Pin It

Merchants of Passion 

A Bay Area company moves the dildo into the national mainstream -- one housewife at a time

Wednesday, Sep 15 2004
There's a rising star in Bay Area business, headquartered in the anonymous warehouses near San Francisco International Airport. It's a private company for which few people would have predicted great things when it began a decade ago. From barely $5 million in revenue in 2000, the firm expects to top $45 million in sales this year. Owned by a respected San Francisco attorney and an investor who is a retired CPA, the company is poised to rack up 50 percent sales growth for the third straight year.

The firm isn't just successful; it's become a part of American popular culture, with a top product heralded on a hit cable TV show. And, as anyone who recalls a particularly well-known episode of Sex and the City knows, the Rabbit Pearl is neither a rabbit nor a pearl. Rather, it's an anatomically gifted, soft-jelly vinyl version of the penis.

If rave reviews by satisfied female customers are any indication, the $140 Rabbit Pearl -- equipped to run on three C batteries (not included) -- can apparently keep going longer and do more tricks than a porn stud on steroids, which is great news for Passion Parties Inc., the Brisbane-based sex toy company.

Passion Parties is trying to do for dildos and penile vibrators what Tupperware did for plastic tumblers and Jel-Ring molds. If its sex toys -- which also include the Thumb Pleaser, the Chocolate Thriller, and the Honey Dipper -- seem like standard sex shop fare, that's because they are. What makes the enterprise, tucked in a nondescript office park next to San Bruno Mountain, unusual is the old-style formula with which it markets its products: the in-home party.

Among companies that sell their wares using the "party plan" -- including such familiar names as Stanley, Mary Kaye, and Shaklee -- Passion Parties has quietly staked a claim as the nation's premier supplier of sensual products. Its cadre of 6,000 Mary Kaye-style consultants -- often referred to as Passion Ladies -- has helped it to easily outpace its closest rival, Cincinnati-based Pure Romance.

Although sex toys occupy a place not far from pornography in the popular imagination, Passion Parties may be the tamest, most pro-family peddler of sexual paraphernalia one is apt to find. Rather than aim at the pleasure chest of the single girl, it has positioned itself as an organization devoted to strengthening relationships. Its training video, sent to all new sales reps, starts with an endorsement from a board-certified sex therapist and licensed marriage, family, and child counselor. Its home page on the Internet features an innocuous slide show of young heterosexual couples. Even the company's tag line -- "Where Every Day Is Valentine's Day" -- emphasizes the soft sell.

"Men have long been open about their sexuality," says Passion Parties President Pat Davis, 60, who has been married to the same man for 42 years. "What we're doing very successfully is helping women become more open about their own sexuality. There's no better place for that than to be among other women in the privacy and comfort of a home."

A party-plan guru who was brought in to take over the company three years ago when it was struggling, Davis peppers her speech with phrases that seem targeted at the professional women and more traditional homemakers not usually associated with heightened sexual awareness. She speaks of the company's sex toys and other sensual products as helping users "go from stress out to make out" and "spicing things up."

The women who make up Passion Parties' living-room sales force are drawn to it for some of the same reasons that have long appealed to the mostly female sellers of cosmetics and kitchen cleansers: extra income, flexibility, and the psychic allure of driving a car that one's company pays for. But as they spread the gospel of the vibrator among America's once-unreceptive suburbs and small towns, the Passion Ladies are also the sexual revolution's mop-up hitters, helping to influence attitudes about sensuality one woman at a time.

"The parties are very empowering," says sex therapist Louanne Cole Weston, who has spoken at the company's sales conventions and has consulted for Xandria Collection, the San Francisco-based mail-order sex catalog firm. Xandria's two publicity-averse male owners also own Passion Parties.

Still, there's a stigma attached.

Although it's an established leader in the niche and has sales reps scattered from coast to coast, Passion Parties remains unwelcome at the venerable Direct Selling Association, an industry trade group, whose bylaws regard any company marketing products "for the purpose of sexual acts" as unsuitable for membership, DSA spokeswoman Amy Robinson says.

Last November, in Texas, one of Passion Parties' sales reps was arrested for selling two vibrators to undercover cops posing as a young married couple. Prosecutors recently dropped the charges; the sales rep, Joanne Webb, has filed a federal civil suit seeking to have the Texas law under which she was arrested declared unconstitutional.

Davis dismisses such tribulations, saying that the measure of Passion Parties' success plays out every day in living rooms across the country, even in places such as San Francisco, where she insists there "are tons of women who still don't feel comfortable walking into a Good Vibrations store," not to mention the seedy sex shops on the worn edges of many communities.

If there is a threat to Davis' attempts to mainstream Passion Parties as the sex toy industry's answer to Tupperware, it might be the company's relationship with Xandria, the racy mail-order firm whose sexually explicit wares project a decidedly more risqué image than Passion Parties'.

