By GUY TREBAY
November 18, 2017
LOS ANGELES — Back in 1976, when Chad Braverman’s father, Ron, invested a small grubstake in a manufacturing start-up, consumers bought his products at the back of seedy bookstores and scurried out with their purchases concealed in brown paper bags.
The younger Mr. Braverman, who was not yet born, grew up ignorant of how his father actually made a living. He would be well into his teens before learning that the company his father ran with a partner was not, as he had long supposed, some sort of criminal enterprise.
“It was this big mystery no one ever talked about, what my dad was making,” Mr. Braverman, now 35, said recently at the North Hollywood offices of Doc Johnson Enterprises, the family firm. “For a long time I just thought he was in the Mafia.”
What Ronald A. Braverman did was make rubber penises. He also manufactured latex vaginas and hand-shaped items devised for anal insertion and a variety of other novelties associated with masturbatory pleasures. In the evolving parlance of successive eras, those items were euphemistically known first as marital aids — as though a vibrator were a couples counselor — and then sex toys and, eventually, “pleasure products.”
It was still a shadowy niche business when Mr. Braverman founded Doc Johnson, but the company would go on to become the largest producer in what is estimated to be a $15 billion global industry. And the Bravermans — Ronald, Chad and his sister, Erica, 29 — would become, de facto, the first family of sex toys.
“Sure, people used to joke about it,” Chad said. “Does your dad really make rubber penises? But then by the time I was in college, it suddenly flipped, and it made me the coolest person around.”
On a day of scorching heat and dry Santa Ana winds gusting over the mountains, the two of us sat in an air-conditioned office at the Doc Johnson headquarters in North Hollywood. Bearded and muscled, Mr. Braverman was clad in Acne jeans, a Buck Mason shirt and a pair of pink Common Products sneakers. Behind his desk a wall of bookshelves held the sports trophies he collects, among them signed Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Wilt Chamberlain basketballs.
If Mr. Braverman conforms less to a cliché of how a businessman whose company produces Palm Pals and Legendary John Holmes dildos might look than to that of a young venture capitalist, that is partly because pleasure products have become mainstream enough for Los Angeles Magazine to call Doc Johnson “the Procter & Gamble of sex toys.”
There is a certain accuracy in the characterization, since almost 75 percent of Doc Johnson products are manufactured in one of seven structures scattered across a sprawling 250,000-square-foot compound, and a “Made in America” emblem is a central element of the Doc Johnson marketing strategy.
Here, in the industrial eastern part of the San Fernando Valley, hundreds of workers sculpture, mold, paint, pack and ship the 75,000 products Doc Johnson manufactures weekly. Here, employees in white coats and surgical caps blend six tons of raw material every day, pouring dildos and using air guns to pop each one out of its mold. Here, brass plaques hung in a lobby commemorate employment milestones by generations of mostly Hispanic employees who have raised families on wages earned fabricating devices like Doc Johnson’s best-selling Sasha Grey Masturbator, a lifelike reproduction of the genitals of Ms. Grey, a onetime pornographic star, molded in a casting room on site.
“We now look at what we’re doing as being about creating an experience, like entertainment,” Mr. Braverman said, adding that his company’s trademarked new Kink by Doc Johnson line of products — rubber sheets, dog collars and assorted fetish gizmos — “is really killing it.”
If historically “there was not a lot of brand loyalty and brand awareness” in the sex toy industry, as Mr. Braverman said, that is quickly being modified as manufacturers adapt to an increasingly savvy and fast-growing consumer base.
“The adult novelty sector is booming,” said Lynn Comella, associate professor of sexuality and gender studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and author of the newly published “Vibrator Nation.” After studying the industry for close to two decades, Professor Comella observed a notable shift in the scale and nature of the business after the financial crisis of 2008.
“Suddenly porn sales weren’t what they had been,” she said. Piracy and proliferating free online pornographic sites decimated an industry long considered recession-proof. Yet by 2009, at seminars held during the annual Adult Novelty Manufacturers Expo — where, as Forbes noted, retailers connect with “the latest lubes, vibrators and RealDolls” — Ms. Comella found herself attending panels that resembled first-wave-feminist consciousness-raising sessions.
