Where vibrators are born: my trip to Fun Factory in Bremen, Germany!
Touring the factory and making my own dildo at legendary sex toy manufacturer Fun Factory.
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Fun Factory has been a trailblazer in the sex toy industry since their inception. They utilized silicone from the get-go, never trifling with inferior materials. Their designs weren’t cookie-cutter or heterocentric; they were whimsical, non-phallic, cast in bright colors and marketed with playfulness. In today’s hyper-modern, ultra-enlightened sex toy landscape, these choices may not seem noteworthy — but Fun Factory was founded in 1996, and I assure you things were very different then.
Pull up the 1996 version of any sex shop website and you’ll see what I mean. There are products named “Jelly Big Boy” and “Don Juan.” A sea of corded battery packs. Product copy that is downright painful. “This soft, pliable jelly rubber has bubbles under the surface, giving it a carbonated appearance,” reads one dildo description. The blurb for a set of anal beads explains: “Five plastic beads strung together on a nylon cord. As much fun to pull out as they are to insert! (For maximum comfort, file down seams on the beads before playing with them.)” Tell me you didn’t just gasp.
Sure, I knew Fun Factory made their sex toys in a single factory in a little town called Bremen, Germany, but I didn’t have any concept of what that meant until I was there, standing across the river from it.
I’d never flown across the Atlantic before, never been to Europe. I’m an introvert, so I have to be pushed into things. And I was: I was given the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to visit Bremen and take a tour of Fun Factory. I’m not able to divulge why — it’s top secret. But I was invited along with a group of sex educators, therapists, and shop owners. When I got the email with the details, I couldn’t believe it. It’s the stuff of dreams, to read the words “all expenses paid.” I’m still astonished I was considered important enough to fly all the way from America.
In preparation for the trip, Kristen Tribby (Head of Global Marketing and Education at Fun Factory) thoughtfully supplied a list of tips and advice, making my anxiety-riddled heart so happy. She reassured me I didn’t need to know much German to get by and sent helpful notes on packing, jet lag, tipping, and miscellaneous info such as “saunas in Germany are co-ed, and it’s very normal to be naked in the sauna” and “bread (eat all of it!)”
I acquired poweradapters, taught myself to say “ich möchte” (I would like), and my partner and I boarded a plane for the longest day of travel in our history. It was a 9-hour flight from Portland to Amsterdam, followed by a brutal 6-hour layover.
In my body, it was midnight; in Amsterdam, it was 8 am. The sun was streaming through the windows, taunting us. So we got alcohol. My partner was stoked to drink Heineken in its city of origin. They asked him if he wanted it “ice cold or regular.”
Finally, it was time for our short hopper to Flughafen Bremen. They fed us stroopwafels and cups of “still water” on the flight, delivering us barely alive to Germany.
We stayed at the Steigenberger hotel, a gorgeous establishment on the banks of the Weser River. It’s in the Walle district, the former dockworkers’ quarter in west Bremen. There’s a sauna on the top floor, a bar with swanky mood lighting, an espresso machine in the room that wigged me out hardcore, and most importantly, a HOTEL CAT. His name is Leo and he likes to hang out on the luggage cart in the lobby. He is orange and scrappy and I love him. Nothing makes me feel at home like a cat. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: every hotel should have one.
With only online maps to judge by, it’s hard to gauge distances between things. But as I peered out the large window from our room on the 5th floor, I realized Fun Factory really was right there. Outside the Steigenberger is a grassy terrace, then a cobblestone promenade running parallel to the Weser. On the other side of that river is the place where orgasmic dreams come true.
I’m not sure what people picture when they hear “vibrator factory,” but it’s probably not this. Fun Factory could be almost any company, with its generic white buildings and non-descript red logo. From across the Weser, you can barely make out a line of colorful blobs on the company’s storage building. Those are sex toys, but most people wouldn’t know it.
After a walk across the pedestrian bridge (watch out for bikes!) and down some cobblestone paths, you arrive at the Fun Factory campus. Spanning 140,000 square feet, it includes several large buildings for production, storage, shipping, product development, and management. There’s even a cute “canteen” where employees can eat or get meals at a reduced cost. Everything is unassuming from the outside, with nothing alluding to the company’s risqué nature.
Inside the buildings, though, Fun Factory is proud of their products and their brand. When you enter, a giant inflatable Patchy Paul (the company’s mascot) greets you in the lobby, alongside artistic sculptures made of silicone scraps and deconstructed toys.
