What It's Like to Test Sex Toys for a Living
When Ducky Doolittle opens a package for work, she examines the contents and asks, "How many ways can I fuck this thing?"
All photos courtesy of Ducky Doolittle
When Ducky Doolittle opens a package, she unloads the contents and asks herself: How many ways can I fuck this thing? It's a question she has to answer pretty regularly, as the main buyer for Komar, a wholesale sex toy distributor. She's trying to calculate what she calls "orgasms per dollar"—the concept that the more ways one can use a sex toy, the more value it has.
"So if it's a sex toy that's made for the G-spot but it's also a great clitoral vibrator, it has higher value, because there are a couple ways to use it," she tells me. "That's one testing ground."
Doolittle has tested countless sex toys since she joined the team at Komar a little over a year ago. She's responsible for selecting the toys the retailer will stock—everything from colorful vibrators to flavored lubricants—which means she essentially gets paid to masturbate.
Doolittle's been working in the sex industry for 26 years, starting as a clerk in a sex shop and then as a peepshow girl and burlesque performer. Later, she went into sex education and built a reputation as one of the most trusted sex educators in the country. Carol Queen, a sex-positive sex educator, called her "one of the most thought-provoking and interesting sex teachers out there," and feminist writer Susie Bright said she was "one of the most insightful and original sex educators and artists I've ever met." Doolittle went on to found the Academy of Sex Education, organize sex education workshops at places like Babeland and the Museum of Sex, and in 2006, wrote the book Sex with the Lights On: 200 Illuminating Sex Questions Answered. Basically, she's your go-to girl for anything sex-related.
"I never planned to be in business this long but, I love it and I'm good at it. Those things together just keep dropping opportunities in my lap," she says.
Working for Komar was an "unexpected" opportunity, Doolittle says, but one that she accepted happily. The company has been in the sex-related product distribution business for over 50 years. In the 1960s, under then-owner Samuel Boltansky, Komar fought obscenity laws, so books like Lady Chatterley's Lover and The Story of O could be distributed and sold in the United States. The company also worked to distribute adult magazines, and later, porn on VHS and DVD. For the past decade—in part, due to the proliferation of porn online—Komar has shifted to focus on selling and distributing sex toys.
"I'm not here to tell people what they can fuck. I'm here to help instigate their desire."
Doolittle normally starts her day by opening the new boxes of sex toys that have been sent to her from manufacturers all over the world. Among the shipments she's received recently are silicone dildos in colors normally found in a crayon box; cock rings and ball straps in discreet black packaging; and miniature masturbators, or "pocket pussies," some of which look like naked women without heads.
Ultimately, it's up to Doolittle to decide what Komar sells—which means a lot of decision making about a product's "fuckability."
"You wanna have sex with that thing? I'll get it for you," she tells me. "All day, all night."
Fuckability, of course, means different things to different customers, and Doolittle has to consider the many different needs and tastes of people buying the products she selects. Some people want wellness-oriented products; others want luxe, high-grade, or chemical-free toys; others want what she calls "a mythical experience," something to make them feel dirty. To cater to all kinds of customers, she ends up choosing a variety of materials—sleek silicone vibrators with high-powered motors, alongside the cartoonish, plastic blowup dolls. "I'm not here to tell people what they can fuck," she says. "I'm here to help instigate their desire."
That's not to say she isn't selective. "I don't really have any loyalty to anything other than giving users orgasms, and that's really confusing to some manufacturers," she explains. "They just want me to pick up everything in every color. And I'm like, 'I don't care about color, I care about orgasms!'"
For example, she only buys anal toys in black because of "residual poo," as she puts it. "If people are afraid of residual poo and they're sold a black toy, they have more confidence. They use it more often," she says. "If you sell them a pink or a purple or a light flesh color, they'll be a little bit more shy about using it."
