This article originally appeared on VICE US.
"It's quite possible someone's having sex with me right now and I don't even know it," adult performer and director Stoya told me.
Her vulva is for sale on the internet and in stores. Or rather, a rubbery, lifelike mold of her vulva is, in the form of a Fleshlight. The outside of it looks almost exactly like her actual body. The inside is a labyrinth of corkscrew shapes, nodules, and ridges. It's dubbed "The Destroya," a name that, nine years after the product launched, still makes her laugh.
Fleshlight manufacturer Interactive Lifeforms LLC has sold more than 75,000 Destroyas and more than 15 million Fleshlights total since the company started 20 years ago. It averages around 20,000 retail orders every month, according to a spokesperson for the company.
At around 1.63 pounds each, that's nearly 24.5 million pounds of fucktoy floating around, taking up space in closets, nightstands, and under beds around the world.
The Fleshlight is an artifact of the sexually adventurous, technologically innovative 90s, but it's become the face—and lips, and anus, and lips—of the male sex toy industry. The fact that a disembodied vulva and vaginal canal to jerk off into exists in 2019, the era of #MeToo and grabbed pussies and tabloid uproar over sex robots, shows the often contradictory intersection of sex and technology.
On one hand, the Fleshlight is a portal to new forms of sexual openness, allowing people, even those who think of themselves as heterosexual men, to engage in sex that moves away from old notions of gender and the biological body in general. On the other, the Fleshlight is also the reduction of a person to a replica of their reproductive organs. But 21 years since its inception, Fleshlight, the people who use them, and sex toy experts are realizing that maybe people don’t need an exact replica of a vulva or anus to get off. Sex toys are increasingly taking on more abstract, functional forms, and the future of the Fleshlight and toys like it may rely less on using replicas of disembodied genitals.
Today, the Fleshlight is polarizing even for the people who use it. No matter your opinion of the ubiquitous brand, it's made an undeniable mark on human sexuality and the world.
Hundreds of years from now, if sentient life still exists on Earth, when archeologists dig up the still-intact bits and pieces of plastic casings containing rubberized genitalia, what will they think of the Fleshlight? Will it be considered an antiquated representation of how society literally objectified and commodifed sexual pleasure, or a turning point in the normalization of sex toys for all people, and our first step into a world where technology is an inseparable part of sex?
The answer, according to people who make them, use them, and are them, is both.
WHAT MAKES A FLESHLIGHT
The original Fleshlight model consists of a 10-inch plastic tube casing with a soft sleeve inside. You stick an erect dick (plus some water-based lube) into one end, grip ridges on the outside of the casing, and stroke the penis inside of the sleeve. You fuck the tube, come in the tube, then (ideally promptly) unscrew the whole apparatus and rinse it out with water (soap could degrade the material) and dry it.
Why the Fleshlight exists is a complicated story that's become seminal sex toy lore. If the many interviews given by the company's founder Steve Shubin are to be believed, the Fleshlight was born from his desire to get off while his spouse was pregnant.
In the late 90s Shubin, a former member of the Los Angeles Police Department’s SWAT team, and his wife Kathy were expecting twins. Both in their 40s, the couple was advised by doctors that because of their age and the fact Kathy was having two babies, the pregnancy was high-risk. He claims they were told not to have sex again until after the baby was born.
"I asked my wife 'would you think I was a pervert if I told you there was something that I could use, sexually?'" Shubin told Wired in 2008. "But the adult store had only junk. Just crap. I thought, I can make something better, and took $50,000 of our savings to start working on it."
Shubin's first patent filing, in 1995, was for a "female functional mannequin," a hard sex doll torso. He called his next invention, which boiled the whole doll down to just the genitals, a "device for discreet sperm collection." The proto-Fleshlight.
This version of the Fleshlight was pretty similar to what we see on the market today. But the description Shubin laid out in the 1997 patent filing was much more clinical. The product was framed as useful for sperm banks or doctors' offices.
