Chad Braverman is leading a tour of his family business, the largest sex-toy manufacturer in America.
“Dongs, dildos, masturbators and butt plugs — that’s 99 percent of what we do here,” Chad says matter-of-factly, traversing the noisy expanse of the factory floor, part of a six-acre compound of white-washed buildings in a light-industrial district in North Hollywood that’s been catering to sexual tastes for 41 years.
As he goes, he waves here and there to employees he knows by name, most of them middle-aged Hispanic women with beauty-shop hairdos and gold crosses around their necks. They work along various assembly lines, bringing to mind Rosie the Riveter, or the chocolate factory episode of I Love Lucy. Many keep the exact nature of their jobs secret from their families. A good number have been here 20 years or more; in honor of their service, their names are inscribed on two plaques outside reception.
Depending upon the season, Doc Johnson employs 300–500 non-union workers, who churn out an average of 75,000 sex toys a month, or nearly a million a year, for sale online and in adult shops around the world. And some 15 percent of Doc Johnson products — most of them electronic, like the TRYST Multi Erogenous Zone Massager or the WonderLand series Kinky Kat 10 Function Silicone Massager (with a head resembling that of the Chesire Cat) — are manufactured to their specifications in China.
The print catalog, produced in-house, is 308 pages, a companion to the tricked-out website. There’s the White Rabbit clitoral stimulator, with a soft, velvet-touch finish; the MILF in a Box Pocket Pussy; the Yumi Asian Anime Doll with Three-Hole Design; the Wendy Williams Three-Step Anal Trainer for men; and Triple Duty Fist, Fuck & Jack-Off Cream, in an eight-ounce pump bottle. (Clearly, three is a big number in sex toys.)
Chad, 35, is a cool guy with a gym bod and a product-enhanced pompadour, the sides cut high and tight. He keeps his beard sculpted with the help of Doc Johnson-brand chamomile-infused So Smooth Shaving Cream, from their OptiMALE line of products and toiletries, which can be purchased in a six-item travel pack with deodorant powder, erection-enhancing lotion and a vibrating silicone cock ring.
A business management and marketing major who attended the University of Miami, Chad has worked at Doc Johnson since eighth grade — shortly after he learned what exactly his father did for a living. Since then, he’s done time in just about every department — shipping, production, packaging, art and purchasing. Now, as chief operating officer and chief compliance officer, he’s basically in charge.
Wearing vintage pink lace-up Vans and a Rolex Daytona watch — his Tesla X, which he hates and is trying to return, is in the parking lot — Braverman has about him the casually expensive sheen of a native Angeleno, a La La Land local who’s attended the same schools, dined at the same restaurants and lived in the same neighborhoods as the bold names of Hollywood and their children. “It’s like, one degree of separation to just about anyone,” says his 29-year-old sister, Erica Braverman.
At the moment, Erica is in her office in another building, working with her team on the company’s consumer education program, the School of Doc. Together with their father Ron, 70, who founded the place and fought for its survival during the bleak years of the Meese Commission and the Republican war on pornography, they’re taking Doc Johnson into its second generation.
The factory is cacophonous and retro, people working together with machines, like something from the 1950s, not a computer in sight. There’s the clank of antique metal machinery, the whoosh of pressurized air, the gurgle of running water, the hum and squeak of conveyor belts. The cement floor seems to shudder beneath your feet. The atmosphere is thick with the (more or less) familiar aroma of ULTRASKYN, a proprietary, thermoplastic elastomer — the material that makes the dildos feel somewhat realistic. The company has been perfecting it for 40 years. In liquid form, ULTRASKYN pours out of faucets at 250 to 300 degrees in three color choices: Chocolate, caramel and vanilla.
“I know it’s a smell some people find off-putting, but I love it,” Chad says whimsically, his voice projecting over the din. “I always wanted to put out a novelty fragrance called Dildo — not to sell, just to give out to friends as a gag gift.”
