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The Total Package

The quest for the perfect silicone penis

Lincoln Michel’s novel The Body Scout is about a planet replete with “upgraded” humans—from bionic eyes to genitals. The least believable thing isn’t the biotech-owned baseball teams or the “zootech” creations: it’s the idea that anyone can upgrade whenever they want, whether to counteract disability, enhance sensations, or just for fun. With enough cash, any body can become any thing. The novel is dystopian, but even in our own dystopia, I can barely get an arm that I supposedly need.

I live in Oakland, California, but the closest regional office of a firm that specializes exclusively in upper limb prosthetics is outside of Portland. At Arm Dynamics, a team of specialists crafted my prosthetic arms in an unassuming medical-office-slash-workshop. It’s a familiarly sterile space, where prosthetic arms, legs, and sometimes noses and ears are molded, fashioned, painted, and charged to your insurance for tens of thousands of dollars. Linoleum floors lead to large, clean exam rooms; sometimes, for ambiance, there’s a poster of an amputee who survived an electrical accident with some inspirational words. After convincing my primary care doctor that a prosthesis is “medically necessary,” I was treated to three or four days off of work to hang out in a Portland suburb and get my arm made. This wasn’t even one of those German high-tech electronic hands; this was essentially a forearm with a terminal at its end for swapping in use-specific attachments such as clamps for bike riding and hooks for rock climbing. Months after my last visit, my insurance sent me cryptic letters with an itemized list where every line read “prosthetic services.” Some of the attachments and services previously greenlit were decided against (“Reasons 4S and 4A”), and at the end sat a five-figure number. What they deem necessary and what they consider superfluous is deliberately opaque so questions cannot be asked. The exhausting formality of it all made me wish I could drive to the nearest prosthesis purveyor and buy whatever over-the-counter bodily extension I please.

The thing is, that kind of futuristic sci-fi luxury does sort of exist at the only other primary prosthesis purveyor in the United States: the sex shop. Compared to the drab antiseptic vibe of the prosthetics and orthotics workshop, sex shops have humor and color. There are bachelorette party gag gifts, leather harnesses, vibrators, and cock rings. But they also stock commodities of more vital importance: silicone penises. For many trans and queer people, shopping for a prosthesis often includes a trip to an unlikely oasis like Good Vibrations. For a tiny fraction of the cost of a prosthetic arm or leg, anyone can get a downright photogenic silicone cock called a packer. Once a DIY concoction sported by some butch lesbians, packers are now mass-produced by an expanding number of sex toy and gender-affirming companies. These typically soft and pliable prostheses are placed inside your underwear to suggest the unmistakable bulge of a dick. Transmasculine people are the most common wearers, but a wide array of queers and gender nonconforming people use them in public and in private. While I have never worn a soft packer under my everyday clothes, I have a few strap-on dildos for topping partners that have also doubled as gender-transcending tools for me. Some dildos are packable; some packers are dildo-able. Today, some packer models are “stand to pee” (STP), which allows the user to perform the ritual of public urinal use without being clocked as trans and reduce daily feelings of body dysphoria. I’ve seen packers at sex shops for years and only recently recognized their radical presence between the lubes and nudes.

Pick a Packer

As I looked more into packers, I realized how similar their design tensions were to those of limb prostheses. Packers are both tools and toys; they allow you to function socially in the world, but they can also be fun and playful. Many packers need to look realistic, but their appearance can compromise their use. In the history of upper and lower body prostheses, form has never followed function. The form—the model of the human body—was supposed to provide a road map for how a prosthesis would move and manipulate objects. Sixteenth-century French surgeon Ambroise Paré, who helped popularize the use of ligature in amputation (as opposed to boiling oil), invented one of the first five-digit mechanical hands. Such was his reverence for nature’s corporeal draft that he fashioned a series of catches and springs to make each finger able to articulate. Of course, only the wealthiest individuals and military commanders had access to such an august contraption, and, also, it wasn’t very good. For the last five hundred years we have been chasing the dream of an artificial hand as lifelike as its source material at extraordinary cost. The most aesthetically plausible prosthetic limbs are shockingly realistic but generally do not move; they’re “passive,” per industry parlance. This is less of an issue than you might think (even manipulable prosthetic arms are more often used to passively brace objects against your body), but sometimes you need a prosthesis to hold the tuna can in place while your other hand delicately peels the lid back, mitigating tuna spray. Meanwhile, high-tech, battery-powered prosthetic hands, many of their designs funded by the U.S. military, can cost tens of thousands of dollars, even after insurance. And while they look like human hands, they struggle to achieve the basic functionality of hundred-year-old mechanical prosthetic designs that are lightweight and easy to repair.

The purple dildo was a good size, but it also felt like something new. “I did the realistic thing for thirty years. I don’t need it, thanks,” she said.

