I spoke to Fleshlight creator Steve Shubin about the social benefits of his vagina-in-a-can.
The signature Stoya Fleshlight at the company's warehouse
Steve Shubin wants us to talk more about touching ourselves. The inventor of the world’s most successful sex toy – the Fleshlight, a polymer vagina housed inside something that looks a bit like a fat torch – says that it's a man's duty to masturbate frequently. As such, he's baffled as to why dildos have become an acceptable brunch conversation topic while male sex toys remain taboo.
But Steve hasn't always been so concerned with the ins and outs of sensual self-flagellation. One of wanking's wealthiest advocates was raised in a blue-collar household with 13 siblings. American football took him to university, which he followed with a brief stint in the army before seven years with the Los Angeles SWAT team.
"Police work’s a great career, but it doesn’t pay much; you can’t look forward to buying anything significant, and I’ve always wanted to do that," he told me. "I’m one of 14 kids and I grew up having nothing. I was obsessed with having everything." So, aged 32, Steve left the force to open his own small business.
However, it wasn't until he was in his forties that his tennis-pro wife's pregnancy pushed him towards the industry he now dominates.
"The doctor said that, because we were 40 years old, we had to be very careful and should probably not have intercourse for the duration of the pregnancy," he explained. "And we were at the beginning of the pregnancy. So, for me, that was a problem. Tell me I can’t get laid for nine months – that’s a problem for me."
While out to dinner to celebrate the pregnancy, Steve turned to his wife Kathy and asked: "Tell me, would you think I was a total pervert if I told you that, in your sexual absence, I would use something to replace you sexually? Would you think I’d be a total creep?"
Steve Shubin, founder of Fleshlight
Initially, they both laughed at the image of a six-foot-three, 14-stone tree trunk of a man getting intimate with a blow-up doll. But, on the drive home, they expanded on the idea. "We kind of thought, 'Well, wait a minute – what if we had a problem that doesn’t go away? Whether it’s a physical handicap or a psychological handicap – things that would never afford me a normal sex life,'" Steve recounted. "And we started thinking this way because there was a much bigger opportunity than my current, very narrow, issue."
With a primary investment of $50,000 (£30,000), they quickly founded the company that would eventually become Fleshlight. Kathy’s one requirement was that whatever they produced had to be tasteful ("Something artistic that wasn’t some disgusting-looking, adultish garbage product"). A little research showed that there was nothing on the market resembling competition.
By 1995, they had come up with something worth patenting. The first patent application was for sexually-useable body portions, referred to, romantically, as "mannequins with sexual application". The original patented mannequins, according to Steve, were "perfectly anatomically sculpted, with probably a better body than you could get if you lived in a gym".
Fleshlight is a family business, and Steve's teenage sons were drafted in for the initial brainstorming session. The Shubins gathered around the dinner table for a week, cutting out their favourite body parts from skin mags, until they came up with the prototype.
Bent over doggy style – cutting out extraneous filler, like torsos and faces – the mannequins covered everything between the knees and ribs. The "orifice" was removable for easy cleaning and was manufactured out of a patented mix of thermo-plastics and oils designed to recreate the sensation of human skin.
A cross-section of a Fleshlight next to a Vstroker, a device that you can plug in to your computer to sync up your strokes with the porn on-screen.
In his own words, Shubin was a "mad scientist" in his pursuit of the ultimate synthetic fuck buddy, "Because – as a man, you know this – if something doesn’t feel real, we’re not going to be excited about the physical contact with it. So that was a first priority."
Two years and more than a quarter of a million dollars into the project, not a single mannequin had been sold. It was around this time that an old friend and successful businessman, Bob, came to visit Steve and Kathy’s office in California. He was impressed with what he saw. As Steve dropped him off at the airport, Bob asked if Steve could send one of the vagina inserts to his house. Shubin offered to ship him an entire body, but Bob was reluctant: "Oh, no, no, no – please don’t do that. I’ve got children," he said. "I could never bring something like that into my house."
