When you hear what Rick Gellert has been doing with himself the past few years, you may want to give him a hand.
Gellert has turned a lifelong hobby into a business, invented a peculiar little machine that he believes could transform the institution of marriage and slow the spread of AIDS, and made men all over the country so happy they can hardly contain themselves.
And he's done it all by masturbating.
A self-taught inventor who lives with his wife and teenage son in Arlington Heights, 42-year-old Gellert explains that "I like to have between five and a dozen orgasms a week. I've always looked for better ways to have a good orgasm." His wife of 18 years, Karen Gellert, is decidedly less hungry--one big boom a week is enough for her--but both remain firmly committed to their marriage. Years ago, Rick realized that the key to marital harmony was in his hands.
When that got boring, he started feeling around for alternatives, first hitting on swimming pool equipment. "I played around a lot trying to see if nozzles and jets could do the trick," Gellert says in the matter-of-fact tone another person might use to direct you to the bread aisle of the grocery store. It's the same tone Gellert uses to recount every step of his evolution from part-time masturbation hobbyist to full-time president of 3S Corporation of America, the Wheeling-based manufacturer of Venus II, the industry leader among men's masturbation machines. "You hear about women using the bathtub spigot to provide a clitoral orgasm," he says. "So my idea was to make a suction device that produces the same effect for men."
Swimming pool parts didn't satisfy (good news for the managers of your local YMCA), so Gellert pressed on. As might be expected of such a pursuit, he worked alone. But in 1992 Gellert closed in on his dream when he hooked up with Siberian mechanical engineer Valentin Tsitrin. Both were volunteering for Ross Perot's presidential campaign, the most lavish act of political masturbation in recent memory.
Tsitrin wasn't as dedicated to self-stimulation as Gellert, but he knew a good engineering challenge when he saw one. "I'm a designer in my heart and soul," says Tsitrin, who is 54 and emigrated to Chicago with his wife and two daughters in 1978. "I had never designed something like that, so from a professional point of view it was a good project."
With Tsitrin's engineering know-how and Gellert's apparently inexhaustible fascination with masturbation, the dream machine became reality. After nearly a year of research and development in which they built, tried, and tested more than two dozen prototypes--"Orgasm seems to be a direct result of how many inches per second the surface of the skin is moving," Gellert says--the Wright brothers of masturbation finally took flight on November 9, 1993, when they sold their first machine, to a friend of one of Gellert's neighbors.
What they sold the man and still sell today is a plastic briefcase with a small motor bolted to the inside. Attached to the motor is a rubber hose, and attached to that is a plastic cylinder two or three times the size of a man's erect penis. It's called the receiver and it looks like a bong. Before getting started the user blows into another tube to pressurize the air between the cylinder and a flexible rubber liner. Then he lubricates the rubber sleeve, slides in, and turns up the speed. It's a real-life version of Woody Allen's Orgasmatron, but small enough to fit in an airplane's overhead baggage compartment.
A year after perfecting Venus II the partners say they have sold close to 500 machines--which, at $1,095 a whack, is pretty remarkable. Especially when their top competitor, the hand, costs nothing and doesn't have to be cleaned out with a bottle brush after each use.
But Venus II's users say their hands are no match for what the masturbation machine can do. "The closest thing I can compare it to is a good blow job," says Tony, a private investor in Chicago who says he has used his Venus II more than 60 times. "The sensation is similar but you don't have the turn-on factor of having somebody there doing it to you. But look, it's durable as hell, it runs forever, it doesn't get tired, it doesn't complain, you don't have to take it out to dinner."
Tony says that one of the best things about Venus II is its variable-speed knob. Venus II can tease the penis slowly and gently at 20 strokes per minute, or be torqued up to a scary 350 strokes per minute, which is probably a little bit like having sex with Tom Arnold on a caffeine binge. The enormous range of possibilities in between can be manipulated according to your mood.
