SEX

30 Years Of Orgasms: Why The Sybian Remains The Cadillac Of Sex Toys

A family-run business in rural Illinois reflects on how its famous product has changed with the times

SEX
Giddy up! — Illustration: R. A. Di Ieso
May 24, 2017 at 11:34 AM ET

Dave Lampert is a husband, father, and rural Illinois farm boy. He is also the creator of what may be the world’s most storied sex toy: the Sybian, a 22-pound, saddle-style appliance equipped with a gyrating, rotating dildo and clitoral stimulator.

Inspired by the complaints of infrequent orgasms he heard from women in the instructional dance classes he taught, Lampert launched the Sybian through a titillating cover story in Penthouse Forum magazine in December 1987. Quickly, the massive gadget would come to upend the small but growing sex toy industry.

Thirty years ago, sex toys were pretty simple and hard to find; it would even be a few more years until the Jack Rabbit vibrator came out. Given that the sex toy market is today worth $15 billion and is flooded by an endless variety of tech-enabled gizmos, what is most remarkable is how popular and unchanged the Sybian remains to this day.

“Plug into the ultimate joy ride,” the Penthouse Forum article enticed, featuring the first-person account of Jessica West, a writer who first saw the Sybian on display at a swinger’s convention and chronicled her experience trying it out before it went on sale.

“We launched quietly, without much advertising and not knowing exactly how the Sybian would be embraced,” Lampert, now in his eighties and recently retired, told Vocativ in an e-mail through his daughter, Bunny, who helps run the family business at its farmhouse office in rural Illinois. What would later follow could only be described as Sybian madness.

Within months, the thousand dollar-plus machinery would gain an outsized reputation in the adult entertainment community — and later, in a more mainstream world after live Sybian demos became a regular feature on the Howard Stern Show. Lampert himself even appeared on the radio show once, coaxing a pornographic actress through what she estimated to be about 15 or 20 orgasms in less than five minutes. The Sybian received its first and only New York Times mention in an article about the radio personality.

The Adult Video Network Awards, aka the “Oscars for porn,” gave Lampert its lifetime achievement prize last year. But even before he launched the Sybian, Lampert knew he was creating something unique. He had been mulling on the concept for over a decade, talking to patrons at swingers clubs and adult books stores, before beginning to work on it in earnest in 1983. He interviewed sex therapists, researchers, engineers, and tried out many prototypes with future users.

The result: a hand-built machine able to support 1,000 pounds of pressure and equipped with two separate motors capable of producing vibrations at a speed of 6,500 rotations per minute, which is faster than computer hard drives and several times that of a typical washing machine drum.

Over the decades, the cultural cachet of the Sybian has only grown, despite growing competition and innovation within the sex toy market. Today, advancements in technology have led to handheld sex toys that can thrust independently, stimulate oral sex, make “come hither” stroking motions, but still, the Sybian remains a big name. Surely viral “safe for work” videos of celebrities, porn stars, and everyday women riding the Sybian to orgasm while attempting to perform tasks like Christmas caroling and reading haven’t hurt its reputation, either. For instance, one YouTube video uploaded a year ago that features porn stars attempting to do math equations on the Sybian has racked up over 4.3 million views.

According to Bunny Lampert, the Sybian has been shipped to 80 countries around the world, and sales have only increased year-over-year since 1987, excepting mild downswings timed to the 2008 financial crisis (she declined Vocativ’s request for exact sales figures). Employees who make the Sybian in Monticello, Illinois, work every day that UPS ships.

The biggest change in 30 years, Bunny Lampert said, is society’s increasingly open and sex positive attitude, which has influenced how the company talks about its product — at least, in some settings. Nestled away off a single-lane road in the outskirts of a small, conservative city, the Sybian’s farmhouse office and warehouse doesn’t try to draw attention to itself or its mission in the local area.

“We don’t really talk about it in this area,” Bunny said. “We don’t advertise that we’re here. We just do our thing and exist quietly, unless asked about it.”

On the road, however, is a different story. Since hiring a marketing, PR, and consulting firm that works in the sexual wellness industry four years ago, Sybian has become a regular fixture at sexual health conventions, expos, and other related events. This, Bunny says, has helped the company learn the importance of shedding the toy’s original marketing as a masturbation device “for women.” Today, Sybian aims to cater to those of all genders for all kinds of sexual encounters.

“Out in the world there’s more communication about sex in every facet. We’re growing with that change. We’re opening up more about what the Sybian can do for women, men, couples of all genders, everything,” Bunny told Vocativ. “The Sybian has existed in all areas of sexuality forever. It really fits in anywhere people are using and talking about sex. It fits in with those who want to explore kink or BDSM; it fits in anywhere.”

“Ruby the Original” first tried the Sybian on-set for Seymour Butts’ 1998 film “Orgasmatic,” receiving an Adult Video Network nomination in the category of “most outrageous sex scene.” Though Ruby has been retired from the adult industry for 13 years, she has certainly not retired from the Sybian. Gifted one by a close friend, she now keeps it in her closet most of the time — she lives with her children, after all.

