B* became interested in masturbation sleeves about three years ago. At the time, he was in a relationship and taking an anti-anxiety medication that made it difficult for him to come. First he used an inexpensive sex toy he purchased online, which broke. Then he upgraded to something more durable. But immediately after using it, he told me over email that he “felt terrible buying it, kind of like I was cheating on my GF... It took a while to get used to it, but I soon got over the ‘creepy’ feeling.”
B isn't alone. When I put out a call asking men to share their experiences using sex toys on themselves, many of the more than 100 respondents were not willing let me use their real name. This says to me that while male sex toy manufactures like Fleshlight International SL may be reporting record-breaking growth, their prevalence doesn't seem to have reversed the stigma around men using sex toys.
According to male sex toy manufacturer Adam Lewis of Hot Octopuss, this negative view is partly due to the way male sex toys appear and function. “The majority of male toys have been designed... to replicate the action that a man would normally experience with a partner," Lewis told Thrillist in a 2016 interview. He said that this has "led to the perception that if a man uses a sex toy, he must be a little perverted, desperate, or unable to find a partner.”
Lewis's breakdown of the stigma around male sex toys makes perfect sense to me. It's even present in the terminology. “Pocket pussy” makes you automatically compare masturbation sleeves to human holes sans humans. From there, it isn’t a far jump to treat them like “last resorts” for the sexually unsuccessful.
I've spent more than five years working in the adult industry and running a store that sells sex toys and the most comprehensive and progressive sex education courses I've come across never just come out and say: “Jacking off with a squishy, floppity tube is healthy and normal—just like using a vibrator... Just make sure ya rinse it out afterward!”
As a woman, I've been made to feel lesser for using a big ol' Magic Wand instead of masturbating with my hands. But the stigma around sex toys for American men is even more intense. Women were affirmed by the "Rabbit" episode in Sex and the City, while men who use sex toys have their entire identity questioned. These days, erotic devices are tastefully marketed to suburban moms on vanilla lifestyle websites like the Goop and Revolve and women can see toys more openly and positively discussed in mainstream magazines like Teen Vogue and Marie Claire. But we don't see this same dialogue in publications such as Esquire. Perhaps that's why so many people who responded to my personal survey said things like “sleeves are yucky” and “real men fuck real pussies." I mean, even Austin Powers wouldn't admit to it!"
In reality, I’ve sold sleeves to a diverse array of people: super machismo weightlifter bros, genderqueer folks, people with clits, Wall Street bankers, trans men, and lots and lots of hotties. None of my customers were the creepy loners people imagine when they think of people using sex toys by themselves. Because of this, I have heaps of empathy for those who feel the need to hide their use of sleeves. The Fleshlight—basically the “Kleenex”-like catchall term for masturbation sleeves—deserves better.
Unfortunately for men who are open to using sex toys, their options are limited. Fleshlight is one of the few companies making toys designed to look like genitalia that are actually body-safe and able to withstand the test of time. But the average pocket pussy you find in America reeks of carcinogenic chemicals that are banned in children’s toys but used in the widely under-regulated “novelty” industry. “[These chemicals] mess with your hormones. They can cause birth defects, or other things related to liver or kidney functioning,” School of Community Health Sciences at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas faculty member Amanda Morgan, D.H.S., told Glamour last year. On the other hand, while Fleshlight’s patented formula of elastomer doesn’t smell like a new shower curtain, most of their more “realistic” sleeves only come in a pale, cadaver-beige hue. The bizarre “one tone fits all” seems unnecessarily bad in a world where dildos come in just about every color and style.
On top of that, there’s the severely off-putting trend among toymakers to essentially create sleeves that are (white) flesh lumps comprised of penetrable holes. At the sex toy trade shows I attend, I’m often greeted by a pair of jiggly, fuckable tits fused to a vaginal opening and anus, or a tiny body attached to a giant wobbly ass. When I get home from these trade shows and Google these Cronenbergian blobs, I’m always surprised to find they have neutral to positive reviews. They reek of #unrealisticbeautystandards and make me wonder how men see my body—yet I’m sure there are men who feel the same way about my giant collection of dicks.
