“We don’t recommend oral sex. There are gears in there. I mean you can mess things up, you can mess yourself up. She’s got the mouth and everything moves, but we don’t recommend it. It’ll kind of ruin the whole thing.”
So begins my journey under the covers of the past, present and future of California’s adult entertainment industry. Jeff, my guide at RealDoll, is explaining the technicalities of the new robot heads that the company has just begun shipping with their realistic, life size dolls. Dolls that you can have sex with, if you want to.
Twenty years ago RealDoll’s founder, Matt McCullen, began producing dolls in this San Marcos workshop, and now the company makes around thirty per month. “My background is in art, mostly sculpture,” explains Matt. RealDoll was born when Matt wanted to make a more realistic mannequin for shop windows. “My initial efforts were beautiful women … I wanted them to be poseable so that the position wouldn’t be rigid … so you could manipulate them into different poses. Then people’s imagination got the better of them and they were going 'Hey, I want to have sex with that thing.'”
Men began approaching Matt asking if they could buy dolls, and if he could make them anatomically correct so that they could have sex with them. Matt obliged, and hasn’t looked back. “After making dolls all these years,” he explains, "I became restless and decided to explore artificial intelligence, and here we are.” The company has just shipped its first five robotic heads, and plans to produce five per month from now on.
A regular doll, which is fully customisable from nipples, to lips, to type of vagina (there are more than ten) averages approximately $7,500, and a robotic head will add an extra $8,000 on to the bill. "If you've got the robotic head talking to you, it's not just you talking to her and she's sitting there, now she can talk back to you” says Jeff. "Because a lot of people are lonely. They want somebody there, you know, they've lost their wives or boyfriends, girlfriends.” The robotic head can have very basic conversations and relay a range of facial expressions, and is just the beginning, as more reactive and tactile elements are added to the robots such as more moving limbs, and areas that become warm and moist when stimulated.
“Robots and AI are the next big frontier” says Matt. "As much as people are paranoid and worried that robots are going to take over, I think that idea in and of itself is ridiculous. Why would they take over? Take over and then? What do they do? Make us their slaves, to do what? Give them all our money. Robots don't need money.” Matt believes it is inevitable that robots that look human will walk among us, and that our fear of this comes from the negative portrayal of robots in science fiction.
I am one of a relatively small group of people who are specifically pushing into the very human like robot arena. Many of the strong engineering companies are building robots, and they don't want them to look human. That's their choice. But for me, that's the best part - how can we make them look like us? Why? I don't know. Why do people paint paintings and use humans as their subject? Why did Leonardo Da Vinci use humans as his muse and try to replicate? I mean this is something that artists do, and I just happen to be doing it with robotics.
And does Matt have his own relationship with the dolls? “No, I have a relationship with a wife.”
Ideas about what is good or bad for the future, or what is taboo for most people and just another day in the office for others, have been at the forefront of my time behind the scenes in California. I became unfazed by torsos that could be penetrated in any number of possible ways, and I became desensitised to phalluses, which I saw everywhere when I closed my eyes. But nothing would quite prepare me for what I found at the factory of Doc Johnson, which for over 40 years has produced sex toys at its facility in North Hollywood.
It wasn’t the sheer number of dildos being churned out by the mostly middle aged women on the factory floor, or the range of imaginative shapes - it was the goddam size of those dildos. They were, for want of a better turn of phrase, fucking enormous. I mean “Seriously, people can’t fit that inside their body, can they?” kind of sizes. And lots of them. Going by what I saw being produced on the day I visited I have begun to suspect that, statistically speaking, a significant amount of people I know must be sticking these oversized things into themselves.
“It’s a family business,” explains Chad Braverman, whose father Ron started the business in 1976. "I wasn't really aware of what my family did for a living for a really long time,” says Chad. "I think there were some years where I thought my dad might be in the mafia or something ... Ron was in “import-export", which as a kid you don't know what “import-export" means. I mean, he kind of has the Tony Soprano look anyways, so I just wasn't sure ... I knew my dad had money. I just didn't know 100% how he got it, because I was just a kid.” Chad remembers visiting the factory once and seeing some “product” that he wasn’t supposed to see. "As I got older, I realised like, I was seeing ... I knew I saw penises. I knew they were penises, because I had a penis. That's how I could do the correlation. It was like, ‘but what would my dad have penises in his place of business for?’ That part I didn't know.”
As Chad grew up he started to put things together, and by the time he officially found out what Ron did for a living, he knew exactly what was going on. “He's still never told me though,” Chad says with a smile. He started working summers at the company, and began full-time when he graduated from college in 2004. Chad is now COO and head of product development at Doc Johnson, working alongside Ron every day, and facing his own dilemma about what to tell his new-born son about his job when he gets older.
When my dad was looking for schools and institutions for me, there was never really a concern. He could tell anybody what he wanted them to hear about what he did for a living and no one was the wiser. I just had a son last year and I'm now in a situation that Ron was never in, which was, if you Google me, you're going to find out what I do very, very quickly and there's no real hiding it anymore. I didn't take any of the necessary steps that I might have been able to take along the way. But it's already gone. Once it's out there, it's out there, it will never go away.
Doc Johnson is the largest US manufacturer of adult pleasure products, with 450 employees producing 75,000 products per week in their Los Angeles factory. "The only type of products that we make here are dildos, dongs, butt plugs, anal products, and strokers or masturbators,” says Chad. It would take less than a year for the factory to produce one of these for every single person living in Puerto Rico. Electronic products such as vibrators are produced abroad and added to the 75,000 per week.