Doolittle's ultimate goal is to have every toy in "high rotation," meaning in regular use by the consumers in their homes (or elsewhere, for those who like to use sex toys on the go). She tells me excitedly about a product that makes your secretions taste sweet, and a new lubricant called Unicorn Spit that's made to taste like donuts—things she can envision people using regularly.
She aims to test everything she selects, but it's not always possible, mostly because it's a time-consuming process for her. "I don't think you have a fair understanding of what a toy is until you've used it at least five times," she says.
When she can't test a product herself, she focuses on measures like the aforementioned "orgasms per dollar," as well as the smell, touch, and even taste of the product. Smell, she says, can help her understand what chemicals are being used to make the product; taste helps her understand the way the product will interact with a person's mucous membranes, which are also present, of course, "in the pussy or ass."
A typical day for Doolittle will also include a trip to a sex toy warehouse in northern Baltimore: "100,000 square feet of fuckables," is how she describes it. "It's all so neatly put away that the warehouse looks inconspicuous." On a recent trip to the warehouse, Doolittle sent me a photo of herself wearing a black T-shirt from a sex toy company called CalExotics and what seem like infinite shelves of cardboard boxes filled with sex toys behind her.
Visiting the warehouse helps her to physically see what's being sent out to stores. She likes to look in each bin and cart to see what's selling well, alongside analytics on the computer, to inform her buying decisions. When the semis pull in, she takes pictures for blogs and tweets to generate hype.
Between shopping for products and testing them herself, Doolittle spends a few days a week doing store visits and staff trainings or going to trade shows around the country (the Sexual Health Expo and the Adult Novelty Manufacturers Expo, to name a few). For a store visit, she'll set up an appointment with the owner of a particular store selling Komar products and consult with them about how the products have been selling: What could they be doing to make the store better? What's working? What's not working? She also likes to understand the price points in the store, the economy of the area where it's located, and the average amount a customer spends per visit, so she can better relate to the buying market she's serving.
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Part of what makes a sex shop run smoothly is the knowledge of the staff, which is why Doolittle also conducts staff trainings—both online and in-person—for Komar distributors. She'll go to a store, talk to the manager, find out where the staff's struggles are, and design a training to strengthen those areas.
"There is still a stigma overall working in a sex shop," she explains. "So anybody who works in a sex shop is already strong. People crack jokes, like, 'Oh, you sell vibrating doodads,' but in reality, a great worker has the potential to change somebody's relationship with their body, to change somebody's relationship with their partner, to help them find peace."
Doolittle trains staffers to interact with what she calls "the blur"—when people walk into a sex shop and they're so overwhelmed by everything they don't know what to look for or at first. She also teaches them how to help customers who are visibly lost but won't (or don't know how to) ask for help. It's essential for employees to know how to explain the differences between toys, so customers can make the right decisions for their bodies, how to care for the products they buy, and more.
"A good sex shop can be a community center, a place where you can go get information you can't get from your doctor or from your lover, and I think that's really profound shit," she says.
Sex toys, Doolittle says, were historically made for "planned obsolescence"—to be used once or twice and thrown away—so quality was never a top priority. People were so ashamed of using them in the first place they wouldn't complain when they fell apart. Today, though, sex toys are a multi-billion dollar industry, sold on Amazon and even recommended by Oprah, and quality matters in a big way. At Komar, Doolittle says she's seen "an old boys' locker room company and turn it into something modern." "You sell sex toys by the pallet," she adds, "it's just so much fun."
Some might tire of the constant parade of sex toys, but Doolittle never has. "I'm shocked every day," she says. "I think part of the thing is that I will always be a girl from Minnesota, I will always be shy." She tells me about the website of one particular sex toy company that "is so pornographic that I blush just thinking about it!" It's still titillating for her, somehow.
"The rubber butts come in and I lose my mind every time. I just get so excited by the idea and we can't keep them in stock," she says. "They're, like, rubber butts! Life is so good!"
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