Around the time that the world's most famous male masturbation toy, the Fleshlight, was patented, one of the the most iconic male masturbation scenes in cinema hit the big screen. Everyone remembers the moment in American Pie that earned the movie its name: Desperate to know what third base feels like, a nerdy high school virgin played by Jason Biggs is told by his more experienced friends that pussy feels just like "warm apple pie." Of course, this leads to a humiliating ordeal when Biggs is caught fucking an apple pie on the island in his mother's kitchen. Biggs, more than anyone, needed a Fleshlight.
Inventor Steve Shubin first came up with the idea for the Fleshlight with his wife while driving home from a celebratory dinner. In their 40s, the couple had recently found out they were pregnant, and to decrease the risk of miscarriage, their doctor recommended they not have intercourse while his wife carried the baby to term. What started as a joke—"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?"—turned into a $50,000 investment and a series of prototypes for the world's most popular male masturbation aid.
No one took the product seriously when Shubin first pitched it to the public. As he told VICE, Maxim laughed them off, as did many other pro-sex men's brands. However, Shubin saw a very human need for men's masturbation tools that went beyond pleasure.
"The domestication of man, while it's been great for civility, has not been kind to the biological need to function as a man," Shubin told VICE. "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."
Although he might have veered into questionable territory, he kept going: "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."
Since the Fleshlight, male masturbation toys have slowly become less taboo and more acceptable for straight men: Between 2014 and 2015, GameLink—which is one of the world's largest porn hubs but also sells sex toys—saw a 60 percent spike in men's sex toy sales. According to Jeff Dillon, vice president of business development at GameLink, Shubin's Fleshlight kickstarted it all.
"[The Fleshlight] really helped change the game for men's sex toys and establish a competitive market for male masturbation toys," he says.
In a market traditionally dominated by women's toys, Dillon was shocked to see a double-digit growth in sales of men's toys in 2012. Whether that was because taboos were fading out as men began searching for more advanced and interactive ways to masturbate, or because of the rise in long-distance relationships thanks to online communication, is yet to be determined. Regardless, the proliferation of adult content means companies have had to adjust; there are more customers, but those customers have different needs. "Now, we just have to monetize [customers] differently, like selling them sex toys."
In February 2016, psychologist Allison Kirschbaum conducted a study about men's masturbation habits. Kirschbaum found that 24 percent of both gay and straight men had "inserted an object" into their anus during masturbation, while 35.3 percent had engaged in nipple play and 32.2 percent had used a vibrator.
Curious about anecdotal evidence, I did a quick survey of straight men via social media and was overwhelmed by the amount of positive responses I got about sex toys. Some told me stories of the toys they invented when they first started masturbating, like "using an inflated dishwashing glove to jerk off because it felt like someone else's hand." Even Dillon joked about the original, makeshift men's sex toy: "the homemade fifi," or "a towel wrapped and held in place with rubber bands, then filled with lotion," he laughed. "Also, possibly warmed beforehand in the shower." Every single man that responded told me they were into a variety of toys, ranging from those that simulated the feel of a vagina to toys that stimulated their prostate. When did it start to seem strange that humans wanted new and various ways to use the world around them to jerk off?
Dillon told me that prostate toys have yet to reach the popularity of the Tenga Egg and Fleshlights—and especially those Fleshlights modeled after popular porn stars' vaginas and anuses. According to Dillon, the top-selling toys on the market are the Sasha Grey Cream Pie Pussy and the Bonnie Rotten Dual-Entry Stroker.
(When we asked porn star Bonnie Rotten what she thought of her toy being one of the best, she described knowing so many people had access to her mold as "surreal" and insisted that it is "pretty damn accurate." "I mean, they have to add a bigger hole that is a little more pronounced than my own for practical purposes," she said. "But it's accurate! They use a material called Fanta Flesh. It's a super soft silicon.")
"Customers want to develop a deeper relationships with the stars, and they buy all their products, so naturally they are buying their molded body parts," says Dillon. "It's the next best thing to having sex with your favorite star."
Teledildonics have helped normalize sex toys for men by making the experience centered around interaction, not just solo masturbation. In 2013, a Dutch-based company, KIIROO, created the leading teledildonic couples toy: the Pearl for her, the Onyx for him. The Onyx works like a Fleshlight sleeve, while the Pearl is your standard—albeit sophisticated—vibrator. Through WiFi, couples can control one another's toys and have sex through their computers while still talking and feeling one another's touch through the toys. Seeing the potential in porn, KIIROO linked up with Los Angeles-based company Flirt4Free to create special packages so that men could buy webcam time with their favorite porn stars—and feel them through the Onyx.
"Adult content tends to lead the way in new technology because people will pay for this content, even if it is not 100 percent perfect," said Flirt4Free's CEO Gregory Clayman when I talked to him earlier this year. "It's cutting-edge entertainment, but it will never replace [sex with] people."
"The future of men's sex toys is very exciting, with virtual reality on the immediate horizon," Dillon assures me. "We will see an interactive experience with virtual reality and male sex toys that will simulate the user being right in the middle of the action with their favorite star."