It also predicted some of the embarrassment many men feel from tucking a sex toy away in their own homes:
While my [sex doll] patent succeeds admirably in fulfilling the objects of that invention, it has several characteristics that prevent it from universal acceptance. When the torso mannequin is used in sperm banks, doctor's offices, and other public facilities, it is sometimes intimidating to the patient being treated or may have an adverse effect upon the patient's sexual desire and ability to deposit sperm. [...] When the device of my patent is used in the home, or by those who find such a mannequin to be positive in nature, there is the concern that others will still find the object during a casual visit to the home.
The earliest version of Fleshlight.com that's archived online, captured in 1998, shows a company attempting to carve a path as the first widely-accepted male sex toy by characterizing it as a requirement of virility, manliness, and insatiable sex drive. From an archive of Fleshlight's “Our Philosophy” page circa May 1998:
The need for sexual gratification is as present and as powerful in a man as it is in the stallion. But where the stallion has no ability to wait, relentlessly pursuing his desire until he is satisfied or restrained, man has the ability to control his desires through fantasy... That release has to be done in a responsible way or we risk our relationships, expose ourselves to disease, take a chance with unwanted pregnancy, or even, in extreme cases, break the law.
The market, and we as a species, were primed for this thing to succeed. Hallie Lieberman, sex historian and author of Buzz: The Stimulating History of the Sex Toy, told me that artificial vaginas and sleeves date as far back as the 1600s—the first being Japanese masturbators made from tortoiseshell and velvet, she said. Artificial vaginas were sold in the U.S. as early as the late 1800s, she said, and Doc Johnson debuted the "pocket pal" in the late 1970s. Pocket pals look a lot like Fleshlights without the hard case around them (therefore, like long fleshy sandworms), and the labias themselves are a lot more realistic-looking compared to Fleshlights' more smooth, almost cartoonish aesthetic.
When Fleshlight hit the market in the late 1990s, sex toys marketed to male customers still mostly consisted of “pocket pussies,” "those disembodied, often clunky looking artificial vaginas—sometimes with fake pubic hair," Lynn Comella, associate professor of gender and sexuality studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and author of Vibrator Nation, told me. "They were really kind of gross looking and for years, many women-friendly retailers, such as Good Vibrations, refused to carry them because they felt that displaying disembodied female body parts didn’t fit with their women-friendly vibe." (San Francisco-based Good Vibrations became the first sex-positive, women-friendly sex shop in the U.S. in 1997.)
"Some Fleshlight designs actually depict women’s genitals beautifully, like a more commercialized version of a Georgia O’Keefe painting."
Since time immemorial, men have been fucking whatever they can get their hands on, whether it be rubber gloves, toiler paper rolls, couch cushions, fruit, teddy bears, etc. A story about a Redditor who jerked off into a coconut, then later had his penis covered by maggots (he did it multiple times with the same coconut), has become treasured Reddit lore. There are also communities committed to exploring upscale DIY masturbators by refashioning Pringles cans, sponges, and building a better Fleshlight.
The Fleshlight arrived in a perfect pro-masturbation societal storm, Lieberman said: On the heels of the safe sex messaging of the 1980s AIDS crisis, in the midst of cultural landmarks like Seinfeld's 1992 episode "The Contest" which grappled with masturbation both male and female, and as the White House forced Surgeon General Jocelyn Elders to resign in 1994 for suggesting masturbation should be taught in school. In the 90s, masturbation, for better or worse, was discussed more openly than ever.
Shubin couldn't have happened into a better time to unveil a tasteful sex toy for penis-having people. But the Fleshlight founder's reputation is controversial: he's waxed nostalgic in interviews about his time as an aggressive LAPD cop, and the company's Glassdoor reviews are generally abysmal.
In 2010, Stoya stopped by the Fleshlight headquarters in Austin, Texas before her mold was made, and described Shubin as a "mountain of a man" who normalized the absurdity that surrounded him.
"He was like, 'We're having a meetin' about selling your vulva, in a can, in a box,'" she said. "It suddenly seems so reasonable and everyday when you're talking, but you get back to regular life and it's like, Ha, there are like 100,000 replicas of my pussy floating around."
When I went looking for Fleshlight users, nearly 200 people messaged me to voluntarily talk about their Fleshlight experiences.
"It felt a lot better than I thought it would, which kind of depressed me tbh," one Fleshlight user told me. "Made me miss actual physical intimacy. Hence why I only used it like 5 times."
