Did you know that there's such thing as a sex historian? Hallie Lieberman earned a PhD (no pun intended) on the subject from the University Of Wisconsin Madison after working on a dissertation about sex toy history in 2014. Since then, the sex expert has published a book titled Buzz: The Stimulating History of the Sex Toy and currently teaches gender studies at Georgia Institute of Technology.
"The history of sex is so fun to study cause it's all hidden," she says. "It's like a hunt for this secret stuff. All the information you have to read through the lines, but it's very fun."
Like many children, Lieberman had a curious fascination with the word "penis" when she was young. At age 10, she accidentally stumbled upon a sex toy in the drawer of a hotel that she was staying at with her parents and her interest in sex began to develop. As a teenager, she would spend her lunch breaks at sex toy shops and wear t-shirts that advocated for masturbation — they even had an acronym for the word "masturbate."
Eventually, Lieberman would go on to study for a masters in advertising from the University of Texas Austin. During that period, she was also working for a sex toy home party company called Passion Party. Back in 2004, it was illegal to sell sex toys in the city and the whole experience wound up triggering Lieberman's intellectual interest in the subject.
At the moment, Lieberman is deep in the process of gathering research from databases for her next book that will focus on the history of gigolos. She also recently penned a few articles about sex toy patents about the future of sex toys "and how they can be used to teach consent" in what she describes as her "ideal feminist world." As always, she continues to break the stigmas around sex toys one project at a time. Learn more about the origins of Lieberman's sex tales, below.
What was the initial purpose for the early models of sex toys and vibrators?
It's hard to know who designed any of these things, but in the 1800s we had what were mainly called "vaginal dilators." So that would be the sex toys for women, and vibrators that were powered by either steam, or hand-cranked — different things pre-electricity. They were not openly used for, or promoted for, masturbation or anything. A lot of them were designed by men, if you could find out who designed them at all.
Then you had the rectal dilators, which were promoted to actually prevent masturbation, which was a huge irony. They were promoted to cure asthma, prevent masturbation, and how they would do this was never truly explained. Now we hear "vibrator," and think, "That's a sex toy people masturbate with it," but back then, hand-cranked [or] steam-powered vibrators were promoted as medical devices. [You could] treat malaria, [or] you could vibrate your eyes supposedly to improve your vision, or your nose, or your ear. They were these pseudo-medical devices, but the medical community was like, "Eh." By the early 1900s the American Medical Association said, "The vibrator business is a delusion and a snare; no real doctor should use them."
In the early 1900s, you get the first electric vibrator, and that really caught on as a consumer product. A lot of them came with either rectal or vaginal attachments, or you could order those, and those look like dildos. They didn't have a penis head, but they were these phallic, cylindrical things. It was said you could use them to vibrate your uterus. Starting in the 1930s, there was a doctor that said, "Hey, wait a second, your wife may enjoy vibrating her uterus with this so much she may not wanna have conjugal relations with you." So there started to be a question about what was going on with them.
Related | Stoya Take the Wheel
Where or when did the view of vibrators as a threat to masculinity stem from?
What's interesting is vibrators were used or marketed as much to men as women. In the early 1900s, the first three decades, they had men ads, they were marketed to grandfathers, and boys, I even saw a baby in an ad, so they were marketed to everybody. When they became a threat to masculinity, it was interesting, they weren't really a "threat." We had this anti-obscenity law enforcer Anthony Comstock who helped design this federal anti-obscenity law. He was concerned with sex toys, and "rubber goods," as he called them, so contraceptives and dildos. I only found one example in the archives of him ever being upset about electrical devices, so they obviously were not a threat, because he died in 1915. He was basically in charge of obscenity, and they were not a threat through then.
Even in the 1930s, there was some talk, as I mentioned before, of doctors going, "Hey, these are kinda sexual," but it didn't really become a threatening thing until probably, I would say, the '60s with Betty Dodson coming out and pulling out a plug and vibrator, and saying, "Hey, women can use these. They can find their own pleasure, they don't have to enter to a relationship with a man, and depend on him financially, and for pleasure. They can be financially independent, and sexually independent." That freaked people out. That was when it really started to freak people out, in the late '60s.
Why do you think so many women are still hesitant to use sex toys even now?
People are more open to use them. It's a generational thing, too; younger women seem more open. But research shows that the [heterosexual] women who are weird about it, or hesitant to use sex toys, are worried what their man thinks. They're worried he will be intimidated by it. Another thing is the addiction fear that's been around for at least 40 years, and there's no evidence you get addicted, but women are worried they'll get addicted and never want sex with a man. Queer women are more open to sex toys, [and] use them more. More companies should be marketing to queer women; some are, but not as many as could be. So there's fear of addiction, and then there's also that kind of macho thing, which is a weird way to describe women — that, "I don't need a toy, I should be able to do it on my own." It's still more about men's egos.
It took me the longest time to feel comfortable enough to even try a vibrator. I was so stubborn about the idea of needing it.
