Deep Inside The Biggest Little Dildo Factory In America

The sex toy business has never been more profitable or female-driven, thanks in no small part to Fifty Shades of Grey. But while most of the industry’s manufacturing takes place in China, Doc Johnson is doing its patriotic duty, one giant rubber penis at a time. posted on

The chaotic space of the main production floor looks like a meth cook’s dream: a battery of industrial-sized vats standing as they swirl and pump 100,000 pounds of synthesized chemicals into the hoses and small cook pots of 300 hair-netted employees who mostly lie to their families about what they do for a living. Rows and rows of short, squat workers — predominantly Latinas, many wearing tiny gold or silver crucifixes dangling from their necks — pour molten streams of electric green, neon blue, and milky pink rubber into copper molds shaped like crooked cucumbers, girthy cones, long twisting wands, and slender pouches with small folds at their openings. The steaming, seething rubber quickly cools inside these metal castings and is soon yanked out and plunked into giant tubs of water to harden. While the fleshy cones and waxy pouches bob and wade in their lukewarm pools, a second line of production is simultaneously grinding away in another room inside this innocuous-looking 10-building complex nestled in the grimier part of North Hollywood, 10 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles.

The silicone room is much quieter, airy with crisp white walls and earbud-sporting employees. It has the sleekness and sterility of a suburban Apple store. One worker, a young man with the slight suggestion of facial hair, pours Day-Glo-colored powder into a bucket filled with a translucent syrup; this gives the silicone spires, nubs, and pockets their shimmery, swirling, iridescent coloring. He ladles the goopy, glowing mixture into thick plastic molds. At the 20-minute mark, the jelly molds harden and the young man wraps his fingers around the flared base of each mold, flexes his forearm, gives a quick tug, and POP! The silicone emerges from its casing, matte, wiggling, and warm. The pieces are wheeled away to join their rubbery brethren in the paint room. Here, lit up with shafts of sunlight, a battalion of workers hunker over long wooden tables as they dip, brush, powder, and detail the rubbery jumbles carted in from the production lines.

It is here, in this cavernous warehouse vibrating with the hums and murmurs of a bustling 500-person workforce, that one of the last bastions of old-fashioned American manufacturing labors on, using 2.5 million pounds of rubber per year to churn out a staggering 15,000 sex toys per eight-hour day, which amounts to 5 million a year. Dongs, cock rings, dick pumps, pocket pussies, strokers, suckers, strap-ons, ticklers, teasers, vibrators, ropes, whips, ball gags, anal invaders, pussy trainers, and “love spit ” lubricant pour out of here at a rate that would wow Henry Ford.

But if you look at almost any rubber vagina or string of anal beads today, they will be embossed with the epitaph that decimated much of American manufacturing: “MADE IN CHINA.” According to a 2010 estimate, 70% of sex toys produced in the world are made there; 50% of those were imported to four U.S. companies — California Exotics Novelties, Pipedream, Doc Johnson, and to a lesser extent, Topco — that dominate American sex toy sales. While the others do the bulk of their manufacturing overseas, Doc Johnson is the only one manufacturing most of its products here in the U.S. of A.

The vein station.

”There’s no question we could make more money if we packed up and went to China like our competitors,” says Chad Braverman, 30, Doc Johnson’s COO, as we walk by the vein station, where workers with small, precise brushes apply spidery red and blue lines to the rubber shafts. Doc Johnson is not immune from the benefit of cheap outsourced labor: It contracts with a Chinese manufacturer to produce 25% of the rubber products and motors for Doc Johnson items. I ask Braverman if, as time goes on, he would consider increasing that percentage. “No,” he says. “I remain committed to our current ratio. We think it’s important to stay loyal to the country and values that allow this kind of product and manufacturing to take place.” While Doc Johnson’s products are not luxury items, its American workforce does result in a hike in retail prices; Braverman says that price increase reflects “quality.”

