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Vibrators and other sex toys are—no pun intended—big business, and nobody in the United States makes more of them than the father-son team who runs the Valley’s own Doc Johnson. Dave Gardetta roams their empire of rubber
Chad Bravermansat at his office desk wearing jeans, a wheat-colored jacket, and white tennis shoes with aqua soles, waiting for the arrival of a porn star named James Deen, who was late for a morning meeting. A month earlier Nightline had run a segment on Deen titled “The Porn Star Next Door,” in which the 26-year-old actor, who is said to have appeared in some 4,000 X-rated films, was described as enjoying a popularity among teenage girls that “may be deeply disturbing.” Clips from Deen’s movies were shown—a Simpsons parody, a Family Guy parody—and a series of youngish women interviewed. One sized up Deen: “He looks like somebody I, you know, could see at a coffee shop or something and actually approach.” At the segment’s close Deen described a fascination with porn that dated to kindergarten and added, “I’d like to think I’m, you know, opening up their sexual experience and being able to take their boyfriends and say, ‘Hey, I saw this in a porno. I want to try this.’ ” Host Terry Moran came back on, smiling. “Makes Justin Bieber look good,” he said.
Chad, who is 30 and handsome like a silent screen heartthrob, with plastered hair, a strong nose, and an apricot chin, works across the hallway from his father, Ron Braverman. Chad’s office, not large, has a view of a cinder block wall and is decorated with posters of basketball players and faraway islands. Ron’s office—huge, with a wet bar, private bathroom, rich oak paneling, and photographs of Ron posed beside Arnold Schwarzenegger and Nancy Reagan—resembles the domain of a wealthy barrister or someone who collects tropical islands. Together the Bravermans run Doc Johnson, the country’s biggest sex toy manufacturer, a six-acre industrial park in North Hollywood that employs 500 people and fabricates about 2,500 items—including the Pocket Rocket vibrator, the John Holmes penis pump, the Cuddles clitoral bumper, Li’L Gum Drops butt plugs (sold in pink or blue), Dr. Honn’s Erection Ring (“Feel the Power”), and Kimmi, an anime love doll that arrives with her own “removable vagina.”
Los Angeles is home to the nation’s adult novelty business, which is dominated by the Big Four: Topco, California Exotics, Pipedream, and Doc Johnson. Successful niches—leather, men’s masturbators that resemble flashlights—are mined by smaller companies, but as with any industry, owning the market is everything, and Doc Johnson is the Procter & Gamble of sex toys. Each month the company pours 125 tons of rubber, manufacturing 330,000 dildos, vibrators, and synthetic buttocks. Sold retail, those products have earned well over a hundred million dollars for boutiques like Hustler Hollywood and Web sites like Adam & Eve and Amazon (the Internet, which decimated the adult film business, has been good for sex toys). They are even found in shops in Russia and Turkistan.
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Deen eventually arrived at Doc Johnson, bounding into Chad’s office wearing jeans and a plaid shirt, carrying a banana and an oversize coffee mug. He has the rubbery teenage features of a former child actor—Kirk Cameron, maybe—or a marionette, and he is super upbeat. “Sorry I’m late, dude!” Deen apologized, spilling his coffee on the dildo prototypes and pacifier-shaped butt plugs covering Chad’s desk. “Bret Easton Ellis couldn’t make it.” The author of Less Than Zero was writing a film in which Deen would have a leading role, and there was chatter at Doc Johnson that Ellis would be shadowing the actor.
“Dude says he’s busy,” Deen continued, and mimicked a writer speaking, “ ‘Oh, I got writing to do.’ Stuff like that.”