At one station, women use common kitchen pots to pour the hot, viscous liquid into copper penis molds. (According to a company handout, Doc Johnson molds six tons of ULTRASKYN and other silicone products daily.) At another station, women paint veins onto the shafts of 6-, 8- and 10-inch rubber penises. At a third, they paint pink the glans of the vanilla penises (the two other colors don’t get this treatment). At a fourth, they smooth out imperfections in a run of magenta, double-headed dongs with small, rectangular irons. At a fifth, they trim with scissors the excess rubber around the life-like testicles of dildos. (Dildos have balls; dongs do not, which means there’s no such thing as a double-headed dildo.)
Growing up a baseball-mad private school kid with divorced parents, Chad was kept in the dark about the details of the family business. “You have to remember I was born during the Reagan administration,” he says of the 1980s, a moralistic era that coincided with the beginning of the AIDS and crack epidemics, the intensifying of the War on Drugs and the rise of the religious right.
“My parents never told me what my father did. They didn’t want anyone to know,” Chad says. “Back then, sex toys were considered part of porn. And my dad was considered like a porn mogul. The government was going after people like him. I went to this private school. My parents didn’t want me to be ostracized, or judged by kids — or by kids’ parents. They told everyone his business involved the manufacture of health and beauty products. That was back when you could lie to your kids about stuff, before the internet.”
One afternoon, when he was about 13, Chad was at his dad’s house in Beverly Hills. His dad was married to wife number two at the time. The new wife had a son who was 16. He, Chad and a friend were hanging out playing video games. Looking around Ron Braverman’s well-appointed digs, Chad’s friend asked, “What does your father do for a living?”
Chad repeated what he knew: “Health and beauty products, import-export, that kind of stuff.”
The stepbrother made a face. “That’s not what your dad does,” he sneered.
“Then what does he do?” Chad asked.
“He makes fake dicks, you idiot.”
The Porn Mogul is in.
Ron Braverman is sitting behind his desk in a pale lime shirt with the Doc Johnson logo embroidered over his heart. An extra-large man with a soft voice, meaty hands and slicked-back hair, he looks like he could be comfortable drinking espresso at a back table in a restaurant in Little Italy.
As it is, he’s sitting behind his executive desk in an office befitting the CEO and founder of a company he’s built from the ground up — a substantial space with a wet bar, private bathroom and oak paneling. A cabinet behind his desk holds his collection of Daum crystal — there’s an elephant, a tiger and a dragon. Also displayed prominently is a photo he took with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Nancy Reagan at a ceremony at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. For years Ron was a member of Schwarzenegger’s regular Sunday motorcycle and brunch gang.
Ron was born in Cleveland, the grandson of Russian Jewish immigrants. His mother was strong-willed and outgoing. His father was a CPA; his uncles were all salesmen. “I grew up in a family with a gift for gab,” he says. “It was only natural that I went into sales, too.”
At first, Ron sold appliances. Then he went Northeast to work for another Cleveland native, Reuben Sturman. Also a child of Russian Jewish immigrants, Sturman had started his business out of the trunk of his car, selling tobacco and magazines. After discovering the kind of money he could make on “girly magazines” and explicit books, his course was set. By 1960, Sturman was living in a 16-room mansion overlooking a swan-stocked lake. An exercise fanatic who shopped at Bijan, a trendy clothier, and attended the Cannes Film Festival every year, he owned an empire of an estimated 200 adult businesses, according to published reports and court papers.
In the beginning, Ron says, Sturman had him selling adult books and magazines over a six-state area in New England. The hours and miles were long. “I would pull out Monday morning, and I didn’t come home until Saturday night,” he says. With a trunk full of adult products, things could get dicey, especially on dark nights in the vicinity of small towns. “Sometimes the cops just wanted a few magazines. Sometimes I ended up getting hauled down to the station,” Ron remembers.
In 1972, Ron moved to Amsterdam to open and manage three adult bookstores there. Four years later, he came back to the States and purchased a 1,500-square-foot rubber molding business on Lankershim Boulevard in L.A. called Marche Manufacturing. “Marche made some adult toys, and maybe 10 different dongs that came in several sizes,” Ron says. “They also made rubber animals and insects, fishing lures and creepy stuff for Halloween, like those severed hands. They were using a very simplistic formula, a PVC, a material no different than what Disney was using at the time to make figurines.”