“I joke frequently that I will be the only little old lady on the block with a smile on her face,” she said.

Ruby calls the Sybian more of a “special occasion toy” due to both its powerful nature and the logistics of using something so loud. Many users report placing a towel under the Sybian to muffle the sound, but its powerful engines are hard to contain, with thick, rumbly vibrations that can be felt through walls when at its highest setting.

Ruby, however, would likely not own the sex toy if she had to buy it herself. The Sybian — named for an ancient Greek city associated with luxurious living — costs over $1,300 not including various special attachments, though it does come with a five-year warranty, money-back guarantee, and optional layaway plan. Add-ons like the “Triple Delight” for simultaneous clitoral and anal stimulation or a discreet ottoman-shaped storage cabinet, cost extra.

“The Sybian is like an investment in your sexual and healthy lifestyle,” Bunny Lampert said of the product’s cost. “Things that are important to you, you figure out a way.”

 

While a cheaper competitor with a similar design called the MotorBunny emerged in 2015, reviewers say it’s louder and less powerful. Other competitors, like the poorly-reviewed DIY Sybian, have come and gone over the years. “We will remain the one to rise to the top,” Bunny Lampert asserted, noting that Sybian features medical-grade silicone and motor longevity that knock-off models do not.

Though the company does not recommend sharing or renting Sybians due to health and hygiene concerns, there are services that do this — at a cost. Several companies that advertise rentals did not respond to Vocativ’s interview requests (likely because Sybian explicitly prohibits resale in its customer contract). Other low-commitment options that have become popular are Sybian’s used in “play parties” and other sexual social settings.

Ashley Manta, a sexuality educator, keeps a Sybian in the trunk of her car about half the time, “just in case” the opportunity to show it off arises. It happens once in awhile:  Manta is a fairly regular attendee and host of parties, where she said her Sybian (outfitted with Saran wrap, condoms, and wiped down between users) is a true crowdpleaser.

“The Sybian allows you to really experience pleasure in sort of new and novel ways, which can help facilitate orgasms,” she said. “It is a way for the people who are using it — regardless of bodies and genital configurations — to experience new sensations with your body and have control over your experience with the modulated dials. It puts you in the drivers’ seat.”

This kind of intense, highly-controlled experience may also play a role in why the Sybian has become increasingly popular in porn in recent years. On Pornhub, one of the world’s most popular porn “tube sites,” there are now over 2,200 adult videos featuring the masturbation aid. Searches for “Sybian” have also shot up since Pornhub first launched in 2012, according to the company.

As with most porn trends, it’s hard to say for sure why some things become popular. Ruby suggested Sybian’s recent rise in popularity on tube sites might reflect a growing backlash to the porn being produced today.

“Since the industry has gotten as large as it is now, the intimacy level between the performers has dropped, so you really don’t see real orgasms, not like you used to,” she said. “[People] want to see real orgasms. When you find your favorite performer’s Sybian scene you can pretty much guarantee that’s their orgasm.”

Bunny Lampert, who frequently attends events as a Sybian representative, concured.

“I’ve noticed that the Sybian’s really popular with camgirls, who can interact with the people watching them,” she said. “As some of the camgirls rise to the top and get a huge following, they can spend the time and have those real orgasms. It’s a different kind of connection.”

The technological aspect of it that drew people in back in the 1980s — Penthouse Forum’s original cover read “artificial intercourse is here” — may still play a role in its appeal as well.

“I think it’s sort of like the Matrix-y human-plus-machine thing that makes it so hot,” Manta said. “This is an entirely inanimate object that is being used to create and enhance pleasure. So watching someone either take control of their own pleasure or watching someone give up that control to the person who is controlling that device….there’s a power dynamic there that is very sexy.”

Of course, the Sybian isn’t always ideal for everyone or for everyday use, something that people shelling out might want out of an investment.

“Having a huge, powerful saddle positioned in the middle of the room makes a very big statement about what is going on tonight,” said Timaree Schmit, a sexologist who runs the NSFW informational website Sex With Timaree.

Epiphora, sex toy reviewer and blogger at HeyEpiphora.com, doesn’t really use the Sybian she was gifted, and says that some sex toy aficionados consider the toy to be “old school, expensive, and potentially overrated.” Given the awkward kneeling position the toy requires, Epiphora finds it to be incompatible with her own masturbation practices.

“You have to straddle it, which can quickly become uncomfortable for your knees, and meanwhile there’s nowhere to put your hands,” she told Vocativ in an e-mail. (This is part of the reason David Lampert has long recommended using the device with a partner’s aid.)

Several of the 12 people who have tried out her Sybian and signed her corresponding guestbook agree. One entry reads, “I came, but I did not have fun.”

As they say, different strokes for different folks.