Denmark, Copenhagen-based photographer Alastair Philip Wiper is currently exhibiting his Pleasure Points project at the Copenhagen Photo Festival through the 30th of June. The provocative work, which documents the sex industry in California, offers a glimpse at the production, technology, and relationships between people and the products made for their satisfaction.
Ultra-realistic sex dolls, giant dildos, and virtual reality porn are among the many products produced on a massive scale to satisfy people’s desires. Pleasure Points offers a behind-the-scenes look at the sex industry and how it empowers people to take control of their pleasure and sexual identities.
When the project was shot, Alastair was working on his book Unintended Beauty, which features several factories and focuses on the accidental aesthetics of industry and science. The original intention was to explore something that people could relate to — and sex was just the thing. Despite the stigma attached to the sex industry, pleasure products are instantly recognizable and regularly used by many people.
I had included lots of industries but was missing something more personal. I thought that a dildo factory would be just the thing I needed, so I headed to LA. While I was there, I thought I might as well make the most of the time I had and do a separate project — this turned into Pleasure Points.
At its core, sexual satisfaction is a raw feeling that transcends race, gender, and class — that is to say, there’s something for everyone. For this project, Alastair visited a family-owned dildo factory, the Real Doll HQ, and a virtual reality porn company called VR Bangers. The images offer a look at how the sausage is made and the sheer variety of options available to suit every taste and kink.
The images in Pleasure Points are raw and thought-provoking, straddling the line between reality and fiction. The collection of photos with its taboo subject matter, bold colors, and sharp contrasts are intriguing compositions that invite inquiry. It is not to say that they’re devoid of Alastair’s perspective, but they cause the viewer to think about pleasure on their own terms. In some images, like that of the bodies hanging on a hook, there’s an eerie similarity to the production process at a meat processing factory.
Alastair emailed the factories and got in touch with the owners of each company but had trouble gaining access without a formal commission or assignment. This led him to reach out to his editorial contacts, and with their approval, he was able to get permission to photograph the factories.
I tried the Doc Johnson factory first, and they wouldn’t let me in without a commission from a mag. I asked my contacts at Wired, who I work with quite often, and they let me use their name with a tentative commission. That allowed me to gain access to the other factories too.
The Doc Johnson factory is family-owned, started in 1976, and produces around 75,000 sex toys every week. This factory is the largest US manufacturer of adult products, but the stigma attached to the industry is still prevalent and continues to cause issues for the business owners.
Despite employing 450 people, they have trouble getting insurance companies and banks to work with them. It’s no surprise then that Ron, who started the business in the ’70s, kept a mafia-like persona, telling people he worked in “imports-exports.” His son, Chad, now COO and head of product development, grapples with what to tell his own children in the new-found age of technology where they’re bound to find out much quicker.
While the porn and pleasure product industry continues to evolve and look towards the future, the factories have embraced new technology to customize and create experiences tailored to their customer’s needs. These new developments include anything from a remote-controlled dildo that a partner can interact with from afar, virtual reality porn, or a realistic robotic head on a Real Doll.
During his time photographing Pleasure Points, Alastair got to see a wide variety of products, but the sheer size of the dildos left an impression on him.
I learned that there are many more people than I could ever imagine in the world sticking VERY large objects inside themselves! Probably people that you and I know.
Each one of the owners of the factories Alastair photographed has faced similar barriers with gaining insurance, banking, and even where they’re able to advertise (billboards are off-limits). VR bangers, one of the companies featured in the project, even attempted to donate a portion of subscription fees to veterans, but charities would not accept a donation from them.
The products being produced are extremely diverse by design, but when looking through the images of founders and COOs, it quickly becomes apparent that all of the companies are male-owned. It’s interesting to note that while the sex industry has embraced diversity in some ways, it continues to be a male-dominated industry.
There is a slant towards most porn and sex dolls, being oriented towards men, but I imagine that many dildos are targeted towards women. I’m not sure whether it is endemic to the industries I photographed or if it is just representative of male-dominated business ownership in general.
After visiting several factories, Alastair became desensitized to seeing sex toys everywhere he went. This must be similar to a factory worker’s experience after seeing thousands of these on the production line every day. For them, it’s business as usual.
The whole thing was great fun. After you get used to seeing penises everywhere, it stops becoming seedy, and you realize that — at least the people I met — were very friendly, and it was just everyday life for them, nothing special.
That boundary between what is taboo or not talked about by most people, and just another day in the office for others, is fascinating I think. And above all, most of what I saw involves simply enabling consenting adults to have fun.