Openness and acceptance of sex toys has changed a lot since Ron started the company, and Chad feels that his industry is less stigmatised than it used to be. “But look … I deal with things that nobody really thinks about. We have insurance companies that will not insure us, because of what we do for a living. Almost every bank in the world that you know of will not bank with us, because of what our business is. Not only the business, but privately as well. They will not bank our money if they know where our money comes from, and you can ride that down the line to whatever it may be. So then you start to wonder 'How far along are we really?'” Doc Johnson is not allowed to advertise on billboards or mainstream media, and Chad believes that helps maintain the stigma that they are part of a 'dark and dirty' industry. "I think these are the next barriers to break through. That's when we're really going to be sitting down and having a conversation about how mainstream our industry is, and how you can go to Target, and Walmart, and Rite Aid and buy a product for your sexual needs, desires, and pleasures without having to feel like you've got to go online or go to an adult store."
Technology is also playing a part in Doc Johnson’s future. Chad is excited about a new line of butt plugs that uses a magnetic motor to create a thrusting sensation, but believes the future is all about connectivity.
People think of sex toys a lot and they think of masturbation, and when you think of masturbation, you basically think that you're alone. I've always felt that our products are best not just for those purposes, but also for partners and couples, and people that want to play together, and about enhancing and heightening the connection that you have with somebody. And so, this is bringing that connection to people that aren't necessarily able to be in the same room … or might not be able to be together, but want to have that sexual experience, and want to feel that they're actually delivering that pleasure to the person, instead of that person just delivering it to themselves…
Pleasure products that react to the virtual reality (VR) porn that you are watching, or that can be controlled by another person in another part of the world through the internet, are all part of our new world.
In another part of Hollywood, I’m standing in the lobby of the kind of mansion that looks like it was built for the sole purpose of shooting porno films. “We actually have quite a lot of trouble finding new locations,” says Daniel Abramovich, CEO and founder of virtual reality porn company VR Bangers. The times of big studios with specially built sets are long gone, and in this day and age the industry relies on renting real life locations.
In 2014, Daniel, a building contractor who had no connection to the porn or VR industry, got inspired to start a VR porn company when a friend told him about Oculus, the company that began making VR technology mainstream in the early 2010’s. "I said 'Wow, that's freaking cool, imagine there would be VR Porn … '” explains Daniel. He slept on it. “The next day I called my friend and was like 'Dude, I'm serious we have to create a company that makes VR porn.'” The two friends cobbled together some equipment and convinced a talent agency to let them use one of their models, and set to work. "We just did our first shoot, it was a total fail. We didn't even release the first footage because it was really bad - we were hiding behind some areas of the house while the VR camera is shooting because it was 360 degrees.” They persevered and by 2016 had enough content to launch the website. “We were the first in the US that released VR porn and the second in the world."
I’m about to witness a VR porn shoot called “Cable Guy”, which stars Katie Morgan and John Strong. As you might have guessed, John Strong has come to fix the TV, which happens to be in the bedroom. “It's super different shooting VR to shooting regular scenes,” explains Katie, "because when you shoot a regular scene, your focus is your partner, and you disconnect from the rest of the room. But when you shoot a VR scene, you can't even see his face, because the camera is like right in front of his face. So you can't look at that person in the eye and be connected in the moment like you normally would in the scene. It's all to the camera. It's all to the viewer.” During the scene, John stands completely still with a camera rig in front of his face, while Katie does her thing to the camera (and John). The result is a 180-degree point-of-view (POV) scene intended to make the viewer feel like he, or she, is the lucky cable guy.
Later that day at the VR Bangers office, I get a demo of the technology in the form of a scene called “Sorority Hookup”. As I put the VR headset on I was immersed in the dormitory of four college girls whose room I have just stumbled into. I’m not going to go into details. The initial experience of being able to look around was impressive, as anyone who has tried a (non-porn) VR video will know, but after a few minutes I found it hard to imagine it becoming the thing that everyone will be turning to for arousal in the immediate future. Somehow it felt particularly unreal - maybe that was because I had just seen how it was made, or maybe because I was sitting in an office full of guys staring at me and waiting for my reaction. “It’s niche right now” says Daniel. "It will take time for people to get used to VR … I mean, at some point we had VHS, then came DVD and people got used to it. Now I think the future will be VR … but it will take time. Some people say it’s going to take until 2020, I’d say 2025 for sure.”
Another project the company is working on is called 'Time Capsule’, which Daniel describes as “a time travel kind of thing for couples.” Couples can pay to be filmed having sex with the VR cameras from each of their POV’s, and when they are synched together and played back through goggles, each partner experiences having sex with the other one at the moment they were filmed. “You can use this experience in 20 years, and see yourselves young. So, you’re having sex as normal, but … when you are like 80 years old you see yourself and your partner with a 20 year old body.” This service starts at $10,000.
VR Bangers has faced similar stigmatism to Doc Johnson in their short lifetime - they find it difficult to get a bank, and their office is completely bereft of anything vaguely pornographic so that their landlord doesn’t find out what they do and kick them out. They recently started a campaign to give a portion of their subscription income to US veterans charities, but out of 119 charities contacted not a single one would accept the money they raised because of where it came from.
It is impossible to imagine that there is a human being that has ever been born that hasn’t had some way or other to get his or her rocks off, and despite the mixed feelings of guilt and pleasure that are associated with the adult entertainment industry, there is no question that it is on the up. In 2018, there were 33.5 billion visits to Pornhub alone, which is the equivalent of every single person on the planet visiting nearly five times. People have the opportunity to live out their fantasies like never before, whether it is through sex dolls, niche porn, or sticking insanely large dildos inside themselves. Only time will tell us about social and technological consequences of this evolution, but as Chad Braverman points out “… the ones that are against it are probably doing it the most … the ones that stand on their rock are the ones that are on the most shaky ground."