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    The 3D-Printed Sex Toy Industry Is Growing Bigger

    Written by

    Kelly Bourdet

    Noah Kaplan is here to get his dick scanned. He gestures wildly, his bathrobe peeking open as he rapidly recounts why he's doing this, going on and off the record about his sexual preferences. I can barely keep up. We’re in a room at the Eventi Hotel in Chelsea, where Kaplan is sitting in front of an impressive camera that can scan in three dimensions and create a virtual model of any object. Today, that camera is going to be used to scan Kaplan’s penis from several angles. Experts will then composite those scans into one image that will be printed out using a 3D printer, resulting in an exact, three-dimensional replica of the 26-year-old's penis. This is the very beginning of the 3D-printed sex toy-industry, though you can scarcely call it an industry yet.

    Operating the camera is Chelsea Downs, founder of the New York Toy Collective and personalized sex-toy innovator. Downs tells me that she got into the sex-toy business not because she sought to make personalized toys, but because the one she wanted didn't exist. "And I was tired of complaining that it didn’t exist," she adds, "so I just decided to go ahead and try to make it.”

    But when she called around to manufacturers for information on production, she got quotes up to $50,000–more than she could afford. So she began to look into ways to create a new kind of toy, one that could be made to her exact specifications, but in small quantities and cheaply. The answer involved creating a prototype, scanning it, then 3D printing it.

     
    Time lapse video of 3D-printed sex toy, via Maker Love

    After familiarizing herself with the process of creating toys and co-founding the collective, she saw the potential for personalized sex toys created through scanning and 3D printing. Her company partners with 3DEA, a 3D printing pop up shop also in Chelsea, to offer the personalized toy service that Kaplan is receiving today.

    The 3D-printed sex toys movement is still in its infancy, but that’s what makes it so interesting. The objects created from the printer aren’t typically body safe. Sometimes this is the result of the type of material used by the printer–not all plastics are intended for internal use–but is also a function of the printing process itself. 3D printers create objects by using plastic filament to build upwards, but the constituent filaments are still visible in the final project. A printed object isn’t totally smooth. Its rough texture would not only be uncomfortable inside any orifice, but also possesses small crevices that would support bacterial growth.

    So most people creating sex toys take the printed object, create a cast from it, and then pour silicone into the mold to create the final project. The printed object, thus far, is only the intermediary to achieving a personalized or personally designed sex toy. The dream of envisioning a toy, designing it, then printing out a functional copy is still a futuristic dream.

    Completed personalized sex toys by The New York Toy Collective. Photo by Tommy Kearns

    Tom Nardone approaches 3D-printed sex toys from a more visionary angle; he's interested in what novel toy designs are possible. He founded Maker Love, a site that hosts an online forum for sharing 3D sex toy designs. It’s an open source dildo instructional manual. Anyone can submit a design, improve upon an existing design, or download one. And since there are open source design sites for the 3D printing of many objects, some plans get reappropriated to sex toy use that might not have originally be designed as such–Maker Love's popular Freudian dildo design, say, originally an innocent plastic bust of the doctor, but now one of the most popular designs on the sex toy site.

    It’s an open source dildo instructional manual. Anyone can submit a design, improve upon an existing design, or download one

    Nardone, who also owns vibrators.com, has devoted his life to the protection of individual privacy and avoidance of embarrassment. As soon as he heard about 3D-printed sex toys, he felt they had a place in his business, though he’s unsure as to how his site will ever turn a profit. He does add a small hole in the designs available on Maker Love, one just large enough for a bullet vibrator available on his website, though a look at his recent sales data shows that the 3D print designs haven’t especially been driving sales of the bullet.

     

     
    Free designs available at Maker Love

    He readily admits that he’s no sexologist, but instead made his way into the sex toy business to create a way for others to avoid embarrassment. He emphasizes that he needs the distance that the internet provides; working in a sex shop, conversing with others in person about toys, is his worst nightmare. He believes that the 3D-printed sex toy business has brought “his people”--architects, engineers, those with a mathematical proclivity who, unlike Chelsea, haven’t necessarily been involved with the sex toy industry in the past--out of the woodwork.

    In fact, some of the enthusiasts Nardone has come across seem to be interested in the sexual function of the objects, but disassociated from their human applications. One guy “really saw the technological challenge," Nardone recalls. "When he talked about the finish, it was nothing about women’s bodies. Would it hurt to use? It was all about the challenge of achieving good surface finish.”