Packer models like the STPpro from Reelmagik try to let you do it all: preen, pee, and fuck. While the human body may sport one all-purpose organ, making it from scratch has proved a quandary. To accomplish a bulge, rolled up socks and condoms filled with gel did the job in the eighties and nineties. Both looked all right from a distance, but at close range, the sock didn’t quite hold up. Today, “soft” packers accomplish what passive prosthetic limbs have been doing for some time: looking fantastically real and serving the primary function of any prosthesis, which is allowing you, the wearer, to “pass” in public and be left alone. STP packers do this remarkably well for the transmasc people who wear them in public restrooms. Some STPs, however, are prone to holding onto moisture and can cause yeast infections. Soft packers are great for while you’re out and about or even peeing, but they aren’t rigid enough for sexual intercourse. The moonshot of the “three-in-one” packer felt like all the discussions about prosthetic limbs over the last few decades, with the important difference that we’re not just talking about doing but being. Silicone pricks are life-giving not simply because of the things you can do with them but for the people you can become with their help.

Packers, like those from Reelmagik and Transkins, are far more likely to be manufactured by queer-owned companies. Rarely are assistive devices for disabled people conceived with the collaborative effort of their users, who are most often brought on to the project for consultation after the fact. Transthetics, a trans-owned and operated prosthetics company, is the brainchild of Alex (who does not use his last name publicly), a Colorado-based entrepreneur whose ambitions began with simple problem-solving. “My first issue was I just needed to figure out how to be able to use the men’s urinal,” he told me over Zoom. Shortly after transitioning in 2013, he had trouble finding a product that did the trick, especially in Australia, where he had been living since childhood. After six months of tinkering he created the EZP, a stunningly naturalistic STP packer available on his website for $195. It comes in three different skin tones and looks great during skintight activities such as yoga and rock climbing. One reviewer remarked they have so much fun using it while peeing, they hydrate a little extra now.

Transthetics carries a number of products, including the Joystick, which can be packed and used for penetration, as well as prosthetic extensions for people who have had bottom surgery. Although all their products are under $300, Transthetics has enough incoming capital to invest in research and development. Their accessibility is hard to understate, enabled in large part by the fact that these non-customized prosthetics exist outside of the world of medical devices. A doctor is not required to acquire any packer or dildo, and an insurance company does not need to approve it. Medical devices in the United States have a 20 to 30 percent profit margin, with the costs of such devices varying widely between doctors and hospitals. Even the average cost of an electric wheelchair has ballooned to over $7,000, an increase of more than two-thirds in the last ten years. Routing all our material needs through the U.S. medical system seems unnecessary, expensive, and laborious. The more I fell down the packer hole, the more I saw them as a fleshy flagship for how prostheses could be acquired in the world by anyone who wanted one.

Once Alex started manufacturing devices to solve his own specific needs, he relocated to the United States, where the majority of his customer base resided. But before Alex launched Transthetics, he had never met another trans person outside of Facebook groups. He’s never used a focus group or done much research into what the trans community needs; in fact, he says he’s not sure if a “trans community” truly exists beyond somewhat shared experiences. The designs for the Bionic packer model, which he developed in collaboration with the University of Colorado Boulder and University of Denver, are driven by his choice to forgo surgery; it can change states from flaccid and compact to turgid and extended and back with a few squeezes of the silicone testicles, which move fluid between several chambers. The hope is to tackle the body dysphoria that he and some trans men and transmasculine people experience.

Over our Zoom call, Alex sounded frustrated with how prototyping the Bionic had been going. The compromises involved in combining an STP and a dildo, he said, make the prosthesis a little worse at doing both. “People will really want it, but I know it’s not gonna replace all other dicks.” But the main issue was how the blueprint bashes up against the complicated reality of human anatomy: “With a biological penis, when you’re wearing underwear or whatever, it sort of recesses into the body,” he told me. “With a prosthetic, it can’t recess into your body the way a biological penis does, it’s gonna be bulky in nature no matter what you do.” The work continues, but at the moment, silicone is what we have to work with.

When my tone inadvertently suggested that might not be such a terrible thing, Alex turned the questioning around to me. “Thinking of like, Elon Musk’s neural link,” he started, with a premise I detest. “If you could have threads sort of embedded into your brain that basically mimic exactly what you tell your right arm, you could tell your left arm with a full artificial prosthesis—”

“Would I do it?” I interrupted.

“Well, I’d be pretty surprised if you said no.”

