The Un-Sexy Side of Making Sexy Things: Interview with the Autoblow Inventor

Male Sex Toys

Typically, we associate our sex toys with, well, sexy times to be had. We don’t, however, envision the thermoplastic elastomers used in a synthetic vagina, and how they might look and smell while cooked in a factory’s industrialized kitchen.

You don’t consider the failed prototypes to come before the one in your hands (or wherever), and how they may have been so lacking in functionality they collapsed in on themselves. You don’t consider what it’s like to have a 3D scanning wand, roughly the size of four DSLR cameras, passed over your naked lower half.

For Brian Sloan, the businessman behind automatic blowjob machine the Autoblow and a bendable, slap-worthy vibrator the Slaphappy, this is his business. With a law degree he never used, Sloan has harnessed the power of the internet to remove the middleman and contribute to the budding sex toy ecommerce industry. We gave him a call in Beijing to discuss the not so sexy side of making sex toys.

You graduated Penn State Law but never worked a day as a lawyer. So what caused the switch from law school to sex toy ecommerce?

When I was in law school, I had a friend who used to go to antique auctions. He really liked rugs, I don’t know why. Anyway, he took me to these antique auctions and I ended up buying a very old version of a Monopoly game. I thought it would be cool if I could try to buy stuff and sell it on Ebay. I bought this one thing and I made like $800 on it. It just really triggered something. I thought, ‘To do the work of a lawyer, you’re just renting my brain for an hour and giving me money for that hour.” But I could make that money buying one thing and selling it. It’s very efficient, right? It got me off of the law track and onto buying and selling things.

I thought, ‘To do the work of a lawyer, you’re just renting my brain for an hour and giving me money for that hour.’ But I could make that money buying one thing and selling it… It got me off of the law track and onto buying and selling things.

When law school was finished, I just didn’t want to practice law. I made a decision to buy and sell things. I went to Chicago. There’s this auction website called AuctionZip.com, where you find all of these auctions near your zipcodes, including industrial auctions. This expanded my market from antiques to, like, anything. I used to buy used medical equipment … all kinds of factory stuff like machinery, store inventories. Anything that was an auction, I’d drive around and attend it.

There’s this thing about being American. We have this problem where people give you credit when you don’t deserve it. I graduated law school and had no money, I only had debt, but I had credit cards that I could buy things at auctions with and have 30 days to pay them back.

Autoblow Sex Toys

Brian Sloan, the inventor of the Autoblow.

From antique monopoly to XL latex fetish suits:

I realized that, although that was interesting, it wasn’t particularly scalable. I couldn’t hire ten of me to go to all the auctions. I knew I needed to sell factory-made stuff, and I knew the Ebay market. I started with latex fetish wear, like rubber suits for overweight people and very tall people—custom stuff for them. The weirder the stuff was, the more money I could make. They would show me a picture of some [latex suit] that was only available in the UK for $1500. The factory I worked with in China could make it for, still expensive, but it was like $500 instead of $1500. People were buying this stuff from me, so this started me into adult products.

Once I was deeper into the latex stuff, I reached a wall and was like, ‘This isn’t scalable enough. I need to do something bigger scale,’ and that’s when I moved to China in 2007. I started looking for more opportunities to make more stuff … I realized other sex toy companies are basically run by older people who have used the same business model forever, which is to manufacture huge quantities of a product and sell them to distributors, and the distributors sell them to retailers, and the retailers sell them to customers. Almost all of the manufacturers are two levels behind the customers, because they don’t understand how to use the power of the internet to sell the product. I thought, ‘There’s a huge market here. If I could figure out how to sell things directly to people online, then I don’t need to use distributors.’ I just figured it out. I spent years figuring out the mechanics of ecommerce and internet marketing.

Did you ever meet with these ‘traditional’ sex toy company manufacturers? What are they like?

I’ve met many of them. They are strictly business. I think people think they would be some kind of… like you’d notice them at an adult industry conference … Except for the people who work in porn, you wouldn’t know the difference. If you walked into the room of the hotel rented for the sex toy conference, and you covered all the displays and products, you wouldn’t notice something different about [these people] at all. You wouldn’t have the feeling that you’re at a sex toy conference.

I started with latex fetish wear, like rubber suits for overweight people and very tall people—custom stuff for them. The weirder the stuff was, the more money I could make.

Think about the business of sex toys: You need to go to China and deal with Chinese people and factories and manufacture stuff … By the time you get into all the activities that you need, it’s the same kind of people that would be attracted to any kind of business, except they don’t mind that it might bother other people.

I think there’s some funny people, personality-wise. There’s some very aggressive and funny personalities in the industry, but I don’t know that when you get into other companies that you wouldn’t get the same kind of people.

How many sex toy inventions are you now behind?

