No one had checked it out since the library bought it six months ago, so when I lifted it off the display stand, dust dripped off the bottom of its pages. I’d heard about it, nothing concrete. I found myself trying to generate enthusiasm for its pink and clean cover decorated with dildos, vibrators, plugs, the latest and greatest in sexual paraphernalia, reading the attractive, unhelpful, and saccharinely overblown review with a scowl. I found myself picking up the first volume of “Oh Joy Sex Toy” by Erika Moen, soon to be very glad that the experience was free.
The introduction was a real turn off. Emily Nagoski’s countdown of “The Top Four Most Perverted Things About Erika [. . .],” spread across pages six and seven, was too overwhelming in praise, and for someone barely familiar with Moen’s work, it became increasingly irritating in its attribution of the words “radical,” “queer,” and “perverted” to everything she created. The casual approach and informal tone felt disingenuous. It set me up to expect an excessive and sugar-coated discourse about sex cultures.
And in that respect, it did not let me down.
“Oh Joy Sex Toy,” at its core, is a review about sex toys, many of those profiled costing at least fifty USD. For adult hipsters as well as other middle to upper class folks, I’m sure this was a radical, queer, and perverted way to interact with their own sexualities (and was probably accompanied by comments like, “I’d have never thought of doing something like that to my body before this strip” and “These comics taught me how to enjoy my body”). But by no means was this artistic neoliberal approach a sexual tour-de-force. For those who aren’t reminded of the valuation of their bodies on a daily basis, those who are not disabled, dysphoric, neurodivergent (in a way that includes perceptions of the body), non-white, non-cis, anywhere on the ace spectrum, family-bound, under the age of 18, and/or unprotected by the privileges warranted by money (including healthcare, flexible working hours, and access to safer sex services), this book is tailored to fit. The rest of us may find it an intriguing, mostly frustrating, glimpse into the sex lives of those embodying the narratives of opportunity (this time sexual) used to manipulate us.
I saw this time and time again. Both the art and lettering made “Oh Joy Sex Toy” hard to read, and the aesthetic was downright alienating. The toys were drawn exceptionally well and product names (conveniently) penned with startling accuracy. Diagrams of parts, though, ended up being crammed and not-to-scale (accuracy promoted early in the book) (Moen, 2015, p. 9). The art itself is sleek, in a style that I know cannot depict a body like mine (or really any body with hard and sharp angles, or butches), a debilitation that really left me feeling like an outsider looking in, or more like a voyeur in this case, which just made it worse. The guest artists were especially accomplished at inspiring a slimy and wholly unpleasant feeling in my gut, leaving me grossed out at bodies for an unhealthy 48 hours, completely counteractive to the efforts attempted by Moen. Effort really doesn’t get you anywhere.
(It’s important to point out that one artist, Sam Orchard (roostertailscomic.com) and his piece “Le Butch,” were a refreshing change, both in the blue coloring and a voice that actually felt genuine. The main character was cute (and butch for once.) My only complaint lays in the lettering, which was sloppy but stylized.)
While I didn’t have too much trouble with how words were let out, a friend who tried to read the book after I’d whinged about it profusely found it almost impossible to read. For those with dyslexia/reading disabilities or who are undiagnosed/have a diagnosis and encounter symbols rearranged in places where they don’t make sense, the lettering of the comics is unforgiving, and that continues into the language Moen conveys with her letters.
There were many points where I closed the book, scoffed, and continued to read, but one section near the end actually had me put down the book and not pick it up until I returned it to the library the next day. The crassest words regarding the vulva have the power to piss me off royally, and in a section dedicated to cunnilingus, Moen used the mother of them all several times. This wasn’t the poetic experiences of Dorothy Allison. This wasn’t self-loathing Lesbian erotica. This was an explicitly sex POSITIVE publication, employing a word used to demonize (bodies assigned) female sexuality and dehumanize those wielding vulvas, a word that evaluates these folks as only worth the pleasure their plumbing could provide those in power (Vanderplank, 2007, p. 49). Despite the efforts of many, this word connoting sexual violence has not been reclaimed in a way that makes it tolerable to put in a book that is supposedly encouraging healthy sexuality. I thought the only objectification was supposed to include sex toys.
Which brings up the question: Is this book really sex positive—or just overcharged? A crash course in sex toys is novel, but to attribute the meager sections on sex education “revolutionary” or “radical” brings an incorrigible mark against this collection of comics that has trouble reaching audiences scared or ashamed of sexuality.
And for those who aren’t in the dark about sex: “Oh Joy Sex Toy” is not a treat. Erika Moen’s approach to sexual bodies is not as all-encompassing as she would like to believe, those of us with embodied identities that mark our non-cis identities, non-white realities, aging masses, and day-to-day disabilities unwelcome in her able-bodied white-dominated youth-filled gender needs delegitimized folds. The language and lettering even works against some readers. Being a sex communicator (educator-to-be) and a comics artist and enthusiast, I’d recommend those not studying up on sexual cultures to pass on this.
Moen, E. (2015). Oh joy sex toy, volume one. Portland, OR: Periscope Studio.
Vanderplank, R. (2007). Uglier than a monkey’s armpit: Untranslatable insults, put-downs and curses from around the world. London, United Kingdom: Boxtree.