“They were literally called ‘What Do Women Want?’’’ she said. It seemed, she said, that everyone, from chief executives to buyers for sex toy stores, was eager to discuss how to recalibrate a business that, as Ron Braverman explained, “had gone from being 100 percent male dominated — male manufacturers, male bookstore owners, men going to select the product and bring it home — to being an absolutely female-oriented consumer product.”
As abrupt as the shift seemed at the time, its origins were not altogether surprising. In her book, Ms. Comella argues that, absent the early feminist sex educators and entrepreneurs behind such enlightened sex toy shops as Good Vibrations in San Francisco, success would have been less probable for a mainstream manufacturer like Doc Johnson, whose products are now sold by 7,500 brick-and-mortar stores throughout the United States, on sex-oriented sites like PinkCherry and Lovehoney, and, increasingly, by mass-market retailers.
Unwittingly or not, the “feminist trend of educating women about their bodies, about their clitorises, about vibrators as a tool of self-empowerment,” Ms. Camella said, ultimately benefited the sex toy business by altering cultural perceptions of it and initiating its migration from XXX bookshops to Walmart, Amazon and Target.
Certainly it is hard to imagine that, without the sex-positive credos advanced by female proprietors of early sex toy shops like Good Vibrations, Eve’s Garden and Babeland, Charlotte York’s famous Rabbit episode in Season 1 of “Sex and the City” would have become part of the cultural conversation, let alone “Toyz,” Missy Elliott’s ribald 2012 paean to self-sufficiency, or Abbi Abrams, a character on “Broad City,” and her celebrated strap-on.
The success of a “Broad City” plotline involving anal penetration of a more-than-willing male partner by the character portrayed by the show’s co-creator Abbi Jacobson would ultimately inspire Comedy Central, which broadcasts the show, to introduce its own line of plugs and gadgets, most notably, perhaps, a Pegasus Pegging Kit.
And it underscored an observation made recently by Susan Colvin, a former college instructor turned sex toy manufacturer. “The younger generation doesn’t have as many hang-ups as ours did,” said Ms. Colvin, whose California-based CalExotics was founded in the 1970s and was responsible for introducing early innovations like vibrators in Easter egg colors, a notion first put forward by Ms. Colvin’s all-female development team.
“It used to be, ‘Gee, I’m a man, why would you need any of that?’” Ms. Colvin said. “Now it’s the woman doing the consuming, and it’s not so intimidating for a partner when she introduces a toy into a relationship.”
As seemingly everywhere else in the culture, it is a millennial generation that is leading the charge in mainstream acceptance of a business few still associate with its back-alley beginnings.
“Sometimes even people in the industry for decades don’t realize how accepted sex toys now are,” said Erica Braverman, the marketing director at Doc Johnson.
As an example, Ms. Braverman cited the pop-up Doc Johnson sponsored last month at the Think Tank gallery in Downtown Los Angeles in collaboration with the artist Whitney Bell. Dildos glowed under black light in a V.I.P. room as D.J.s spun from a set list of modish 1990s tunes. After ogling a prototype sex toy vending machine that will soon be sent on a multicity cross-country tour, the hundreds of guests who started lining up at 7 p.m. struck selfie poses against a backdrop tailor-made for Instagram. Some carried props depicting peach or eggplant emojis, or signs that read, “My Name Ain’t Baby” and “Matriarchy Now.’’
Hung from a wire grid on the ceiling were 200 Doc Johnson penis replicas ranging in size from the statistical average of under six inches to dildos of Brobdingnagian scale. “I’m 29, and it’s pretty amazing to me how far feminism has come, that it’s considered cool now for women to take control of their own pleasure and fun,” Ms. Braverman said.
Just six years separate the two Braverman siblings, and yet one grew up unaware of what the family business was, while the other went to college knowing that full, freaky disclosure was just a Google search away.
“When I went to college and told people I’m in the family business, no one blinked an eye in a negative way,” Ms. Braverman said. “It was more like, ‘OMG, what about Christmas? My birthday is coming up. What am I going to get?’”