It seemed like a no-brainer to say yes to testing out the Fleshlight sex toys. While plenty of people are masturbating at work right now, few are being paid specifically for that activity.
Reviewing music can be a great gig because you get paid to go to concerts, but sitting through a horrible show can be hours of torture. Reviewing sex toys, on the other hand, seemed like a guaranteed good time. Plus maybe it could lead to other offbeat assignments.
Steve Shubin, the Fleshlight's inventor, talks with missionary zeal about his product and goals for changing attitudes toward male masturbation, specifically that men shouldn't be ashamed of it. I wasn't buying into all of that; in my experience, few guys deny that jerking off is a regular part of their lives.
I'd heard of Fleshlights before and always been mildly curious, but not enough to actually buy one. But getting them for free and being paid to use them made me feel like the luckiest journalist in town.
It didn't start well. When I brought home the box of artificial orifices, my partner was less enthusiastic.
"You're reviewing what? And you're going to use your real name?"
Once the shock wore off, it was an easier sell.
I got my hands on over six different models with variations on body orifices, plus an assortment of accessories and lube. The toys didn't feel or look particularly realistic, but they seemed soft enough to be viable as pleasure-enhancing devices.
Some of them clearly weren't trying to imitate anything in the real world, like the completely transparent mouth (which I nicknamed Alien Lips) and a frosty ambiguous orifice (which became Robo Butt).
But when I saw pics of the Zombie, Cyber, Frankenstein and Vampire models in the flyer, I realized they'd actually let me off easy in the weirdness department.
Let me start by saying this method of self-pleasuring is a lot of work compared to the trusty hand. First, you have to take out the inner sleeve and soak it in warm water to bring it up to body temperature. This might seem unnecessary, but it does make a huge difference in the sensation department. Given the huge range of human sexuality, a handful of people might prefer a cold or room-temperature Fleshlight, but let's not think too much about that.
You also need a fair amount of lube (okay, maybe some dudes will prefer it dry), which seems simple enough until you find out these toys are not actually watertight. Which is confusing, given that the original patent was for a "sperm collection device," so I assumed that a no-mess aspect was part of the sell.
It turns out that the end cap is meant to be loosened to adjust suction, a nice enough feature but one that increases the potential for unwanted drips when combined with the water from the soaking, the lube and any natural bodily fluids.
Which brings us to the most obvious design problem: cleaning. The procedure - running warm water through it, spraying it with the enclosed cleaner and then dusting it with "renewing powder" - isn't exactly rocket science, but it is a lot more work than throwing out a kleenex.
Most guys don't really want to have to deal with all of that in the midst of their post-orgasm buzz. Leave it too long, however, and the task becomes even more unappealing.
Still, these things do make you feel good. Most reviews seem to have been written by guys terrified to admit to taking any pleasure in using them, but if you have enough imagination to forget you're banging a rubber butt in a fake beer can, they definitely do the trick.
No, they don't feel like "the real thing," but they are more convincing than anything you can do with your hand. I actually found the models that weren't trying to be realistic easier to enjoy; you can give up on pretending and just enjoy the sensation. After all, many sex toys designed for women have absolutely no resemblance to a phallus, so why should the opposite tool have to aim for verisimilitude?
All the Fleshlights seem fairly sturdy, but the quality control isn't great: one of them had a visible scar in the exposed rubber part, while another had an unfortunate air bubble that inflated with each thrust.
The designs have a few minor issues as well. Depending on how you've adjusted the suction valve, they can make a disturbingly large amount of squishing and farting noises. The standard "giant flashlight" models are all a little awkward to handle, but those with more compact exteriors are much easier to use and look a lot less conspicuous lying around your bedroom.
The more I researched, the more it became clear to me that these toys are perceived very differently from dildos. A female friend who cheerfully admitted to wasting hundreds of dollars on an Oprah Winfrey-recommended vibrator (which she hated) seemed seriously grossed out by the Fleshlights. Very few male friends were willing to admit to even being curious about them.
Is society just more uncomfortable with pussies than dicks? Is it the whole "where does the semen go?" issue and the cleanup process? Or maybe it's just that dildos have been around for thousands of years, while these things are much newer?
Some men's rights knuckleheads have convinced themselves that the shame around Fleshlights is manufactured by feminists to deny men new kinds of pleasure, which is obviously bat-shit-insane (I've never seen such feminist commentary). But that made me even more determined to take an open-minded and sex-positive attitude just to prove them wrong.
As I gradually worked my way through all the demo models, they started seeming less weird, and I began to get the hang of the maintenance aspect more. They're still far more work than I'd want to deal with on a consistent basis if I wasn't getting paid to use them, but I could see myself keeping one around for the occasional special romantic evening with myself.
I started thinking more about that money aspect and how this assignment feels a bit like sex work. I'm essentially being paid to pleasure myself, which initially seemed like a bonus, but reactions I got showed me people are pretty uncomfortable with the whole topic.
I began to get a clearer picture of why real sex workers are so invested in maintaining their double lives, and why so few sex columnists use their real names.
A writing gig that initially seemed like silly fun became more serious than I anticipated. As natural and normal as masturbation is, we can't even make jokes about it without invoking some of the shame we all have about our sexuality.
Shubin's manic preaching on how Fleshlights would transform and normalize our perceptions of male sex aides seemed comical a few weeks ago, but it makes more sense when you realize he's been dealing with society's discomfort around the topic for 15 years now. There's no logical reason why a rubber vagina should make people viscerally disgusted, but they do.
So for those too scared to admit that they're curious: no, Fleshlights don't feel "real," but they do feel good. If you want one, don't let your fears stop you.