More than just a quirky side story in this country’s neurotic, if profitable, relationship with sex, Doc Johnson is a symbol of a revolution. While the porn industry is still reeling from piracy and amateurs willing to give it away for free on YouPorn, the sex toy industry has, in the past decade, undergone its own perestroika and emerged as a $15 billion a year gold mine. Once crudely designed oddities shelved alongside dusty VHS tapes in seedy, dimly lit adult shops, the new generation of sleekly designed sex toys have migrated to upscale female-friendly boutiques like Fred Segal and into mainstream pop culture. With breakthroughs in design and materials, along with a general loosening of attitudes toward battery-assisted sexual pleasure — and an unforeseen boost from the Fifty Shades of Grey softcore juggernaut — the little dildo factory that could is making the most of the boom.

Chad Braverman in his office at Doc Johnson. “We think it’s important to stay loyal to the country and values that allow this kind of product and manufacturing to take place.” Natasha Vargas-Cooper

Braverman leads me into Doc Johnson’s creative nerve center: the mold room. Starting in the ’90s, Doc Johnson began to cultivate its own in-house group artists plucked from art schools, cosmetic companies, and weirdly enough, baby product design shops. Anjani Hunaman, a vivacious Columbian-born artist with Edo-era influences, has been sculpting molds from gray clay for Doc Johnson since 1994. “My favorite designs are the ones where I’m just inspired by the anatomy and pleasure,” Hunaman says as she carves slender ribbons into a whimsical clay dong that could double as a Harry Potter–style wand. Her prototype will then take a 10-minute ride to a Van Nuys copper foundry where it will be forged in a metal cast then brought back to the factory floor.

Mold room artisan Anjani Hunaman: “My favorite designs are the ones where I’m just inspired by the anatomy and pleasure.” Natasha Vargas-Cooper

Diana has been at Doc Johnson for 30 years. “When I first started working here, I lied to my family and said I got a job in a plastics factory.” Natasha Vargas-Cooper

“When I first started working here, I lied to my family and said I got a job in a plastics factory,” says Diana, smiling and blushing a bit. She is a 30-year Doc Johnson veteran and supervisor of the mold room. She started as an assembly line worker in her twenties and has since worked in every room of the factory compound — from pouring to packaging, to art design and shipping; Diana even plaster-casted porn megastar James Deen for his vibrating silicone mold. Doc Johnson’s convenient location in the San Fernando Valley, the epicenter of pornography, makes it easy for performers to take a couple-minute drive from the ranch house location shoot in Sherman Oaks to the mold room in North Hollywood. After three decades in the business, Diana has seen it all, and almost nothing shocks her. “Except sometimes during pitch name meetings,” Diana says. “One time we were coming up for names for a new masturbator and someone said, ‘The Fuck Me Silly Sally!’ and I just rolled my eyes.”

Frank, a longtime worker, lost a finger in one of the machines. “But you know, it’s a steady job, what can I do?” Natasha Vargas-Cooper

Though the factory provides steady employment with decent benefits and an opportunity to ascend to the ranks of middle management like Diana did, it is not a workers’ utopia. Just ask the machinist named Frank, who builds the bases for the copper molds. “I lost a finger to this machine, blood everywhere,” he says in front of his hulking, puke-green steel contraption housed in the back of the mold room. He was back at work four days later with a doctor’s note, reluctant to lose his perfect attendance record. (The company credited him for the days missed, keeping his record intact.) Like most privately owned American companies, Doc Johnson is a non-union operation that starts its workers at minimum wage, and not all get health benefits or medical leave. “But you know,” Frank says at the end of his afternoon shift, “it’s a steady job, what can I do?”

Doc Johnson’s early success came partly because of its close ties to pornography, thanks to an enterprising Ohio man named Rueben Sturman. What Hugh Hefner and Larry Flynt built is tiddlywinks compared with Sturman’s once vast porn empire — he is credited with inventing peep booths, those sticky-floored, single-serve coin-operated locked closets where a man could masturbate to hardcore pornography for change. The demand in sex shops skyrocketed, and Sturman not only created a company to manufacture booths but others to produce the hardcore flicks that played inside of them, an endeavor that proved to be four times more profitable than hardcore theaters in the ’70s.

