Vibrators and other sex toys can help people get more comfortable with their bodies and achieve pleasure. Picture: Wikimedia Commons

Book review of Buzz: A Stimulating History of the Sex Toy By Hallie Lieberman

Powerful men have done a lot of vile things in the workplace. But of all the stories that have recently emerged, the one that really irritates Hallie Lieberman is the accusation that former Today show host Matt Lauer once gave his colleague a sex toy with a note about wanting to use it on her.

Lieberman has devoted her career to the study of sex toys and their positive impact on people's lives. It's a subject she discusses at length in her recently published book, Buzz.

Vibrators and other sex toys can help people get more comfortable with their bodies and achieve pleasure, Lieberman says, and that's a wonderful thing - in one's personal life. "I'm a big fan of sending sex toys as gifts," she said in a phone interview from her home in Atlanta. "But don't send them to your employee."

The same advice probably holds for Lieberman's book, which is based on her doctoral dissertation for the University of Wisconsin and picks up the subject a very, very long time ago.

Read: The sex toy that's stood the test of time

"Before humans invented writing or the wheel, we had invented dildos," notes Lieberman, who explains that archaeologists have discovered phallic-shaped objects dating back to the Ice Age. In a chapter surveying about 30 000 years, Lieberman points out that dildos appear in paintings in ancient Egypt, in several works by Greek dramatist Aristophanes and in the advice-packed pages of the Kama Sutra. 

In the 17th century, they appeared in British poetry and Japanese woodblock prints. Among the archives of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, where Lieberman was a fellow several years ago, she found an early 20th-century device for inducing male pleasure.

Picture: Supplied to the Washington Post

Initially, her plan for Buzz was to offer an in-depth examination of objects, not people, Lieberman says. But readers will find that the majority of her book is dedicated to a colorful cast of characters who have shaped the sex-toy industry in America since the 1950s.

Most of her attention, however, is on people who embrace these devices as part of larger cultural movements. "These people wanted to change the world and used sex toys to do it," she says.

Betty Dodson, a personal hero to Lieberman, tirelessly advocated for masturbation - and vibrators - among feminists. It wasn't always a popular idea with the group's leaders, who worried about the optics of prioritizing pleasure. The idea that women can take control of their sexuality, "it was radical," Lieberman says. "It still is radical."