There’s the Autoblow, and I’m making a new thing which will come out this fall. I make a lot of products that we sell on Amazon and other websites, but they’re not my inventions. I go around to factories and find lots of products.

What about the Slaphappy?

Oh yeah, the Slaphappy! I forgot about that. So yeah, the Slaphappy and the Autoblow are my things, plus this upcoming new one.

Any bizarre experiences in the transition from law school to the sex toy industry?

When I started with the latex, I used to model it myself, actually. I would dress up in the fetish wear and walk around downtown Chicago in this tight suit. A friend would follow me with a camera to capture reactions. For me, this was not a big deal. For the fetishists, this was like their secret fetish, and they really loved these videos on my Youtube. They didn’t know it’s not my fetish, but they really liked these videos of someone going around in the stuff.

In China, the experiences weren’t so much bizarre as they were new. Take the experience of going to a factory and they’d take you out for this nice dinner and they’d treat you very nicely. It’s awkward because it’s never comfortable to be treated nicely by a factory head. It’s ridiculous. It’s just a cultural thing, they have to do it.

Did you get to talking about sex toys over dinner?

When you do dinner with the factory, you don’t talk about business at all—it’s the Chinese way. You can talk about business at the factory or office, but when it’s dinnertime, that’s their time to be really nice to you and you just have to like, receive it. It’s never about business, it’s about being friends. But it’s not about being friends, really, it’s about buying their stuff. You have to pretend it’s not about business and it’s not about buying their stuff, and that it’s just friends at dinner.

Describe the design and manufacturing process. What’s it like?

Different factories do it differently … You think, ‘Oh, this is a sex toy factory,’ but normally they’re doing the assembly of the products there and the packaging, and in many cases they’re creating the plastic parts there. It’s actually just a sourcing company, who sources all your parts from other people and assemble them.

You know how they say, ‘If you saw how they make meat, you wouldn’t want to eat it anymore.’ With sex toys, it’s pretty normal how they make them, but if you saw how they make the fake vaginas… It looks like a giant, industrialized kitchen.

I was surprised at first: The factories don’t look like you’d think. When you think of a factory, you think of massive buildings, but the sex toy factories, [they’re] a bit underwhelming in their scale. Some of them make their own parts, like TPE/TPR (thermoplastic elastomers), the fake vagina material. Some of them have their own subfactory that makes those parts … That’s actually also a very low-tech process. It’s basically like a giant kitchen. That material is cooked, kind of, and poured into molds and left to dry. You’d expect it to be on some kind of assembly line with machines, but it’s a pretty manual process to make fake vaginas. These are products sold at high volumes around the world and the factories just make space to let them dry.

Is it a bizarre sight to behold? To walk in and see a bunch of fake vagina molds drying?

Yeah, it doesn’t look very official. You know how they say, ‘If you saw how they make meat, you wouldn’t want to eat it anymore.’ With sex toys, it’s pretty normal how they make them, but if you saw how they make the fake vaginas… The process is clean enough, but you wouldn’t guess it’s that way just from looking at it. It looks like a giant, industrialized kitchen. It’s not machines squirting out the material on assembly lines—but that’s only for the fake vagina factories.

How do design conversations play out? Are they interesting? Can they be awkward?

The reason I work with the factory who makes Autoblow and Slaphappy for me… I work with an American guy. A lot of the bigger companies who work in China, there’s only four of five big companies that are foreign-managed or foreign-owned, and they work with them because they can explain things a lot easier to people who understand the cultural market.

I deal with an American guy but I also interface with the engineers, and they don’t have a culture of talking about masturbating. When I need to explain certain design choices, it’s not intuitive to them. If it was another guy from [the West], he would just get what I’m talking about. He’d be able to take my idea and improve it. It’s a little bit frustrating working with people who, if they do masturbate, they couldn’t ever admit to masturbating. It’s a different masturbation culture [laughs].

It’s difficult sometimes communicating your concept because they don’t see it as you do, or communicating your design choices and they don’t get the different aesthetics.

Aesthetics?

I don’t know if you’ve been to China before, but the way some Chinese products are designed are kind of the route of least resistance. They’re not beautiful, but functional. I’m trying to develop something that’s beautiful and functional—and they think if it’s beautiful, it will cost more … I need a product that, among Western peer products, looks better than them. They’re thinking more along the lines of controlling the tooling costs.

Adult Toys

Sex toy engineering

What’s the testing process like?

Well, things like vibrators, they pretty much don’t need testing. They need testing the factory level to make sure they work, but women are simpler than men, in that way. You vibrate them and they orgasm. You can’t make ten different outlook stencils of the vibrator, because there’s nothing to really modify. We pretty much know the formula.