Sturman then sunk his teeth into sex toys. He bought out Marche’s Manufacturing factory, after owner Ted Marche declared bankruptcy when a jury forced him to pay out $1.4 million in damages to man whose colon was ripped by one of Marche’s wire-reinforced plastic phalluses. Sturman, so the legend goes, made Marche an offer on his North Hollywood factory that he couldn’t refuse. Sturman renamed the factory Doc Johnson and installed his loyal then-30-year-old financial assistant (and Chad’s father), Ronald Braverman.

When the feds finally came after Sturman for evading taxes — Sturman refused to pay on the grounds that he was constantly being persecuted for obscenity laws — Braverman took some of the fall; he was indicted in 1985 for perjuring, it seems to protect Sturman, and has served time.

God bless America: Doc Johnson’s 1977 Patriotic Dong (and Her Heart’s Desire “womb broom”)

But that was then, and this is now. Chad is a clean-cut, private school–educated sports fanatic who has plunged into his dad’s business with great aplomb. “There are some minor changes I’ve wanted to make here and there,” he says in the lube-bottling room. “Sometimes I’ve thought we should change our name. But in general I think we’ve thrived because we’re able to stick to what we do best while simultaneously innovate.” He has even designed his own collection of patriotic marital aids, perhaps a nod to the company’s 1977 Patriotic Dong model. The American Bombshell line is a streamlined set of gunmetal-gray sex toys with a World War II weapons theme: The Bunker Buster is a 10-inch cock with a suction-cup base, and there’s a knobby butt plug called Little Boy and a veined shaft with a set of weighty balls named, of course, Ballistic. Like they say, if it weren’t for the United States, we’d all be saying “cock ring” in German.

Ronald Braverman remains a behind-the-scenes sort of guy. On the day I tour the factory, he says quick hello and escorts an elderly Korean couple out of the door and is not seen again.

As we pass the three female pube specialists — they spend their eight-hour day sewing curly synthetic hairs onto the bare rubber vaginas that retail for $19 — I ask Chad when the big breakthrough came for sex toys. When did they go from being gag items in sticky adult bookstores to a must-have item tittered over on the Today show with Hoda and Kathie Lee? “All these barriers were slowly coming down throughout the ’90s,” Braverman says, “then Sex and the City’s Rabbit episode happened and things have never been the same.”

Journey back to a more idyllic time, when the exploits of a lightly fictionalized thirtysomething freelance writer named Carrie Bradshaw represented the vanguard of female sexuality in pop culture. It’s 1998 and Carrie and her three pals sit gobbling down brunch when Miranda, the no-nonsense, no-cuddling-after-coitus career woman announces her new love: the Rabbit vibrator. Brunch ends and the ladies spring into a novelty shop peddling bachelorette-party swag like pecker candy rings and penis-shaped pasta. Carrie fixates on the $92 translucent mauve gizmo with a pearl-studded rotating mid-section and clit-tickling pair of bunny ears. “Look, it’s so cute!” squeals Charlotte, the prim and Waspish one, before she ponies up her cash. Soon she cannot be separated from her quivering little bunny until Carrie and Miranda stage an intervention.

“The day after that episode aired, it was like a telethon,” says Peter Serratore of Holiday Products, a sex toy distributor serving over 2,000 retail stores across the country. Serratore, a small, sweet man and former Southern California punk rocker who got into the sex toy trade in the ’80s, has witnessed the business’s various sea changes from the vantage of his nondescript San Fernando Valley shipping warehouse. “The phones would not stop ringing.” The cacophony signaled a tectonic shift in the marketing and manufacturing of sex toys: Henceforth they would cater to the delicate tastes of the female consumer who would no longer blush at the suggestion she might have a secret little — or not so little — friend.