According to some news reports, Sturman was suspected of being the initial owner of Doc Johnson and Ron was the operator. The Bravermans, however, dispute this version. “Ron started Doc Johnson,” Chad says. “Reuben was a guy who was basically the godfather of the industry. He set a lot of people up in different areas — they owned stores, distribution, different things. Reuben wasn’t a partner. But he was a very, very close friend, mentor and sort of a father figure in my dad’s life,” Chad says. “They spent a lot of time together. They knew each other for many years. Their wives and families were close.”
After his sojourn in Europe, where public morals were less inhibited, and where couples shopped openly together for a range of sex toys, Ron was convinced he could bring a different product and attitude to the American consumer, too. “Basically, all they were selling in the States in those days were a 7-inch vibrator, a 4.5-inch vibrator, a 7-inch dildo and a second 7-inch dildo that had a wire inside — they called it The Bender. They were packaged in these nondescript poly bags and nobody really knew what to do with them,” Ron says.
“I wanted to package the items in glossy cardboard,” he continues. “I wanted to give them names. I wanted to give them descriptions. I wanted to make them into something more mainstream.”
Before he could do that, though, he needed a brand name. “I needed a name people could be comfortable with. After Lee, Johnson was the second-largest surname in the world,” he says.
For the logo, “I put him in a white jacket, and he was a hip-looking guy with a [mustache]. I called him ‘Doc’ because when you saw him, he looked a little like a pharmacist. Or Doc could be a nickname. Or it could mean that he was really a doctor. It wasn’t clear. But I wanted him to have credibility so people thought they were buying something of substance.”
Two years later, Ron began assembling the 215,000-square-feet facility that is Doc Johnson today. Just as he hit a groove, Reagan was elected president. Shortly thereafter, Reagan authorized something called the Attorney General’s Commission on Pornography, which had wide-ranging powers to investigate.
In 1986, the Attorney General’s office released the document that came to be called the Meese Report. The 1,096-page tome identified Reuben Sturman as the biggest distributor of hardcore pornography in the nation. The report also documented what were found to be the harmful effects of pornography and connections between pornographers and organized crime. The report was criticized by many inside and outside the porn industry, who called it biased and inaccurate. Nevertheless, a wave of prosecutions and convictions followed.
In 1988, after additional investigation by the Meese Commission, Ron Braverman was convicted of perjury stemming from his relationship with Sturman. Sentenced to a year and one day in federal prison, he served six months. In 1996, the federal government again indicted Ron, charging him with tax evasion, based on alleged financial transactions connected to his close friend. Convicted a second time, Ron served five months in prison and another five under house arrest.
Sturman, meanwhile, was sentenced to 29 years in jail and made to pay a $2.5 million fine. Nineteen years of the sentence were the result of his conviction for trying to influence a male juror in one of his trials. According to testimony, the agent of influence was Sturman’s young wife, the former Naomi Delgado. A half-Venezuelan, half-Japanese beauty raised in Pasadena, Delgado was a singer popular in Spanish-language venues around California. According to published reports, Delgado asked the young man to meet her for a meal. Partway through, he started to question her intentions and left the restaurant.
As Eric Schlosser points out in his book Reefer Madness: Sex, Drugs, and Cheap Labor in the American Black Market, the Republican war on porn ended up coinciding with an exponential increase in America’s consumption of porn. “According to Adult Video News, from 1985 to 1992 — from the appointment of the Meese Commission to the close of George H. W. Bush’s presidency — the number of hardcore video rentals each year in the United States rose from 79 million to 490 million,” Schlosser writes.
As went the fortunes of porn, so went Doc Johnson. Though fate had drawn a dark cloud over Ron’s early days in the industry, the future was bright. Following 16 years of Republican rule, the Clinton administration abandoned efforts to enforce the nation’s obscenity laws and porn quickly became widely available mainstream entertainment.