The penis is different. In our case, they send me the products to test and then I give them feedback. In a few cases, I have some other friends test them. It doesn’t have some kind of math degree, scientific testing process regarding the feeling the product gives you. It’s pretty much me and a few friends [testing them], if we get enough samples. When you’re talking about prototypes, it might cost $3,000 to create a prototype, so it’s not like, ‘Oh, let’s create a few samples and ten prototypes!’ No, let’s create two prototypes. We don’t have a focus group. I pretty much understand how to think like other men, so I just masturbate with it thinking about how I would feel I were someone else [laughs]. That’s a fairly normal thing for me now.

What about the Slaphappy? How did you test that?

I’ve been selling vibrators for all these years, and I might take the concept a bit further, because there just aren’t adjustable vibrators. I’m doing some more work on this concept of a vibrator that can be bent. That was just an intuitive decision for me, to make something that bends. People are buying it, especially in Europe. Oh! We’re making a more powerful one, I forgot. It’s a bit bigger and much more powerful. Yeah, just continuing along with this concept.

What we found in the contest was that, although the most simple vulvas were favorited at a higher percentage, if you add up all the classes of complex ones it ends up 50/50.

Women didn’t test it. I tested it. It was basically, ‘Yup. That works.’ … It doesn’t need women to tell me that it’s fine. People have their preferences—if someone likes it or doesn’t like it, I can’t concern myself with other persons’ opinions that aren’t my opinion.

Were there ever failed prototypes?

Yeah. I lost almost two years with a factory in Taiwan because I was concerned about the Autoblow being copied if I made it in a factory in China. I found this high-tech factory in Taiwan, way higher tech than the ones I would have used in China. They were very interested in making the product, but they just wasted my time. After a year and a half, I just had this horrible prototype to show for it and fired them.

It was horrible. It was like if you had no idea of sex toys, that’s what you’d make. They weren’t a sex toy factory. I thought it would be okay to use a factory who had never made sex toys because of the safety factor of keeping it out of the hands of factories that copy it, but then I learned I needed a factory that made sex toys. They made the dumbest product, ever.

What was wrong with it?

It was uglier than the Autoblow. It was not fun looking, the functionality wasn’t there, the interior, up-and-down stroking motion was not what it needed to be. Everything that could be bad about it was bad. After a year and a half of working with them, that’s what came out of it.

You just ended a vaginal “beauty contest” to determine the most beautiful vagina for the next Autoblow sleeve. How many submissions did you get?

We had a lot of submissions, but we only approved 183 … We divided them into six classes based on appearance and then we mapped the preference for them across the world.

What do you mean by approved?

Women needed to submit a photo that said “Autoblow vaginal beauty contest” in the photo, and if they didn’t do that, they didn’t get approved. That was a problem. We didn’t think it was that hard to do, but we had a lot of submissions, which may have been genuine, that couldn’t submit properly. In the end, the contest had 183 [submissions]. Also, we couldn’t approve women who supplied photos very late because they couldn’t win, but they would take votes from away those who could win.

This contest provided the data for The Vulva Paper. What did you learn from crunching the numbers?

People mostly prefer Type 1, which is the simplest kind [of vulva]. There’s this idea in the media—there’s a lot of women having labiaplasties, it’s like a trend. Women are having labiaplasties because they think that their labia are too big. There’s this website called RealSelf.com (NSFW), where women review plastic surgery procedures. They come there and put their before and after pictures of labiaplasties.

Anyway, there’s been studies that show if you have a shot of a woman from afar in media, and you see the space between her legs when she’s standing, you never see anything dangling. It’s always very smooth there, when in reality, half of women have dangling labia. What we found in the contest was that, although the most simple vulvas were favorited at a higher percentage, if you add up all the classes of complex ones it ends up 50/50. The simple kind is slightly preferred, but it’s almost equal. That’s interesting, because nobody ever did this kind of study before. I didn’t even want to do that in the first place, but I realized it was a good opportunity to do it once we had all this data.

Male Sex Toys

Fresh Autoblows ready for shipment

Who were the winners?

They’re all three in Europe. We’re going to Berlin in August to 3D scan them.

How does that work?

It’s really simple. They have to take off their pants and spread their legs. I’m hiring a company to do this. They have a $30,000 handheld wand, like the size of four DSLRs. You wave this device across their naked lower half and get on the computer attached to the device with a 3D scan. You can take that and, at the factory level, have a mold made from that. They use [3D scanning] in manufacturing processes and special effects. There’s all kinds of things you can do with that technology.

Do the winners kept to keep their own copy, so to speak?

They never asked me this. They won cash… I think they just want the money. They’re all anonymous, which I like, because the other people who make scans of vaginas for sex toys use porn stars. There’s nothing wrong with porn stars, but no one has ever created these from normal women. It’s kind of exciting that they’re anonymous.



Courtney Hamilton

An avid writer, reader, feminist and french fry fanatic.