It's interesting to hear cause I live in a sex toy bubble, so I just assume everyone's like, "Yay!" and buys all these sex toys, and is so comfortable with them. That's something we have to overcome, and that goes to normalizing. I think seeing them in pop culture is helpful.
The studies that Debby Herbenick has done at Indiana University showing half of men and women have used [sex toys] helps to normalize it. Cause that brings you pleasure, and the more women know about the orgasm gap, and that most of the time during intercourse women don't have orgasms, and that they do need this extra stimulation, whether it be from a sex toy or their hand, I think that education piece is so important.
Whenever I think about the sex ed class, I just remember how awkward and uncomfortable it was. Nobody wanted to talk about it and people wouldn't ask questions out of fear and embarrassment, but I feel like that's the one environment where you should really be getting a proper education about all that stuff. It's such a shame that it's ultimately a waste.
In America, we're getting more comfortable talking about sexual harassment with the #MeToo movement, but we still have difficulty talking about sexual pleasure.
There was this article in the Times that was awesome. There are certain places that are doing porn literacy programs and trying to explain that the women in porn, depending on the porn, but in some mainstream porn, are having pleasure, and the importance of the clitoris. That stuff is too controversial unfortunately to our culture to roll that out nationwide, and we still have this obsession with abstinence education, and the Trump administration does, meanwhile he's going out and screwing porn stars, but wants abstinence education. It makes absolutely [no sense] — it's such hypocrisy. Bringing pleasure back into the conversation is so important.
What are your thoughts on the current era of sexual liberation that we're in right now?
I'm so happy we're talking about sexual harassment and assault because this is stuff that has gone on for so long and people think, "I'm the only one dealing with it," or that it's not worth speaking up. I was talking to a friend who said, "Oh, yeah, my boss joked about raping me." He recently got fired and I was like, "Oh, did he get fired for doing this?" because apparently he had done it to other people, and she said, "Oh, no, he got fired because he was stealing money," or something else like that. It's so common with these kind of things that women just either expect it, or think they won't be taken seriously, so it's great that we're having this discussion. What's really important now is for women to realize they are also deserving of orgasms — they're not just deserving of not being harassed, or assaulted, or sexually abused, or any of these things, but they're deserving of a partner who says, in their consensual sexual life, "I'm gonna worry about your orgasm." They're as much deserving of that as a man.
What bothers me is that sex is defined by male orgasm. When you look at surveys, some women and men say that they haven't had sex unless it's been intercourse. About half of people say that oral sex isn't sex. When we define true sex as intercourse, which doesn't give women orgasms most of the time, that's a real problem. When we define sex acts that do give women sexual pleasure as lesser than, it's helps perpetuate that. In one sense, it's great. I love that third wave feminists are more sex positive than second wave. We still have a long way to go when it comes to just being sex positive as opposed to being obsessed with sexual victimhood, which is important to bring out. But defining yourself as a victim, I think we need to bring more sexual agency to women.
What are some of your favorite sex toys, shops and brands?
So my favorite sex toy is — I'm old school, except for this is the updated old school — the rechargeable Hitachi Magic Wand. It's a classic updated with multiple speeds. Instead of the head being made of vinyl, it's silicone so you can clean it. Love that. Another thing I love is the Crave Vesper Vibrator Necklace. It's this pendant thing that's a vibrator [and] great for travel. As far as dildos, one of the best companies is Tantus Silicone. It's run and started by a woman, [and sells] completely high quality silicone dildos — not these uber realistic [dildos], unless that's what you want. [They're] really designed with women's bodies in mind.
As far as sex toy stores go, online I like She Vibe. They have all the indie sex toys, and they're like a sex toy curator. They have only high quality toys that are body safe, so I'm a fan of that. I also like Fun Factory, which is made in Germany. I was able to tour their factory in Bremen; they make all their sex toys in Germany. Of course, so many people buy sex toys from Amazon. I've done that too. I bought this butt plug that part of it broke off when I was using it. I was like, "Okay, I can't be cheap, what am I doing?" I switched to these other curated sex toy stores.
As far as brick and mortar, Good Vibrations is amazing [and] old school. In New York, you have Pleasure Chest, who's a big part of my book. You also have Eve's Garden, which not many people shop at anymore, but it holds a spot in my heart cause it was the first feminist sex toy store. Then you have Babeland, and Shag in Brooklyn is really cool cause it combines sex toys with art. I love Please, [which is] run by this woman Sid Azmi— she is a survivor of SGM and really feels the need to bring sexual empowerment to women with this great store.
What do you think is the future of sex toys?
I think for the future of sex toys there's more space for queer sex toys, non-binary sex toys, that aren't marketed specifically to men or women, and sex toys specifically for trans people. I also think that sex toys for disabled people is an industry or market that's under-tapped. Gosnell Duncan, the paraplegic who invented the silicone dildo, he tried to sell just to the disabled demographic and didn't succeed so he ended up selling to feminists. I think his work isn't finished and that more sex toy companies should appeal to disabled people. I just feel like it's not talked about enough.
Photo via Getty