I’ve written at length about my position against ultra-high-tech luxury prosthetic arms, which I oppose for a whole host of reasons. For one, high-tech “bionics” have proprietary technology and cannot be repaired at home—they cannot even be upgraded or augmented as your needs change. But instead I answered Alex with my more floofy poetic desire to embrace difference in the world to the extent it makes sense. I told him that it felt important to fight for inclusion and accessibility rather than conform to the demands to be like everyone else. Halfway through my soliloquy, I reminded myself that living publicly with my disability is far less a matter of life and death than being trans can be. Sure, hyperrealistic prostheses help both of us pass in the world and be left alone, but an STP prosthesis in a men’s public restroom may save a life. Alex told me that if the Department of Defense made the penile equivalent of a bionic hand, hell yeah, he’d get one.

As it turns out, the DoD isn’t pumping out penises. But the Department of Veterans Affairs lets you get them for free. Silicone ones, anyway. Trent Triskelion, a thirty-six-year-old San Francisco veteran, responded to my decidedly unsexy post on the queer dating app Lex asking for packer-appreciators. Like Alex, he isn’t confident that surgery can safely get him the results he truly wants, so he uses two different kinds of packers: a hyper-realistic one for public restrooms and a purple one for home use. The non-naturalistic color, he says, helps reduce disappointment that he doesn’t have the real thing. “Having the purple packer reaffirms where we are with technology and surgeries right now is in a place where the things I want don’t exist,” he explained to me, “so I don’t get my hopes up.” But Trent didn’t purchase these packers. As a veteran, he simply picked out the models he liked online and told his primary care doctor; they ordered it through the pharmacy, free of charge. When President Trump announced in 2017 that transgender people would no longer be able to serve in the U.S. military, he cited the health care costs, which were of course negligible. Despite the policy’s reversal, the transgender care options that are the most costly—surgeries—are still not covered by the VA. But gender-affirming prosthetics are covered in full, for a tiny fraction of the cost of limb prosthetics. Maybe the medical model of acquiring a prosthesis isn’t actually the problem.

Before I got my last prosthesis, I had to make an appointment with my primary care doctor for him to prescribe an arm. I sat in the cold exam room, missing an arm, and he wrote down that I “presented” with a congenital limb deficiency. The medical model of disability, and, in turn, the medical model of prosthetics, understands disability as an ailment to be treated, a missing piece that needs completion. Prosthetic limbs seek to restore the body to its “natural whole.” And yet treating prostheses as medical devices doesn’t inherently make them inaccessible; Trent’s experience with the VA proves that medicalization can still get people the bodily tools they need. The one glimmer of socialized medicine in this country, as flawed as it may be, works for thousands of veterans every year.

Long Live the New Flesh

In addition to my prosthetic arm, I use another, more private prosthesis. It’s bubblegum pink with glitter—very much not my aesthetic preference, but mostly I like the shape. It fits into a harness snugly and feels comfortable against my body. Using a strap-on has helped me break out of and explore the range of my own gender and queerness, but it’s also expanded my humanity. I like feeling like a shape-shifting creature that can indulge in experiences across my species. Sometimes I feel like an ambisexual Gethenian in Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1969 sci-fi novel The Left Hand of Darkness. The humanoid aliens “cannot play the game. They do not see one another as men or women.” Maybe I am playing that game. Still, using a dildo this way has expanded my range of physical and psychological sensations. Through it, I love relating in unique ways to sexual partners and myself in turn.

Sex shops may not single-handedly dismantle the inhumane health care system in the United States, but they are the front lines of sexual and gendered desires.

What sex toy companies seem to understand better than anyone is that pleasure isn’t exclusively about restoration. It is these manufacturers that are molding new, novel experiences. Chelsea Downs, founder and CEO of New York Toy Collective, started her company in part out of her own desire for a product that didn’t exist: a dildo that could go from oral sex to penetration, but be discreet enough to wear en route to the sex party. “I remember at the time iPad 2 had come out,” she told me with a breathy smile, “and they had a camera on the front and a camera on the back . . . and I was like, ‘how can there be iPads but there’s, like, no dildo I can wear on the train.’” What’s a top to do?

In 2012, Chelsea spoke with a manufacturing plant for months before they decided a dildo would be bad PR for a pacifier company. Later she found a guy going through a divorce and bouts of insomnia over Craigslist who was willing to 3D print her model for $20. Once Chelsea had buyers putting her dildo on the shelf, it wasn’t long until she received phone calls from small shop owners saying their customers were looking for flaccid packers, STP prostheses, and underwear to hold both. Now most of her sales are in gender-affirming products. Her three-in-one model, Sam the STP, can be packed and, with an insertable rod, played with as well. She said it would have never occurred to her to make products in fantastical colors until her buyers asked for it specifically. In the absence of a perfect skin tone match, which would be very costly, many wearers prefer to go hard in the other direction to avoid dysphoria.

