When Hallie Lieberman was 10 years old, she saw her first sex toy. It was hidden in a bag left inside a Florida Keys motel room that her parents had booked.
Lieberman thought it was a pencil sharpener. When her mother shrieked at her to put it away, she quickly learned it was something far more scandalous. Thus was her obsession born.
“What interested me in the beginning was that it was something my parents were really weird about,” Lieberman told me by phone. “Even though it was just an object.”
Lieberman is now a ‘dildographer.’ She has a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin in the history of sex toys. Currently working on a book about the marketing and selling of sex toys in America, she’s dedicated her life to understanding the cultural significance of our most private play things—and why, in modern-day America, they still seem to get our collective panties in such a bunch.
Dildos, it turns out, have been around since the Ice Age. Back then, they were carved out of stone or animal bone, and basically just looked like crude penises. (It’s worth noting that archaeologists have suggested potential other uses for the tools, but come on, just look at them.)
Cock rings have existed in Japan for at least 500 years. In 19th century China, glass dildos were hollowed out to be filled with warm milk (or even urine) to simulate ejaculation.
“Our genitals are imperfect,” Lieberman said. “They don’t always work the way we want them too all the time. So as humans, we thought of how to fix this problem of our biology using tools.”
Panic over dildos has existed for nearly as long: Ancient Greeks, Lieberman told me, worried women would quit wanting men, preferring to be satisfied by their toys. Anthony Comstock, the Victorian-era U.S. Postal Inspector who led the charge to criminalize sending erotica, sex toys and contraceptives through the mail, felt that sex toys were simply too grotesque to be named, referring to them instead as “immoral rubber goods.”
“Back then our government was so anti-sex toys that it spent money to go after sex toy producers,” Lieberman said. “We’re been trying to destroy this industry forever and we can’t. Obviously there is some human need for these things.”
As a high school student in suburban Florida, Lieberman started skipping school to sneak into strip mall sex toy stores. With their blacked out storefronts and garish neon lights, she was drawn to them, mainly, because they were forbidden. She was also fascinated by the efforts to turn sex into something you could sell.
“I remember one that said it was ‘a silhouette of regal beauty for illustrious pleasure’ and they were describing a dildo,” she told me. “They were trying to ascribe all this meaning to these sex toys. It suggested there was something imperfect about it that we needed to improve on.”
While she was getting a masters degree in advertising at the University of Texas, she was shocked to find out that sex toys were still illegal in Austin. Lieberman started throwing “passion parties”—like Tupperware parties, but for sexy things—and in the training was instructed that she couldn’t use the words vibrator or dildo in selling the toys.
“I want to understand why we have these attitudes towards sex toys,” she told me. “Why are sex toys so controversial? How has our thinking about them evolved alongside humans? And how do those changes reflect social values and ideas about gender and sex?”
Even in writing her dissertation she received skepticism—there is a book about the history of the toothpick, but some colleagues and advisors viewed Lieberman’s work as frivolous.
So Lieberman has spent the last few years cataloging all of history’s sex toys as well as information about how society at the time received them. She wants to build one comprehensive database of every single sex toy in history. She also has an intermittent blog where she offers insights from her research. Recently, she observed that sex toys and porn have become a common form of satirizing presidential candidate Donald Trump.
In a present dominated by headlines about sex robots and VR porn, it seems strange that in the long history of sex toys, we’ve yet to fully embrace them. At the University of Texas, students are more likely to get in trouble for carrying dildos than guns. In the state of Alabama and one small town in Georgia, sex toys are still technically illegal.
“I want to remove the stigma and taboo surrounding sex toys and I think one way to do that is to show that they aren’t a product of the 21st Century,” she told me. “They are a product of human culture over thousands of years.”