The King of Kink
Joel Tucker was a nice college kid headed for academia. Then he discovered S&M sex toys - and became an underground icon
~ By DONNELL ALEXANDER ~
Being an online business in the years before the World Wide Web had been invented meant that you were communicating almost exclusively through text. These were newsgroups, e-mail, FTP sites, and so our catalog didn't have pictures in it," says Joel Tucker, the JT in internet sex toy manufacturer and distributor JT's Stockroom.
"The descriptions of the product had to be very clear and easily understandable. And also, they had to give people a sense that whoever was on the other end of this was a reputable, honest businessperson, because this was also the early days of e-commerce, and the idea of sending someone a credit card on the Internet was very strange. Nothing much happened at first."
JT looks and sounds a lot like a university professor, albeit one certain undergrads go all crushy on. Jacket, no tie at his Sunset office desk on a Friday afternoon. Dark eyes serious and piercing, Tucker would fit the bill nearly to the point of cliché were it not for the purple Teletubbie on the shelf just over Tucker's left shoulder. Or the Oscar Wilde action figure, still in its packaging - mint condition.
But the stuff that really reveals what JT is and does is happening just beyond the 38-year-old Occidental College grad's other shoulder. On the floor below, local folk who apparently speak English as a second language are assembling leather cuffs - punching holes, adding rivets - in assembly line fashion. A level above them, artisans braid leather, work latex, and otherwise put together some of the high-end product that customers of The Stockroom have come to depend on over the last 17 years. It might take weeks to fully quantify the containers of zippered masks, snappy whips, and sleek vibrators that occupy the operation's three broad floors of warehouse. And the worldwide kink crowd loves JT for it.
"When Babeland opened its Soho store we needed some really high-quality leather and S&M items, and we knew to go to JT's Stockroom," says Rachael Reilly, senior buyer for the Seattle-based retailer Babeland, a seller of things bondage and discipline and sadomasochism (BDSM). "They were great. They sent some beautiful slings out to us so that our BDSM garden was blossoming for the store opening.
"I think folks like Joel who are active in the kink community really do know the difference between just a BDSM toy and a really wonderful, handcrafted piece that is going to be treasured by its users and their lucky play partners."
Tucker's enterprise - which outgrew its Hyperion warehouse earlier this year - grossed about $5 million in 2004, employs 38 workers, maintains a publishing imprint, and tentatively plans to open a leather clothing store inside its building on Sunset in January. But there's no getting around the fact that this intellectual traffics in bondage gear and dildos. For a midwest native whose family roots skew toward agriculture and academia, this is complicated business.
"About two years ago I was at a family reunion and I heard someone say, 'You know, in this family, if you've got a master's degree you're a dropout.' Which was a joke, but there's an element of truth to that," Tucker says. "My father has always been very supportive of me being what I want to be and doing what I want to do. My mother was a little more freaked out."
As is the case with any marketplace adventurer, it took a few forces beyond JT's will to define the terms of his success.
An Awesome Set of Tools
The very first sex toy Tucker sold was self-produced, which is odd, considering he was the most useless farmhand his father ever had.
It was 1989, toward the end of Tucker's time at Occidental, when he and his girlfriend Elayne walked into a Hollywood sex shop, hoping to purchase a pair of leather wrist cuffs and a few other toys. His girlfriend, who'd had a detailed life-size pair of angel wings tattooed to her back three years earlier, was more experienced than he and had begun helping Tucker explore the impulses he'd felt since age 13. The Oxy junior had $50 of his parents' money with which to indulge this new hobby of kinky sex.
However, upon arriving at the bondage section, the 21-year-old quickly noticed that the cuffs he wanted cost a lot more than $50. What's more, recreation seemed do-able for a fraction of the cost. His girlfriend had an awesome set of leatherworking tools, which she kept at her crib in a box about the size of a Doc Martens boot box. Elayne owned a mallet, hole-punch, rivet-setter, strap-cutter, and swab, for leather dye. And she was eager to share.
Between classes, Tucker went to work on his project. He took a two-inch wide strip of leather and cut it into foot-long pieces, then threw a plate staple on one end and slots on the other. The first couple were throwaways, but he soon came up with two cuffs good enough to satisfy both Elayne and himself. These early pieces were a little screwy - the straps weren't squared off and the hand-punched slots were slightly irregular - but in their child-like simplicity they were undeniably functional. And after he tossed a fair amount of ruined leather in the trash, JT figured maybe his friends - off-campus compadres he came to know through a local kink network called Threshold - would be onboard.
Those cuffs went for $16. People wanted them and JT made a profit. First his confections sold by word-of-mouth, then through use-net groups. A year later, Tucker graduated with a degree in political science (and a minor in English) and he kept his Occidental e-mail address. Most schools weren't yet issuing these, and even the majority of Occidental students weren't using theirs. (Back then, who would the average student talk to online?)