Display cases show off the many strange and wonderful designs that have been released in the 20+ years of the company. Anyone else remember the astrology line?
As you climb the stairs, each set is adorned with decals of classic toys.
It’s a cheery, modern building with rooms illuminated by natural light, floor-to-ceiling windows, and gorgeous views of the Weser River. These are the rooms in which the latest and greatest Fun Factory designs are born.
It’s a place for business, obviously, but also a place for fun. On one counter, a cupid statue holds the Amorino vibrator like a bow and arrow. A seating area nearby consists of bean bag chairs in the company’s signature red. Oh yeah, and there’s a specially-designed table for racing the thrusting Stronic toys. OBVIOUSLY.
Fun Factory manufactures their own proprietary machinery, so we were advised not to take photos of it. But it was fascinating to see the way the vibrators come together, both mechanically and by human hand. Employees are hard at work, each doing their individual jobs — using a special device to snap control panels onto vibrators, gluing handles onto silicone shafts, popping kegel balls out of a mold. There are no assembly lines here. Machines do some of the work, but people do a lot of it.
In total, there are 85 people who work at the Bremen headquarters. They have staff BBQs by the water throughout the year, at one point even playing a game of human-sized foosball. (I’m told the Americans won and the Germans are still salty about it.)
A bucket list highlight of the tour was getting to make my own dildo. At first, it was a cinch: I merely had to press a button to dispense liquid silicone against the side of a mold. The mold of the day was Dolly Dolphin, a vintage shape they only use for special visitors. You can’t buy this dildo in a store. After it cured, I pulled the dildo out of the mold with my bare hands. That was a challenge, but I eventually emerged victorious.
We met the founders of the company, Michael Pahl and Dirk Bauer. Michael, the head engineer, showed us an array of vibrator motors, including the tiniest one I’ve ever seen. I guarantee you it doesn’t feel good on your junk.
At one point during the tour we were watching an employee deftly glue handles onto Lady Bi vibrators, and they asked if anyone wanted to try. I volunteered instantly. It was not as easy as the workers made it look — obviously a precise skill that must be honed. I didn’t do very well and they had to wipe up the excess glue. Then, to my horror/delight, they put the glued toy in the bin with all the completed ones. So, somewhere in the world, there’s a red Lady Bi that I GLUED TOGETHER!
On average, 3,000 wholesale Fun Factory toys are manufactured each day — and twice that number on high-demand days. Looking around, I was struck by the realization that every single Fun Factory toy I own — over 40, at this point — came from this factory in Bremen. A human being hand-glued my toy together, and another packaged it up, and it flew all the way across the ocean and into my vagina. This is where it all came from. I mean, what a wonderous thing.
Bremen is a city of 570,000, but it has a quaint feel. Before this trip, I could not have told you how to pronounce it (bray-men) or locate it on a map (Northern Germany). The city’s claim to fame is the Brothers Grimm fairy tale “Town Musicians of Bremen,” and as such, the musicians are everywhere, in every form imaginable.
It was October, and, we were told, unusually warm for that time of year. It was brisk and sunny, very Portland-like. My wardrobe was perfect for it.
My partner and I visited the Marktplatz with its ancient, towering buildings and farmers’ market. We got erbsensuppe mit wiener (pea soup) from a food cart. Some guy had wheeled a grand piano into the square and was playing a jazzy tune. In front of city hall, the statue of the town musicians was extremely popular; we waited for tourists to disperse and then touched the hooves for good luck.
Later, we wandered the historic and picturesque Schnoor, getting lost in its narrow cobblestone streets that wind like a maze. It feels like being in a movie set, or traveling back in time. Utterly gorgeous. In one shop, I was elated to find a handmade wool walrus to add to my collection.
We had dinner in the Schnoor at the cozy Kleiner Olymp, with its door open onto the tiny street. I ate the best french onion soup I may ever experience: dripping with provolone, packed with slices of soft onion, featuring an entire layer of bread at the bottom. My god.
Food is what I remember most vividly about Bremen. I think about Erdnussflips, glorious corn puffs that taste like peanuts. I think about room service at the hotel, wiener schnitzel for him and currywurst for me: pre-sliced sausage slathered in delicious ketchup, with a side of impeccably crispy fries. It was out of this world, probably the best room service food I’ve ever eaten. And I had no access to weed on this trip, so you know I’m for real.
