The Tango is slightly stronger and rumblier. The Desire is softer if hard plastic feels too harsh for your sensitive areas. Choose according to your preferences.

Toy #2: Some vile jelly monstrosity from Ann Summers

Emboldened by my new-found sexual bravery, or so I thought (LOL, 19 year old Amy was adorable) I dragged my boyfriend into Ann Summers on my 19th birthday trip to London to buy myself a new toy. Too intimidated to ask for help, I ended up with a purple jelly-rubber toy with pathetically weak vibrations. I don’t think I used it more than 3 times. I can’t find the exact model on their site any more, but this isn’t a million miles away.

Would I recommend it? FUCK NO. Please don’t buy anything made of jelly rubber, it’s toxic and porous and really, really bad for your body. Actually, I suggest you just don’t shop at Ann Summers at all. A lot of their products suck and they cater for a really narrow, cishet, male-gaze-centric version of female sexuality. Try Lovehoney, Sh! or your local independent, women-owned sex shop instead.

Buy this instead: If you’re after an affordable, simple G-spot stimulator, the Lovehoney 7 Inch curved silicone dildo is well-priced and body safe (it also comes in a shorter 5.5 inch version.) If you can afford to spend a bit more, anything by Tantus is wonderful, beautifully made and safe for your body – look out for my personal favourite, the Vamp Super Soft in midnight purple.

Toy #3: Icicles No.5 Sapphire Spiral Glass Dildo

This was an impulse buy at the BBB – they were just so pretty I couldn’t resist, and I’d never tried a glass toy before. On first use I wasn’t sure I liked it – glass is colder and more rigid than anything I’d previously used. Once I’d got used to the sensation, though, I found that using it very gently (think “insert and just barely wiggle it,” no hard thrusting here) gave me the most glorious G-spot orgasms. Alas this particular toy met its end when a clumsy photographer dropped it (he did have the decency to pay me for it!) but I’ve been in love with glass toys ever since.

Would I recommend it? I recommend glass dildos heartily. HOWEVER…

…Note, added on 22/1o/2017: Icicles are owned by Pipedream, who I have come to learn are kinda fucking terrible. If you don’t want to support them (and I urge you to think seriously before you do,) Lovehoney’s own brand glass toys are at least equal in quality and value.

Toy #4: Doc Johnson Junior Veined Double Ended Dildo

I won this one in a raffle at a Simply Pleasure open evening event. It amused me more than anything, and at 22 I was still bashful enough to shove it in my bag with a blush and hope I didn’t have an accident on my cycle home. I tried it exactly once with my girlfriend, before it went to languish, forgotten, at the bottom of a box until I threw it out some three years later.

Would I recommend it? No. It smelled weird (think “new car” meets “latex” only more chemically). The texture was sticky and gross, sure signs of a questionable and potentially toxic material. It’s described on the website as “body safe” but Doc Johnson products have been found in lab tests to contain phthalates, and their “sil-a-gel” additive seems to be entirely their own invention and AT BEST does nothing. In other words, this toy – and many of Doc Johnson’s other products – are mainly PVC and therefore porous as fuck and toxic.

Buy this instead: The Lovehoney Double Up Silicone Mini Double Penetration Dildo is great for use either with a partner or alone for vaginal/anal double penetration, and I will always recommend the Feeldoe for that “strapless strap on” experience.

Toy #5: Off-Brand “Magic Wand” Knockoff

This thing was my first wand vibrator. It’s a cheap (-ish – I think mine still ran £50, though it probably wasn’t really worth even half that) and poor knock-off of the original Hitachi magic wand. Unfortunately, it’s incorrectly labelled as “Hitachi” in at least 50% of the places I could find it online. It gave me some good orgasms for a few months but ultimately, got less and less powerful with each use until it completely gave up and died after perhaps 6-9 months.

Would I recommend it? Absolutely not. Being a knock-off, there’s no information available on the material, meaning it almost certainly isn’t body-safe. (It may not even be properly safe electrically, come to that.) The quality is shocking and it barely lasted a quarter of the time you’d expect a toy of this price point to last.

Buy this instead: The Hitachi Magic Wand Rechargeable, or my all-time favourite, the Doxy Massager.

This post was not sponsored. It does contain affiliate links and if you buy from one of them, I may make a small commission. This will never affect my views on the products, which are and will always be my own.

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