Pressing the Flesh
The world's leading adult toy manufacturer for men wants to take the stigma out of sex
Steve Shubin, inventor of the Fleshlight and founder and CEO of Interactive Life Forms, is sitting behind his desk in the company's base of operations, which is nestled in a nondescript office park off of Ben White and I-35. There's no sign on the door proclaiming that this is the headquarters of a multimillion-dollar industry with factories on two continents. The only indication that you're not looking at an insurance agency or a plumbing office is that one of Shubin's cars – maybe one of the Rolls-Royces or Bentleys – will be parked out front. ("They're envious because I bring cool cars here all the time," Shubin says of his neighbors in the building.) Today, from the window of his office, you can see the silver Ferrari he picked for the commute into Austin from his ranch in Dripping Springs. Life has been good to Shubin, especially since he invented the Fleshlight, the world's most successful sex toy for men, which simulates a human vagina, mouth, or butt in a discreet container that looks kind of like a flashlight.
Today, though, Shubin's not interested in discretion. Instead, he reaches to the side of his desk and produces a prototype device the size of your leg. "We're in the horse business!" Shubin proclaims before offering a detailed description of the archaic way that stallion semen is currently collected for artificial insemination and how Fleshlights for horses could revolutionize the industry. By the time he's done, it sure sounds like he's got a winner.
Shubin has lots of ideas for ways to revolutionize – well, pretty much everything. He already succeeded in finding a way to take the world of sex toys, which has been dominated since the days of "mother's little helper" and "hysteria" primarily by devices aimed at women, and introduce a product that men will buy by the truckload. He's got big ideas for the world of horse breeding. And now he's on to an even bigger challenge: Can he revolutionize the way that Americans stigmatize sex – and male sexuality and masturbation – in a way that'll let him sell even more Fleshlights?
In 2011, Shubin's attempt to shatter some of the stigma around sex toys included hiring Josh and Nick Holden of Mishnoon Productions to create a webseries called The Flesh Life. Over the course of eight episodes, the Holden brothers created a fictionalized version of Fleshlight's offices and followed the adventures of a pair of ambitious marketing dudes at the company as they attempted to promote a new (fictional) product. Hijinks ensued; they were zany. The Flesh Life is a comedy series that takes its cues from The Office and The Big Bang Theory, and there's nothing sexy about it.
"They just sort of said, 'Here's some money; go make something,'" Nick Holden says of the amount of creative control he was given by the company to create something that fit a contemporary comedy sensibility. "Steve said to us, 'Whatever you do, don't listen to us.'" And what Mishnoon came up with was a project that wouldn't have been out of place on a site like Funny or Die or CollegeHumor.
This stands in sharp contrast to the videos on the Fleshlight website, which are universally porny. The Flesh Life is a PG-13 attempt to take the product out of the realm of the adult industry and into the mainstream. (In a meta twist, this is the conflict that the characters in the series struggle with, as well.)
Breaking the product mainstream is something that Brian Shubin – Steve's son, who's been in the Fleshlight business since he was a teenager – spends a lot of time thinking about. "When we're hanging out having a beer, we ask, 'How many men out of 10 know about Fleshlight?'" he says. "Studies are about how many men admit to watching porn on the Internet. Chances are if you've watched porn on the Internet, you know what Fleshlight is, because we're all over advertising on all of that stuff. If you're saying two in 10 men have done that, then two in ten probably know what Fleshlight is. So it's the other eight we need to get to."
That's where marketing strategies like The Flesh Life come from. The company has other ideas, too. It's a presenting sponsor of the Air Sex World Championships, held annually at the Alamo Drafthouse. There's been talk about paying for shout-outs from "some top-of-the-charts rap artists" to name-drop the device in their lyrics. Both Shubins get really excited when they talk about the movies and TV shows that have made reference to the product. "We were featured in that Kevin Smith movie Zack and Miri Make a Porno. We had nothing to do with that," Brian says proudly. His father can rattle off others, like Showtime's The Big C and Californication.
But the end game of this is bigger than just hoping that someone who hears Childish Gambino rap, "You'sa fake fuck/Like a Fleshlight" will rush out and buy the product – the goal is to normalize it so that they can push past that American sex stigma that makes it hard for them to promote the product in places outside of porn. "We could be advertising in Maxim magazine, but they won't take our money," Brian Shubin says. "We have to creep more into the lexicon before they're willing to get their hands dirty, so to speak."
Which is why they're still talking about a 2008 box office bomb like Zack and Miri like it's the best thing that ever happened to them, and why Shubin wrote a big check to the Holden brothers for a Web series that didn't manage to find much of an audience.