I offered all of them anonymity in order to speak freely about their private, sexual experiences, and asked the ones who requested anonymity to explain why they didn’t want to be named. Almost all of them cited some element of social stigma or shame.
The overwhelming majority of these people were male-identifying. Many said they were lapsed Fleshlight or non-Fleshlight pocket pussy enthusiasts—guys who told me they'd been gifted a masturbation sleeve of some kind, years ago, or bought one on a whim, and used it once or twice before casting it aside again. Several cited the difficulty of cleaning the Fleshlight for why they don't use it more.
At least three cited some hazing ritual in college, or sharing one pocket pussy with an entire group of male friends.
Several described feeling a sense of disgust with themselves after using it.
"Used it like 4 times, post nut clarity hit extra hard, & now it’s somewhere in my closet soaked in semen & dust," said one person.
Almost everyone who spoke to me said the feeling of masturbating into a fake vagina is nothing like the real thing.
"They're billed as lifelike, and they simply are not," one said. "Of course! It's a chunk of rubber at the end of the day. It's not a bad thing, they feel good."
A few men told me that they use Fleshlights due to physical disability, to increase stamina, or conditions that make it difficult for them to have sex otherwise. One said he bought his online when he was 22. Because he has cerebral palsy, finding sexual partners is difficult. A Fleshlight, he thought, would make imagining the experience more vivid.
"It was what I expected, but it was also more difficult to enjoy for me as my hand would cramp from using the plastic container thing it came with for extra suction," he said. "As a disabled user, it allowed me the freedom and knowledge that sex toys were definitely for me! It helped me deal with some of the loneliness that I was experiencing."
I also spoke with Dan Cooper, senior editor at Engadget, about his experience reviewing a Fleshlight Launch—the company's digital product made with teledildonics company Kiiroo, that moves up and down on its own, in tandem with porn scenes. Cooper's childhood phimosis (a condition that causes over-tightening of the foreskin) led to him needing a medical circumcision, which he said gave him limited sensitivity during sex or masturbation.
"Even as someone who thinks of themselves as sex-positive, I’ve always held the view that Fleshlights were a bit sad," Cooper told me. "I’d assumed that they wouldn’t have worked with my broken genitals, but it was revelatory how effective (and fun) they are to use."
A few wives and girlfriends told me why they bought their male partners Fleshlights as gifts. Their stories usually involved buying masturbators as a couple, to use while traveling or in long-distance relationships. Some said they were gifts to use during military deployments.
Karabella, a trans woman and porn performer, told me that she first encountered a Fleshlight in 2012, on her first big production shoot. "I'd never even heard of a 'pocket pussy' before, but [the director] pulled out a brand new one and handed it to me," she said. "It wasn't exactly inviting when I first slid into the butthole-shaped slit of cold silicone, so I initially started to lose my erection. However, as it began to warm up around me it was increasingly difficult to differentiate between it and real flesh." Seven years later, using a Fleshlight has become a staple of her cam shows and performances.
HOW IT'S MADE
Beyond what's publicly available on the Fleshlight website, specific details about the production of Fleshlights are a closely-guarded company secret. No one outside the company seems to know what the soft, skin-like material—trademarked as "Real Feel SuperSkin"—is made out of.
Kristen Kaye, Fleshlight's Head of Business Development until late last month when she left the company, said that the material "is indeed proprietary." She told me she believes it is biodegradable, and "made of natural materials, mostly."
The closest I came to finding the secret recipe for SuperSkin was through the founder of FleshAssist.com, a website devoted to all things Fleshlight and masturbators. A 24-year old web developer who goes by the pseudonym John started FleshAssist in 2014 after years spent frequenting Fleshlight forums. He told me in an email that ever since buying his first name-brand Fleshlight at 20 years old, he was "hooked."
John told me that SuperSkin, as far as he's aware, is made from "amorphous polymers," a mixture of PVC and silicone. It's similar to CyberSkin, another type of thermoplastic faux-skin material used in lots of non-Fleshlight brand sex toys and dolls (but not patented, like SuperSkin).