Deen was visiting Doc Johnson to have his erect penis cast in a polymer known as agar. The resulting mold, after some enhancing, would produce a line of lifelike dildos and vibrators with the actor’s name and image imprinted on the packaging. Such castings—male, female, transsexual—are a large part of Doc Johnson’s business plan. The company sells Jenna Jameson’s “Vibrating UR3 Vagina & Anus,” Belladonna’s “Bitch Fist” (a replica of the actress’s clenched hand), and an entire product line from Sasha Grey, the company’s top seller. Appearances in adult films boost sales, but crossover success really moves product. “The day we molded Sasha,” Chad told me, “I was giddy. I’d just found out she was leaving to shoot The Girlfriend Experience with Steven Soderbergh.” Receipts also jump when an adult star goes mainstream. “With Sasha,” Chad said, “men aren’t buying her now because she’s a porn star—they’re buying because she’s been Vince’s girlfriend on Entourage.”
In the past a casting like Deen’s was worth serious money for a star. Doc Johnson molds few male performers, but when the actor Jeff Stryker was casted 20 years ago, his contract guaranteed a fee of $200,000 up front plus royalties. These days that figure is closer to $20,000—the market is saturated with performers—though there are ways to bump a fee.
“Let me ask you a legitimate question,” Chad said, balancing a pen between his fingers. “Would…you…be interested in molding your ass today?”
“And I ask this for two reasons,” Chad skipped on without missing a beat. “One, it opens up a larger product line. We could do, say, an ass and cock combo.” Chad smiled encouragingly. “Two, we open up a second market—the fetish for gay men of having a straight man in bed. Would you object to that?”
A bystander in Chad’s office could think of a hundred objections off the top of his head. “I can’t think of a reason why not,” said Deen, grinning and reaching for Chad’s pen. A contract was signed and, a half hour later, a penis cast.
Ron Braverman arrived in Los Angeles in 1976 with the idea of opening an adult novelty company in a town where the competition was basically nil. He looked then pretty much as he does at 65: bearded, balding, stout—made in the crucible that formed Tony Soprano at his most corpulent and commanding. He says he purchased a rubber molding business on Lankershim Boulevard called Marche Manufacturing and renamed it Doc Johnson. “They had been pouring rubber fishing lures, Halloween masks, and maybe ten different dongs that came in several sizes,” says Ron. “Those were the only part of the business I wanted.”
The home office that Ron created is a dizzying place for any novice—there are penises everywhere. The phallus is one grand slam of a cultural symbol, and the North Hollywood factory, with its Latino workforce pouring, cooking, primping, and painting rubbery phalluses around the clock, is as symbolically rich as Utah’s Monument Valley. “When I applied for a job 31 years ago,” says the company’s CFO, Mary, “all I knew was, they were a mail order business. The office manager had me wait in the display room, and the next thing I knew, I fainted and came around on the floor.” Nevertheless it is mostly women who work at Doc Johnson—on the sales staff, on the manufacturing staff, on the production staff. Men, it turns out, get flustered handling bodiless penises in the presence of women. “You have to be open-minded to work here,” says a sales rep, “but not too weird and into things. That ends in trouble.”
Chad and Ron Braverman. Photograph by Jeff Minton.
Ron lives in Encino with his fourth wife, Naomi. Chad is Ron’s only child, the product of his second marriage, to a woman named Sharon. When as a teenager Chad began apprenticing during summers at Doc Johnson, he lived with Sharon in Sherman Oaks, while Ron lived in Beverly Hills with his third wife. “I was just kind of thrown in,” says Chad of that first summer. “Definitely an overwhelming environment where one can get lost.” Despite working with his father every day—not to mention the constant churn of double dongs—Chad says Ron never felt comfortable informing him how he made a living. “As a little kid,” says Chad, “I’d had a feeling about what Ron’s job was. I’d be out to dinner with him and his friends, and someone would mention an invoice from Le Sex Shoppe—I couldn’t even picture what a sex shop was. But to this day Ron has still never told me what he does. He may say that he has, but it hasn’t happened.”
