A Brief History of Good Vibrations

By Ellen Airhart, published November 2, 2017 - last reviewed on April 17, 2018


Sex toys are as old as sin, but in America, they have gone from the underground to the mainstream in a matter of decades. In her new book Buzz: A Stimulating History of the Sex Toy, historian Hallie Lieberman recounts how disparate forces, including feminism, entrepreneurship, and entrenched conservatism, converged to shape the modern dildos and vibrators that many proudly use today. Here are a few highlights. 


In the late '60s, the Supreme Court revised obscenity rules, making it easier to buy porn. Yet sex toys remained controversial—and manufacturers still risked prosecution—so they were widely branded as novelties or medical devices. Even as experts like pioneering psychologist Albert Ellis protested that masturbation was benign, Lieberman explains, "dildos were sold as 'impotence devices,' as opposed to things that allowed women to have orgasms."


Before Duane Colglazier and Bill Rifkin opened the first Pleasure Chest in Manhattan in 1971, sex toys were mostly sold in seamy adult stores and through mail-order catalogues. The duo aimed for a more upscale shopping environment and, along with other new sellers, tried to normalize the experience. Many customers were gay men, but women, too, were drawn to the shops that emerged in more reputable parts of town and eschewed peep-show booths.


Sex and the City prominently featured a sex toy on TV for the first time in American history when Charlotte bought a vibrator and became infatuated with it. "The moral of the story," Lieberman says, "was that, yes, you can use a vibrator, but in the end sexual satisfaction comes from a man." Yet the episode paved the way for others. Today, shows like Unreal and Broad City, which recently inspired a line of themed sex toys, treat their use as ordinary.

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