In 1976, when the Doc Johnson factory opened for business in the same nondescript industrial area of North Hollywood it occupies to this day, its products were not called “sex toys.”
The company’s first mail-order catalog, an amazing piece of mid-'70s graphic design in the style of post-hippie bible the Whole Earth Catalog, was targeted toward both peepshow dwellers and suburban swinger types looking to spice things up. Within its pages were devices called things like the Night Finger, the Hot Dog and the Desperado, along with multiple cartoon images of the fictional Doc Johnson, hawking his "marital aids."
“Back then that’s what they called the product — 'marital aids,'” says Chad Braverman, Doc Johnson’s current COO and designated heir to the sexual-devices empire built by his father, legendary adult-industry elder statesman Ron Braverman.
“The term ‘sex toys’ came later, probably in the '80s,” Chad continues, “and I’m fully aware that that’s what most people still call them. I myself prefer the term 'pleasure products.’ I usually tell people I’m in ‘the pleasure industry.’”
Chad is in his mid-30s, and wouldn’t look out of place in the bohemian, well-off parts of Silver Lake or the Canyons. He’s recently taken to growing his hair out and sporting a beard. As he guides me on a tour of the Doc Johnson factory and offices, he wears fashionable, low-key black-and-white athletic gear.
My visit to the heart of the “pleasure products” empire was arranged by Chad’s sister, Erica Braverman, a stylish woman in her late 20s who serves as the company’s marketing coordinator. Many of the employees at the offices are women, including those secreted away in a room where the “future products” are in research and development.
The company’s conference room serves as a showroom for their collection of diverse products for all tastes. Beyond their most popular item (the inexpensive 8-inch Classic Dong, available in both pink and black flesh tones), there are entire product lines with names like American Bombshell (shaped like actual bombs and marketed to military, patriotic customers in jet-black Gun Metal plastic), Crystal Jellies (for candy ravers), Platinum (for fans of Apple products) and Black Rose (for fans of Fifty Shades of Grey).
Until recently, Doc Johnson sold a James Deen signature Black and Blue S&M line, which they put on hold after Deen's ex-girlfriend Stoya accused him of rape on Twitter late last year. The discontinued products included the unfortunately named James Deen’s Under My Control Whip and James Deen’s Total Submission Four-Way Hog Tie.
Most of these products are manufactured in a huge factory compound right there in North Hollywood. There’s also a fully functional chemical lab led by a “scientific director” where all of Doc Johnson’s lubes and glides are formulated and packaged.
The Bravermans are extremely proud of keeping their manufacturing local. “BUILT IN AMERICA SINCE 1976,” their current catalog and packaging proclaims. Their factory workforce of about 500 employees is overwhelmingly Hispanic and female. “It’s always been this way,” Chad says. The place is extremely reminiscent of the American Apparel factory in downtown Los Angeles, and the Bravermans share former AA owner Dov Charney’s passion for being seen as a beneficent L.A.-area business that helps create good, stable employment.
Chad and Erica Braverman’s challenge is bringing a 40-year-old company with an extremely colorful history in the murky world of 20th-century porn into the post-smut era. Sure, part of the business continues to be products such as “strokers” (formerly known as “masturbators”) and “pocket pussies” marketed to men who frequent peepshows and dark storefronts with booths. But the general trend in the industry is going in a very different direction.
Walk into forward-thinking sex shops such as West Hollywood’s Pleasure Chest and you’ll find well-lit, inviting atmospheres where whole areas look exactly like the Apple Store, full of attractively designed products in a variety of playful colors that wouldn't look out of place in a Daiso home plastics emporium.
Chad grew up observing the activities and approach of imposing sex-toy patriarch Ron during the period of industry growth in the 1990s. That period came on the heels of the conservative backlash against the adult industry in the 1980s, which in turn succeeded the controversial practices of the 1970s. Think Boogie Nights meets The Sopranos and you’ll only approximate the Scorsese-ready madness of the period, when Ron Braverman’s partner and mentor, Reuben Sturman, was the Big Man in porn.