“I was closemouthed around Chad,” says Ron, “not because of insecurity but because I did not want to see him ostracized at school.” For years Ron rode a Harley as a member of Schwarzenegger’s Sunday motorcycle gang. The two men had met through a mutual acquaintance, a car remodeler. Muscling a hog through the hills of Calabasas, heading for breakfast at the Rock Store, Ron could have been mistaken for the Governator’s bodyguard. His size seems menacing. In the past his style at work could be overbearing. “He knows his own mind, is a good way to put it,” says Chad.
Yet Ron is nearly elegant today: The thin oxygen of aristocracy appears to have settled on him with age. He favors pastel shirts, drives a white BMW 750i, and when speaking tilts his head toward the skyline as fine-tuned sentences and cambered vowels float from his sensual lower lip. In conversation he is never not precise, unless he’s being precisely vague—a verbal tic from four decades in a persecuted industry—continuously overfinessing the speech of others and his own. “I realized when it came to college choice, it was Chad’s turn to fly,” he said once, ending with, “and by ‘fly’ I don’t mean fly an airplane.”
At Buckley, the private school in Sherman Oaks, Chad was a high school athlete undaunted by cheerleaders. “Interning at Doc Johnson was like receiving special powers bestowed from the sex toy gods,” he says, describing the teenage bravado earned from mastering a mysterious world—the stockroom of an adult novelty business. He is warm, with a jaunty ease that comes from holding weekly meetings during which the merits of ass masturbators versus mini strokers are debated. One afternoon I watched Chad preside over a roomful of employees while unknowingly holding up a lifelike dildo in each hand like drumsticks. “What’s the foreskin update?” he asked.
After Chad graduated from Buckley and earned a business degree at the University of Miami, he returned to the San Fernando Valley to join the family enterprise. “At least we weren’t manufacturing something dull like mattresses,” he says of the decision. With him came his future wife, Jaime, whom he had met at school and who had to face the prospect of a fiancé not in the mattress trade. “Jaime was from Maryland, her father a management consultant, and she didn’t know this world,” says Chad. “When she asked, I had to tell her, ‘Well, this week I’m flying off to a porno convention in Vegas.’ ” The couple lives in a midcentury modern house in Nichols Canyon in the Hollywood Hills.
Since the 1970s, Ron has wanted his company’s items to be as accepted in the marketplace as toothbrushes, and not too long ago Naomi Braverman did find her husband’s products in the local Target. But Ron has also seen adult stores sued out of existence, friends jailed, others left bankrupt. “In America novelties is a two-generation industry—not old at all,” says Ron. “The difference between Chad, who’s been here eight years, and me is that I know where the other 28 years are buried. People in the business today have no idea what once happened.”
There was a time when Ron’s prospects were hemmed in by the country’s morality, which he believes was dictated by a dozen people on a corner with placards decrying pornography. “It’s the same in the pro-life movement,” says Ron: the rule of the tiny mob. The morality market is a lot better these days, though women who work at Doc Johnson are discreet about the company in their private lives. “You quickly become jaded around these products,” says a sales rep named Shirley, who’s spent 36 years at Doc Johnson. “After a while, I don’t even see them. Ultimately these things are meant to help couples—I don’t mean that in a silly way. On the other hand, explaining your job to other people is too much work.”
For a similar reason, when asked about his work on business flights, Chad quotes a line from The Graduate: “Plastics.” Most people who’ve never touched a vibrator are titillated by their existence; it’s more fun, and a lot simpler, to talk about sex toys than sex. “It’s no different than when I was a kid,” he says, “and my dad didn’t want Buckley families thinking I came from the porn slums. That lurid fascination still exists.”
While people have been seeking sexual gratification from dildos for thousands of years, one of the first electric devices designed specifically for men was meant to inhibit pleasure. Patented in 1899 and intended to prevent wet dreams, the contraption attached at one end to the wearer and at the other to a phonograph. At the stirrings of an unwanted erection, the dreamer awoke to the booming first notes of Beethoven’s Fifth. (Presumably so did the rest of the household.) Melodious torture like that, however, was nothing when stacked against the technologies available to women at the Victorian era’s close.