"The trick with softer materials is that they will inevitably not feel as velvety or suede-y as harder silicone," Emily Sauer, founder of sex wearable company Ohnut, told me. "So there is in the development of the product, there is a constant battle between, you know, does it feel too sticky? Does it feel gross in any way? There's a very fine line."
"The hand is just way easier. Boner. Hand. Done. It’s that simple."
Micropores in the Fleshlight's PVC make their "skin" more realistic to the touch, but also can never be fully, truly sterilized once it's used. The top complaint I heard from all of the Fleshlight users I spoke to was that it's too hard to clean to use regularly.
"That's really gross to me that guys don't even rinse them out right after, now I'm thinking about it," Kaye said. "How hard it would be to clean.... If you were to let things dry in there, how disgusting that would be?"
After our call, I borrowed a friend's (unused) Fleshlight to find out for myself. It's relatively easy to unscrew the pieces and take apart, and there's a hole in both ends of the removable soft sleeve to run water through it. As In Bed Magazine's YouTube review notes, the most inconvenient part of cleaning is leaving it out to dry in the open long enough that you can safely store it without worrying about mold growing in a wet, airtight can—but not so long that your roommates or family stumble across a silicone worm with a vulva on the end of it.
"I think it just comes down to laziness, to be honest," Kaye said about why people don’t regularly clean their Fleshlights.
According to my very informal online polling, she's right.
"The biggest annoyance for me was the clean up," Twitter user and self-proclaimed "vaginal aficionado" @BurlClooney said. Burl first heard about Fleshlight on an episode of Joe Rogan's podcast, which had a partnership with the company from 2010 to around 2012, according to Rogan's tweets at the time.
"Your semen goes down into a base at the bottom and you should really clean that shit immediately," he said. "But, I usually just wanted to sleep right away and would leave it until the next day or I would forget until I next used it. It was absolutely fucking disgusting. The cum would turn a weird color and it was so gross to clean out then. However, I mainly stopped due to all the prep work. The hand is just way easier. Boner. Hand. Done. It’s that simple."
BECOMING A 'FLESHLIGHT GIRL'
Stoya told me she once fucked a man with a mold of her own silicone vagina.
"It was so like, bizarrely narcissistic, but kind of beautiful," she said.
She's featured in one of Fleshlight's most popular product lines, the Fleshlight Girls. There are also Fleshlight Boys (anal molds), and Guys (dildos), all modeled after real porn performers' anatomy. Fleshlight currently offers around 45 models of Fleshlight Girls, including Stoya, Riley Reid, Jessica Drake, and Kissa Sins.
"I was laughing and talking a lot, and they told me to be careful, because your asshole actually moves a little bit when you laugh."
Becoming a Fleshlight Girl is a career goal for many in the industry. Kaye, who led the selection of Fleshlight models, told me that three or four years ago the performer's popularity rank on Pornhub, for example, would have been a deciding factor. Now, she looks at a variety of metrics—social media following, engagement online, how entrepreneurial and invested they are in their own success.
As secretive as the SuperSkin material recipe is, the process of molding a real vulva into SuperSkin is kept even more tight-lipped.
Fleshlight Girl Elsa Jean told me that the process of getting her custom mold done involved going to the Fleshlight headquarters in Austin and having someone cast a mold of her vulva and anus. Fleshlight models' genitalia are also photographed using a 3D camera, and the final mold is hand-sculpted by a professional artist to get the details as accurate as possible.
"For my butthole, I had to go into a doggy[-style position]," Jean said. "I was laughing and talking a lot, and they told me to be careful, because your asshole actually moves a little bit when you laugh."
Once they're finished making the silicone mold, the models are given the product to check out. When Stoya saw a Fleshlight modeled after her own anatomy for the first time, the first thing she did was text a handful of her former lovers a photo of the silicone vulva. They'd know, she reasoned, if it was realistically accurate. (They said it was.)
"It was a very like, holy shit moment," Stoya said. "You feel a bit like an action figure."
Models are paid in royalties instead of a flat fee. The more that sell, the more money they personally make. For Stoya, being recruited for a Fleshlight of her own was a springboard into independence in the adult industry. "It's what's enabled me to start independent porn companies like Zero Spaces," she said. "It's sold well enough that it gives me the extra resources to do creative things."
