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How to Market Plastic Vaginas: Don’t Call Them Vaginas

Inside the marketing world of the Fleshlight.

If you ask Brian Shubin what he does for a living, he’ll tell you he’s in plastics manufacturing. If you press him further, he’ll say his work involves injection molding. Ask again and he’ll tell you what he molds: vaginas.

Shubin, 33, calls it the “three question rule"—his process for informing strangers that he is the chief operating officer of Fleshlight (NSFW), a sex toy company that replicates the female genitalia in plastic then fits the molds into handy flashlight-esque tubes. If the company’s highest-ranking execs won’t even cop to an association with the penis receptacle, how do they market the thing to the masses?

Play up your family-friendly backstory. Shubin isn’t always comfortable chatting up strangers about genital replication, but family members are a different story. When Shubin was a 17-year-old high school student, his stepmother became pregnant with twins. Doctors advised her not to engage in sex throughout the high-risk pregnancy—so Shubin’s father, Steve, nosed around for an alternative form of release. When Steve couldn’t locate a realistic stand-in vagina on the market, he began drawing plans to craft his own. The Shubins “would sit around the table and talk about how we thought it should look,” Shubin remembers. “We were a pretty open family.”

But before the Shubins settled on faux vaginas as the family business in 1997, they needed to justify the investment. “Typically you’d think it’s about making money,” Shubin says of the vagina trade. But his father, a former police officer, “saw a lot of sexual abuse and domestic violence on the job,” Shubin says. “The Fleshlight became his contribution to tempering the male sex drive.”

Today, the justification continues. “We sell to so many people who are deployed in the Armed Forces,” Shubin says. “We have the ability to offer something to the troops out there fighting for us. I have never been so excited to share the Fleshlight.”

Embrace anonymity. “Back in the mid-'90s, women were just becoming OK with talking about using vibrators,” Shubin says. “Men were very far off that path.” So throughout those dinner table design sessions, the family acknowledged that “there was a definite need to disguise what was actually inside the product itself.” The Fleshlight’s flashlight facade was born. Today, Shubin argues that the product’s popularity—the company sold its 4 millionth product this year—has made the signature casing obsolete. “The Fleshlight has played a large part in the shift toward making masturbation acceptable,” he says. “It’s becoming a bit of a cool thing now. I hardly ever get anyone saying it’s weird.”

Still, most Fleshlight aficionados are a long way from open acknowledgement of the hobby. While women visit sex shops in broad daylight and and stage in-home group dildo demonstrations, the Fleshlight community has thrived almost exclusively on the Internet. “It is amazing,” Shubin says of the company’s online message board, Fleshlight Forums. “It’s a cult following.”

Under usernames like “FLWanker” and “Ching Long Wang,” forum members share everything from DIY Fleshlight solutions (like a fan dryer that cuts down on the downtime between Fleshlight cleaning and usage) to its benefits over real women (“The Fleshlight doesn't like jewelry and does not nag,” one user told the crowd). Some users even upload videos of themselves giving their Fleshlights a workout. But an in-person pow-wow on the virtues of the Fleshlight is a bridge too far. “[S]ounds gay as hell,” one member wrote on the prospect of trading Fleshlight techniques with other enthusiasts at a “nudist resort.” Even Shubin can’t foresee such an event in a new masturbation-positive world. “An all-heterosexual male gathering around sex toys?” Shubin considers. “Probably not ever going to happen.”

Take penis accessories seriously. But not too seriously. When the Fleshlight launched, Shubin says it entered a market where "only ugly, poorly-made products were associated with male masturbation. It was a seedy product and a seedy environment.” The Fleshlight aimed to establish itself as the gentleman's vaginal model. And that meant taking male masturbation very seriously. Shortly after launch, Fleshlight floated “Sex in a Can"—a traditional Fleshlight designed to look like a penis-length can of beer. “It didn’t have the greatest impact,” Shubin says. “The beer can product is more of a novelty, more of a gag. It’s meant to make you laugh a little bit. People weren’t quite ready to start laughing."

That was two years ago. Today, Shubin says, Fleshlight users are ready to let loose. “We try to spark peoples’ imagination,” he says. The company now offers Fleshlights in the shape of a fanged mouth (“Succu Dry”) and a blue, double-clitoris mold ("Alien") that imagines the genitalia of Avatar’s Na’vi ("Sex in a Can" is back, too). The company has also toyed with the provocative press release. In May, Fleshlight sent a box of toys to the Pentagon, addressing the gift to the men who killed Osama bin Laden. Then, it circulated a presser on the “Special Fleshlights for their Patriotism.”

Play loose with anatomy. Fleshlight has always prided itself on authenticity. Shubin’s father created the first Fleshlights from molds of local strippers’ vulvas. An online explainer about the product claims that “the only difference between the Fleshlight Real Feel Skin and actual human Skin? Probaby blood.”

Shubin says that the genital molding process is “similar to a dental impression." Fleshlight models—many of them porn actresses—lend their crotches to the company for 10 to 15 minutes, enough time for their anatomy to be converted into casts and molds, then filled with plastic and shipped off to customers.

But realism is less prized inside the model. Though each porn star-branded Fleshlight comes lined with a “signature texture,” the real interior of Fleshlight model Raven Riley’s vagina does not, in fact, resemble the scales of a rattlesnake; Lia19’s vagina is not lined with “tiny hearts.” “That’s the genius of all of us guys who live and breathe this stuff,” Shubin says of the patterns. “We’ll get six or eight guys together to talk about what we think would be cool, then sketch some stuff up.”

Don’t call it a “vagina.” Fleshlight sells three basic molds, each centered along the euphemism scale. The "Mouth" apes oral; the “Butt” mimics anal sex; and the “Lady” beats around the bush. “I don’t think we ever discussed that directly,” Shubin says of the choice to avoid branding toys with the v-word. “Our product is what it is, whether it’s a mouth, a butt, or a vagina. It’s going to be in your face. It has to be,” he says. “But we’re still looking for as wide an audience as possible. We wouldn’t want to offend any one person. The term vagina—like it or dislike it—it can be offensive to some. It can be too clinical to some. But a picture says a thousand words. If you say ‘lady’ and show a picture of a vagina, the point gets across.

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