In the twilight of the 19th century, physicians in Britain and America were diagnosing women at epidemic levels with “hysteria.” Nervousness, insomnia, muscle spasms, edema, loss of appetite, shortness of breath, fainting spells—it was common knowledge that symptoms of the “disorder” (a notion invented by the Greeks that was picked up and promulgated by science) were caused by a lack of sexual gratification. The solution during the 19th century was the same as it had been in the time of Christ and throughout the Middle Ages—the manipulation of the sufferer until she reached orgasm.
On the factory floor at Doc Johnson, where more than 15,000 sex toys are made each day. Photograph by Jeff Minton.
Yet with patients overwhelming their schedules, Victorian physicians discovered a painful drawback to the cure: their own cramped hands. George Taylor, an American physician, solved this conundrum in 1869, patenting a steam-powered vibration apparatus. The director Tanya Wexler, whose film Hysteria follows a British physician (played by Jonathan Pryce) devoted to the cure, says, “As long as there have been orgasms, there have been people figuring out how to give them. Unbelievable as it sounds, the vibrator was invented essentially as a labor-saving device for men.”
Newer machines appeared in doctor’s offices: the Chattanooga Vibrator, the hanging Carpenter vibrator, the water-powered Liquid Actuated Vibrator. Pelvic massage was employed as a cure for infertility, frigidity, and the most fashionable of disorders for educated 19th-century women, neurasthenia—or nervous exhaustion. In 1911 in Los Angeles, a man named John T. Keough patented a handheld insertable vibrating device; the modern vibrator was born. With the arrival of electricity in homes, smaller massagers were sold directly to women of means. Advertisements in the pages of magazines like McClure’s, Modern Woman, and Good Housekeeping promised hours of relief. “Gentle, soothing, invigorating, and refreshing,” claimed one ad in National Home Journal. “Invented by a woman who knows a woman’s needs.”
The course of history might have continued this way were it not for men who knew men’s needs. In the 1920s, vibrators began showing up in stag films. Sexualized, they were also demonized and by the end of the decade had vanished from the American scene. They would not appear again until 1966, when a Los Angeles man named Jon H. Tavel patented a cordless, battery-powered vibrator with variable speed settings. It was around this time that Ron Braverman began a short career in pornography.
Ron grew up in a Cleveland home governed by a strong-willed and outgoing mother. “An exception in the world,” Chad describes her. “The leader of the pack—both matriarch and patriarch. You see her personality in Ron.” His father was a CPA, his uncles were all salesmen, and his dining room was filled with garrulous talk and ball busting. “You had to have a thick skin to survive the Braverman household,” says Chad. “The first time I took my wife I warned her, ‘Look, there’s no incubation period here, so just relax.’ ”
Raised among a CPA and a cast of traveling salesmen, Ron was nurtured on acumen. “He came out of there knowing how to spot an angle,” says Chad. “That’s where he excelled.” First he tried selling appliances and cabinets. “I was lucky to grow up in a family with a gift for gab,” Ron says. “I was good at sales.” But nothing clicked until he went to work for Reuben Sturman, a man once described by the Cleveland Plain Dealer as possibly the richest person in Ohio.
Sturman lived in a 16-room mansion overlooking a swan-filled lake. He wore tailored suits, attended a weekly poker game, and took care of his elderly mother, who lived nearby. He also controlled perhaps the nation’s largest pornography consortium—an empire of an estimated 200 businesses that included books, magazines, movies, peep booths, distribution warehouses, and stores. Sturman was pugnacious. When one of his Detroit warehouses was raided by police in 1963 and 20,000 nudist magazines were seized, Sturman sued the department for $200,000, and the case was dropped. When the FBI raided another warehouse a year later, Sturman sued J. Edgar Hoover. That case was eventually dismissed. “Every adult bookstore he owned,” says Ron, “was a different corporation. Every entity had a different tax return. So it’s hard to say exactly how many businesses he controlled. But he became a very, very close friend.”