"Having my vagina and butthole on sale for people is actually pretty amazing," Jean said. "Believe it or not, it was one of my goals when I first started in the industry. It’s as close as they can get to having the real thing."
The actual objectification—turning a woman's body into an object—involved in making a custom Fleshlight has brought the company, and anatomically-correct masturbation sleeves generally, some criticism.
"I don’t think it’s objectifying," Lieberman said. "In fact, I’d even say that some Fleshlight designs actually depict women’s genitals beautifully, like a more commercialized version of a Georgia O’Keefe painting."
I asked Stoya how she feels about the objectification criticism, as someone who's worked in the adult industry as an actor, director, writer and business owner. Is the idea that hundreds of men could be fucking "her" right now weird at all?
After all, hundreds of people could be jerking off to her porn right now, too—and isn't that kind of the same? Not at all, she said.
"People like don't give a fuck largely about who's doing the fucking [in mainstream porn], who's coming up with the fucking, but with a Fleshlight—someone has looked [for me]," she said. "And even if they don't know who I am, or my work, or care who I am as a person? They've still chosen my vulva. And that's qualitatively different."
People choose the Stoya Fleshlight because they've seen her work, or read something she's written, or even just read the description on the product page of her persona, she said—and liked what they saw enough to pay $79.95 to fantasize about fucking her.
"That feels really humanizing," Stoya said. "Whereas seeing one of my videos pirated on Pornhub with a sentence in the description that says, 'Don't mention the performers name so she can't find this and get this removed'? That's really dehumanizing, and really separates you from your work. With the Fleshlight, it's the opposite."
As the woman charged with marketing a plastic pussy to the masses, Kaye had a big job. And a huge part of that job, she told me, is overcoming the stigma attached to masturbation sleeves, and the men who buy them. Kaye's worked in the adult industry—in advertising, consulting, and marketing—for 13 years, but for the last three with Fleshlight, she's made it her mission to drag that shame out from under men's beds and bring masturbation tools into the light.
"Unfortunately, for men, there are stigmas attached to using a masturbation device... because for whatever reason, if a guy's masturbating or talks about masturbating, it's like they're not getting laid," she said.
"For cis-gendered males, revealing you have a fleshlight gives implications that you can't 'get a girl' on your own, which inhibits the positive ramifications of using sex toys," one anonymous user told me. "In reality, they can help people explore what satisfies them, and healthily masturbating can relieve stress or just clear one's mind, at least in my experience."
"I feel like a lot of men feel ashamed or embarrassed for using one, but when you're having a dry spell or not getting laid often, it's very beneficial," Twitter user @g0dsparadise said. "I have given Fleshlights as gifts in the past, I have told my closest friends about it, and I am hoping that one day it becomes very common to own one just because this whole stigma is ridiculous to me."
Some pointed out a percieved double standard between male and female-gendered sex toys. "There’s an interesting dichotomy," Cooper said. He attributed it to women's sex toys being seen as "luxurious" and respected, while men's typically aren't. "But it all drills back to the idea that we should somehow be ashamed of sex."
FleshAssist founder John told me that while the stigma itself isn’t as bad as it used to be, it still exists.
"I saw a comment before that said something along the lines of 'a dildo looks potent, it shows that a woman doesn’t need a man,' making it a symbol of female independence and empowerment," John said. "I think if we flip that around, and say 'a man with a masturbator shows that he doesn’t need a woman' it doesn't have the same resonance at all."
Liberman said that she has noticed this stigma, too—and that despite toys like Fleshlight in the mainstream, it hasn't changed much. "I think that’s because men are supposed to be self-sufficient and not need additional tools to get off," she said. "Their hands are supposed to be all they need."
THE FUTURE OF FUCKTOYS
It's possible that the Fleshlight and other toys like it are a decent oracle for the future of sex.
If the analog Fleshlight was a step toward destigmatizing male sex toys, its interactive, internet-connected iteration could help bring virtual reality sex to the mainstream.
Fleshlight's Launch device syncs automatic, motorized movement with interactive porn content. It's a Fleshlight sleeve inside a casing shaped and sized like a wine chiller that moves the sleeve up and down in rhythm with the porn it's synced with.