Of course, Fleshlight is not exactly a struggling company at this point. They're bringing in crazy profits, they manufacture 4,000 units a day, and they've sold more than 5 million Fleshlights worldwide – the product continues to grow, and the elder Shubin even suggests that the fact that Americans are uptight about sex works to the company's benefit: "Whenever you suppress something, that's a great market for me."
All of which makes this focus on shedding the mores and stigmas about sex seem kind of weird. Shubin's making a fortune in a "great market" for his product, so why does he care so much about going mainstream?
If you'd told Steve Shubin circa the late Seventies that at 59 years old, he would be running a company that manufactures discrete artificial vaginas, he'd have laughed. Back then, Shubin was a member of the Los Angeles Police Department – he spent six of his seven years in the force on the SWAT team – and he loved it. "I used to joke when paychecks came in, 'I feel bad about taking this!' In college, I was a defensive lineman and linebacker, and I went right from there to the police academy and chasing bad guys – and I got paid for it! It was amazing."
Shubin gets giddy talking about being a cop. "I couldn't do it today," he says, but not just because he's 59. "Today, everybody's got a camera, and everybody's got a lawyer. Steve Shubin would be fired in a month." He describes his days as a cop as "the best job I ever had," and that's up to and including his current gig raking in a bazillion dollars by selling Fleshlights. Shubin gushes about it.
"If somebody needs their face slapped, they're getting their face slapped," he says, talking about his style of policing – but, he laments, "You can't do that anymore." He talks about this stuff so openly, I almost wonder if he remembers that my recorder is on. "I've killed people before. I've done everything. I have choked hundreds of people unconscious. Did I enjoy it? No," he says – and when he explains why not, he says that it's because a person who's choked out poops their pants. Why'd he stop? The pay was bad. "There wasn't much money in policing," he says.
All of which is to say that Steve Shubin probably has a different perspective on the world than you or I do.
Here's the origin story on Fleshlight: By the time he was 40, Steve Shubin had married his second wife, Kathy, and he was operating a power-washing company in Los Angeles. Kathy got pregnant with twins, and their gynecologist told them that they'd need to stop having sex for the duration of the pregnancy because of her age.
"I asked my wife, 'What would you think if, in your sexual absence, I used some device?' And my wife says, 'Well, if the options are infidelity, divorce, disease – all the things that go on when those things happen – I would say use it. But it's got to be tasteful, well-made, not gaudy, not cheap, and not insulting to humans.'"
Shubin got to work, investing $50,000 in the project, which was designed to be the best full-sized sex doll ever. He hired Hollywood effects artists to create the thing, and the whole thing became a weird family project.
"We used to sit around the dinner table cutting out orifices that we liked the best," Brian Shubin recalls. "I was a 17-year-old sitting at the dinner table, and we had out Hustler magazines and everything, cutting out vaginas and butts and mouths that we liked. We had a collage of vaginas out of magazines, as a family."
Steve Shubin realized that this was the wrong approach when he received a visit from a friend. "He was intrigued by the project, and when I was taking him to the airport, he said, 'Hey, Steve, send me one of the inserts from those bodies.' I said, 'Hell, Bob, you're my friend – I'll send you a whole body.' And he said, 'No, no, no, no! I've got kids, don't send that to my house!'"
This is the lightning-in-a-bottle moment of inspiration that we like to imagine is at the core of every invention, the part of the story where Dewey Cox says, "I will walk hard," where Norville Barnes bursts into Sidney J. Mussburger's office with a wrinkled sheet of paper: "You know, for kids!" Shubin must have relayed this anecdote a thousand times in his life by now.
"Going down the freeway back to my office, I said to myself, 'If I can't give one of these away to a friend, how am I ever going to sell one?' The $50,000 had turned into $750,000, and I'm thinking, 'Oh my god, I've made a huge mistake!'" Shubin describes his train of thought as he developed the entire business model for what would become Fleshlight on the drive home: "The key to this is the material. Guys don't care what this looks like, we care what we feel. All the material is going to do is facilitate a fantasy. I can't send it to his house because he has kids, so it's got to be portable. You can't know what it is, even if you saw someone carry it. A bunch of things flash through my mind. I think, 'I'm gonna put it in a thermos. A coke can.' I know it's got to be cylindrical. You've got to hold it, it's got to fit the average hand. Then I realize – a flashlight. It has the head that goes down like that, gives you a good stop for your hand to go up against. Totally camouflage. Guys have flashlights. I'm a cop, right? We live with flashlights. I say, 'OK, that's it. It's a flashlight. I'm going to call it Fleshlight.'" The bat crashed through the window at Wayne Manor and Shubin went back to the office, where he told the FX artists who were developing the sex doll about the change of plans.
