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Home / Articles / Special Issues / Sex Issue /  Schlong saga
. . . .
Wednesday, Feb 09, 2011

Schlong saga

The story behind Ocean Beach’s penis-pump innovator

By Dave Maass
sex-pump Dr. Joel Kaplan's business isn't the only thing that's grown.
- Photo by Dave Maass
You can’t miss Dr. Joel Kaplan’s office in Ocean Beach. The windows scream, in capitalized blue and white letters, phrases like “MALE ENHANCEMENT” and “MEN’S HEALTH SUPPLEMENTS & PRODUCTS.”

He gets few visitors just off the street. Kaplan, a clinical psychologist with a Chicago accent, acknowledges that customers tend to be shy and embarrassed. Those who do wander in will find him sitting at his desk in the front room. Nearby is a shelf of products bearing his name and picture—prostate massagers, erection lassos, inflatable anal probes—the “whole shebang,” as he puts it.

His main product, the one that he really stands behind, is his penis vacuum pump, a device available in manual and electric models that he markets as a “penile enlargement system.” His somewhat disorganized office is filled with crates of cylinders of various sizes and shelves containing a variety of head enlargers and vacuum components.

Kaplan is probably the name most associated with the devices—whether it’s spam e-mails or ads in adult magazines or infomercials—that he’s developed and marketed for more than 18 years. He isn’t the one who discovered that vacuum pressure could artificially engorge the penis, but he is the one who recognized the business potential.

In the early 1990s, Kaplan worked as a psychologist in San Francisco, serving mostly gay men, particularly AIDS patients, at the height of the HIV epidemic. As a result of their condition—and the only medication available—many suffered from erectile dysfunction and an inability to ejaculate and had been prescribed penis pumps by their doctors.

“They told me that one of the side effects of using the vacuum-pump device for erectile dysfunction was enlargement—they were getting bigger,” Kaplan says. “And I thought to myself, ‘Well, that’s a pretty nice side effect…. I, myself, tried the pump and I was absolutely amazed. The first time you use the pump, you get much bigger; you get longer and thicker and fuller, especially in the flaccid state.”

So, Kaplan created his own version of the pump, specially designed for the contours of the penis, using California-made parts rather than “Chinese garbage.” He began advertising himself in the Bay Area Reporter,a San Francisco LGBT newspaper, as an erectile-dysfunction therapist. His business doubled when he added the words “penis enlargement” and doubled again when he realized that it would appeal to the heterosexual community and began advertising in the alt-weekly San Francisco Bay Guardian. By the mid-’90s, he’d expanded his reach nationwide, moved his business to San Diego and carried a cell phone at a time when few people could afford the luxury.

“The phones started ringing off the hook,” he says. “I was like, ‘What did I just discover here?’ … Suddenly, I had an explosive business on my hands.”

Although a subject of snickers and skepticism, the penis vacuum pump is widely acknowledged in the medical community—including several well-known urologists at local hospitals—as an effective tool for men suffering from a wide variety of penile problems. The Mayo Clinic has several web pages devoted to its application as a safe alternative to erectile-dysfunction medication and as a form of therapy following prostate surgery. Kaplan is particularly interested in the mental-health aspects.

“I found that the vacuum pump has all these therapeutic usages, especially for self-esteem and body image,” he says. “If a man is embarrassed about his size, it initiates performance anxiety, and that starts a whole vicious cycle.”

He says the device is particularly popular among the body-building crowd, whose penises seem smaller as they build bulk, as well as many obese men who suffer from the “turtle effect.”

Though Kaplan successfully marketed the device as a treatment for curvature of the penis and a way to reverse the shrinkage that comes with aging, he also made some mistakes along the way that kept his business from reaching its own maximum potential.

“I was a little naive, and if I was brilliant and understood the business world, I would have marketed the crap out of this the first four years and I would’ve been able to put my feet up, but a lot of things started happening,” he says. “First of all, people started copying me. They copied my advertisements, they copied my verbiage, they copied my name, they copied everything I’d done. All over the internet, they’re actually selling my product and undercutting my business and it’s very difficult for me to chase down everybody. I’m at the point where I don’t even want to.”

He made it worse for himself and diluted his name by endorsing products put out by mass adult-toy manufacturers. The bigger hit to his business, though, was the introduction of enlargement pills into the market, as well as medications like Cialis and Viagra.

“My business, which was thriving and doing very well, had taken a big hit,” he says. “It’s a good business now, a respectable business, and I help a lot of people, but it’s not the good ol’ days of the middle ’90s.”

These days, Kaplan says he’s still trying to shake the stigma of penis pumps and what that says about him as a doctor.

“A lot of people have tried to degrade me and degrade my business,” he says. “Even in Chicago, I’ll go to a wedding or Bar Mitzvah and it always makes interesting conversation, but people will say, ‘The word is he sells porn toys.’ That’s one thing that’s always bothered me. It’s an FDA-approved medical device, and I help a lot of people.”

Write to davem@sdcitybeat.com and editor@sdcitybeat.com.




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