After Carrie Bradshaw threw open the gates to the plasticine pleasure dome, the next major breakthrough in the sex toy trade came in the last decade with a renaissance in materials and design. UR3®, Doc Johnson’s third-generation “Ultra Realistic” material is used to produce pussy pockets, palm pleasers, realistic dildos, and Spread Eagle Sallies — this ultra-porous, squishy substance gives sex toys their extra push and pull when friction is applied. With better materials and savvier marketing, abstract streamlined silicone designs created by high-end product designers entered the market, forming a cottage industry of luxury female-friendly products that look more like hyper-modernist sculptures designed by Swedish architects (think Constantin Bråncusi’s “Bird in Space”) than gross vibrating mechanical dicks. “We used to be second-class citizens making strawberry lube,” Serratore says, grinning. “Now it’s posh.”

The newest pop-culture sensation to set off another unanticipated tsunami in sales is Fifty Shades of Grey, the B-grade whips-and-chains erotica phenomenon self-published by cheeky English housewife E. L. James. “After the book hit supermarkets, you could not find a pair of ben wah balls anywhere,” Braverman recalls. “They sold out internationally.” Ben wah balls are those clanky, steel balls you’d typically find in a junky Chinese souvenir shop, meant for twirling around in your hand to help in meditation, but in Fifty Shades, the couple uses the orbs as a sex toy. The balls have been covertly and quietly this way for some time, but Fifty Shades made them completely commonplace and socially acceptable.

With the popularity of Fifty Shades, sex shops that have typically carried a small assortment of kink gear for leather daddies and Burning Man attendees were overrun by housewives and co-eds asking for nipple clamps and leather ankle straps. Attuned to the ever-changing needs of the public, Doc Johnson is set to release its new line of female-friendly fetish gear, Black and Blue, sponsored by James Deen. Deen, who is set to star alongside Lindsay Lohan this summer in The Canyons, still makes his bread and butter with fetish films. “He helped design the products, and I think they are going to be popular with his female fans,” Braverman says. “See, these are as isn’t as intimidating,” Braverman says, placing a soft pair of suede handcuffs onto my wrists. “You’re a James Deen fan, right?”

Of course I am.

A sampling of vintage Doc Johnson products from 1977. courtesy of Doc Johnson

Given Doc Johnson’s success, why haven’t porn producers gone into the toy trade? If the makers of Iron Man 3 can double their loot with merchandising deals, why can’t major porn productions enjoy the same sort of marketing perks with a movie-themed dildo or cock-ring tie-ins?

The short answer: “People don’t want mementos from their sexually explicit experiences,” Serratore says. Being reminded of seeing a summer comic-book blockbuster in the theater with your friends is one thing; being reminded of that time you jerked off to Bus Sluts on a laptop is another. “Consumers, particularly women, have brand loyalty [to manufacturers], and they are not certainly not excited or impressed by a vibrator stamped with a porn company’s logo.”

Digital Playground’s misadventure into toy production underscores the point. The company, based 10 minutes away from Doc Johnson, financed a $1 million porn called Pirates (based loosely on the Disney franchise), making it the most expensive porn flick to date. Digital Playground then branded a whole line of Pirates-themed jewel-encrusted dildos and vibrators adorned with tiny skulls. While the movie swept the AVNs, the Oscars of porn, and smashed sales records, their toy line was a limp flop.

Porn and toys have found their happiest success together with individual performers. Indeed, the crowning achievement in a porn starlet’s career is to have a rubber mold taken of her anatomy — in the case of porn sensation Bella Donna, her feet were immortalized and mass-marketed for adoring fans by Doc Johnson. (The company’s mold of John Holmes’ legendary gigantic dick still sells at least 1,000 units a month.) Yet the simulated anatomy of real-life performers accounts only for a sliver of the revenues — the real money, for Doc Johnson and its competitors, comes from the thousands of anonymous orifices created in places like the mold room.