    It’s the innovators and first adopters of any new technology that shape its future. Who first uses Vine, for instance, dictates those who will use it next; how they use it shapes the direction of its content, perhaps forever. A technology that can “make” something is often directionless, waiting for the interested and inspired to figure out what it should make. 3D printing, while an exciting new technology, hasn’t quite hit its stride; outside a few niche uses, its primary appeal seems to be its novelty. You can 3D print guns, but not very well. You can 3D print various household plastic objects--like chess pieces and curtain rings–but you can buy them more easily. Similarly, these sex toys are far from perfect or accessible, but these innovators will undoubtedly shape whatever future they have.

     

     

    Anonymous composite scan 

    I was also put in touch with Rebecca, a 28-year-old transwoman from Chicago who had been scanned by the New York Toy Collective last month. She’s planning on undergoing gender reassignment surgery in December of this year, and is trying to fundraise to cover the cost of the surgery since it won’t be covered by her health insurance. After a night of drinking, she came up with the idea to make a mold of her penis so that she could cast objects to sell on her fundraiser site–things like candles and chocolates. The Toy Collective offered to create her mold free of charge, so she flew to New York and made it happen.

    Now she’s created her first dick candles and they are available for sale on her site. She’s a performance artist as well as an educator and activist around trans issues, and I felt there must have been some greater symbolism behind the act of creating a physical representation of something she is planning to, in effect, remove. She underscores how attracted she was to the absurdity of the action--of selling something she is surgically removing--but also mentions how creating this personal representation serves to help her flip the power dynamic on certain people who she felt delved too deeply into the specifics of her trans identity. Her ability to create the very body part that seemed of so much interest to everyone felt empowering.

    “It’s kind of like, if you’re so interested in my dick, here it is," Kling admits. "Look at it.” 

    Artist and activist Rebecca Kling

    Claire, a 26-year-old teacher in New York City, also felt a sense of empowerment from scanning and printing her vagina. She was the only biological female that Chelsea had scanned, and might well be the first non-porn star to have a personalized sex toy made. She created her toy as a gift to her partner of four months because she felt having a toy created as an exact replica of her genitals tied the emotional aspects of the sexual relationship into the physical act of having sex with the toy. 

    Mainstream pornography, and the sex toys created in the image of mainstream female porn stars, tends to project one type of “look”: a neatly trimmed, symmetrical vulva, often achieved through labiaplasty. Claire liked that her toy captured her natural asymmetry. She was able to create a toy that reflected her “normal” instead of giving a gift that represented some norm she didn’t identify with. Any technology that allows as few as one object to be created naturally increases the diversity within any field. 3D printing undermines the usefulness of the prototypes, and eventually the archetypes, of an object. The more uniquely designed and printed versions of any object exist, the more inclusive and varied our conception of what that thing “should” look like becomes.

    These technological trailblazers had all arrived at 3D sex toy printing in its nascent beginnings, all for varied reasons. Their approaches to pleasure objects varies considerably--from celebratory to extremely private. Will this technology provide an important way for individuals to avoid sexual embarrassment? I acknowledge this possibility, but this goal is long-term enough to hardly be a driving force as of yet. Someday 3D printing will, just maybe, provide an entirely anonymous means of creating a pleasure object. But today too few people can access the printer itself–Maker Bot, the cheapest consumer model, still sets you back $2000.

    Back at the hotel scan session, Kaplan, who's as forthcoming as ever, admits he doesn't even know what he’ll do with his resultant sex toy. He says he's in it for the process and “to reduce shame around the body.” He feels the impulse to create an exact replica of his penis is destigmitizing to nudity, and is closely related to an impulse he feels towards celebrating sexuality in general. He’s especially impassioned about destigmatizing anal sex and has written a song under the moniker “Trunk Man” entitled, “Don’t Want it in the…” about experiencing rejection after discussing his sexual preferences. I’m not sure how that directly relates to his 3D sex toy, but I’ll let you decide.

    Nardone, intrigued by both the potential and the specifics of the technology, has been experimenting with new ways to make the 3D-printed objects safe to use. He believes he may have found a solution in a silicone spray that can be used to coat the toy. We might be one step closer to an easily created, functional 3D-printed sex toy.

    The use of this technology diverges sharply in two directions. There’s the camp that utilizes it to capture reality and provide normal people with the opportunity to possess a hyper-realistic object that reflects their anatomy. It’s firmly grounded in the idea that there’s something inherently meaningful in possessing a physical extension of our bodies. On the other side, there’s the emerging open source design camp, reimagining what a sex object can be–Freud’s bust? Justin Beiber’s head? These are the creative innovators, the newcomers to the sex industry, pushing forward the vision of the sex toy, for better and for worse.

    @kellybourdet

    Image via Tommy Kearns

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