My greatest fantasy, though, is about the biergarten. Take a short stroll down the promenade (watch out for bikes, again!) and you’ll arrive at a bunch of tents and tables along the Weser River.
Here, you can buy bratwurst for only €3,5. It’s a long skinny sausage fresh off the grill, slapped onto the most succulent and perfectly crunchy bun, mustard drizzled along its length. I can’t do it justice with words. Every time I have an American hot dog now, I get so upset by how shitty it is.
During the trip, my partner took a guided tour of the Beck’s brewery, which just so happens to be a quarter mile away from Fun Factory. He fell in love with Haake Beck, a full-bodied pilsner, and proceeded to order it constantly at the biergarten. I drank my usual pinot grigio and we spent several afternoons and evenings there, chatting, scarfing bratwurst, and taking in the scenery.
When we reminisce about Bremen today, we go straight to the biergarten. It makes sense why it was on Fun Factory’s list of suggestions, and aptly described: “have a beer and a sausage and look at the water. Marvel at what a good life you lead.”
Fun Factory treated our group like royalty, at one point taking us out to a 3-course dinner at a fancy restaurant that was open only for us. I have no idea what I ate, but lentils and goat cheese were involved and it was incredible. Outside, I smoked my first cigarette since I was a teenager with Frederic Walme, the CEO of Fun Factory USA, chatting until locals yelled out their windows at us to shut up.
On another night, we took a charming trolley ride through the city that ended in a private museum tour. The exhibit was called “What is Love? From Amor to Tinder.” One art piece was a fake finger programmed to automatically swipe right on a phone. On our excursions, everyone seemed to know who “we” were — the moment our tour guide realized we represented Fun Factory, she started fondly telling us about a toy of theirs that she owned for years.
On a different day, as my partner and I were wandering around near the Hauptbahnhof (train station), I spied a sex shop. Of course, we had to go in.
Even in a foreign country, I have a level of comfort when I enter a sex shop. It’s not the forbidden rush it might be for other people. Erotika-Shop turned out to be a pretty standard shop, stocked with toys from each end of the spectrum. Well, maybe not so much the high-end ones. There was a lot of plastic-wrapped weirdness. But they did have a huge Fun Factory selection, including some discontinued items that almost tempted me into spending money. The guy working there was very kind, and he was thrilled to learn I was in town because of Fun Factory.
Being in this industry, there’s an immediate sense of connection when you’re around like-minded people. During the trip, I got a lot closer to Kristen at Fun Factory; she’s a kindred queer spirit and so fun to talk to. I also hung out with industry veteran Vic, another lovely queer and fellow hater of the same things I hate. For example, the concept of “couples’ toys.” I have fond memories of eating a Syrian feast with them, musing over the the peculiarities of sex toy retail and laughing at the absurdity of Adrien Lastic products. (Some of them are beyond.)
And I met the incredibly sweet Vera Lui and Picco Chu, owners of Sally Coco in Hong Kong. It was heartwarming to hear them tell their story — they met each other after dissatisfying relationships, and when Picco bought a vibrator for Vera, it changed the course of both their lives. Now they have four sex shops in Hong Kong, all of them breathtaking. Vera and I bonded over our shared experiences with the Womanizer. “The Womanizer is a fast toy like McDonald’s,” she said, summing it up perfectly. “Some people like fast food. Others might prefer French fine dining.”
There’s so much more I could tell you about this trip: how barebones the grocery store felt, how much better the street musicians were, what it was like to experience the sauna (and the view) at the top of the hotel, how Leo die Katze greeted us when we awoke obscenely early to catch our flight home.
Then there’s a lot of stuff I can’t capture in words. Mostly the feeling of walking down the promenade by the river, holding my partner’s hand, thinking what a funny world this is that I’m here all because I have opinions about sex toys.
I understand now why Fun Factory often reminds us that their toys are made in Germany. It matters. Visiting Bremen gave me a whole new appreciation for the operation. Jokes are sometimes made at their expense, like, “oh, Germans,” but you can’t deny their commitment to their mission. Especially after they flew me all the way across the dang ocean to see it for myself.
Now if they could just figure out how to include a side of fries with their toys, or a bratwurst from the biergarten, that’d be great, because I’m dying over here.