Ron went on the road for Sturman, selling magazines to other adult bookstores. “It seemed daring at the time,” says Ron, “and it got me out of Cleveland, which is what I wanted.” He moved to Boston to cover the New England market. “I drove all six states,” he says. “I left Monday and didn’t come home until Saturday night.” In his trunk he carried a load of pornographic magazines and, in his wallet, an attorney’s business card. “There were days I got pulled over,” he says. “Sometimes the cops just wanted a few magazines. Sometimes I ended up using the attorney’s card.”
Ron became a business partner of Sturman’s. In 1972, he moved to Amsterdam to open and manage three American-style adult bookstores. (Later he would manage 15 in London.) “The stores in Amsterdam,” says Ron, “were poorly lit, open only at night, and found in back alleys. American stores, on the other hand, were all about display, with racks and pegboards and well-lit stock. That’s what I was building.” Where the Europeans shined was in the marketing of adult novelties. “American bookstores,” he says, “might have had a few polybags under a counter, with things inside them no one knew or cared about. But in Amsterdam novelties were sold in well-designed packages, with names and explanations printed across them, and couples came in together to shop. This was new. ”
Ron moved from London to Los Angeles to open Doc Johnson. Packaging he had seen in Europe he reproduced in America. “We were still light-years behind the Europeans,” he says, but now Doc Johnson named and packed its vibrators like any other piece of merchandise. The business grew. In two years’ time it expanded from 1,500 square feet to a new property of 33,000 square feet. He tapped into distribution networks like Sturman’s, flooding the American market with more and more adult novelties. When X-rated DVDs appeared in adult bookstores in the ’90s, and VHS tapes vanished, fresh retail space opened up. “And that,” says Ron, “is when the business really took off.”
Neither Chad nor Ron can explain what sells and what doesn’t. The company doesn’t do demographic research. Autumn is strong for sex toy sales; summer is slow. Purple vibrators sell well; orange vibrators do not. Classic eight-inch dongs are always a favorite, and the new transsexual Wendy Williams casting—well, the jury is still out on that, but if Howard Stern mentions your Pocket Rocket on his radio program, you’ve got a winner.
Each year Doc Johnson removes as many as 300 items from its catalog and adds that many more. Most sex toys are designed and manufactured in China, where they get knocked off just as Louis Vuitton handbags do. Ron, however, is proud that much of his company’s product is American made, boldfacing the claim across packaging. About 25 percent of Doc Johnson’s items ship from China, but every product poured with rubber or silicone is made in North Hollywood—ironed for smoothness, powdered for feel, woven with hair for effect. “It’s our bread and butter,” says Ron. He’s worried that Chad may not share his attachment to American products after he retires. Ron grew up in Cleveland in the 1950s when it was an industrial town, a node of auto manufacturing. “My grandfather worked in the real shmatte trade,” he says, “selling grease rags to Henry Ford and the Dodge brothers. The pressure to move to China today is immense. But I hope Chad will come to think as I do over time.”
Ron can sound sentimental at moments like this. To hear him tell it, he started his company from the ground up, transforming Marche Manufacturing into what may be one of the Valley’s last manufacturing success stories. But did he really purchase that tiny business on Lankershim in 1976, or did someone else? That depends on whose word you believe. The federal government assumed it was Sturman who had financed the Marche purchase. There are, for instance, stories of Sturman naming the new company Doc Johnson and installing Braverman as president. By the 1980s, Sturman had become the focus of ongoing state and federal criminal probes into a series of offshore accounts that the Ohio businessman allegedly channeled unclaimed proceeds into, making for a massive case of income tax evasion. Those accounts had been opened using a series of names—none of them Sturman’s—and were replenished by couriers who concealed Sturman’s assets and ownership.