Here's word from another frequently satisfied customer: "Venus II is the Rolls-Royce of masturbation machines," says Gary Griffin, Palm Springs-based author of 11 books on male sexuality and editor of a newsletter called Penis Power Quarterly. "It simulates the sensation of a real orifice--the inner lining of Venus II is very sensuous. You'll think you're walking on the moon it's so good.
"Yes, men can use their hands, but there is always a need for something new and different. People get bored with vanilla ice cream if they get it every day, too. Men get bored with their hand--that's why they go and find partners."
Even though he's an investor in the Texas company that makes Miracle Mate, Venus II's leading mechanical competitor, Griffin admits that "I always tell people, if you want the genuine sensation of a mouth or vagina, go for Venus II. I'm not in this for the money."
In the college journalism classes I teach, I tell students that a good reporter takes every story to the wall. Whatever you have to do to get the story right you do. I once sat for 90 minutes in the rain outside a North Shore mansion with a Siberian husky sniffing my crotch while I waited for the woman inside to sober up and sit for an interview. I howled at the moon late at night with a smarmy nightclub owner. I interrogated a weary and troubled AIDS patient who was accused of setting fire to the Iowa hospice where he had gone to die.
None of that prepared me for the moment when Rick Gellert, the Masturbation Man, turned to me and said, "What size is your penis?"
Take away my membership in the men's club if you must, but I honestly didn't know. This was a problem, because Gellert instinctively knew that to do the story right I'd need experience with his product, and he wanted to send me home with a demo model. The key to Venus II is the receiver: a tight fit is crucial. Receivers come in three sizes.
"Oh, just give me the medium-sized one," I blurted out as casually as I could manage.
"Can't do that, Dennis. If it doesn't fit you right, it won't do you any good."
So Gellert sent me home with a form I could use to fax him the diameter and length of my most prized possession. The form sat on my desk for days while I thought about getting out the tape measure. Did I really want to (1) measure it, and (2) fax those measurements out over the phone lines? Would those numbers come back to haunt me someday?
And most of all: what if medium-sized was too big?
Finally, five days of tension gave way to sweet release. It's not the size that counts, after all, it's what you do with it. And I was doing my job with it. I quickly measured in both directions and faxed the form to Gellert.
Karen Gellert is a pleasant, curly-haired 40-year-old mom who's been married to the same man for 18 years. Most workdays she staffs the phone, dispatching heating and air-conditioning repair crews from the kitchen of the Gellerts' rectangular brick house in Arlington Heights. Sometimes she puts in a few hours doing clerical work at the 3S Corporation office three miles away in a small-business incubator development in Wheeling.
The Gellerts' living room is dominated on one end by a massive set of bookcases housing a 30-inch television, waist-high speakers, and CDs by the likes of Mary Chapin-Carpenter and Dan Fogelberg. An electronic Gameboy sits on the carpet in front of the TV. A few pictures of their son, a high school senior who, Rick Gellert says, "is big into the guitar," are scattered here and there. They used to breed their Cairn terriers Spuds and Trixie, but they've given that up. The house is quiet and tidy, a snapshot of middle-American life. That's all Rick and Karen Gellert ever wanted.
He says: "I'm really just looking for a comfortable middle-class life-style, with a little more vacations and free time than I've had. I'm not looking to be a mogul of sex machines."
She says: "Hopefully Rick's machine will make us a nice living, if he can sell enough of them. So far it would appear there is a market for something like that, which surprises me."
Karen was born and raised in Chicago, Rick in Saint Louis. Both ended up in the northwest suburbs as teenagers, and they married in their 20s. Rick says their sex drives were mismatched from the start. Karen says "I don't know if he ever really said anything about it. It just kind of became apparent as the years went by. I won't say he's obsessed with sex, but it's always been a very important part of his life. We've had problems about it, but nothing major."
Before masturbation was Rick's profession, he tinkered with mechanical things. A high school graduate with a smattering of college-level electronics courses, he has launched several small companies, usually centered on his own inventions. One company was going to perfect an ozone generator to purify swimming pool water but never got going. Then came a venture that produced electricity from natural gas from a suburban landfill. He ran that for a few years, generating about $750,000 in sales before selling it in 1987. Another Gellert enterprise designed specialized ice dispensers used for racehorses' delicate legs. In 1984 Gellert bought out the heating and air-conditioning contractor he was working for; that company was the family's bread and butter until this fall, when Rick sold it.
