Photos courtesy of Doc Johnson, unless otherwise noted
Driving through the San Fernando Valley on my way to tour the factory of Doc Johnson, the largest manufacturer of sex toys in America, I think about how this part of LA is the pleasure mecca, a place where infinite cannabis operations exist in harmony with all facets of the adult industry. Sunlight dances on the fronds of occasional palm trees. Succulent nurseries and taco joints punctuate the industrial neighborhood with life. Upon entering the gates of Doc Johnson's sprawling facility, I pause, realizing I'm half a block down from my favorite dispensary, Noho's Finest.
There's a multitude of parallels between the adult industry and the cannabis industry, from the growing corporate presence which can impede small craft businesses, to the encroachment of legal regulations by politicians who don't understand the culture. Though exiled to a strange, barren world, far from the starry eyes of Hollywood or Malibu's iconic surf spots, two staples of the pleasure industry intertwine, surviving in spite of the constant threat of persecution from America's puritanical runoff.
Few are more familiar with these obstacles than Chad Braverman, son of Doc himself, and current COO of the company. "Sex toys were never illegal, but they were controversial to some people, and because they couldn't outright make our industry illegal they did their best to make it difficult to navigate," said Braverman of earlier social attitudes towards the adult industry as we watched a factory worker trim the excess rubber from the bottom of a flesh-colored dildo. Adult novelty companies like Doc Johnson once existed in fear of federal investigation, and have fought long and hard to gain the legitimacy the industry deserves.
The 250,000-square-foot factory campus employs 500 people, and is comprised of multiple buildings separated by common grounds, complete with colorful lunchboxes left on the picnic tables. There's the building housing the conceptual studio, where artists create designs out of clay; the rubber foundry warehouse and its assembly line of machines filling jarring metal cock molds; and the more sophisticated silicone lab, where their high-end line of medical-grade silicone sex products are hand poured and carefully molded.
Above, Doc Johnson COO Chad Braverman
The sex toy COO appears to be in his thirties, dressed in denim and crisp Vans. His father started the company over 40 years ago, with the novel idea to bring sex toys out of the shadows. At that time, as documented in films like The People vs. Larry Flynt, general bullshit charges like obscenity and zoning violations were commonplace for those forging a business in this controversial industry. Since 1976, when Braverman's father bought a small Los Angeles factory that made rubber fishing lures, Doc Johnson has grown to an astounding size. 20,000 products are produced daily in the L.A. facility alone, not counting the company's Asia facility responsible for making vibrators and other electronic toys. Altogether, Doc Johnson produces close to 1,000,000 products per month, shipped the world over.
Despite the industry's staggering worth, big banks will often not work with those in the adult entertainment economy — a huge issue faced by those working in cannabis, as well. "A company like mine, or even any video company you know of, can't go to any major bank for a loan," said Braverman. "They look at our inventory as worthless. God forbid we were to go into foreclosure, what would they do with a warehouse full of dildos? They don't have a use for it, saying the investment is too risky. In the numbers that are public, this is an industry worth $15-20 billion, but Bank of America doesn't care. Chase doesn't care. They refuse to work with any organization of this kind."
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While the adult entertainment industry is federally legal (albeit frowned upon), cannabis businesses face more obstacles, including what to physically do with their profits. Since marijuana is still federally prohibited, cannabis companies are restricted in their ability to take out loans, purchase business insurance policies (California just approved its first-ever insurance provider for the cannabis industry), and keep bank accounts at federally-insured financial institutions.
And while the state plans to tax canna-sales at rate of almost 23% (not including local taxes) when they begin in 2018, the practicalities of how companies are expected to pay appear equally complicated. This week, the Treasurer of California presented a report on cannabis banking, which made suggestions for 2018, but didn't assuage key concerns from industry insiders. If the recommendations become a reality, some expect that only private financial institutions and credit unions will work with the cannabis industry.