Sturman’s name was never attached to his businesses, either. Instead public documents for, say, a Sturman company in Ohio would lead to “The Bahamian Company”—whose president might live in Canada—an entity that in turn was controlled by a company in Nevada. Sturman liked appropriating the names of American draft dodgers to use for the signatures of his companies’ presidents, and by the time an IRS investigator had followed a convoluted money trail to Canada, the “president” was nowhere to be found. In this Sturman scenario, Ron’s origin story for Doc Johnson may have been part of an elaborate scheme for tax evasion.
Yet it is entirely possible that Ron funded Marche’s purchase himself. Investigators at the Middle Atlantic-Great Lakes Organized Crime Law Enforcement Network (MAG-LOC-LEN) believed that Ron, using different aliases, had deposited tens of thousands of dollars into a London bank linked to Sturman. By the late ’70s, according to MAG-LOC-LEN, Ron’s name was also attached by signature to overseas corporations with names like Stonerealm and Societe Financiere Et Commerciale. MAG-LOC-LEN eventually traced tens of thousands of dollars at Marche back to Stonerealm and Societe Financiere Et Commerciale. Ron’s income, funneled through those overseas accounts, could also have financed Doc Johnson. “It is very difficult to get into all of this,” says Ron, “because for legal reasons I can’t. But the question is, Whose money was transferred? He was a good friend, and if it made him feel better to say he owned it—that’s fine. I never thought about it.”
The Tuesday morning production meeting at Doc Johnson began at ten sharp around a conference table piled high with the company’s latest prototypes and headaches. “J.C.?” asked Chad, scanning the table. “Do we have the James Deen casting today?”
“I have it,” replied Diana, who runs the company’s mold department. She passed Deen’s snow-colored clay phallus across the table.
“Wow—that’s a big penis!” exclaimed Cheryl, a blond woman from sales.
Chad rolled his eyes. “This is the last time I sit through a meeting with castings,” he groused. “I’m getting a complex.” He turned the zucchini-size phallus over in his hands, pleased by the craftsmanship. “This is nice plaster,” he said. “The balls have great detail.”
The conversation shifted. Chad, whose duties include product development and marketing, led a discussion on a “juicer,” which didn’t sound like anything connected to breakfast, followed by a brief debate over whether “Helping Hand Stroker” was a better item name than “BJ Stroker.” Next, Cheryl threw down a handful of candy-colored butt plugs, one resembling a strawberry soft-serve ice cream.
“Easy breezy,” announced Chad, scrutinizing the colors and surmising their sales potential.
“Yes…” agreed Cheryl, pausing. “But they are small, and I want to make sure they will not be vacuumed into someone’s anus.”
“That’s not going to happen,” Chad said firmly. “And please don’t say ‘vacuum’ and ‘anus’ in the same sentence again.”
Anyone eyeing the tabletop’s contents would have noticed that Deen’s casting was the only phallus in the room. The trend in vibrator design is shifting from what Ron calls his “bread and butter” toward amorphous shapes, with complicated inner workings and premium price tags. One of the highest priced vibrators in the world is sold by the Swedish company LELO and costs $13,500. At that price it should be plated in 24-karat gold—and it is. Donna Faro, the North and South American rep for LELO, was recently lounging in a quiet corner of the SLS hotel lobby in Beverly Hills, beneath a Plexiglas stag’s head. Her macchiato-colored skin, wrapped in a white pantsuit, was lit by a lamp mounted on what looked like a chrome-plated AK-47; a thin gold chain looped around her neck. The entire ensemble screamed, “Pricey vibrators over here!”
“I want to show you something,” said Faro, reaching into a black bag. LELO builds the most expensive and advanced machines. They come with exotic feminine Swedish names—Isla, Alia, and Soroya. Rather than the typical two-power settings (fast and faster), LELO’s vibrators feature as many as 64 functions and come with an owner’s manual more than 100 pages long, complete with a sizable chapter on troubleshooting. When Faro speaks of LELO, she mentions Tiffany and Cartier as comparable brands; hers is a luxury label with prices that start at around $100.