The biggest difference between the porn and toy industries is in who’s spending the money. As opposed to porn, women are the roaring engine that drives the toy industry. Even products that are made for men are popular among women — a big Doc Johnson seller is a suction-tight rubber sleeve lined with squiggly massaging nubs, referred to in polite company as a masturbator, but on the box it’s typically marketed as a pocket pussy. Men ages 18 to 25 love it because, well, duh. But for women over 30: Meet Helping Head, the Ultimate BJ Helper. Braverman says Doc Johnson deliberately tries to produce items he calls “friendly for couple’s play.”

But is it just that upper-middle-class stratum of women who are reshaping this economy? The kind with Carrie Bradshaw’s disposable income, the ones who take high-end pole-dancing classes and possess the time and mental energy to go on a bull-legged stroll to the kitchen while Chinese meditation balls rattle inside them? Apparently not.

California company Party Gals has a fleet of dildo-slinging sweethearts who showcase sex toys from different providers, including Doc Johnson, in your own living room. Think 1950s Tupperware parties, but with the housewives debating the merits of anal sex instead of how to best refrigerate lima beans. Patty Gardner, a former IBM employee with a teenage son, is Party Gals’ top saleswoman. She is trim and gregarious with dyed strawberry-blonde hair and an unaffected manner and can talk up the merits of anything from $8 tubes of China Shrink Cream (for women to feel like a virgin for three to five hours) to heavy-duty glass-blown ass wands.

We’re in Whittier, 60 miles and three worlds away from the suburbs of Los Angeles, packed inside a one-bedroom stucco apartment off the main drag. The hostess, fresh off her shift from a local clothing store, is serving her guests Stater Brothers’ ready-made fried chicken and bright instant-mix tequila cocktails. They are a bubbly group of seven women, all in their mid- to late twenties, all Latinas, many with Amy Winehouse–like Bumpits-buttressed bouffants. A few are single, some have long-term boyfriends, one is set to be married this summer (she asks the most questions about which items are edible). These women, like their hostess, are working-class shift employees, daughters of immigrants. They’ve never been to a party like this before and are excitedly chattering over Gardner’s product menus.

“I like to go mild to wild,” Gardner says, pulling out lotions, lubes, and pheromone-scented body glitter from her grab bag of products. These women are far from virgins, but many of them do not (yet) own sex toys and seem to regard them as acceptable for couple’s play rather than solo use. Gardner is hip to this subtlety and tailors her sales pitch to extolling the benefits of each product as a way to help please “yourself and your man.” The women pass around squiggling rabbit-eared vibrators and lick edible lube off their wrists. The mood in the room thaws from nervous excitement to focused curiosity. “You should be having orgasms every day,” Gardner says in a reassuring tone. “It’s a good thing.”

One young woman admits she’s never been penetrated by a vibrator and asks Gardner if it feels like a tampon. Gardner puts down the remote-controlled pair of vibrating panties she’s holding up and gently explains that tampons, while also inserted in your vagina, are dried-up wads of bleached cotton whereas her products are meant to be lubed up and used for pleasure. The message seems to get through to the young woman, but the mechanics still seem to baffle her. This was followed by a confused chatter about which hole you actually pee out of.

Gardner then brings out a pair of ben wah balls and the ladies start to squirm and woop. “That’s what Christian uses on Anastasia in Fifty Shades!” one partygoer excitedly tells the group. Gardner sells several pairs to the ladies tittering on the couch.

Still, the biggest hit of the night is the blow job–assisting rubber sleeve. Half the party purchases the item; the consensus is that this is the least intimidating, least ego-deflating toy to bring home to their partner. As much as the toy industry, and Doc Johnson itself, has been revolutionized by women’s increased comfort with satisfying themselves and with these products in general, ultimately the people who benefit most from this are going to be men. As one cackling party gal put it, grabbing one of the stroker sleeves, “You are not replaceable, and I need help sucking your big dick.”

Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified the injured factory worker. It also stated that the factory used 25 million pounds of rubber instead of 2.5 million.


















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