All in the Family
Tom Stewart was a 30-year-old Marine helicopter pilot living in Southern California on February 28, 1984, when he sat down to watch a newish NBC show called Late Night With David Letterman. That night, the host donned an Evel Knievel–style jumpsuit made out of Velcro for his segment “Stupid Human Tricks.” Letterman ran toward a trampoline, bounced on it once, and hurled himself at a Velcro-covered wall, where he stuck instantly, limbs splayed. The gag was a hit; it still routinely makes top-ten lists of memorable show moments. Tom loved it, too. After the Letterman show, the Velcro suit became a bawdy in-joke between Tom and his Marine buddies: What if you could Velcro someone to a bed, ha, ha? They teased the women they knew: Would you be into a Velcro bed? To Tom’s surprise, a few women weren’t horrified; it was bondage-lite, less intimidating than ropes or chains. With Velcro, you could easily peel yourself out of a situation if you wanted to. Tom started to think there might be something to this idea. He decided to create a Velcro fitted sheet with some kind of detachable restraint system. It would take two years of trial and error, and many nights sweating over a Singer sewing machine in his garage, to hit on the perfect design. But from the start, it was a family affair.
When Tom began work on his DIY bondage sheet, he was living with his younger brother Bob in a trailer in Laguna Beach, a tiny enclave in Orange County, California. Bob, a jovial rock ’n’ roll pianist and keyboard player who often wore a Three Stooges T-shirt, joined Tom in the endeavor. The two of them went into mad-scientist mode.
“We’re trying kitchen mitts, socks with Velcro stitched on them,” Tom recalls. Now 62, Tom still has an air of military neatness to him. “We were into scuba diving so we glued Velcro on a dive sock.”
It was Bob who helped come up with the idea of an “anchor pad”: a square of nylon with hooks (the rough part of Velcro) sewn on the bottom, and a piece of webbing on the top where a restraint, rigged out of a surf leash, could be attached. (Later, the surf leash would be replaced by neoprene cuffs.) When you slapped the anchor pad down on the sheet, which was made of the soft “loop” part of the Velcro, and pulled straight up, you couldn’t separate the pad from the sheet, but you could peel up the anchor pad to liberate yourself. It provided an illusion of control. Tom and Bob gave their product the anodyne name “Sportsheet” (the sport is sex) and began taking it out to sex conventions throughout Southern California. Despite a low-rent aesthetic (they handed over products to buyers in repurposed grocery bags), they routinely sold out.
While Tom and Bob were hawking Velcro sheets to curious swingers, their sister, Julie—who is 16 years younger than Tom—had been up in Alaska with a boyfriend in search of adventure. Tired of camping in the cold and showering at truck stops, she eventually headed down south to thaw out at Tom’s place—at this point he was living in a Huntington Beach rental with three (or more) roommates—making a harrowing drive down the Alaska-Canadian Highway in November. It didn’t take long for Tom to put his organizationally minded sister to work calling in debts to Sportsheets. Julie knew about her brother’s sex-sheet hobby and thought it was a riot. Sometimes, after everyone had a few drinks, she’d pull out a Sportsheet and show it to her friends: “Hey, did I mention my brother made this?” She even brought a set to a local sex store in Atlanta, where she lived after graduating college.
“What was I, 22?” Julie asks, laughing. “Hi, buy these Velcro sheets!”
Twenty-five years later, those Velcro sheets are the foundation of a lucrative business. Tom is CEO, Julie is the president, and Sportsheets is a heavy hitter in the what is typically called the “adult novelty” industry, selling around 500 products around the world, from silicone anal beads to cubic-zirconia-encrusted floggers. The company has 35 employees and owns a 16,500-square-foot Southern California warehouse where, at any given time, 35 to 50 percent of manufacturing takes place. (Other products are made overseas.) The warehouse is stacked high with items ready to be shipped out and the raw materials needed to make others: snaps, chains, around 500,000 yards of webbing, Velcro, D-rings, and strands of colorful feathers. There is a die cut machine for punching out leather pieces as well as industrial sewing machines, alongside Tom’s original Singer, which he still uses. On a bright, quiet Wednesday, a group of women standing at a table covered in pink vinyl are packing up boxes of red feather ticklers and restraints to be sold at a novelty chain store.
