Merchants of Passion

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

Within a few weeks, nearly all the former FUN Ladies were in Xandria's fold. But the melding of a cadre of living-room saleswomen with an organization whose claim to fame was a mail-order sex catalog didn't reach fruition without missteps, starting with the name chosen for the new entity under which the women would work: Coming Attractions. "There was a contest, and some guy in the warehouse came up with that," says Davis, rolling her eyes at the double-entendre. Upon becoming president, her first move was to get rid of the name. "I knew it had to go the first time someone asked me how we spelled 'coming,'" she recalls. "It wasn't the kind of image we wanted to cultivate."

The business model Passion Parties uses is little different from that icon of suburban America, the Tupperware Party, except that these saleswomen hawk erection rings instead of lemon squeezers. "We like to say Tupperware has the burp and we have the buzz," says Davis, who earned her chops selling custom-made bras as a young Virginia housewife.

Davis discovered her gift for selling when she was 24. As a homemaker struggling to make ends meet she let a friend sucker her into being a warm body at an in-home party for a cosmetics firm. "It was awful, or at least I thought it would be," Davis says.

Jan Moestue gave up an accounting career to become 
a sex-toy saleswoman: "There was no turning back."
Anthony Pidgeon
Jan Moestue gave up an accounting career to become a sex-toy saleswoman: "There was no turning back."
Rapt Attention: Between giggles and howls, women at 
one of Jan Moestue's Passion Parties get serious 
when the vibrators come out.
Anthony Pidgeon
Rapt Attention: Between giggles and howls, women at one of Jan Moestue's Passion Parties get serious when the vibrators come out.

Within a few months, though, she was driving a gold-colored sedan on her way to becoming a star in the ubiquitous -- if largely invisible -- world of multilevel marketing. She spent a quarter-century with Nutrimetics, selling cosmetics, and was a motivational speaker before joining Passion Parties. She splits her time between a condo in San Francisco and a spacious home in San Diego that she shares with her husband, Ollie, a retired chemist.

As at other multilevel sales enterprises, such as Avon and Shaklee, the culture of positive thinking runs deep inside Passion Parties, with Davis as the undisputed high priestess. Before being sent forth to help others discover the joys of G-spot stimulators, each of the company's independent saleswomen -- in all 50 states -- receives a copy of Davis' book, The Miracle of Intention: Defining Your Success. Davis wrote it in the 1990s while on the lecture circuit with a firm called Millionaires in Motion. It comes as part of each new recruit's Opportunity Kit, the latter a staple of the direct-sales world.

That world is big and growing bigger. More than 13 million people in the United States -- three-quarters of them women -- participated in direct selling last year, racking up a record $29 billion in sales, according to the Direct Selling Association. About a third of the DSA's 160 member companies are those that, like Passion Parties, use the in-home party (as opposed to person-to-person contacts) to distribute their wares. "The party plan is an ideal way for women to buy sexual accessories," says Louanne Cole Weston, the therapist. "You go there. You gab with friends while waiting to shop. It's very comfortable."

Still, it took some persuading to get Davis to accept the Passion Parties job, she says, since the company seemed to violate an axiom of direct selling, which is to offer only a unique product unavailable elsewhere. With sex toys attainable in adult stores and over the Internet, exclusivity was out of the question. But the former lipstick supersaleswoman says she came to realize that while many women, even in San Francisco, haven't been conditioned to patronize sex stores, they would be willing, and even eager, to go to a party in someone's home to see what products were available.

She was also drawn to the chance to help women, especially nonorgasmic ones, attain more fulfilling sex lives. The company's mission slogan, "Women helping other women," is deeply instilled in Passion Parties' sales force. Davis cites clinical studies, including one several years ago at the University of Chicago, concluding that half or more of American women do not achieve orgasm by genital penetration alone -- raising the specter of a vast, untapped market.

In a sense, the company's targeting of mainstream women for the sale of its toys renews a little-known but long-established commercial tradition, says Cornell University historian Rachel Maines, author of Technology of Orgasm: "Hysteria," the Vibrator and Women's Sexual Satisfaction. More than a century ago, doctors used vibrators powered by foot pedals (and later, electricity) to "treat" female patients for what was deemed to be "hysteria" and other nervous disorders.

The treatments ceased in the 1920s at about the same time vibrators started to appear in early stag films and "after doctors could no longer pretend that what was happening in their offices was not orgasm," Maines says. The vibrator's emergence as an instrument of pornography helped banish it to the commercial underground. Sears, Roebuck removed the products from its mail-order catalog (where they had been sold as "Home Appliances") in the 1930s, Maines says. "Now, with companies like Passion Parties selling vibrators to everyday women as a sex toy, they've come full circle."

Davis didn't just change the company's name; she gave it a makeover. To offset what might be construed as the coarser nature of some of the toys (so-called "phallics" are said to represent less than 20 percent of product sales) she made sure consultants were trained to emphasize education along with pleasure. She introduced a line of "mood" products, including the company's proprietary RomantaTherapy collection of body oils and bath lotions.

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