But that’s not the only reason. I caught up with Cara Esten Hurtle, an Oakland-based artist and collector of vintage computers, to talk about, what else, David Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future. The film explores a future where the human body is evolving in real time, and we were both transfixed by the way it seems to intimately understand that our apprehension of reality is mediated by our bodies. As a trans woman, she understands how prosthetic breasts serve the social function of blending in: “I’d rather not deal with people looking at my body and trying to understand it. I want my body to be immediately renderable.” But she also uses a dildo. “Someone online asked me if I experienced a phantom limb after vaginoplasty,” she said. The answer is no, but “having sex with a strap on is second nature.” Now, she says, her body is more adaptable. “The prosthesis is something I want to get rid of, and I can bring it back. It enables this sort of ability to do everything all at once, an expansiveness of sexuality. [Having a penis] felt previously like a burden, and now it doesn’t.” Cara has decided she’s also partial to the purple dildo because her prosthesis choice is for her as well as her partners. The purple one was a good size, but it also felt like something new. “I did the realistic thing for thirty years. I don’t need it, thanks,” she said.

If “the body is reality,” as intoned in Crimes of the Future, then we can create new realities all the time. Cronenberg calls it the “new flesh,” a central conceit in Videodrome as well as a working theory for bodily-social change. Prostheses play a central role in extending the body. Haptics in prosthetic design is often associated with, say, cutting-edge surgical procedures that connect nerves to electrical sensors, but prostheses are capable of all kinds of signals. In fact, low-tech bodily extensions can actually be capable of more haptic feedback than your standard myoelectric prosthesis: with a “body-powered” prosthetic arm, which uses a cable adhered to your shoulder to open and close, you can feel the weight and resistance of objects from the yank of the cable. Your smart phone, maybe a kind of prosthetic for the digital world, vibrates and thumps. Prosthetic penises press up against you, hold vibrators, feel smooth or tacky. Dildos and packers act as a mediator between you and another body, which also gets to feel and experience with you. The prosthetic proprioception lets us feel new sensations and, in turn, new senses of who we are.


When I asked Alex what it’s like to sell products that could help enable the formation of new identities, he got a little worried. “I do sometimes think about if somebody using my product . . .” he began, “if there’s a potential to trigger something in them that might not have been triggered otherwise. I kind of hope not.” Alex’s transition wasn’t easy. He finds medical transition very fraught and says he doesn’t want to encourage anyone to do it. He hopes his products can provide an alternative to medical transition, but luckily he doesn’t have control over that. Like any artist, his creations have a life of their own once they become commodities. Transthetics dicks may encourage someone to delay or reconsider a surgery, but these devices shouldn’t be seen as preventative measures. First and foremost, they’re productive and generative forces.

The designs of hyperrealistic prosthetics—whether they’re arms or cocks—originate from a premise of lack. Dysphoria is the overwhelming, bodily experience of that lack. The quest for the bionic penis is predicated on providing that missing piece; it may mean the universe for countless people out there yearning to fill that hole. But in every quest to recreate the human body, there’s another opportunity to make something new. Being trans isn’t just about managing feelings of dysphoria; it’s about optimistically cultivating a new self, something that anyone can find joy in. I don’t know all the forms queering prosthetics can take, but I know that fear lives inside of any prosthesis, and releasing that fear can help all of us learn about our needs and get more of what we want out of life.

It’s important not to lose sight of the ways prostheses can play a role in not only alleviating dysphoria but highlighting euphoria. Cara told me that her experience of being trans is “an explosion of possibilities.” The existence of body prostheses can help cultivate euphoria, regardless of whether you identify as trans. “I see people who identify as cis having trans experiences and building empathy with trans people,” she told me of different friends exploring silicone.

During my research, I found a Reddit post by a sixty-year-old lesbian who just started packing. “I am not trans,” she writes, “but just feel good, comfortable and at ease with a discreet but distinct bulge.” I am so warmed that she was able to find something that made her feel more herself without demonstrating medical need. In the prosthetic limb world, insurance, costs of travel, and physical therapy limit the number of people who get to try prostheses. And while these devices necessitate customization, the barriers to access don’t serve anyone but insurance companies.

Sex shops may not single-handedly dismantle the inhumane health care system in the United States, but they are the front lines of sexual and gendered desires. They talk to their customers and learn about their dreams. These desires make their way back to operations like the New York Toy Collective that tweak their offerings to fit these needs. The industry is small, but its remarkable flexibility means it is built to respond to requests of customers. You may or may not be aware of the company that makes fantastical prosthetic penises of dragons and dinosaurs, but rest assured it’s out there and molding the stuff people want. Prosthetic arms, legs, eyes, and other parts should be crafted with the same dogged emphasis on access.

In a world where we embrace prosthetic technologies as generative of new experiences, we can begin to think of these extensions as doing things other than restoration or “fixing” disability or difference. As Le Guin said of her gender-shifting aliens: “Consider: Anyone can turn his hand to anything. This sounds very simple, but its psychological effects are incalculable.”