Another interesting parallel, in terms of legal intrusion on the largely self-regulated adult and cannabis industries, came in the form of California's 2016 election, when both Prop 64 (the recreational marijuana bill), and Prop 60 (a bill that would punish porn companies if they made films without condoms, among other restrictive measures) could be found on the same ballot.
To the uninformed stoner, legal weed sounds great. To the compassionate porn enthusiast, requiring condoms seems to benefit performers. However, for those working in these fields, both bills had cataclysmic potential. Despite the pushback from a cannabis community wary of threats like unfounded and strict regulations, corrupt corporations pushing out small business owners, and taxes high enough to prevent sustainable businesses (all of which are still feared by the industry today), Prop 64 famously passed, going into effect January 1st of 2018. Prop 60, on the other hand, did not pass — a huge win for the adult entertainment community, as mandated condom use was opposed by nearly everyone in the industry. Had Prop 60 passed, any citizen of California could personally sue a porn company for making films without condoms.
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While the Prop 60 triumph kept the porn industry from vacating the Valley altogether — which was one suggested plan if the condom law passed; a move that could have been detrimental to California's economy — the community is still suffering. According to Lina Misitzis, a journalist who spent the last year and a half in the San Fernando Valley researching the state of the porn industry, "There's been a total loss of income when it comes to making porn because almost all porn is now streamed illegally on these free YouTube-type sites." Plus, adult stars don't get the endorsement opportunities other entertainers rely on to supplement income when times get tough. However, a subversive symbiosis is brewing, and weed is here to help.
"The only place I've seen any endorsement intersection with porn is with the world of cannabis," says Misitzis. "If you go to AVN or any type of porn expo, the only sponsors other than sex toy companies and porn companies are marijuana distributors. If you go to Instagram, you'll see porn people smoking weed, and it will be an ad for a company. It's one of the only ways they can make extracurricular money."
Working with the cannabis industry as a side hustle has emerged as a prevalent trend among today's top adult film stars. To name a few, Skin Diamond has her own strain, Nikki Hearts does weed endorsements (and has appeared in several MERRY JANE Sex Week videos), and Jenna Sativa makes extra cash promoting brands on her Instagram. "Participating in cannabis talks and events is a big part of why I moved to California," Sativa told me in an email. "I believe my lifestyle is what attracts cannabis brands to reach out to me for promotions and endorsements. By sharing my love of cannabis and the many ways to use her medicine, I've experienced the higher connection and couldn't be more grateful!"
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In addition to mutual support and historic synchronicities, the intersection of the two industries could be enhanced through cannabis sex product collaboration. But while a number of pioneering canna-sex products have recently entered the market, including intimacy brands such as Velvet Swing Lube, sex toy giants like Doc Johnson are apprehensive to enter an industry in constant flux, especially given the adult industry's own marginalized past. "Of course it's very exciting, and something we would love to be a part of," says Braverman, the COO, of engaging formally with the cannabis space. "We have our own testing labs, and talk about ideas of different things we would want to do. But, I don't know..."
After the literal mind fuck of an afternoon spent at the factory questioning the limits of human anatomy, Braverman, his docile German Shepard (who accompanied us throughout the tour), and I retired to his unassuming-yet-eclectic office in Doc Johnson's corporate building. Kitschy toys were arranged on the shelves. An expensive plethora of Kobe Bryant memorabilia paused only for two large, artful photographs of a nude Sasha Grey, which adorned the wall behind his desk.
When I asked if the company is considering any concrete plans to develop Doc Johnson canna-sex toys, Braverman replied apprehensively. "State laws vs. federal laws, and what they decide to do with that; how they may plan on making business impossible moving forward; it's such a grey area. No one has been able to give us a definitive answer on what is to come. So, it's kind of perpetually on hold until the cannabis industry becomes more clear. I guess we'll just see what happens."
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Doc Johnson is one of MERRY JANE's partnering sponsors for Sex Week. For more on the company, visit their website here and use the code MJ420 for a discount