Sex toy magnate Brian Sloan’s strange philanthropic quest began with a straightforward Facebook post: “Looking for a [nonprofit] charity that wants a donation of several pallets of dildos and vibrators without retail packaging,” he wrote to friends on social media in early December.
Sloan, the CEO and founder of Very Intelligent Ecommerce Inc., estimates he had about “8,000 units” of erotic playthings that just weren’t sellable because they’d become unexpectedly overpriced and outdated. Like many online retailers, Very Intelligent encountered more competition after Amazon shifted toward working directly with Chinese manufacturers, many of which can now sell merchandise directly on the platform. That has resulted in cheaper wares and different styles that can roll out very quickly, which has left other e-commerce companies in the lurch.
Since its founding in 2008, Very Intelligent has sold many types of adult novelties–it started with inflatable latex suits, and then expanded. Sloan, who is now based in Berlin, spent many years living in China and building relationships with manufacturers, which allowed him to source, package, and brand his own products that sold online and shipped direct, undercutting the prices at brick-and-mortar retailers.
That changed in 2014, when Sloan began manufacturing his own line of erotic stimulators for what he perceives as an underserved market: men. That includes the Autoblow 2, a plug-in penile massager that beat its Indiegogo goal by over 600%, and earned a cameo in a bit about futuristic sex toys on HBO’s Silicon Valley.
Another Indiegogo hit, the 3fap–“fap” being a slang term for masturbation–resembles a sort of three-hole Fleshlight with the selling point that its sleeves mimic real genitalia. As part of the marketing and development of that process, Sloan launched a “most beautiful vagina competition” in 2015, asking women to submit photos of their anatomy for online voting, with the top winners then 3D-scanned for verisimilitude. Unsurprisingly, that did not go over well, causing outrage for furthering the sexual objectification of women. Today though, Sloan’s company does $10 million a year in sales, according to Playboy, which has hailed him as a robotic sex pioneer.
Very Intelligent sold a large volume of dildos and vibrators until early 2016, when Sloan says partnerships between the sex toy factories and Amazon basically tanked the market. He was left holding about $250,000 in retail value of an already preordered product that he’d have to lose money on to match Amazon’s prices. Then two thoughts occurred to him: “At least if I need to lose a bunch of money, I’d rather help people,” he says. And, simultaneously: “I’m curious what might happen when you give away that many sex toys.”
Once the call for donations hit Facebook, it took on a life of its own. Sloan received over a dozen suggestions on his main thread (where, full disclosure, I saw it as we went to college together). People tagged others who might be interested and shared the opportunity elsewhere online.
One friend located in Berlin publicly replied to suggest Cocks Not Glocks, a women-led organization based in the U.S. that encourages college students to openly display dildos in protest of conceal-and-carry gun laws, some of which allow handguns on university campuses. The group, whose mission statement is “fighting absurdity with absurdity,” started at the University of Texas at Austin in 2016, and gained worldwide attention after a segment on The Daily Show.
Sloan researched the group and then contacted one of the organizers in Austin, who was interested in a shipment. Cocks Not Glocks asked a local sex shop to store the bounty while it works with other chapters around the country on how best to deploy them.
Another Facebook friend who lives in San Francisco replied to suggest Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a satirical order of “queer nuns” that promote diversity and rally for LGBTQ and human rights causes. The group was founded in the Bay Area in the late ’70s. It wasn’t readily apparent how the material might be used, but Sloan liked the idea, so his friend wrote to the group and then connected them.
The Sisters, who have 30 orders within the U.S. and several international chapters, had an obvious outlet in mind. “Our work includes lots of fundraisers and we always need prizes!” says Sister Selma Soul, one of the organizers, who goes by her satirical alias, in an email to Fast Company. “Sex toys are very popular prizes within our community and greeted with squeals of delight or terror, sometimes depending on the size of the toy,” she adds, noting that money raised will fund things like HIV prevention and treatment efforts, breast cancer patient needs, and more youth services in various communities.
About the same time, Sloan heard from Stacy Bond and Katie Chin, a pair of San Francisco-based artists, who had read about all the free dildos and vibrators in a separate Facebook group for contemporary artists, where someone suggested they might make good art supplies. The duo was interested and pitched Sloan on the idea of a large installation that would debut in San Francisco at some point during the first half of 2018.
For now, the details are private, but the goal is to “celebrate the collective strength women share, and their diverse approaches to navigating a male-centric reality” they explain in an email to Fast Company. Bond and Chin don’t technically represent their own cause group, but Sloan liked the idea because it centers around free expression and female empowerment. “Conceptual art isn’t really my area,” he says. “I’ll just trust that they’re excited about it.”
All three groups will split the windfall, which Sloan shipped out in early January. He initially hoped these donations might result in some sort of tax write-off for his company. But after talking with his accountant, he realized that it likely wasn’t worth it. Charitable deductions for goods are based on factory cost, which is lower than retail. He’d also have to collect receipts for each gift, which would mean more paperwork.
Still, he feels oddly satisfied. “I never thought that in my industry I could do something that was charitable,” Sloan says. Since realizing that it’s possible, he’s been brainstorming other ways to help.