Along the way Gellert also dabbled in politics. He was a dedicated volunteer in Perot's United We Stand, America organization during the 1992 presidential election, and last spring he ran for mayor in Arlington Heights, calling for a low-tech, localized version of Perot's famous electronic town meetings. Gellert invested one week and about $1,000 in the campaign, and came in fourth out of four with 183 votes.
"My intentions were too noble for the political establishment," Gellert says, parroting Perot. And besides, "it's probably a damn good thing I wasn't elected mayor." Voters are used to politicians who are jerk-offs, but they might not go for one who's in the business of jerking off.
Pool cleaners to politics, Gellert had tried a little bit of everything. If he wanted to get anywhere as an entrepreneur he needed to focus. Find something he did well and stick with it. The answer was obvious: masturbation. He'd been doing it a few times a week since the summer before eighth grade, he says, long enough to know the ropes. With all those years of experience, Gellert was convinced masturbation could be improved. Early in 1992 he started his first serious attempts to build a masturbation machine. The first version was little more than a small motor attached to an air cylinder to create pumping action.
"Originally it was just something I thought I'd work on for myself, because I was constantly experimenting with ways to have a good orgasm," Gellert says. "It didn't take too long to dawn on me that if I had that need, many other people might also. So I figured, why not research it really thoroughly and see if I wasn't able to produce a machine that would be superior to anything on the market."
His research turned up various existing models, all of which Gellert tested himself. First came the Pocket Pussy, "which is very popular but is just a step up from masturbation; it's a clean receptacle to ejaculate into," he says. Robo-Suck, imported from Taiwan, is a motorized device with several metal fingers that move an erect penis up and down. Gellert test-drove Robo-Suck for 45 minutes before becoming "absolutely convinced that it couldn't even get an adolescent boy off." For $30, there's an oral-sex simulator that a man operates by squeezing a hand-held bulb. Gary Griffin says that one is too labor-intensive. "You have to squeeze it so much that your hand becomes tired and you lose all erotic interest," he says.
Besides, Gellert's goal was a completely hands-free masturbation machine. That would leave one hand for turning the pages of Hustler and another for working the VCR remote. Convinced that nothing already on the market did the job, Gellert decided to throw himself into building the best-ever masturbation machine. But he didn't get very far before Val Tsitrin came along. Tsitrin, a veteran of the Soviet army with a master's degree in mechanical engineering, was working at the time for a Chicago-area company designing assembly-line machines. At a Perot campaign event Gellert and Tsitrin talked over their mutual interest in engineering, and Gellert said he might need some part-time engineering help. When Tsitrin found out what Gellert was asking him to work on, he recalls, "I said, 'Well, I have to think about that, it's such an unusual offer.' To tell you the truth, I wasn't really interested in this field whatsoever."
Tsitrin turned the idea over in his head for a few months, though, and finally decided it posed some interesting engineering questions. He was especially concerned with durability: "We need the machine to last for two million cycles, which in normal use is about 20 years if the person uses it a couple of times a week for ten minutes at average speed."
After he got laid off, in December 1992, Tsitrin signed on with Gellert full-time. "It started making a lot of sense to me," he says. "You are designing for people who really want the device, and secondly it is a great device that doesn't give people any diseases and is good for people who can't have a normal sex life because they are divorced or too busy or have some problems."
Initially a little bit embarrassed about getting into the masturbation business, Tsitrin has come to believe that 3S Corporation's product is potentially good for society. "If one person will avoid, let's say, deadly AIDS with our product, that's worth all our efforts," he says. "If you can save one life, and I'm absolutely sure that we will save at least one life down the road, then I'm happy doing it."
The box showed up on my front porch two days after I faxed my stats to Gellert. A brown box the size of a laundry basket, with a few mailing labels pasted on the front.