On the factory floor at Doc Johnson, where more than 15,000 sex toys are made each day. Photograph by Jeff Minton.
“This is Tiani,” she said, presenting a rose-colored device bent like a bobby pin. In the other palm nestled a chrome-capped saucer—the vibrator’s control module. “She’s chock-full of the latest computer science,” Faro said, counting off “smart-phone technology, Bluetooth connectivity, and a sense-motion interface that one sees in Wii systems.” In her hands Faro was holding either the solution to a lonely evening or the seeds of an apocalypse unimagined by James Cameron. “All you do,” she said, gliding the saucer through the lobby’s air, “is dip or angle the controller in your hand. The person wearing the vibrator experiences different pulses, increasing or decreasing intensity levels communicated through a wireless connection.” Faro smiled and set Tiani on the table as if it were a live hamster. “We’re sooo proud,” she said.
None of LELO’s vibrators refer to the male anatomy. Instead they resemble the exoskeletons of strange sea creatures or maybe Star Trek phasers. Perhaps this is because, after 10,000 years of patriarchy, women are done with the real thing. “I believe there’s still a place for the phallus,” says Faro. “But women want a design that’s more comfortable.” No American designer has strayed as far from the phallus as Ethan Imboden, who runs a small San Francisco company named Jimmyjane. He has a vibrator that looks like a pulled pink molar.
Jimmyjane’s headquarters resides on the shards of an ancient industrial uplift, where the plates of the Mission, SOMA, and Potrero Hill districts collide. Imboden, who once dreamed up cell phones and eyeglasses at the world-famous Frog Design, has stripped his brick building’s interior to the bones, throwing some white here and there. Thin and tissue pale, Imboden sat in his stark conference room wearing an oversize gray sweater and fighting a spring cold as he described a visit ten years ago to an adult novelty convention.
“It was dominated by Doc Johnson, California Exotics, and Topco,” Imboden said. “For branding they had porn stars on packages; for design, severed phallic anatomy. I thought, ‘Forget these are sex products. These are items designed for people’s lives. And all we have are phalluses being shotgunned into the marketplace?’ ” Imboden imagined a vibrator design that wasn’t “disruptive,” that had its own “ecosystem” and built-in “approachability.” After time spent with Chad, speaking to Imboden was akin to shuttling from Ralph Kramden’s apartment to the chateau of Ismail Merchant—good or bad, depending on one’s viewpoint. “The problem set for vibrator design is unfathomably deep,” Imboden said, sipping an herbal tea. “Far tougher than cell phones. You need to account for different bodies, different nervous systems, emotional, psychological, and sexual interactions. You need an evolved design.”
Jimmyjane has just four signature vibrators. One resembles a mugger’s truncheon. Another brings to mind a tongue caught in the fourth dimension. Imboden was thinking of Chanel No. 5 when he named his vibrators Form 2 and Form 6. Every two years or so Jimmyjane releases a new design. “I don’t think you need 2,500 items to be successful,” Imboden said. “Let’s face it—the vagina hasn’t changed radically in the past few years.”
Doc Johnson’s production line is not rigged to fabricate a Form 2 or 6—those complex machines must be manufactured in China to make financial sense. When Ron took over Marche in 1976, sex toys were designed by men and purchased by men for women who mostly stayed clear of the seedy bookstores where they were sold. “What’s new,” says Imboden, “is that now you have an entire universe of Web sites where women do nothing but talk about vibrators.”
A little-explored corner of YouTube includes hundreds of homemade videos made by women reviewing the newest vibrator or bleachable butt plug. It’s these videos that are driving the production choices of Doc Johnson. Materials—hypoallergenic sleeves, food-grade silicone—are explained along with cleaning methods. “Place your silicone dong on the top shelf of your dishwasher if you’re out of anti-bacterial spray,” counsels one woman. Other advice can sound worrisome—“Glass dongs are fantastic,” enthuses a young reviewer, “because they’re shatter-resistant and only break into large chunks!”—but as YouTube’s Dr. Ruthie says, “Remember, the butt will tell you when it’s ready.”