The connection is something few people at either entity -- including the companies' owners, investor and retired CPA William Clark and attorney William Dillingham -- prefer to talk about. Recognized by Passion Ladies everywhere as "the two Bills," Clark and Dillingham are successful entrepreneurs little known outside the world of sex toy suppliers, at least as it pertains to their ventures. "They're not like Hugh Hefner. They don't like publicity. They aren't trying to be famous for what their companies do," says author and sex educator Michael Castleman, who consults for the firms.

About The Author

Ron Russell


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment


  • Nevada City and the South Yuba River: A gold country getaway

    Nestled in the green pine-covered hills of the Northern Sierra Nevada is the Gold Rush town of Nevada City. Beautiful Victorian houses line the streets, keeping the old-time charm alive, and a vibrant downtown is home to world-class art, theater and music. The nearby South Yuba River State Park is known for its emerald swimming holes during the summer and radiant leaf colors during autumn. These days the gold panning is more for tourists than prospectors, but the gold miner spirit is still in the air.

    South Yuba River State Park and Swimming Holes:
    The park runs along and below 20 miles of the South Yuba River, offering hiking, mountain biking, gold panning and swimming. The Highway 49 bridge swimming hole is seven-miles northwest of Nevada City where Highway 49 crosses the South Yuba River. Parking is readily available and it is a short, steep hike to a stunning swimming hole beneath a footbridge. For the more intrepid, trails extend along the river with access to secluded swim spots. The Bridgeport swimming hole has calm waters and a sandy beach -- good for families and cookouts -- and is located 14 miles northwest of Nevada City. Be sure to write down directions before heading out, GPS may not be available. Most swimming holes on the South Yuba River are best from July to September, while winter and spring can bring dangerous rapids. Always know the current before jumping in!

    Downtown Nevada City
    The welcoming, walkable downtown of Nevada City is laid back, yet full of life. Start your day at the cozy South Pine Cafe (110 S Pine St.) with a lobster benedict or a spicy Jamaican tofu scramble. Then stroll the streets and stop into the shop Kitkitdizzi (423 Broad St.) for handcrafted goods unique to the region, vintage wears and local art “all with California gold rush swagger,” as stated by owners Carrie Hawthorne and Kira Westly. Surrounded by Gold Rush history, modern gold jewelry is made from locally found nuggets and is found at Utopian Stone Custom Jewelers (301 Broad St.). For a coffee shop with Victorian charm try The Curly Wolf (217 Broad St.), an espresso house and music venue with German pastries and light fare. A perfect way to cool down during the hot summer months can be found at Treats (110 York St.) , an artisan ice cream shop with flavors like pear ginger sorbet or vegan chai coconut. Nightlife is aplenty with music halls, alehouses or dive bars like the Mine Shaft Saloon (222 Broad St.).

    The Willo Steakhouse (16898 State Hwy 49, Nevada City)
    Along Highway 49, just west of Nevada City, is The Willo, a classic roadhouse and bar where you’re welcomed by the smell of steak and a dining room full of locals. In 1947 a Quonset hut (a semi-cylindrical building) was purchased from the US Army and transported to its current location, and opened as a bar, which became popular with lumberjacks and miners. The bar was passed down through the decades and a covered structure was added to enlarge the bar and create a dining area. The original Quonset beams are still visible in the bar and current owners Mike Byrne and Nancy Wilson keep the roadhouse tradition going with carefully aged New York steaks and house made ingredients. Pair your steak or fish with a local wine, such as the Rough and Ready Red, or bring your own for a small corkage fee. Check the website for specials, such as rib-eye on Fridays.

    Outside Inn (575 E Broad St.)
    A 16-room motel a short walk from downtown, each room features a unique décor, such as the Paddlers’ Suite or the Wildflower Room. A friendly staff and an office full of information about local trails, swimming and biking gets you started on your outdoor exploration. Amenities include an outdoor shower, a summer swimming pool and picnic tables and barbeques. Don’t miss the free vegetable cart just outside the motel in the mornings.

    Written and photographed by Beth LaBerge for the SF Weekly.

  • Arcade Fire at Shoreline
    Arcade Fire opened their US tour at Shoreline Amphitheater to a full house who was there in support of their album "Reflector," which was released last fall. Dan Deacon opened the show to a happily surprised early audience and got the crowd actively dancing and warmed up. DEVO was originally on the bill to support Arcade Fire but a kayak accident last week had sidelined lead singer Mark Mothersbaugh and the duration of the west coast leg of the tour. Win Butler did a homage to DEVO by performing Uncontrollable Urge.

Popular Stories

  1. Most Popular Stories
  2. Stories You Missed
  1. Most Popular