Recently, a friend of mine told me about his roommate’s new solo sex toy. “It’s Japanese — all sleek, high-design,” he said breathlessly, as though enthusing about the latest iPad. “Apparently it feels amazing.”
This was the same male friend whom I recall some 10 years ago telling me — with a mix of pity and disgust — how he’d accidentally found a “fake pussy” under his buddy’s bed. This wasn’t just a personal attitude shift: penetrable sex toys for men have been revolutionized over the past decade.
“Pocket” vaginas have long been ridiculed as objects of desperation and creepiness: Most are mis-proportioned and rubbery — some even have synthetic pubic hair sewn into faux flesh (they aim for far greater anatomical literalness than most vibrators or dildos). These types of toys range from a few bucks to a couple hundred, but are generally known for being pathetic imitations of the real thing. Thanks to a couple of leading companies, though, masturbatory sleeves — which are generally soft tubes that go over the penis — are becoming sleeker, sexier and more high-tech. As a result, attitudes toward “jerk-off” toys are changing, ever so slowly.
Mark, a single dad in his early 40s who owns a Fleshlight, explains that in order for a toy to escape the “creepy guy” stigma, it has to strike just the right balance: “The more realistic (and expensive and elaborate) the simulation, the more it can be perceived as a replacement for the real woman, and the man is assumed to be unable to attract.”
Fleshlight, which has sold more than 4 million toys since its start in 1995, “pioneered” the transition away from the slab-of-flesh look, says Charlie Glickman, a sex educator at Good Vibrations. In the classic model, 10 inches of the company’s signature “Real Feel Superskin” are concealed in a flashlight-like tube, save for an opening on one end, which either has a simple slit or is modeled after various orifices. It comes with a range of interior textures and shapes — some are so maze-like, they seem designed to replicate sex with a duck (fun fact: ducks have corkscrew vaginas).
But it was a “game-changing product” largely thanks to its high-tech materials, says Glickman. Before Fleshlight, “the male masturbation sleeves were either these not very well designed or attractive products, or they were the blow-up doll types,” he says. ”[The Fleshlight] is not inexpensive plastic or vinyl.”
The brand’s marketing helps too: It’s a company with an irreverent sense of humor — just consider its line of monster-themed Fleshlights (apparently Lady Dracula has bat-shaped labia) or its collection outfitted in faux beer cans. Add its series modeled after various female porn stars’ naughty bits, and its sponsorship of the Air Sex Championships, and it’s easy to imagine it being accepted (semi-ironically, of course) within a certain college crowd. It’s a far cry from the desperate old man stereotype of yore.
The other industry leader is Tenga, the brand my friend’s roommate was talking about: a line of Japanese sleeves that entirely eschews the porn aesthetic. If you ended up on the product’s website without a primer, you might think that they were selling high-tech remote controls or modern art sculptures for your desktop. Its new 3-D line of sleeves are being advertised using images of them turned inside out, revealing elaborate and, quite frankly, beautiful raised geometric patterns. The Zen model looks like a phallic Japanese rock garden.
Jim Blanchard, the senior vice president of development at the company in charge of U.S. distribution of Tenga, tells me, “The interior designs of the products have nothing to do with the internal organs of a female. It’s an artful concept.”
Blanchard says that in the U.S., most of Tenga’s new growth is in spas and salons. “We’ve also been pushing it in the medical community for the benefits for folks with [erectile dysfunction] or for rehabilitation after prostate surgery or vasectomy.” Interestingly, the company’s egg-shaped product was Amazon’s biggest seller a couple of Easters ago, thanks to an adorable ad that featured the product alongside a chick (tag line: “Different strokes from different yolks!”). The brand’s U.S. audience is largely split between gay men, “mature” straight males and couples, he says.
Matt, whose girlfriend bought him two Tenga Eggs when their relationship was long-distance, says, “It’s like having superhuman masturbation powers when you use one.” The aesthetics are important too: ”It looks more like silly putty than some kind of big clunky sex toy,” he says and adds, “We’ve taken them through airport security and never had a problem.” Now, his girlfriend occasionally uses the toy on him or watches him while he uses it.
In addition to better design and technology, these companies have benefited from what Glickman calls “porn’s coming out of the closet.” He explains, “The more you hear other guys talking about which porn star they like, even if nobody says, ‘Oh yeah, of course I was jacking off while watching so-and-so, you know that it’s there.” In general, men “are becoming much less embarrassed about masturbating,” says Glickman.
Mark agrees. “I think that the high-end wanking product niche is a result of the Internet, which has revolutionized the expression of sexuality generally,” he says. “People are becoming less ashamed and secretive about their sex lives, and a lot of ridiculous pretense and ignorance is giving way to frankness and information.” It’s also “harder to bully and shame people who have a support community,” Mark points out.
That isn’t to say that the stigma has disappeared — but it has lessened noticeably, most remarkably among straight men. “There has been much more acceptance of sex toys and masturbation among gay men for a long, long time,” says Glickman. “If part of the masturbation phobia among men is the masculinity piece, gay men are much more likely to have worked through stuff around that.”
There’s also a double standard in the sex toy realm, which is remarkable given that there a much greater barrier to acceptance of the fact that women masturbate, period. Vibrators — which can be used by either sex, it’s worth noting, but are primarily marketed toward women — are solidly in the mainstream. They’re advertised on daytime TV, and sold in drugstores and through “Tupperware parties.” It’s not so with men’s solo toys.
Chuck, 52, tells me that he bought a Fleshlight when his wife was out of town. “After [she] came home, I broached the subject of me getting a sex toy and she said, ‘I know it’s not fair, because I’ve got one, but I don’t want you to.’” He ended up throwing the toy out.
Phil, a 25-year-old virgin who has owned several different sleeves, says, “Our society expects that men should be able to find sexual gratification whenever they want and not have to resort to sex toys. When men can’t find sex partners, they’re considered ‘losers’ by both men and women alike.” As he sees it, women’s sexual experience has benefited far more dramatically from “the sex revolution and several waves of feminism.”
But Glickman argues that the greater acceptance of toys like the Fleshlight has gone hand-in-hand with the rise of female sex toys, which was similarly aided by higher-end design. Progress may be slow, but masculine norms are shifting: As I’ve written about before, straight guys are increasingly opening up to incorporating vibrators into partnered sex and being on the receiving end of anal play. Change is being hatched, one Tenga Egg at a time.