Through a group called alt.sex.bondage.org, Tucker began publicizing and selling his wares and by 1990 JT had established a full-time trade, albeit one still funded largely from his parents' minimal support. He got a bigger apartment, then a Hollywood Boulevard office that year, near the Frederick's of Hollywood building. But he had no insurance and his phone bill was through the roof. So, nine months in, he decided to re-load. He moved back to the Tucker family farm outside Carbondale, Illinois. JT's Stockroom survived in cyberspace on the shoulders of a dial-up connection and an AT&T long-distance rate of $.27 per minute. Joel Tucker's dad told him: Don't worry, it's cool.
All in the Family
JT's father is an unusual man, and he's downstairs in the Stockroom break room.
An economist who's taught at Occidental and the University of Southern Illinois, Lloyd Tucker is at the warehouse on this September day because he'd been staying at his son's property in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina did damage. "I realized I had to get out a day-and-a-half before the hurricane hit," he says. Then Lloyd Tucker biked up an 18-mile Mississippi River path and out of storm's way. A few days later, JT brought his old man back to Los Angeles.
The elder Tucker doesn't recall any particular doubt or skepticism regarding JT's budding business when he moved back home to Illinois.
An even younger JT, while not so remarkable in the vegetable fields, looked to be one helluva businessman. At nine, he could add up sales figures and make change in the marketplace, which mattered a lot considering the produce game's low profit margin. Perhaps most significantly, people thought he was cute and related to him with ease. The best marketing aspect this son of an academic-gone-hayseed brought to the table? Homemade ice cream that his grandmother whipped up and the little rascal sold by the roadside.
Lloyd Tucker, who has long been divorced, encouraged his young adult son to keep his eye on the ball.
"There was a period when we both thought it would be a long time before it would make him minimum wage," says JT's dad. The Stockroom's presence online was such in the early '90s that a reasonable offer of purchase emerged. Joel was tempted, according to his father. But Lloyd Tucker recommended against it. "I thought he'd regret it if he did sell."
Like his profs and peers, JT's dad thought him a prodigy. Joel Tucker's college girlfriend, now a New Orleans tattoo artist who goes by the name Elayne Angel - and counts Lenny Kravitz among her many hundreds of clients - says even his self-impugned leather-working skills are remarkable.
"I was impressed by both young Joel's natural facility with the tools and equipment (and his talents for putting them to use) in addition to his enthusiasm," Elayne writes in an e-mail. "I must say that, for all of Joel's evident intelligence and talent, I certainly had NO IDEA that he would parlay those early efforts into such a tremendously large and successful adult toy business! He definitely had vision, and possibly even precognition about the eventual popularity and scope of the Internet!"
The Stockroom website - and its print catalogues - are peopled by amazing-looking models, elegant design, and sex toys links that the company's CEO can read like naughty tea leaves. He's flipping through the Top 25 best-sellers in an effort to answer the question of why S&M practitioners tend to be college-educated and relatively well-off financially. First off, he thinks a person has to have a lot going on upstairs to even imagine the possibilities of such gear.
"If we're trying to draw conclusions about The Stockroom demographic or The Stockroom customer from looking at this list, I would say you look at this first item and a lot of these items are either S&M or bondage gear. But pretty quickly you already get to the second item and that's a cock ring, it's a gummy cock ring. That's kind of a fun, friendly product that anyone would play with, any man anyway. And that's more of a mainstream sexual product. Here's the Universal Nipple Enlarger Kit, which was sort of a surprise hit. It's something that I thought might be more of a niche product, but it actually turned out to be a strong seller. It's just a suction device that sucks the nipple out, and you roll a rubber ring down onto the nipple, and if you were to do this every day, eventually you can get some slight body modification, nipples out more. So it's just something apparently a lot of people have an interest in.
"We had some blue jelly anal beads that I thought they'd do fine, but I didn't know that they'd rocket up into the Top 10. Something about the color, the jelly material was new at that time. Here they are, number 13 currently."
Tucker's genuine enthusiasm for what he puts out into the world has been integral to his success. From the farmhouse days to his 1995 leap from a 1,200-square-foot live-work space on Russell Avenue to the 7,500-square-foot warehouse on Hyperion to The Stockroom's present 30,000-square-foot digs, the energy he devotes to his particular niche of sex toys has not flagged. Tucker's business associates say disdain among manufacturers and retailers in his industry is more common than one might think.
"They don't care. What's worse, they may have a low opinion of the customer," says the writer Midori, whose The Wild Side of Sex is published by Daedalus. The San Francisco-based sex educator says a key to the success of The Stockroom and her publisher is that "they actually do care about the experience."
"I guess some people get into the business just because they see it as easy money," Tucker says, "As opposed to having a little more idealistic motivation that involves helping people to actualize their sexual fantasies and lead more fulfilling lives.
