Why you should care

Sex toys are big business — and good for you too.

Say you’ve graduated from a good law school, but have no appetite for actual legal practice. You start dropping by auctions to pick up antiques and other items for resale, and then expand online. Everything is going great, even when the cops check you out for, well, trading in human skulls. While trawling eBay, you get a good lead on Chinese-made latex outfits for fetishists, and then move to Beijing to explore related opportunities. One thing leads to another, and before long, you’re making and selling blow-job machines to men across the world.

That would basically make you Brian Sloan, a 34-year-old entrepreneur who’s got a shot at crowning himself the new king of auto-fellatio fulfillment. In 2008, Sloan introduced the Autoblow, a male masturbator that claimed to deliver top-grade simulated oral pleasure, no stroking required. In other words: all blow, no job. He’s now on version 2.0, which he crowdfunded on Indiegogo last year, ultimately raising more than seven times his original goal. Sloan says he’s sold more than 50,000 units in roughly a year — proof, he says, that “men needed something new.”

Indeed, men are clear runners-up in the business of self-pleasure. Product sales at the U.K. sex-toy retailer Lovehoney, analyzed by data journalist Jon Millward, revealed that vibrators are more than three times as popular as solo male sex toys. Vibrators, of course, have had female fans ever since they were sold strictly as medical devices, but there’s more of a stigma attached to their male equivalents. Devices like the Fleshlight (a silicone orifice in a can) or the Soloflesh V2 (basically two molded butt cheeks and, of course, an orifice) resemble dismembered body parts; for some men, there’s also an ick factor because they’re just inherently messy contraptions. And reaching the finish line typically still requires manual labor.

That opens up big opportunities for entrepreneurs like Sloan. Large companies have long avoided what you might call the gratification ghetto, whether out of concern for their brand or fear of backlash in more traditionally minded parts of the country. (Rare exceptions include condom makers Durex and Trojan, which have recently started sneaking vibrators onto shelves at Wal-Mart and drugstore chains.) The business opportunity has also been unclear; it will shock you to know that trustworthy data on sex-toy sales is hard to come by. Estimates range from annual U.S. sales of about $600 million to global sales of $15 billion. Still, the anonymity of online shopping makes it far easier for people to explore new things, and risqué movie hits like Fifty Shades of Grey give sales a “nontrivial boost,” says Anindya Ghose, co-director of the Center for Business Analytics at NYU Stern.

Growing up, Sloan was obsessed with infomercials and televangelists, and the preacher confidence clearly rubbed off. He takes center stage for most of his Autoblow product videos; with his neatly shaven head and dark shirt, he looks a little like a young Vin Diesel. Sometimes he’ll playfully strap a lifelike dildo to his forehead before beseeching his audience to buy now, lest they miss their shot at the Kingdom of O. In retrospect, messiah of masturbation was a natural career choice.

But not an obvious one. Sloan graduated from Penn State law school and immediately drifted into the acquisition and resale of odd items — antiques, used dental X-ray machines, casino coin-sorting machines, vintage mannequins. Over time, his inventory grew even more baroque, leading to some awkward discussions with the police one day after a customer noticed human skulls boiling in a pot on Sloan’s stove. “It’s not technically illegal to sell skulls,” says Sloan, noting that he’d acquired skeletons of long-dead people from an overseas source for sale to U.S. collectors. (Skulls with all their teeth could fetch about $800; no teeth knocked down the price to $200. Femurs went for $150 a pair.)

Sloan eventually relocated to Beijing, where he worked with Chinese manufacturers and quickly hit upon the idea of the Autoblow. (Not out of desperation, either; he says it’s difficult to remember his own first blow job “because they were so frequent.”) The first model was a modest success — Sloan says he moved 30,000 units over five years — but its battery often didn’t go the distance and the device, alas, could get gummed up with ecstatic emissions. So Sloan came up with version 2.0, which features a power cord, an industrial-strength motor and supposedly easy-to-clean “sleeves” — i.e., the fleshlike bags that grip your dick while the Autoblow’s electromechanical lips (beaded springs, actually) do their wild thing.

Like Sy Sperling in old Hair Club for Men ads, Sloan isn’t just the president of his company; he’s also a client. Although he’s happily coupled up and says he doesn’t use sex toys often, he did much of the product testing for the Autoblow 2 himself, and he insists on hawking his gadgets personally in product videos, a rarity in the industry. “People kept telling me I should use a hot girl, but I know what guys want,” he says.

Autoblow is just one of several sex toys Sloan now manufactures in China, a list that includes the Mangasm prostate massager, the Ladygasm vibrating dildo and the just-crowdfunded Slaphappy, a flat, flexible vibrator that doubles as a spanking toy. He says his business had revenue in the low millions of dollars prior to release of the Autoblow 2; sales last year quadrupled, and this year Sloan thinks revenue will shoot past $10 million.

Of course, it can be challenging to stay unique and fresh in a market niche like sex toys, whose customers are singularly focused on a particular goal. Sloan, for instance, just wrapped up what he calls the world’s first vaginal beauty contest — crowdsourced, of course — in order to 3-D scan the winners for use in future Autoblow spinoffs. It’s a catchy idea, but it risks treading close to the Fleshlight, which already offers models molded from the famous bits of famous porn stars. Not to worry, though: Sloan is already planning a future beyond sex toys by moving from the little death (la petite mort — i.e., orgasm) to the big one. “The casket market really needs a do-over,” he says. “It’s also something my girlfriend can finally tell her parents about.”

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