They say that necessity is the mother of invention, but for Fleshlight founder Steve Shubin, the "mother" was actually his wife. When the couple was expecting twins, doctors recommended they abstain from intercourse until after delivery. Determined to take matters into his own hands, Shubin went in search of a self-gratifying solution that would imitate the feeling of vaginal sex. He wound up empty handed, but his need provided the impetus to create what has become one of the world's best-selling male sex toys.
That's the story behind the birth of the Fleshlight, says Chris Marcus, vice president of marketing and business development for Strategion Marketing, the makers of the flashlight-shaped sex toy. Ironically, Shubin couldn't even enjoy his invention when he needed it-it took more than a year to develop-and, Marcus said, the current hand-held penetration sleeve wasn't even the original concept.
"The first idea was to do a full torso, actually a three-quarter body, and the thing that was going to make it unique was the removable vaginal inserts," he says. "But people started to request just the insert, so Shubin needed to make something more portable and discreet."
That original design-the Pink Lady-is still the company's best-selling sleeve after 10 years in business. "The Original Pink Lady is our most well-known product and is the item that revolutionized the adult novelty industry for men," said Marcus. "It will always be a strong seller."
According to Marcus, who has been with Strategion for five years, the company markets the Fleshlight to "males, ages 18-65. It doesn't matter if they are single, married, in the military, or abroad. We market our product as a pleasurable upgrade to any man's self-gratification experience." Over the years, the company has also developed other versions of the Fleshlight to provide a greater range of stimulation for its customers.
"The Ice Fleshlight allows the user the same feel as the Pink Lady, but is completely clear, which allows a whole different visual perspective on penetration," Marcus says. "The Stamina Training Unit is a Fleshlight geared toward helping men last longer in bed by using the time-tested principle of practice makes perfect. By replicating the intense sensations of vaginal intercourse, men can train themselves to last longer in bed while practicing a variety of techniques, all without the pressure of performance."
The key to the Fleshlight's appeal is the feel, Marcus says, explaining that the combination of Fleshlight's proprietary life-like Real Feel Super Skin® material-"not rubber, latex or silicone"-formed into different textures provides the stimulation. The easily cleaned, patented material retains heat like real skin, is non-allergenic, works with water-based lubes, and will "pretty much last forever," Marcus said.
"We recently found some original Fleshlights that were packaged in 1998 and opened them, and they were still good to use," he said. "The material is really good, and that's why we have to keep coming out with new textures."
Marcus said another factor in the products' quality is the fact that all Fleshlights are made here in the United States. "We've always manufactured in the USA in facilities run by our own people," says Marcus. "Over $1 million was invested to come up with the original Fleshlight, and I don't think anyone else has the time or the patience. There are companies that have tried, but they would still have to get around our patent."
The Austin, TX-based company's entire product line can be perused on its three websites-Fleshlight.com, FleshlightGirls.com (which features custom-molded sex star vaginal replicas), and Fleshjack.com, aimed at gay men. Each site features uncensored videos of the Fleshlight in use along with live chat capabilities to help consumers with their orders.
"The focus has always been direct to the consumer, and this has given us great visibility," says Marcus. "Shop owners tell us customers are coming in and asking for Fleshlight by name, so that focus has paid off. We've been fortunate in picking the fastest growing trend and going online to consumer," said Marcus. "I would like to say it's all foresight, but it's good fortune, too."
Strategion also sells outside the U.S., direct and to wholesalers, with "around 20 percent" of total sales coming from international markets. "We're actually just about to open up to European distributors, and possibly domestic distributors, too," Marcus says. "We do have a wholesale program to service stores and websites, but with a limited product catalog,"
Along with strong revenues, the international market also produces more imitators of the Fleshlight design. "There have been some patent infringements overseas where there is less protection, and we're looking to be as aggressive as possible to get the knockoffs off the market," Marcus says. "We're confident that once the choice is in front of the consumer they'll choose our quality."
As proof of Fleshlight's strong appeal, Marcus said the current economic slowdown has had little effect on the company's revenues. "In any economy, people want self-gratification. And in a bad economy, perhaps they want it even more," says Marcus. "We're insulated from the market. People purchase fewer durable goods and high-ticket items, so they'll have a little bit of extra money to keep happy. Fleshlight falls into the category of affordable luxuries. Our price point is still very affordable, and Fleshlight is one luxury that people still want to treat themselves to, even if they don't want to go purchase that new car or dishwasher."
There is also strong demand for the company's Fleshlight Girls line, which features custom vaginal molds of some of the most popular internet and porn sex stars. Marcus said it's a painstaking process to create the molds, and involves a Hollywood special effects professional, sculptors, photographers, artists, and, of course, the girls themselves. It's all captured on video for authenticity, and the results are life-like replicas that the girls endorse on FleshlightGirls.com.
By far the biggest performer to have her own Fleshlight model is superstar Tera Patrick, whose custom sleeve debuted in December 2008. Marcus says the company expects to see even bigger numbers from this specialty line as more and more A-list porn stars pose for their own models.
"This will change the paradigm. Now, really, our options are we can pick and choose who we want," says Marcus. "We get a lot of customer requests for certain girls, and some of the girls can make five figures a month in royalties."
Marcus said another factor in Fleshlight's growth is the increasing openness to discuss masturbation in the mainstream media. He points to television shows like Sex and the City, which talked openly about vibrators and masturbation, and recent hit movies like Zack & Miri Make A Porno, which mentioned Fleshlight by name, as easing the comfort level for people with regards to this once-taboo activity.
"We're always looking to push the topic of masturbation and self-gratification into the mainstream as a more acceptable practice," says Marcus. "People should not be ashamed of this, and we're starting to see that happen."
For more information, visit Fleshlight.com.