I pulled back the whip to strike the blindfolded, handcuffed man seated in front of me. On the table beside us was a large cardboard box overflowing with whips, handcuffs, and vibrating dongs. Having met just minutes before, I knew nothing more of this man than his name (Eugenio) and his country of origin (Italy), but we both had a job to do, and time was of the essence.
While it's true that we were brought together by an internet advertisement, we weren't "sexpats" or lao wai boy toys for some chain-smoking Chinese tycoon. Eugenio and I met working for Lelo, which was once called "the Apple Inc. of the pleasure products industry." For Eugenio, eight years a designer, and myself, a New York copywriter, giving a story to each of the sex toys billowing out of that cardboard box was our first mission as marketers—and like any good marketing team, we needed to know what it felt like to be in the moment with our new products. So there we were, strangers, whipping each other, fully clothed.
Before working for Lelo, I had been backpacking for six months, moving between international cities every few days, when an American friend teaching English in Shanghai invited me to stay with her for as long as I wanted. For six weeks, I spent my days perusing markets, cooking and drinking with new friends, and meeting with Troy, my language exchange partner, at Shanghai Library.
When I finally left Shanghai for New York City, I vowed to return one day. Back in the States, I would comb the Chinese expat job boards looking for a gig that would bring me back to China. One morning, I stumbled upon an echinacities.com job board ad posted by a "luxury intimate lifestyle brand." I was intrigued. They were looking for a copywriter, and I knew two sentences into the job description that it was mine to lose. On the global job front, New York City experience is considered a CV silver bullet, and by then I had interned for comedian Denis Leary's production company, worked in pre-production for a five-time Tony Award-winning producer, and written a handful of nationally-run commercials. Three days and two interviews later, I was working for Lelo.
Lelo, the world's leading "luxury pleasure object" company, was founded in Stockholm in 2002 by three industrial designers. Since then, the brand has garnered a reputation as the Rolls-Royce of sex toys. Their products—including Inez, a $15,000 24-karat gold vibrator—continually win both industry and non-industry awards. At the 2015 XBIZ Awards, the Academy Awards of Sex Toys, the company took home three major prizes: Luxury Toy/Line of the Year, Powered Sex Toy of the Year, and the coveted award for Pleasure Products Company of the Year.
As the company rapidly grew in the 2000s, the team moved to Shanghai, presumably to reduce overhead and gain proximity to the sex toy factory in Suzhou, 60 miles west of Shanghai. Today, three sub-brands exist under Lelo, each with a different, majority female, demographic.
Take away the lingerie mannequins, sensual posters, and pleasure objects littered about, and the Lelo office looks like any other modern office floor in any other country. In fact, there's very little evidence that it's even in China. On the seventh floor of an eighth floor building, tucked off a main road in Shanghai's French Concession, the office of under 100 employees was roughly 70 percent Chinese and 30 percent Westerners. The Westerners, a majority of whom were 20-somethings on the marketing team, hailed from about a dozen different countries.
As normal as daily operations were—we still punched in and out on a computer at reception and celebrated the birthdays of the month with cake—there were some unique occurrences. It wasn't uncommon to see two a dozen Russian models from a local talent agency parade in with the hopes of being chosen for a photoshoot. I'll never forget one meeting about an industry magazine ad where we analytically flipped through a previous edition, which had a big-breasted woman bent over on the cover, like it was an issue of Good Housekeeping.
Even images of a woman spread eagle on your computer screen would barely garner a second glance, since the most puritan employees would assume you were doing research in good faith. It's true what they say: You can get used to anything.
Part of my job was to name Lelo's products. In due time, the items in the overflowing box—a light bondage set for "curious beginners"—became The Evilution Series, and the nameless neoprene knicknacks came to life as the See No Evil Blindfold, Resist No Evil Cuffs, Speak No Evil Choker, Take No Evil Whip, and Fear No Evil Teaser. Eugenio and I were relieved and my boss seemed impressed months later when the line was nominated for Best Soft Bondage Line of the Year at the 2012 XBIZ Awards .
Like any copywriting job, my duties ranged from fun, creative endeavors—like coming up with PicoBong's brand tagline ("Not for the Clothes-Minded") and writing an ebook on sex positions—to more tedious tasks, like editing user manuals and writing press releases. A majority of my time, however, was spent writing blog posts, covering topics from the benefits of prostate massage to mastering the art of Skype sex.
There were often raised eyebrows when I answered the ubiquitous question: So what do you do? It didn't take me long to generate a word bank of responses that never quite came out right: "I write advertisements for a Swedish company." "I write sex and relationship advice." "I name sex toys." "I'm a freelance writer." You can tell a lot about someone by his or her reaction to your job, and you can tell a lot about yourself by what you decide to tell them.
Looking back at my year at Lelo, which concluded in June 2013, I like to think that I positively contributed to the conversation surrounding sexual expression, openness and health. Maybe someone is two years into a Kegel exercise regimen because of an article I wrote for the company's blog. Maybe someone has a better, healthier image of his or her body or mind. Maybe someone is finally able to achieve multiple orgasms. Heck, maybe I saved a marriage. Then again, maybe not.
But in the end, even if a bride-to-be laughed aloud with her bachelorettes while reading the box copy for Kiki Bling, the "diamond-studded vibe that'll make your hips hop," I'd be left nodding with pressed lips.
While I left Lelo and China two years ago (I contracted for one year, per my working visa), hardly a few weeks go by without a nostalgic flashback. As I walk Manhattan's West Village, I notice it's Lelo's latest creations that the neighborhood's sex shops proudly display in their windows. From the gift shop of Manhattan's Museum of Sex to Brookstone's across America (sure, that's a back massager alright); morning talk shows to in-flight magazines, Lelo's black and white logo never seems far away. Having penetrated 50 international markets and counting, I doubt I'll be able to escape it anytime soon.
Thumbnail photo via Wikimedia Commons user Morderska.
Follow Matt Alesevich on Twitter.