Steve Shubin, a former Los Angeles police officer and a somewhat unlikely sex tech kingpin, is the father of the Fleshlight. In the mid-1990s, Steve and Kathy Shubin, a professional tennis player, learned they were expecting twins. But Kathy’s age (she was 40 at the time) meant that her pregnancy was high-risk, so her doctor warned her against having sex.
Staring down the barrel of a nine-month dry spell, Steve and Kathy discussed their options. He wondered how Kathy would feel if he bought a masturbation aid — not just something that would help him jerk off, but a sort of sexual stand-in. Neither of them could seriously entertain the thought of “a 300-pound ex-cop on a blow-up doll,” as Steve put it to Men’s Health, but that’s pretty much the only thing that the market was offering at the time: low-quality, sleazy-looking products. That’s why he decided to make a sex toy of his own.
The Shubins invested $50,000 in inventing the patented SuperSkin, which realistically replicates the feel of human skin. (The patent is a closely guarded secret.) They also introduced a line of “sexually usable body portions”—basically, vagina and anus sleeves—in 1995. The body parts did not sell: Prospective buyers seemed nervous about loved ones stumbling upon big rubber fuck butts in their bedrooms. Steve realized he needed something smaller, an innocuous object that could hide in plain sight. “What do men keep around in bulk?,” he asked himself. The answer: tools. One item—roughly three-inches across and with a bulbous head, perfect for gripping—emerged as a clear frontrunner.
Thus, the Fleshlight was born.
The Shubins patented their product in 1997. Since then, they’ve introduced Fleshlights filled with mouths, anuses, and anatomically ambiguous pink holes and an array of porn star genitalia. According to the Shubins, the company has sold more than $1 billion in Fleshlights since its launch two decades ago, owing about 90% of its sales to vagina-themed products.
Today, the Fleshlight dominates the market of sex toys for men (at least, for cisgender, heterosexual men). Do a quick online search for male sex toys, and you will quickly find yourself barraged with images of the sleeves. Shubin has a simple explanation for this.
“Guys are very visual, so you get stimulated by what you’re looking at. But all it’s doing is feeding the fantasy that’s in the brain,” he said. “So if you watch yourself going in and out, and the material pulls and moves the same way as the female anatomy would move, … together they feed the fantasy without interfering in any way.” In other words, visuals stoke mental fantasies, he said, and the trick with toys is appealing to the user’s desires without making them feel pervy: Shubin says the design needs to be “very discreet,” “classy,” and “sleek and tasteful.”
Yet a rubber vagina does not exactly scream tasteful, tubed or not, and there is undeniably still a glimmer of stigma associated with the idea of making sweet, furtive love to a flashlight. “I’d be embarrassed even if no one knew,” one male friend said, when asked to consider his feelings about a hypothetical solo Fleshlight session. The data supports this: in 2016, for-men sex toy company Tenga surveyed 1,200 Americans on their self-pleasuring practices and opinions, and found that while 42% of the women who participated admitted to owning sex toys, just 20% of men reported the same.
For women, sex tech is undoubtedly evolving, both in terms of quality and design; after realizing that women were willing to spend more than $10 on a cheap plastic vibrator, legions of (mostly female) entrepreneurs are designing sleeker, more satisfying toys. But the same simply isn’t true for men. So the question remains: as vibrators become more and more high-tech, why are men still stuck with sex toys that are basically imitations of the Fleshlight?
To a degree, the answer is obvious. After all, if you have a penis, inserting it into some kind of hole — whether it’s a mouth, an anus, a vagina, or your cupped hand — is your best bet for getting off, which somewhat limits design possibilities. But according to adult industry entrepreneur and former Fleshlight employee Chris “CT” Schenk, that’s only part of the equation. Manufacturers and distributors, Schenk told Men’s Health, are “focusing on what’s working”: with decades of data to say that vagina-themed Fleshlights sell, there’s little incentive to reinvent the wheel.
“Like in every industry,” Schenk said, “until someone comes out with something that really stands out as a unique experience that people are drawn to, [the manufacturers] copy each other.”
Schenk knows this firsthand: in trying to get funding for his own toy—blewit!, a masturbation sleeve intended to help men build stamina —, he encountered a great deal of skepticism. Despite a lucrative crowdfunding campaign that raised nearly $100,000 on Indiegogo, according to Schenk, the response from distributors always sounded something like: “We already have too many masturbators. How is this one different?”
According to Schenk, many manufacturers are chasing “a desire for the new experience,” but that comes with its own set of limitations. Brian Sloan, for example, is the creator of the Autoblow 2 (a cylinder into which the user inserts his penis for an automated massage that replicates the feeling of fellatio) and 3Fap (a sort of Fleshlight Cerberus that fuses three mechanized orifices into one masturbation station). Sloan wants his Autoblow to mimic a blow job so precisely, you wouldn’t know it’s a machine and not a mouth unless you opened your eyes. But achieving a mechanical version of that perfect BJ feeling is an iterative process; it requires a lot of time and a lot of money.
“These things have costs,” Sloan explained, “and the biggest problem facing the whole adult toy industry is that … the mass market isn’t willing to pay $300 or $400 or $500 for a sex toy. Because if there were, we could make them incredibly awesome products for that price point.”
Male sex toy manufacturers also have to combat the widespread assumption that men don’t care what they stick their dicks in — an assessment that, despite some anecdotal evidence in its favor, ultimately holds the industry back and perpetuates a reductive idea of what men want. That’s arguably the single largest roadblock to improving men’s sex tech, says clinical sexologist and Tenga brand ambassador Dr. Chris Donaghue, PhD, LCSW, CST.
“Media and culture do a good job of keeping male sexuality within the limits of its current quick, lazy and insertion-only-based model,” Donaghue told Men’s Health. Companies peddling fake vaginas and “lewd” sex replacement products “are meeting their customer exactly where they are, which is quite basic.” The problem is that, somewhere along the way, the industry seems to have mistaken that customer for every man.
Alicia Sinclair, a sex educator and founder of toy companies b-Vibeand Le Wand, suspects the market for masturbation aids might simply be smaller among the penis-having set because there’s little incentive to spend money on something you can achieve with your own hand. While vibrators and G-spot stimulators can help women identify their own desires and get to know their own bodies (something that they have historically been discouraged from doing), that’s less of an issue for men, who, if they’ve been masturbating since adolescence, are pretty familiar with their own anatomy.
The key to innovating make sex tech might lie in taking a broader, more comprehensive view of the male anatomy, says Sinclair. She argues that manufacturers should be creating products that target erogenous zones like the frenulum, the testicles, and the prostate. She also suggests “adding in the same things we’ve already used for the vagina or vulva,” such as suction and strategic pulse points.
Ultimately, making a more exciting male sex toy might mean dispensing with the notion that certain sex toys are for certain types of people, whether that’s playing around with a butt plug or grabbing a vibrator off the women’s shelf. The illustrious history of the Fleshlight aside, making a new sex toy for men might mean accepting the fact that pleasure is a subjective thing, without a one-sleeve-fits-all solution.