I knew what was inside and I knew what it did. I had watched the demonstration videotape, in which three different guys strap their penises into plastic cylinders and merrily let a machine take over what used to be manual labor. One guy hardly looks interested at all for the first few minutes he's being serviced--he might as well be getting a pedicure--until suddenly his eyes pop open and he moans at the camera, "Oh shit, I'm gonna fucking come." Like nobody told him what the machine did before he turned it on.
Inside the box would be a black plastic briefcase like an electric typewriter case. Inside the briefcase would be some tubes, the receiver, and a red metal box that houses Venus II's motor. Plug a tube in here, attach one there, hit the variable speed knob, and--look, ma, no hands!
I couldn't open the box.
So instead I talked about it, which is my usual approach to sex anyway. I talked about it with my wife, who was supportive but worried that I'd like the thing in the box so much that soon I'd be calling it by my fondest pet names. I talked about it with the only neighbor I trust not to kick me out of the block club for having a masturbation machine in my house. He didn't think I should open the box--he thought he should, and he could tell me all about it afterward.
Did this mean I was one of those people Gellert calls "orgasmically retentive"--a person who denies enjoying anything but "proper" sex and refuses to indulge, but secretly fondles Calvin Klein ads?
Then the professional conscience wrestling started. Could I actually masturbate to advance my career? And who wants that career anyway?
I consulted my good friend the Very Dedicated Reporter. She told me, "If you really want to do the story right, you have to give readers the benefit of your own firsthand experience." Or words to that effect.
She was right, but I still couldn't open the box.
Gellert called to ask how I had liked my first date with Venus II. Everybody I interviewed who had used Venus II closed with a long, ecstatic description of what it's like, then said, "You'll see, you'll love it." My wife wanted to know if there was any particular time she should stay away from the house. My neighbor kept asking if I needed a volunteer. Never in my life have so many people been so eager for me to masturbate. Except at Boy Scout camp.
I couldn't open the box.
Gellert had kept his various business and personal accounts at the Bank of Buffalo Grove for ten years, so when it came time to open a merchant account for processing of credit card orders, he applied there. Initially he called his masturbation venture Safe Sex Systems, and that caused a little trouble with the bank. As Gellert tells it, the bank's president got wind of exactly what Safe Sex Systems was all about and ordered an officer to have Gellert close the company's accounts within 30 days. Gellert moved his accounts to another bank where, he says, nobody minds what his company does. The first bank's officials declined to comment, though they did acknowledge that Gellert was once their customer.
After that run-in, the company became known as 3S Corporation of America, a passable, nonspecific moniker. There never was a Venus I: the product name comes from Venus, the Roman goddess of love; according to 3S sales literature, Venus II is the goddess of self-love.
Gellert says the bank flare-up was his only trouble so far with people who are opposed to what he does. "Sometimes I've been fearful, but we've decided to maintain a completely open policy. The principal reason is to demonstrate that a subject like this can be handled with maturity," he says. Gellert has reason to be worried, says Gary Griffin, a California writer who positions himself as the "Ralph Nader of the Sex Industry." "What happens when the Bible thumpers find out you make sex toys is they complain that you are taking man away from his natural orifice, which is the vagina," Griffin says.
Although there's no major antimasturbation crusader at work yet, a possibly apocryphal tale of how the religious right managed to shut down a masturbation-machine maker circulates among the promasturbation crowd. The story goes that Funways, the Los Angeles maker of Accu-Jack, was hounded by the Reagan-era Food and Drug Administration, which had been influenced by pressure from religious groups. The FDA supposedly insisted that Funways' product conform to very strict and expensive safety standards, which eventually forced the company to stop making Accu-Jack and switch to the lubricant business.
Gellert hasn't even a flicker of doubt that his current line of work makes a positive contribution to society. "This absolutely improves people's lives. It does exactly the same thing as if you had an increased amount of sex in the course of your week. Less stress, more happiness and calmness," he says. "There are a lot of people whose schedules are so tight that if they didn't have enough time to have some sex, or at least the physical illusion of sex, they would probably start to resent things a lot."