Penis toys are also frequently guilty of making ridiculous claims about what they can do for men. Are they really the secret to "longer lasting erections,” as advertised? Sure, sleeves theoretically might help some people control their orgasms better, but that same marketing point is another aspect of the mentality that leads people to have a negative perception of sleeves. My interviewee, B, made sure to note that the experience of using a sleeve is nothing like sex with a vulva. “You can’t [have sex with] a woman at the speed you can with a sleeve, or hit certain angles that help get you off. There are ways I can make myself cum that I didn’t even know about before I bought a sleeve!” And I can imagine how fucking someone who treats me like a sleeve would just be downright unpleasant.
The market for sleeves is full of racism and a general lack of inclusive language, too. While there is a large section of the industry marketed towards men who have sex with men, the bulk of mainstream toy shops and brands use blatantly hetero verbiage. One sleeve user I interviewed, Jack Lukac, a bisexual male in a monogamous relationship with a gay male, said he prefers to shop at gay toy stores simply because they have a completely different (and more forward-thinking) toy selection.
It’s not all bad, though. Tenga is a Japanese company that wants to create a brighter future for penises. None of their sleeves attempt to look human and they steer clear of chemical additives. In fact, many of the folks who responded to my interview request made a point of sharing the fact that they only buy from Japanese brands because of the superior quality. It shows—"As of June 2017, over 55 million units have been shipped worldwide," Tenga announced last year.
After I had been selling their toys for a few months, I decided to bring home an inexpensive Tenga sleeve for my penis-equipped roommate. He’d never used a toy like it before, but was open-minded. While I never asked for detailed feedback, a few months after I gave him the product, he came into my shop to purchase a six-pack of Tenga Eggs for himself, which are sleeve-style grab-and-go masturbators designed for one-time use.
Vibration is also an option, one that gives me hope when it comes to penis toys. Another one of my interviewees said he never got into sleeves, but hit a home run when he discovered a sleeve-like attachment for the Hitachi Magic Wand. “It was so incredibly intense and alien, it felt like when I first discovered masturbation,” a beautiful feeling indeed. “If men knew how insane the Hitachi and sleeve combo was, there would be a lot less war in this world.” Similarly, Lukac found himself startled by how the element of vibration changed his perception of stimulation. “After using the vibrating Fleshlight for the first time, I became somewhat concerned about the toy feeling better than actual intercourse with someone,” he shared. “But, I was 18 and naïve, and ended up learning that it couldn’t ever replace intercourse—a human being brings more [to the bedroom] than physical stimulation of the penis.”
I also spoke to a few partners of sleeve enthusiasts. Instead of the common stereotype about sleeves being for lonely people, I found that partners felt highly involved—even when they weren’t the ones using sleeves on their partners. Lenore Black, a kink and sexuality coach, gave her partner a Tenga egg and loved witnessing the way it made his eyes roll back. “It was so wonderfully erotic and intimate watching him come that hard, [it felt] like I was the one that controlled it.” Black had a moment of discomfort and intimidation, however, even as a sex educator: “The irony of this was hilarious, because it's the same [reaction] I got from other people when I showed them my toy collection. [I worried that it would feel] even better than me. He said it feels like an alien pussy, and that put my anxiety to rest. I mean, I have alien dildos, too. I get it!”
In the end, unlearning the notion that toys are only for “solo sex” is the first step towards blasting away the stigma around toys for all types of bodies. Sleeves can be used alone or with a partner. Not to mention, the products on the shelves are improving, albeit slowly. Everyone likes different things, and we’re all deserving of pleasure on our own terms. So, penis owners, take note: There’s a whole new world of orgasms over the river and through the sleeve.
*Because of the stigma around sex toys for men, we've respected our interviewee's request for anonymity
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this article misidentified Jack Lukac's sexual orientation. This post has be corrected.
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.
Follow Zoë Ligon on Twitter.