"Driving back from the airport, I thought, 'My gosh, if I can’t give a product away to a friend, how can I ever expect to sell one of these?'" Steve recalled. It was then he realised that perhaps size was a much larger issue than he'd first assumed.
Between the airport and his office, he began to redesign the product in his mind. "I knew that it would have to be portable; it had to be small; it had to be able to fit easily into the hand so that it could facilitate the use of the product. I thought, 'Guys are into tools.' And what I had settled on was a flashlight, so I decided to call it Fleshlight.
"As soon as I got back to my office I had my guys working on that different concept," Steve told me. "I immediately contacted my attorney and began working on the copyright stuff and the protections on the name. I bought the URL immediately and started the business end of it right away as we were developing the product."
Now that he had a viable product, the next challenge was figuring out how to get it into consumers’ homes. It was 1997 and the internet was still in its relative infancy. "It wasn’t secure; nobody trusted it. We were intrigued by it, but never would anybody use their credit card to make a purchase on it," Steve said.
The Fleshlight warehouse
Regardless of the challenges, Steve was sure that the Fleshlight would be "a rockstar instant success", and the production line was knocking out 1,200 units a day to cope with the expected demand. The Shubins were $2 million (£1.2 million) into the Fleshlight before a single unit had been shipped.
Four years on and lot of lessons learned, their original investment had been recouped. Fleshlight went on to become a multi-million dollar company and the best-selling sex toy on the market.
However, there are still obstacles to overcome: society isn't willing to normalise the Fleshlight in the same way it has the dildo. Steve said that, 15 years ago, shows like Sex and the City and Oprah opened a conversation about vibrators that has failed to materialise around male masturbation.
Perhaps the problem is that, for all our liberal pretences, talking about touching yourself is still taboo. We may have moved on from the 1940s, when sexologist Alfred Kinsey discovered that 40 percent of young Americans believed that masturbation caused insanity, but you're not gonna see Phillip Schofield and Richard Bacon discussing the relative merits of various fake vaginas on This Morning any time soon.
When Fleshlight approached Maxim in search of a mainstream publication to carry their adverts, they were told their money was no good: no one wants their brand to be associated with wanking. However, Shubin reckons this was a gender-based issue; that women are never too thrilled to hear that, partnered or otherwise, men enjoy and need to masturbate. Meaning one of the reasons Maxim refused to carry Fleshlight's ads, according to Steve, was out of the fear that any hint of male masturbation may upset female readers.
He continued, reasoning that men just need more orgasms than women, and suggested women can sometimes view a man's right hand as competition. "If you tell your wife, 'Oh, by the way, sweetheart, we were together eight times last month, but I actually had 30 orgasms,' women feel cheated," he said. "They feel like you don’t love them – they feel like they’re losing you."
The first time Steve brought a Fleshlight prototype home, he said that his sex life improved vastly. "What’s going on?" he asked Kathy. "You’re just hitting this new wave of sexuality. I mean, you’re killing me." To which she replied, "I just don’t want you to have enough energy to use that Fleshlight."
A Fleshlight shower mount, so you can use your vagina-in-a-can in the shower
Shubin’s solution is education of both sexes. Men need to be taught to be unashamed of their need to "maintain their biology, their civility" through masturbation. Women need to understand that "sexual gratification for men is not an emotional thing – it has nothing to do with love and it has nothing to do with the wife. It is immediate and spontaneous, and once I’m done with whatever I’m doing, I don’t think about it any more, because I’m gone that quickly."
However, education isn't just important to boost sales; Shubin’s on a mission to help men behave better in a society that he says is incompatible with their biology: "The domestication of man, while it’s been great for civility, has not been kind to the biological need to function as a man," he said. "Society doesn’t allow us to do what we might have done a million years ago. We cannot chase and take the sexual things that we may have done hundreds of thousands of years ago, and that’s an awesome thing. But we still need to function as biological men."