Some Venus II users are fond of the machine because it's multitalented: sometimes Venus II gives them eye-popping orgasms, but on other days it's just a relaxation tool. It is, they say, a handy substitute for a human sex partner who isn't always available or in the mood. Dan, a college professor who bought a Venus II last spring and uses it two or three times a week, describes sessions with Venus II that sound like the masturbation equivalent of a couple's long walk on a moonlit beach. "I set the knob on slow to moderate tempo, and I lay back and put on some good music, some new-age music. It's relaxing the whole cock, massaging the whole thing. I let it build slowly over time, turning up the speed very very gradually, and just lay back and enjoy for about 45 minutes. I'll ejaculate once, maybe twice."
Solitaire's not the only game in town. Dan says he doesn't use Venus II to the exclusion of human partners; in fact, he has introduced a few of his male dates to the machine. Venus II doesn't replace normal sexual relationships, says Griffin. "It's just that not all men have access to vaginas or whichever orifice they prefer whenever they want it. In a case like Rick Gellert's, where the man and his wife have a disparity in their sex drives, this is a way to save the marriage. Otherwise, the options are girlfriends or prostitutes."
For three weeks after unveiling the first working prototype of Venus II, Gellert used it daily. In the 18 months since, he has used it about once every other day. During that time, he says, he has had sex with his wife two to three times a week--or about as often as his sessions with Venus II. "In those first three weeks it did such a thorough job of satisfying my needs that I felt a little bit desensitized when I was making love with my wife," Gellert recalls. "I felt like I couldn't be sure that I had an erection. The stimulation was different and less intense. I gradually learned that the differences between the two added spice and variety." It's like having a harem, I suggested, to which Gellert replied, "Exactly. Now I savor both types of attention and stimulation."
Karen Gellert is just as candid as her husband about how Venus II has affected their sex life. "I'd be less than honest if I said it doesn't bother me at all, but if you get into sex drives, his is a lot higher than mine," she says. "If he used it three times a day and paid no attention to me, it would bother me."
Gellert and Tsitrin theorize that hundreds or thousands of married men and gay men in committed relationships face the same dilemma Gellert once did. Beyond them are men who travel so much for a living that they can't commit to a long-term relationship, men who fear the spread of AIDS, and men like the Tucson man with prostate cancer who sent me a handwritten testimonial.
"In December I started radiation treatment," he wrote, "and I was told the percentage of persons who could not perform sexual acts [after treatment] was 70 percent to 80 percent failure. Needless to say I was very depressed. But during treatment I continued to use Venus II. Not only was I able to maintain an erection, I could continue to ejaculate with pleasure. The Venus II is not only a great masturbating aid, it was also a therapeutic aid to me, and I continue to use and enjoy it a couple of times a week."
Another Venus II user, this one from Santa Barbara, wrote to Gellert in June to offer tips he and his wife had come up with for a "female attachment" for the Venus II. "We have already experimented using the existing receiver and she has enjoyed the sensation," he wrote, before describing what his wife thought would work best. "We would be happy to evaluate any prototypes," the correspondent helpfully offered.
No need: What his wife imagined has been around since 1987. Sybian, as it's called, is a sort of a saddle with a rotating, pulsing dildo attached to the top. It sells for $1,395 and is pretty similar to what Gellert's Santa Barbara customer described.
Dave Lampert, who lives in downstate Monticello, developed the Sybian after his work as a ballroom-dance instructor gave him ample evidence that, as he says, "there are a lot of men out there who are bad sex partners. Female needs are not being met." Sybian, he explains, is designed to induce and sustain hours-long tides of orgasms, dozens of them in a single interlude. Men simply aren't equipped to stay at it that long, Lampert suggests, so a woman can use Sybian by herself or before or after a session with a human partner. That's a defining difference between Sybian and Venus II--the first is designed for use alone or with a partner, while with the second, you're on your own.