Though Bob eventually stepped away from his involvement in Sportsheets in order to pursue a career in sound design, two other family members have joined the leadership team: Tom’s wife, Kim Harding, and Julie’s husband, Ed Hayes. Together they form the nucleus of what could build multigenerational wealth; today Sportsheets is a multimillion-dollar company.
Most consumers, when evaluating the merits of a Rabbit Habit Original Deluxe vibrator with five vibration and rotation patterns or an inky black 6.5-inch-long TitanMen Tools PVC butt plug, are probably not thinking about family-run businesses, local job creation, or American manufacturing. But within the sex-toy industry, family-run companies flourish, and the history of this relatively young industry hinges on mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, brothers and sisters, learning how to make, market, and sell sex toys together. Throughout the 19th century, people availed themselves of early sex toys, such as vibrators, phallic rectal and vaginal “dilators,” and rubber “ticklers” that fit on the head of the penis and were supposed to titillate both men and women. But vocal opponents in the United States denounced such instruments as immoral and lobbied for laws that would ban them along with pornography. In 1873, they prevailed, and Congress passed the Comstock Laws, which made it a federal crime to send pornography, sex toys, birth control, and abortifacients through the mail. The federal government also banned the sale of “obscene” material in Washington, D.C., and many states followed suit. The manufacture and sale of sex toys were driven underground, and makers started advertising them euphemistically, as novelties, or for medical purposes, in an attempt to avoid prosecution. It was the kind of business you went into knowing you were taking a risk. You’d only team up with someone you trusted—like a relative.
In 1965, Ted Marche was a successful ventriloquist. The New York native, then 42, toured the country with his dummy, Georgie, which he made himself from molds and flesh-colored plastic. Around this time, a friend named John Francis told him he might have an opportunity: Francis had been making prosthetic penises for impotent men and perhaps Marche, with the skills he’d picked up making dummies, could help him out. His solution was to buy a “special oven-type thing” to make dildos, says Hallie Lieberman, who wrote about Marche in her 2017 book Buzz: A Stimulating History of the Sex Toy.
Marche decided to go into business for himself. But he needed help, so he enlisted his wife and 15-year-old stepson. He and his son would fill molds with high-quality plastic and bake them in a convection oven, and his wife,who had experience riveting planes, attached elastic straps to them.
At this point, Lieberman explains, the Marches were living in the relatively liberal world of Hollywood, which may have contributed to their comfort with this unusual work arrangement. But it was also hard to go outside a trusted circle for help with such an illicit enterprise; even when the Marches eventually hired some workers to help with production, the family concealed the finished product from them.
The history of this relatively young industry hinges on mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, brothers and sisters, learning how to make, market, and sell sex toys together.
By the 1970s, court rulings had loosened obscenity laws to the point that making and selling sex toys became a marginally legal business. Eventually, the Marches opened a factory on Hollywood Boulevard and branched out into manufacturing other sex toys and novelty items. They also now had a family-operated rival: United Sales, run by a father-and-son duo whose lower standards of quality allowed them to undercut the Marches on pricing. Even so, the two companies dominated the market and by the mid-1970s, Marche Manufacturing had sold close to 5 million dildos and produced or distributed 350 other products. The business grew large enough to attract the attention of other players in the industry. In 1976, an offer was made on the company, the details of which, Lieberman writes, “will probably never be known,” but it was lucrative enough that the Marches sold. Rebranded as Doc Johnson, the former Marche Manufacturing company is one of the most successful and widely known sex-toy makers in the market—and still a family-run business: Ron Braverman, the founder and CEO, oversees it alongside his daughter Erica and son Chad. The Marches made significant contributions to the sex-toy industry, Lieberman says, including placing a premium on quality and responding to the needs of female customers. But perhaps their most visible legacy is that of growth: They went from a bespoke, three-person enterprise to an industry power player with its own factory, successfully scaling up the sex-toy business and paving the way for it to become even bigger.
