Eric Schlosser, in his recent book Reefer Madness, claims San Diego is one of America's finest cities for producing pornography. Whatever it may be-softcore, hardcore, fetish porn, gay porn-it's made here, and made here in spades. Maybe it's the sun or the large military presence; whatever the reason, San Diego has some sort of erotic vibe that goes past what you might find in the rest of the country. And maybe that's why RealDoll, the 21st-century version of the blow-up doll, or what's called a sex doll, makes its home here.
I recently toured RealDoll's headquarters and factory, an exceptionally nondescript building in San Marcos with no sign-not even a decal on a window-that might clue you in to what the company is or what is manufactured within. In the front office, Shelly Couture, a tall, friendly blonde with pretty blue eyes, greets me as my guide. She's the spokesperson for the company, and before advancing past the front office, she photocopies my driver's license.
I ask about photocopying visitors' licenses and their low-profile, Cheney-esque undisclosed location. Is it because they're afraid that someone on a moral crusade might vandalize their business? Couture assures me that the security is for proprietary reasons. "There are all sorts of people in Japan and China who are trying to steal what we do," she says.
We walk back to a small room. If Madame Tussauds had an X-rated section, it would look something like this. Three dolls are in various stages of undress in Frederick's of Hollywood-style lingerie. The fourth doll hangs from a metal stand and is dressed in jeans and a halter. The other dolls look normally proportioned, but the one in jeans has breasts the size of the Louisiana Purchase. She also has the large eyes and other features characteristic of anime, the Japanese style of cartoon and animation.
"See, she's fully articulated," says Couture, as she moves the doll's arm up and down. I grab the arm to see for myself. The feeling is somewhat like flesh, albeit cool. Although the doll has a metal frame, there is no feeling of bone, the firmness that people have around their wrists and shoulders. Squeezing the arm is like squeezing silicon rubber, which makes sense because, well, that's what the dolls are made of. I move the arm, and it does indeed move in a fashion of a real human arm.
"Of course, we recommend warming the dolls before use. We suggest using a heated blanket. And to warm things up down there," Couture says, gesturing toward the doll's crotch, "we suggest a warm-water douche."
The dolls aren't made like mannequins, with the limbs and head added to a torso. Instead, the dolls come from a single pouring of silicon rubber over a steel "skeleton," the skullcap and face being the only main features of the doll added later. They therefore have no seams or breaks at the joints; the rubber remains smooth, like real skin.
On display above the anime doll is a row of doll faces, all of them with an expression of blank wonder. With their jaws lowered and mouths open in an "O," it's as if they're a chorus ready to sing the first line to "Oklahoma." The RealDoll website claims that the orifices are designed to produce suction, the mouth giving the most suction of all, when used.
"The dolls come with 16 faces and 10 body types, with skin tone going from my complexion," Couture says, pointing to the fair skin under her blonde locks, "to African-American. We're the only manufacturer with this kind of variety. There are other manufacturers of dolls like these, but each company will only manufacture one kind of doll."
After choosing the features and body type, customers sometimes ask for additional customization. "We can add permanent makeup, if you like," says Couture. "But a lot of people like to do that for themselves. It's part of the process."
One customization possibility is making the dolls to resemble famous humans or a person-such as a girlfriend or wife-a customer knows. "Of course, we cannot make an exact replica, for legal reasons." Couture says. "If it's someone that the customer knows, we get permission from that person or that person's estate." She then lists some names of pinup and porn stars that have been requested to be made into dolls.
Although I have a hard time thinking of the subject coming up in dinner conversation, Couture says most of the marketing of RealDoll is by word-of-mouth. "Our market is mostly 35- to 65-year-old men with disposable incomes. One customer has bought every [type of] doll we make."
But it's not only men who buy the dolls. Some couples have bought dolls, and some women have bought them for their husbands and boyfriends. "One woman came to us with her tax return and, knowing that she was going to be away for a long time, bought one for her husband so he wouldn't be fooling around on her." She adds that the dolls can be used for more than sexual gratification. "You can cuddle up next to it instead of a body pillow. It becomes part of a lifestyle.
"Some of the men who have bought our dolls are, well, vertically challenged," Couture says, "It's hard enough being a man in this world, but just think how hard it is for a short man." Other customers have been burn victims or others who have become disfigured.
The dolls are sold all over the world, half of which are sold here in the U.S. The other major markets are Japan, the U.K. and Germany.
Couture walks me down to the lower floor of the building where the dolls are made. At the landing, immediately to my left, is a line of dolls suspended from a moving rack, like what you might see in a slaughterhouse. The dolls are headless, but the torsos look real enough to make the view a little disconcerting. The variations of the doll torsos take them from 5-foot-1 to 5-foot-10 and from 62 to 115 pounds. The cup sizes for the breasts on the dolls range from A to triple F.
RealDoll started with Matt McMullen, a sculptor by trade. He wanted realistic human figures that could hold a pose. All of the torsos start out as clay sculptures made by McMullen. After he sculpts a doll, a mold is formed around the clay figure. When the mold is separated from the figure, the original artwork is destroyed in the process. In one section of the production floor, the molds lay open, some of them holding the metal "skeletons" in them. When the dolls are first taken out of the molds, the silicon rubber is still pliable and a little sticky. "This is when we affix the pubic hair," Couture says, "when the hair will naturally affix itself to the body." Small tufts of synthetic hair lie between the legs of the dolls farther down the line. For the dolls' heads, wigs of synthetic hair are attached.
Couture walks me over to a corner of the room to a shelf holding the only other body parts added to the dolls. Rows of silicon teeth, tongues and labia lay in front of me. Couture tells me that there are several different labia, but I don't examine them closely enough to notice. I pick up one, and it feels sort of like a gummy bear.
Every bit of a RealDoll is made at this San Marcos facility, and there are no plans to move production to Mexico or China. Couture believes the quality of the dolls would suffer if they moved production offshore. "We are the Rolls Royce of this industry," she says. "It's not all about the buck. If the quality goes out, I'm gone."
She's fairly emphatic when she says this, adding that RealDoll is recognized for its quality and is a member of the Better Business Bureau.
It takes about 90 hours of labor to make a doll, and the factory turns out about one doll a day. Of course, if you're buying a Rolls Royce, they don't come cheap. The dolls sell for $6,499. Any additional customization costs more. As their website will tell you, you can't get a RealDoll at any retail outlet, even some of your finer adult bookstores. They are sold directly from RealDoll from online orders. In addition to the 13-page care guide, RealDoll provides after-sales support for things like minor repairs to the silicon rubber.
Customers also get an accessories kit that includes antibacterial soap.