After Chad's privileged upbringing as a Los Angeles teenager whose dad “made plastic cocks,” in the words of someone who taunted him, he made the choice to study business, marketing and management at the University of Miami to prepare to one day inherit the family empire.
“I came to work here in 2004, when you had a much smaller industry,” Chad says. “In the last 10 years there’s been an explosion. There were fewer players — now there are more niche companies. Also, design has come to the forefront.”
Doc Johnson’s iVibe Select line is a great example of the new trend in sex toys. “People love the iPhone,” says Chad, “so we gave them controls like an iPhone, those kind of buttons. The goal is to make people comfortable with the device. In fact, we started the bright-color, sleek trend back way before the iPhone. We noticed when the iMac came out back in ’95 or ’96 that those colors and shapes were interesting and we created iVibe.”
The original iVibe line included the famous “Rabbit” vibrator (still one of the company’s biggest sellers), made incredibly popular by Sex and the City back in 1998. Now with YouTube sex-toy reviews within everyone’s reach, the feedback between customer and manufacturer is even more fluid.
“The Internet changed our industry,” Chad explains. “It expanded it. Some stores, like Pleasure Chest, were ahead of the curve. They made the store inviting for women and couples.”
Nicer stores also mean a higher-income, younger clientele for Doc Johnson’s products. Some items with a higher price point are becoming huge sellers. This also marks a shift in its North Hollywood factory practice, from the old-style, plastic devices (produced on a huge floor with noise and fumes and a large workforce) to the more boutique-y items made of silicone in a cleaner, quieter work environment by more skilled technicians. While a plastic cock-looking dildo can retail for $30, its sleeker silicone counterpart could retail for $90.
When Doc Johnson started, the company was known for making realistic-looking replicas of penises, vaginas and anuses, usually cast from the actual body parts of well-known porn actors and actresses. And though those pieces still do great business, nowadays your average sex device is much more abstract-looking, influenced by the slick lines and curves of Apple devices.
“We are now marrying form and function,” Chad explains. “It’s now much more about technology and materials.”
Doc Johnson still employs a full-time sculptor for the strokers and masturbators, and one of the most iconic rooms in the factory is the OB/gyn-looking room where expert plaster casters capture every inch of coveted anatomical treasures such as Remy LaCroix’s butt, Belladonna’s mouth or Mr. Marcus’ big black cock. “But we also have industrial designers,” Chad says.
In the coming weeks, Doc Johnson will be unveiling a new type of “pleasure product” called Tryst. The best way to describe it is that it looks like an open ring with a lower protuberance and two extensions that resemble an antelope’s antlers.
“Tryst is a multi-erogenous zone massager, based on a unique design,” says Chad, showing the purple contraption (Doc Johnson’s research shows that for some reason people love purple vibrators) in its ornate black-and-gold box.
Tryst is also a great example of the industry’s newly discovered obsession with the power of design.
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Chad shows me the very different device it was patterned after, a rough-looking rubber cock-ring with two bullet-shaped clitoral stimulators, from the OptiMale line. The OptiMale products are sold with the tagline “Men’s Health and Wellness” and seem like a design cousin of something Drakkar Noir perfumes would sell in a magazine in the early 2000s. Tryst, on the other hand, is futuristic and unisex.
To be sure, both Tryst and the OptiMale devices are, technically, the same thing — pieces of silicone that wrap around a cock and provide separate stimulation to the wearer’s testicles and a partner’s clitoris. But the Tryst's intimidation factor is zero; the douchebag FHM vibe is gone and the fanciful antelope horns would be intriguing to the sexually adventurous, affluent shopper Doc Johnson is targeting in 2016.
With his business training, Chad could be running a factory that makes cars, or things with more mundane names than The Intimidator or The Ass Servant (both imposing butt plugs from Doc Johnson’s TitanMen line). But he tries to instill his pride in being in this particular business to his team of designers. “Look — every designer wants to design for a concept. And we make products for people to feel good.”
“Our business is pleasure,” Chad Braverman repeats once again, like a mantra.