In the lobby of Honey’s Place, blue and yellow fish dart around in a tank, and a framed collage of photos of the company’s founder, Helene Kusens, decorates one wall, including a snapshot from her community-theater days in which she is grinning and wearing a pair of white go-go boots. Bonnie Feingold, Helene’s daughter, runs the company from an office appointed with standard office furniture, save a purple, velveteen fainting couch pushed up against one wall and framed photos of her mother and her daughter, Heather, who works at Honey’s Place as a graphic designer.
Three generations of any family staying in a business is increasingly rare. Three generations of women in the sex-toy realm is nearly unheard of.
In the 1980s Helene Kusens lived in Columbus, Ohio, where she ran her husband’s dental office while raising three daughters. They kept kosher and went to temple; Helene, a classically trained pianist, liked to play music. From the outside, everything must have looked perfect, but the marriage didn’t last. It was Helene’s second divorce, and she decided it was time to leave Ohio and her old life. She borrowed six months’ worth of rent from her father and moved her girls to Los Angeles, where a friend gave her a tip about a job opening. She didn’t know the job was in the adult industry—or at least that’s what she told her family later.
Three generations of any family staying in a business is increasingly rare. Three generations of women in the sex-toy business is nearly unheard of.
Kusens became a salesperson for the innocuously named California Publishers Liquidating Corp—best known as CPLC—which at one point was one of the nation’s largest distributors of X-rated videos. Her outgoing personality made her a natural salesperson; her clients became her friends and called her by her nickname, “Honey.” It was rare for a woman to work in distribution, and she used this to her advantage, encouraging sex shops, most of which still had an unwelcoming, backroom vibe, to be more female-friendly.
Then, in 1990, the Justice Department went after the company on obscenity charges—four of its titles had been declared obscene under Texas law, where they were being sold in Dallas. The lawsuit crippled CPLC and it went out of business in 1994. Undaunted, Helene, who had made the bold move to uproot her young family years earlier and strike out in a maverick industry, made another radical choice: She leveraged her industry contacts to start her own adult distribution company. In 1994 she started operating Honey’s Place out of her house.
It’s impossible to say for sure how many family-run companies there are in the adult-novelty space. That’s because it’s hard to say anything with certainty about the adult-novelty industry, for which there are not reliable statistics. “We’re an underground industry,” says Sherri Shaulis, the senior editor of pleasure products for trade publication Adult Video News. Shaulis, who has covered sex toys and sex-toy companies for over ten years, calls the oft-quoted, purported annual global worth of the sex-toy market of $15 billion “total BS.” “Everybody in this industry is privately owned, no one is publicly traded, so there’s nobody that we have to report to, so they don’t,” she says. Decades of persecution have made the industry distrustful of outsiders, explains Shaulis. Laws restricting the sale of sex toys have largely loosened across the country, but there are still some on the books. In Alabama their sale is banned outright. Her “spitball” estimate is that about one-third of American sex-toy companies are multigenerational, and if you add in those run by husband-and-wife teams, “that number goes way up.” Within the industry, there is a legendary Big Five, companies Shaulis says represent some of the oldest and top-grossing: Doc Johnson, Nasstoys, CalExotics, Topco, and Pipedream Products. Of those, Doc Johnson is family-run, as was Topco, which was helmed by a father-and-son team but is now under new ownership. Pipedream was also founded by a father and son. Recent changes at that company could be a harbinger of things to come in the sex-toy industry. In 2014, Diamond Products, a portfolio company of New York private equity firm Brookstone, purchased Pipedream for an undisclosed amount. This year, Pipedream’s CEO Nick Orlandino (who is not a member of the family that started the company) stepped down and was replaced with Matthew Matsudaira, who has a Silicon Valley pedigree with past leadership roles at Amazon and Chewy.com. The deal sparked speculation (from Shaulis) about whether other outside investors might start paying attention to the sex-toy industry, a move that could destabilize the family-run model. “I think it’s very much a wait-and-see kind of attitude right now,” says Shaulis.
Despite the obvious earning potential of the adult-novelty market, and the fact that sex toys have now found their way into the inventory of mainstream stores like Target and Walmart, it’s still a world where institutions tread lightly. The Stewarts—and other families I spoke to for this story—told me that everyone from banks to printers had declined to work with them because of their company’s products. Similar attempts by outsiders to grab a piece of the adult industry have not been successful. Zivity, an adult-content social network that launched in 2007, attracted venture-capital funding, but steadily lost money and had to shut down in 2017 in part, they said in a statement, because when a business is “lumped into the adult industry, you aren't allowed to operate like any other businesses. You are penalized every step of the way.”