"That was part of [starting] it: The combination of the interesting sex, the sense of having an idealistic mission - it's a community of people that, especially in the '80s, was considered very taboo," he adds. "And kind of dark and scary to a lot of people, and I didn't see it that way. I thought it was fine. I was in college at a liberal school, and we're talking a lot about sexism and racism and homophobia, and how we shouldn't be sexist and we shouldn't be homophobic and we shouldn't be racist, and in my mind I kind of extended that same kind of liberal thinking to kink. You know, there's kink-phobia out there."
Tucker says that, despite the phobia, kink has entered the mainstream. You can hear a spanking joke on a sitcom now. The censors have moved on. It happened gradually, but somewhere before Marilyn Manson and rubber clothing as mall items, S&M and kink got cloaked in, well, if not innocuousness then something less than alarm. Tucker has his own thoughts on the matter.
"Culturally, the gay community sort of led the way," he says. "There were some watershed moments. One of them was the Madonna Sex book. I'm not sure if she really kicked off the sea change in the culture, maybe she just got in at the ground floor of something that was going to happen anyway, but that Sex book was somebody who was a mainstream cultural icon bringing out some kink underground imagery. It was at a moment when it was just starting to break the surface of American consciousness."
The shift in attitude is most evident on college campuses, where Tucker often speaks to students.
"In the old days, we would do a presentation and talk about how this can be safe, sane, and consensual - trying to dispel some of the myths about the sado-masochistic killer in the dark alleys and that sort of thing. We would get to the end of the presentation and we would open it up for questions, and the first questions would be 'So do you all have sex with animals?' 'Do you worship Satan?' Things like that. In 2005, we can give the same presentation at the same college for the same class and the same professor. The first question would be 'So what was the phone number for that club, because I want to go to one of those parties.' And they're saying this in front of their peers."
But the question must be asked: Aren't there some forms of kink that are simply unacceptable, in or out of the mainstream? Like scat? Or golden showers? The kind of adult films where people die in the end - for real?
"Kink is for consenting adults, first of all," Tucker says, exasperation making a rare and faint appearance. "So if they're not adults, or if it's not consensual, then that's not what we're talking about when we say kink. Those things would be statutory rape, kidnapping, murder, dark things. Those are things I might not personally want to do or see, but if it's done between consenting adults then that's their business, as far as I'm concerned. There aren't that many products associated with those activities, so it's not that big of an issue. We do sell some enema gear. But you can buy enema gear at Rite Aid."
The Political Position
More than a half a dozen times a year, the founder of JT's Stockroom heads off to a trade convention, leaving COO Joe Jankowsky to mind the shop. Oftentimes, by the end of these conventions, all the dildos begin to look the same, the sellers start melding into the same person, and the enthusiasts become a bit too enthusiastic.
"You go to these kink conventions and talk to some people and think, "You're a little too into this," Tucker says. "But that could be a Star Trek convention. Or it could be fishing."
As much as his customer base might dream up compelling things to do with hooks, Tucker's business is very distinctly not fishing. The game remains controversial. So, when The Stockroom store finally comes to Silver Lake, it will have some clothing, some lingerie, some collars, leashes. The fare will resemble what you might find in a costume shop. But if zoning laws allowed for JT's greatest hits, would they be here?
"Absolutely," Tucker says. "If we don't, it's because of the chilling effect or those zoning laws, which I consider to be unconstitutional. But we don't really feel like spending $300,000 on a Supreme Court case to prove that point."
Kinky sex has made great strides, but not where municipal law is concerned, as it's still against the law to sell sex toys in certain parts of town. Most parts of town, actually. Aside from the Hustler Store, which is in the city of West Hollywood, local retailers are located in industrial areas, or else they've been grandfathered in from that period preceding the 1984 Olympics, when the city sought to pretty up its image.
It almost goes without saying that the founder of JT's Stockroom finds Section 12.70 of the Los Angeles Municipal Code offensive.
"The way that Los Angeles and many other municipalities have dealt with adult retail businesses, which we're not, incidentally, is that they say that type of business is legal, except for everywhere. In other words, it's not technically illegal to run an adult entertainment business in Los Angeles, but the zoning is so restrictive that it's very difficult to find a suitable location. They've essentially declared war on the industry."
Representatives of the Los Angeles Planning Department did not respond to CityBeat calls as this story went to press.
The personal is the political, or so the saying goes. And it doesn't get a lot more personal than the positions taken by Los Angeles' main emissary of the estimated $200-million-a-year bondage sex toy industry. (Estimates for sex toys overall top out at $1 billion a year, according to TopTenReviews.com.) Joel Tucker may be the goodwill king of the leather harness set, but when it comes to the health of his industry he's as ruthless as Bill Gates with a cat o' nine tails.
"We are a kink-related sex products company, and so we're pro-kink," says Tucker. "And that is, to a certain extent, a political position."
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