“A lot changed when Cosmopolitan and Helen Gurley Brown started to talk about women masturbating and women having orgasms and using vibrators,” Ron says. “Then when VHS went to DVD, it freed up a lot more space on the shelves in adult stores. And unfortunately, the AIDS crisis kind of favored sex toys because a lot of people who were doing things that maybe they shouldn’t have been doing started looking for alternative sources of enjoyment.”
From there came Sex and the City, toys designed with women in mind and adult stores having women’s nights and couple’s nights.
About the time Ron was getting off house arrest, in 1997, Sturman died in a prison hospital in Lexington, Kentucky. He was 73. He left behind Delgado, by then his ex-wife, and a 9-year-old daughter.
A few years later, as luck would have it, Ron bumped into Naomi at a gym in Sherman Oaks. By now he also was divorced, from wife number three. Their friendship was rekindled, and they began dating. In 2001, they married, and Ron adopted Naomi’s daughter, Erica.
Today, Erica Braverman is 29. After majoring in English lit and psychology — at the University of Miami, like Chad — and trying her hand at an L.A. PR firm, Sturman’s biological daughter joined the Doc Johnson family about six years ago. For her work on the company’s yearlong campaign commemorating Doc Johnson’s 40th anniversary, Erica was named “Marketing Executive of the Year” by the adult industry news source XBIZ.
With Erica’s help, the company has moved heavily into social media, with behind-the-scenes video content at the factory, interviews with porn stars, product sneak peeks, customer forums and giveaways. “Since she started here, Erica has absolutely grabbed ahold of it with her teeth and become a force in social marketing and PR,” Ron says proudly. “I’m thrilled that both of my kids want to be here. They’ve done an amazing job.” Together, he says, they “deal with the day-to-day. I’m just here to get coffee and bring doughnuts.”
Now Erica pushes back from her screen, dressed in all black: Black tee, black Rag & Bone jeans and black Maison Martin Margiela ankle boots with a clunky heel. She has the dark hair and eyes of her mother; people say she has Sturman’s smile. She loves going to concerts (Kanye was the last) and finding new restaurants. She went to Citizen in Beverly Hills twice last week: “Their salmon is bomb, it’s like butter.” When not at work or networking events, she spends a lot of time taking classes at General Assembly in Santa Monica — HTML, Java, digital marketing, graphic design.
“Reuben is my biological dad. And Ron is my second dad. Reuben died when I was so young that I don’t remember that much about him — aside from the amazing things people tell me. He belonged to Mensa. He was incredibly bright. Incredibly private. But in terms of growing up with him, I really didn’t. He was in jail very early on in my life, and died very early on in my life.”
How does that make you feel? I ask.
“That’s what my therapist asks me,” she deadpans. “I think a lot of society is backwards, even to this day. I don’t have like a tragic wound from the fact that my father was taken away from me. But at the same time, yeah, it upsets me. It’s like he was part of this big societal penitence. Our country is so screwed up. We can put violence on TV, but we still have a problem with seeing a vibrator or a sex toy. It doesn’t make sense to me; it never has.”
“It’s funny how life works out,” she continues. “But I feel blessed too, because it’s all a part of my history, and it’s a very rich story. A lot of people think Reuben was a hero. And Ron has been there for me literally since he came into the picture. He went to every recital, every game, every performance. He was always there, right next to my mom. I feel really lucky to have him.
“And I feel lucky now that Chad and I are here and we’re able to make our mark. The industry is only two generations old. Because it’s so new, there’s a lot of room to take it into the future. We’re both psyched to make that happen.”
Almost on cue, Chad wanders in. As he’s wont to do, he picks up one of the fancy vibrators arrayed on one of the several desks in the room, this one pink. Absently, he toys with the buttons.
“Growing up as an only child,” he says, “before Erica was part of my life, I had this feeling that if I didn’t take over the company, then no one would, and then the company would be gone. It made me feel really sad.”
“Well, now there’s both of us,” Erica responds.