Fleshlight isn't the first sex toy to combine porn, virtual reality, and a connected device that syncs the two. Around the time the earliest adult-themed virtual reality films were revealed, in 2015, people started wondering if porn would be the thing to finally push VR into the mainstream.
Sex toys that interact with film and VR open new worlds of transcending what your physical, corporeally-limited body could experience. Companies like Camasutra exist today that scan real humans into avatars for fuckability in virtual worlds. There's no limit to what you can embody, sexually, in these virtual environments.
"The porn and sex-toy industries have always led the way in technological innovation: from the electrification of the vibrator in the late 19th century to the early adoption of VHS by porn directors," Lieberman said. "VR and the Fleshlight are just extensions of this trend that stretches back all the way to the printing press and erotic literature."
She attributes this innovation to a need for something novel. Putting your dick inside a mechanized stroker-bot certainly is that, and Fleshlight, as it chases the interactive trend, knows it.
As our identities become more openly fluid and less binary, so do our toys. Ohnut, another wearable, doesn't look like anything anatomical at all. Even the color, a pale jade, is meant to evoke a neutrality without being skin-like. Like Kaye, Ohnut's founder Sauer also mentioned the concept of enhancement. "It's not trying to replace skin. It's not trying to replace a person or anything. It enhances," she said.
Sauer points to Tenga, a Japanese company that's been making disposable soft strokers and sleeves since 2005, as an example of where the industry could continue heading: Toward a less gendered, more pleasure-centered future of sex. One of their products, the Tenga Egg, is a handheld stroker shaped like a gummy, hollow egg, and they're sold inside Easter egg-hunt-shaped packaging.
"They're de-misogynizing the male masturbator," Sauer said. "[Tenga products] are so delightful, but they're just as dirty. They're meant to be thrown away, but they come in really fun patterns. And what's less masculine than a white egg?"
"I think that sex toys now are moving away from realism: the idea that a person would only want to masturbate with a replica of genitals is kind of going away," Lieberman said. "People are more focused on both the utility of a device (does it give me an orgasm) and the design: they want something that looks beautiful." She noted that the Eva II vibrator by Dame, and Unbound's Bean and Squish are geometric—not dick or vulva-shaped.
Fleshlight is no exception to this trend. According to Kaye, the Fleshlight Turbo, a newer, non-anatomical sleeve, is creeping up in reviews. It looks nothing like human anatomy. It doesn't even come in "skin" colors—only "Blue Ice" and "Copper." (However, a helpful cross-section of the Turbo labels where you're meant to imagine the lips, throat and tongue would be.)
"I think marketing the other stuff—the stuff that's not like, pardon my French, fucking a rubber pussy—that's how we've transitioned our marketing approach," Kaye said. "The exact replica of the genitalia? I think that's kind of getting tired. I see that the younger people are more inclined to get the stuff that's non-anatomical, that's a little more discreet."
"The idea that a person would only want to masturbate with a replica of genitals is kind of going away."
"There’s more of an acknowledgement that many people don’t fit into the gender binary and our toys should reflect that," Lieberman said. "I think that gender neutral sex toys are popular now because sex toys always reflect the culture of the time they’re created in; they reflect the current gender norms.... I think this shift in sex toy design to gender neutral reflects both a profit motive and a desire for inclusivity."
For some companies, this might be an inclusivity effort, but for others, "it’s a response to the fact that inclusivity can be profitable," Comella said. "A business that de-genders vibrators or 'queers' sex toys also expands its potential market reach by eliminating labels that don’t have to be there in the first place."
But for those who still want the visual illusion of another person, Fleshlight isn't going anywhere.
"That's the thing to always keep in mind with the adult industry: It's the business of fantasy," Stoya said. "It's like magic or professional wrestling. The audience who enjoys it comes in, ready to suspend their disbelief."
Lieberman believes that lifelike sex toys impact our sexuality mostly for the good. If you want the feeling of fucking a penis or vagina or butthole without another person attached to it, that option is available to us, here in the future.
"I’m not sure that our society is that much different for having the Fleshlight in the world," Lieberman said. "But our society is better when more people are having orgasms, and since Fleshlights provide orgasms, then our society is a bit happier thanks to the device."