He continued: "But the responsibility to do that is not on women. They’re not on this planet to satisfy our sexual needs; responsible men do this themselves. And I know that if I don’t manage my sexuality, I would find myself becoming angry with my wife because she wasn’t as sexually active as I needed her to be. And I had to grow up and learn to function. She is not my escort, she is not my sexual tool. My sexual relation with my wife is based on two people being intimate and developing a life together. Any sexual needs I have beyond that are my responsibility to maintain."
And this re-education isn't only targeting personal relationships; Shubin has much grander plans, hoping to introduce Fleshlight to the Indian market. "In India right now, we know they have a big problem with sexuality and male performance and the abuse of women," he said. "And I certainly hope it’s a very small percentage of people, but there is an education process that needs to happen there, and they have a desperate need for an alternative product and the psychology that would allow them to use a sexual product.
However, the Asian market has proven particularly hard for Fleshlight to crack. "They don't like you to ship anything into their countries with the likeness of a human orifice," Steve explained. So, to get around that minor hiccup, the company has started creating products that don't have a likeness to any piece of human anatomy. They’re marketed as marital aids and shipped as "biological maintenance", which is the other half of Steve’s crusade.
The trouble with penises, Steve explained, is that, unlike most muscles, they’re not attached to a bone, meaning they receive little casual exercise. As a result, "If you’re not filling it up with blood and stretching it out and using it, it will atrophy," he cautioned. "They do shrink." Of course, a clogged prostate – and the risk of cancer that comes with it – is the other danger for men who refuse to regularly clean their pipes.
Asia may not have been kind to Fleshlight financially – on top of the import restrictions, there is the Japanese patenting process that pushed their vagina-in-a-can design into the public domain – but that hasn't deterred them. Somewhat surprisingly, they're using the vast financial and technical resources at their disposal to help the continent’s elephant population, which is plagued by land mines left over from decades of tension and conflict in countries like Thailand and Burma.
The front entrance to the Fleshlight offices
"It’s very common to find elephants that have a portion of their leg blown off," Steve told me. "And the need for prosthetics is what we’re working on right now. We have an R&D lab in New Mexico that’s managed by one of my sons, and professional sculptors are working on the mechanics of giving the elephants new legs as we speak."
Other philanthropic ventures have included providing prosthetic breasts for mastectomy patients and modernising the antiquated methods currently used for extracting semen from stud racehorses.
While this is all highly commendable, it doesn't mean the company hasn't come in for criticism in the past. And Shubin understands that you don’t get to be a multi-million dollar sex toy manufacturer without making a few enemies along the way.
For example, it doesn’t take much googling before you start coming across disgruntled ex-employees complaining of capricious or flat-out incompetent management. "Utter and total lack of management with more between their ears than pocket lint" is one example I put to Steve. His response: "If anyone was let go, I can promise you this: they were not good at their jobs – they sucked."
Some criticism has been less vicious. Professionally, Shubin has always been careful not to court conversations with religion, and the only one he’s consciously been party to resembled a piece of performance art more than a legitimate dispute. In the company’s early days, an employee noticed someone burying something in the ground in front of the office. As he got closer he realised the stranger was planting a row of tiny crosses. When he asked the stranger what he was doing, the reply was simply, "We’re bringing Christ to you." With that, the stranger fled.
The company knew exactly which church the man had come from, but chose not to make a big deal of it. Shubin explained: "We weren’t offended. We didn’t argue with them, and it’s really never been a problem because I never broach the subjects of sexuality and religion." He may be on a crusade to bring masturbation to the mainstream, but he’s not interested in getting into a knife fight with the church.
So, for now, Steve and his family are going to keep encouraging us all to talk about our physical relationships with ourselves. They’ve already invested in a web TV sitcom, The Fleshlife, and the heart of the company's manifesto now revolves around the duty to normalise male masturbation. But they're aware it will take more than just a sex toy manufacturer talking about it to change the public’s attitude. "It’s something that we don’t talk about," Steve started, "but it’s a needed discussion because people need to understand that, in order for us to be civil, we need to maintain our bodies."
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