There was just one more challenge Shubin faced: This was 1998, and where the hell do you sell a product like this in those days? Online shopping wasn't yet a thing – Amazon wouldn't post a profit for another five years – and it's not exactly a product they're going to stock at Walmart. Shubin found himself involved with distributors who could get him into XXX newsstands and trucker dives, but that's a shady industry. "What started happening, just after 2000 and 2001, was that some of the distributors wouldn't pay their bills," Shubin says. In 2002, with e-commerce finally looking viable, Shubin cut off all the distributors and wholesalers he worked with and moved the model online. The first year he started the website, he made 1.9 million dollars.
So, here's the thing about Steve Shubin, and about Fleshlight: His product has made him a fortune, and men all over the world love it. As a cop, he was an adrenaline junkie who loved "chasing bad guys." As the owner of a power-washing company, he worked 18-hour days blasting puke off the ground in parking garages because it meant that he could pocket twenty grand a month. He's self-mythologized his product's origins to the point where the story is damn near a creation myth. He's a self-made man who controls all aspects of the product's business, from the manufacturing that happens in-house in Austin to the marketing to the battle to shut down counterfeit Fleshlights from China. He overcame skeezy distributors and achieved great success. This is a guy who works really hard, and for whom it has paid off.
But he doesn't get the respect he thinks he deserves. And he's convinced that a big part of that is because so many people think the product that he sells is icky. After spending a few hours with Shubin, in which he constantly interjects with asides about how his neighbors don't wave to him anymore when he comes home, about how he's had to do everything in-house because other businesses don't want to deal with the sex industry, about how his bank treats him like crap even though they've got a zillion of his dollars, about how the East Austin women's shelter SafePlace refuses the contributions he offers from the company's accounts, it's hard not to think that maybe this drive to revolutionize the way Americans view sex and male sexuality is just so people will be able to look at this thing that he's built and give him some fucking credit.
And thus, horse breeding. A prototype of a clinical Fleshlight for use in sperm banks. A celebration every time a movie or TV show or rapper drops the device's name. The Flesh Life. Whatever it takes to let the world know that this product isn't as offensive as it's made out to be. If vibrators are a way for women to be liberated in their sexuality, don't men deserve the same thing? That's an argument that's dear to Shubin's heart. "The whole Sex and the City thing made talking about masturbation okay. When women can talk about using a vibrator, it's great for men," he says. "There's not usually a forum where men can talk openly about sex." When you hear it from Shubin's perspective, it's hard to understand why anyone would find the Fleshlight creepy.
Here's one reason you might find it creepy: the product line called Fleshlight Girls. These are models/porn stars who lend their own anatomy to the product. The company takes molds of their orifices – vagina, mouth, and butt – and then sells them online. The women receive a healthy commission of 12.5%, which Shubin says can translate into as much as six figures. If you're grossed out reading that men who are obsessed with a particular porn star can own a souvenir of her sex parts and keep it on their shelf, well, you're not alone.
"We're taught to see women as parts," says Garland Grey, an editor at the feminist blog Tiger Beatdown. "We often cut women and look at them as individual parts." And the fact that Shubin talks as much about these products as a collectible as a tool for masturbation only makes that weird feeling you may be experiencing seem more valid. "It kind of unfavorably tips your mind to Ed Gein or a serial killer," Grey says. "Back in the olden days, you'd have to get a jar full of pickling agent ... but now, you can own it!"
When you look at it that way, you can maybe understand why some of Shubin's neighbors are hesitant to wave when they see the Ferrari roll in. In some ways, the company is the embodiment of the old joke: "What do you call the extra skin around the vagina?" "A woman."
Still, even Grey can see Shubin's side of the argument. He tells me about a product line that includes the "Ron Jeremy Signature Dong," and talks about Cynthia Plaster Caster, the groupie who became famous for making casts of rock star genitalia, as he considers that owning a replica of a stranger's sexuality isn't a brand new thing. "Women – and men – own lifelike casts of male porn stars' penises," Grey says. "So what makes that different? What makes one empowering and one creepy?"
Ultimately, the answer to that question is kind of a Rorschach test – it reveals more about the person who beholds it than it does the product itself. You can look at the Fleshlight and see something that is designed to empower men to explore their own sexuality away from societal pressures. You can also look at it and see a product that reduces women into a three-inch patch of skin to hump. Depending on the angle you hold it, hell – maybe you can see it both ways at once.
Maybe the scales will tip if the name drops in more movies that make it an accepted part of the cultural lexicon, or if the company continues to push things like The Flesh Life, or if the horse-breeding device convinces people that all creatures great and small have a right to ejaculate into a simulated orifice without shame.
And even if it doesn't succeed in revolutionizing the way we view male sexuality en masse, Shubin, and the company he's built, will probably continue raking in money hand over fist. In the end, he's already won his revolution.