Going into the family business is one thing when your mother is a lawyer or your father runs a bakery. For parents in the sex-toy industry, they first have to tell their kids what the business is, exactly.
In Helene Kusens’s case, her daughters spent most of their childhoods believing that their mother worked in video and video-equipment sales. Helene was scrupulous about not bringing work home, but a few things slipped by—like matches in the bathroom with penis heads. “That told me something was not normal!” Bonnie says. But the big reveal came in the form of a locked briefcase that Helene kept hidden underneath her bed. One day, Bonnie gave into curiosity and broke it open. Inside she found catalogs filled with dildos and vibrators. She confronted her mother and Helene owned up, then sat Bonnie down and paged through the catalogs with her.
It was a radical move, but a calculated one. After that, Bonnie says, her mother’s work was “normalized.” She and her sisters accepted that Helene—who covered the walls in Dalí and Picasso prints and loved to collect Baccarat crystal and Limoge boxes—had a funny job and she made a good living at it. Bonnie even spent a few summers filing and answering phones at CPLC while she was going to college to become a therapist.
For the Stewarts, there is the added lurid-fascination factor of a brother and sister helming a company that makes strap-ons and suction cups for facilitating shower sex. The pair are fully aware of how some outsiders view family-run businesses in the sex industry. People assume working at a sex-toy company means talking about your personal sex life all the time, but the Stewarts say it doesn’t. Yes, you talk about vibrators and butt plugs at work; no, you don’t get into the gritty details of what you have or haven’t done with them. (Julie recalls a woman at a convention who declared their work arrangement “gross.”)
“There is, like, an ick factor,” Julie says. “‘Oh my god, you do this … with your brother?’”
Unlike Helene Kusens, Moe Levy never hid what he did from his son Loren, who knew from a young age that his dad ran a sex-toy-distribution company, Holiday Products. Loren respected Moe’s candor and his work, but didn’t follow his dad’s career path. In January of 1995, Loren was happily working in postproduction for the Walt Disney Company when his father Moe appeared at his back door and invited him to go for a walk. Loren’s mind immediately went to a dark place: “I think, ‘Oh my god, what’s wrong, are you sick?’” Moe wasn’t sick, but he needed help. A longtime employee at the company, which Moe had founded in the mid-1980s, was leaving and Moe wanted Loren to come on board. But Loren loved his job and had never considered working for his dad. So Moe made a proposal: They would go on a road trip to Las Vegas in order for him to convince his son to join Holiday Products.
A few weeks later the two made the 270-mile drive from Los Angeles, hashing things out en route before checking into the Golden Nugget and spending a weekend gambling and seeing shows. That spring—after some soul-searching conversations with mentors in the entertainment business—Loren joined his father, eventually becoming president of a spin-off of Holiday Products called Classic Erotica, a cosmetics company built from the runaway success of Coochy Cream, a shaving cream for your nether regions.
On the day I visited their headquarters in the San Fernando Valley, an area made famous by the porn-film industry, Moe sat behind his desk, wearing a flannel shirt and black zippered jacket. Loren sat with me on the other side, in glasses, a neat navy sweater, and trim black jeans. Now 81, the Bronx-born Moe has no patience for puritanical attitudes about sex. He tells me a story from the bad old days when he was sequestered behind a black curtain at a retail show in Las Vegas. A woman poked her head in and exclaimed in shock. He pointed out that not far from where he was hawking sex toys, there were guns for sale. “That’s the dirty stuff,” he told her. “We’re preaching love.”
It took tragedy for the Kusens to become a family in business together. In 1994, Helene began running her newly minted distribution company, Honey’s Place, out of her house. Four years later she moved into a 5,700-square-foot warehouse in East Los Angeles. Bonnie graduated from college and got a job doing social work for a foster-family agency; Honey’s Place kept growing. Then Helene got sick. She died of breast cancer in 2002.