On October 21, 2005, Ron drove out to Simi Valley to attend a ceremony heralding the arrival of a retired Air Force One at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. President Bush was there as were Arnold Schwarzenegger and Nancy Reagan, with whom Ron had his photo taken alongside the governor. “What was ironic about that day,” says Ron, a political independent, “is that I voted for Reagan. I was sold on him as a Californian.” The photograph documenting that sunny afternoon is wholly Californian: the wife of an actor turned president standing beside a former bodybuilder turned governor standing beside a vibrator manufacturer. “I thought that Reagan would be the best person for the job,” says Ron. “Of course that was before the Meese Commission.”
In 1988, after an investigation by Reagan’s attorney general, Edwin Meese, Ron was convicted of perjury stemming from his relationship with Reuben Sturman. Sentenced to a year and one day in federal prison, he served six months. Sturman, indicted on 16 counts, was convicted in 1990 of income tax evasion and sentenced to ten years. Two years later he escaped from a federal prison in Boron, California, stopping by an In-N-Out for lunch before hiding out in Anaheim. Within months after the getaway U.S. marshals entered an apartment rented to “Abe Levine” and arrested Sturman in bed. More trials ensued. Sturman was charged with owing the IRS $29 million in back taxes and shipped off to a Kentucky prison, his final home for three years.
In September 1995, a fire kindled just after 7 p.m. leveled Doc Johnson’s production building. The blaze grew so intense, it melted the ceiling’s steel structural beams. Ruled an accident, the fire was rumored in the Valley to be the result of arson, a casualty in an alleged street fight between alliances grabbing up or deep-sixing what was left of Sturman’s crumbling empire.
Still chasing Sturman’s IRS debt, the federal government indicted Ron again in 1996, charging him with tax evasion based on alleged financial transactions connected to his former boss. Convicted a second time, Ron served five months in prison and another five under house arrest. Ron’s bond to Sturman would have been severed upon his release—the pornographer died in 1997—were it not for one last deed. Sturman left behind a widow, the former Naomi Delgado, as well as a daughter named Erica. Ron married Naomi, adopting Erica as his own. Last year Erica, who’s 24, began working at Doc Johnson alongside her stepbrother, Chad—children of the two former friends brought together by Ron to form America’s first family of sex toys.
The future of sex toys is a silicone-wrapped Shangri-la of self-made pleasure. Or it’s a cold mechanical interface with a sign that reads INSERT HERE. Either way, Doc Johnson has already begun selling an Internet-controlled vibrator called the iRabbit. Owners of the iRabbit enjoy the prospect of seeing their vibrator operated—and their own contorted faces observed—by strangers via the Web site HighJoy (“No diseases, no pregnancies, no psychos in your home”). Today you can purchase remote-controlled vibrating panties (“For the office, or the car”) and joint-limber sex robots produced by American, Australian, and Japanese companies. (You haven’t cringed until you’ve watched a technician remove the skull panel of a lifelike robot to set her action to “skank.”)
“We’re working toward the equivalent of an iPhone in this industry—a game changer,” Chad said recently. He was sitting at a long table in Doc Johnson’s conference room, surrounded by displays of the company’s every product. A wall of simple dongs and butt plugs caught his eye. “But sex,” he added, “is different than iPhones. Things Doc Johnson sells today, which already look archaic, still have a gigantic demand. And they always will, even when we’re walking around in full-body stimulator suits.”
Dave Gardetta wrote about parking in the December 2011 feature “Between the Lines.” He is a writer-at-large for Los Angeles
ALSO: Read “Dave Gardetta in Sex Toy Land,” the writer’s postscript for this story
This feature was originally published in the July 2012 issue of Los Angeles magazine