In an unusual game of "I'll show you mine if you show me yours," Gellert's company sells Lampert's product and Lampert sells Venus II. Lampert suggests that a well-stocked love cabinet includes both machines.
Illinois fans of masturbation can be proud that like Venus II Sybian is made and sold right here in our fine state. Unfortunately, we can't hope for a new license plate design commemorating the Prairie State's new eminence as the Masturbation Machine State. John Torre, spokesman for Illinois secretary of state George Ryan, says "I can't really envision a groundswell of support for an idea like that. I think most people are happy with our current 'Land of Lincoln' motto."
When, after a few weeks of hearing me dither about that box, my friend the Very Dedicated Reporter learned I still hadn't even cut the tape, she thought she had detected a creepy character flaw. Over lunch she theorized that I was afraid I'd like the machine too much. She knew I was supposed to send the machine back to Gellert after I'd written the story; was I worried that breaking up is hard to do?
Not my problem at all, I explained to her. I didn't have the slightest concern that I'd end up at Victoria's Secret looking for a slinky nightie to drape over Venus. Just the opposite, in fact. I couldn't see the thrill. I'm OK getting cash from a machine, or soda, but sex?
Where's the romance? The mystery? The passion? The person to eat Cap'n Crunch with afterward?
I had been researching the story long enough, and had talked to enough fans of Venus II that I had started to wonder if sex machines are some great innovation that I'm simply too backward to catch yet. Reassurance came from Dr. Domeena Renshaw, the psychiatrist who heads Loyola University's Sexual Dysfunction Clinic in Maywood.
When I first told Renshaw what I was writing about, she laughed hard. "A machine? God gave us hands and God gave us genitals. I don't know why he needs a machine to do this." But she pointed out that the idea of a masturbation machine isn't new. Early in this century Wilhelm Reich developed a therapy system that focused on orgasm as a reliever of emotional problems. Reich built something he called the "Orgone Box." Renshaw said patients were supposed to sit inside it and masturbate. He sold the box until he was tossed in jail, where he died.
"If this man is not bothering his wife and not having affairs, that's wonderful," Renshaw said. "But he does have hands and an imagination, doesn't he?"
I realized that all my weeks of worrying had turned a simple test drive of a sex toy into something that was probably a lot like what having sex with me is like. A whole lot of overwrought buildup over something that's not all that amazing and is over pretty fast anyway. Finally it was time to strap Venus on and give it a whirl. I dimmed the lights, cut open the box, attached the hose, and turned it on. Taking a tip from Dan, the Venus II user who likes it slow, I turned the speed knob all the way to the left. Nothing. So I turned it up a little, then a little more. The knob sat at about one-third speed for a few minutes as I played with the sex toy I know best, my own lurid fantasies about the cast of Baywatch. I imagined David Hasselhoff and Pamela Anderson doing all those things they're always too busy saving lives to do on the show.
As the time passed, David and Pamela gave way to some hot scenes with Pamela and the other David, David Charvet. Then David and David. Then Pamela and both Davids. Plus some shots of Alexandra Paul by herself, no Sybian in sight. Twenty minutes had passed and all I felt was a mildly pleasant sensation, which may have had more to do with the fact that I was lying in bed naked picturing characters on Baywatch and calling it work than with the fact that a milking machine was bobbing up and down on my crotch.
The only distraction was the noise coming from Venus II's motor, two feet away from me. If I wanted to hear that much whining during sex, I'd be sleeping with Prince Charles.
But I concentrated on the project at hand, and the machine whined and bobbed for another ten minutes before I finally gave up and turned it off. Venus II wasn't going to work for me.
Maybe I quit too soon. Maybe it was the situation. I have to admit it was tough to relax in such a crowded room, what with the entire cast of Baywatch and thousands of potential readers breathing down my neck.
Obviously for some the machine is a godsend--men with insatiable sexual curiosity like Dan and Tony, or the man in Tucson whose prostate cancer makes sexual pleasure very difficult to achieve. And for them I say, let's drink a toast to Rick Gellert.
But make mine an old-fashioned.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lloyd DeGrane.