Bonnie, grief-stricken, was working full-time and raising a teenage daughter of her own, and now she was the executor of her mother’s estate. Honey’s Place wasn’t doing well; Helene had been sick for over a year, and a partner in the company had been siphoning off funds. But Bonnie didn’t want to sell, and not just because it can be difficult to locate buyers for companies in the adult industry. “I saw this company change my mom for the better,” she explains. “This was her soul, this company, and I could not let it go.”
Bonnie started running Honey’s Place in 2003. She jettisoned the scheming partner and set about modernizing the business. Today, Honey’s Place fulfills drop-shipping orders for companies that don’t keep adult novelties in their own stock. From its 35,000-square-foot San Fernando Valley warehouse, the company distributes about 18,000 products—including sex toys, lingerie, and gag gifts—throughout the United States, Mexico, and other countries.
“There is, like, an ick factor. ‘Oh my god, you do this … with your brother?’”
Like her mother, Bonnie’s daughter Heather Feingold long suspected that there was something different about the family business. “I always had an idea, although I wasn’t told as a very young kid,” Heather says. She would go over to her flamboyant grandmother’s house and occasionally something would be left out by mistake. But it never felt like a big deal—in college, she gave a presentation on Honey’s Place to her business class.
Heather’s job at the company started out as a temporary reception gig but she and her mother worked well together so she decided to stay on, taking over a small office that she shares with a bulky 3-D photo booth she uses to produce video demos of products. A graphic designer, she handles the visual merchandising for the company, including the Honey’s Place catalogs, updates on the very same marketing materials that Bonnie hauled out from under her mother’s bed long ago. When we talk about this moment from her mother’s past, Heather’s eyebrows go up and she smiles. “Oh!” she says. “Oh, wow.”
The sex-toy industry is a relatively young one, and many of the children who could inherit such businesses are also still young. Heather says she has no intention of leaving Honey’s Place any time soon, but Bonnie is quick to say that if she wants to, that’s okay—ultimately, she just wants Heather to be happy. We live in an era of encouraging offspring to follow their dreams, and company succession plans don’t necessarily assume that following generations will be pressed into service. Julie Stewart and her husband Ed, of Sportsheets, want their daughter to choose her own path. Loren of Holiday Products and Classic Erotica said he would be surprised if his grown daughter ever ended up in the business. One person I talked to did tell me they could see their children joining the family company, and that was Chad Braverman, who works at Doc Johnson, founded by his father Ron and spun out of Marche Manufacturing. I reached Chad on the phone in his office at the company’s 250,000-square-foot headquarters in North Hollywood, where about 500 people work and 75,000 products are manufactured weekly, including dildos poured by hand. As a private company, they don’t release annual sales numbers, but they are seen as one of the industry’s most successful businesses; Los Angeles magazine called them “the Procter & Gamble of sex toys” and the New York Times dubbed the Bravermans “the first family” of the industry. “I have some things I want to do at this business and see if I can bring it to the next level,” says Chad, who is expecting his first child soon. “And that would be for the purpose of seeing not just if I can do it, but so that my son or my daughter is inheriting something that has heritage.”
As the rare second-generation matriarch, Bonnie loves working with her daughter in the office, where they keep a cat named Bella and artwork from Helene’s collection decorates the hallways. The Feingolds’ commitment to the industry, though, was in no way preordained. Bonnie thrived as a social worker; she never imagined herself in a warehouse, taking meetings in a room where sex toys are carefully hung on the walls and a big window overlooks the main warehouse where workers prepare sleek, USB-rechargeable vibrators and lacy thongs for shipping. But founders in the adult world scrapped for every inch of legitimacy and watching her mother go from employee to entrepreneur left a lasting impression on Bonnie. When something has been fought for, you’re less likely to let it go, she says. Now, as part of her job, she makes the rounds at trade shows, scrutinizing new products. Will her customers respond to a new toy that blows air on the clitoris, or is it a passing trend? In the end, it doesn’t feel that different from social work—she’s still solving intimately human dilemmas, in a landscape that has changed a lot since Helene kept her catalogs behind lock and key.
“I’ve had people say, ‘Oh, my God, that’s amazing, and awesome, and how wonderful and empowering,’” she says. “I’ve only had one person tell me I was going to hell.”