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"Pat's genius is in providing more support for the reps," says Castleman, the sex educator. "And the women need that support. Going into living rooms selling vibrators to strangers can be a very lonely experience after a while." As at other direct-sales firms, Passion Ladies are given incentives to excel that include bonuses, overrides (a share of profits earned by the women they recruit to work under them), the car allowance, and soon, in what Davis touts as a first in the industry, a home allowance. "It'll be $1,000 a month. That won't cover a mortgage in most places, but it could get you from one neighborhood to a better one." Sales leaders are eligible to win all-expenses-paid trips to company retreats and sales conventions in Las Vegas, Orlando, and elsewhere.
In keeping with the nature of the product line, Passion Ladies are supported in other ways. Castleman is on call to take questions via phone and e-mail from saleswomen. Many queries are product-related, such as explaining the difference between Arouse and Ready-to-Go, two topical lotions that the company contends promote female eroticism. Other questions can be unexpected, such as one not long ago from a consultant who had met an Orthodox Jewish woman who wanted to host a party. But first the woman wanted to know if the company's edible lotions were kosher. (The answer: yes.)
Insofar as its sales force is concerned, Passion Parties projects itself as not merely the source of a paycheck, but also a way of life. "It's like family, and I like that, plus it's a lot more fun than selling something like Tupperware," says Lorraine Dell, a San Leandro customs broker who took up selling sex toys part time a year ago.
Jan Moestue, who recruited Dell, is someone else who vouches for the efficacy of the business model. She was earning a six-figure salary as the controller for Xandria when she chucked it all in 1996 to become a full-time sales rep when the company was still known as Coming Attractions. The decision seemed obvious at the time. "I knew the party plan was a formula that worked because, as controller, I was signing all the bonus checks," she recalls.
But leaving an accounting career to sell sex toys was no picnic. Friends and relatives thought she was nuts. Her first party was a fiasco. She barely sold $100 worth of merchandise (the typical party yields five to six times as much), and some of the friends she roped into attending were turned off.
"I drove home and sat in my car in the garage and thought, 'I've just got to find a way to make this work.' I needed to stay home with my kids. And I was burned out on accounting. There was no turning back." She resolved to sell only to strangers. She rented a booth at a trade show in Santa Rosa, booked 11 parties, and soon was conducting three parties a week.
Yet, it wasn't until she heard Davis speak at a motivational seminar in Anaheim that her sex toy sales career took off. After hearing the woman who would later become Passion Parties' president expound on the virtues of multilevel marketing, Moestue says, she came away "with the feeling that there was gold all over the floor, and I had been looking at the ceiling."
As a converted true-believer to the concept of the "downline," Moestue went to work to sign up women to sell under her. Including Dell, she now has 689 such women; they are on track to sell $4.2 million worth of sexy gadgets and creams this year. Of that, Moestue figures to pull as bonuses and overrides more than $200,000. Not surprisingly, she's tapered off on her own selling, doing no more than two or three parties a month -- just enough to meet the company's minimum requirements to retain her status as an "executive director."
On a recent Friday night, Moestue packs three heavy suitcases filled with merchandise into a minivan and drives a short distance from her home in the Oakland hills to a party at the home of a woman named Sally. A family emergency has prevented Sally from being there, but the would-be hostess is friends with Dell -- a Moestue recruit who has tagged along to watch her mentor in action -- and has graciously made the house available, even in her absence.
There are cookies and two kinds of cake on the island in the kitchen.
The six female guests are in their 30s and 40s. Four are married and two are single. Except for Karen, a homemaker from San Leandro, they are all professionals, including Cynthia, an operations manager at UC Berkeley, and Wendy, a clinic director for a substance abuse program. The women include three "virgins," company lingo for first-timers at one of the parties. Veteran attendees at some Passion Parties are christened "Jezebels" and given little bells that they are asked to jingle whenever the sales rep holds up a product that they personally wish to vouch for.
Moestue favors a more urbane approach. She's part Avon Lady, part sex-education instructor. Although the evening is filled with giggles and frequent howls, she rarely strays from business. That's especially true at the outset, perhaps because she is mindful of the flushed reactions of a couple of the virgins upon seeing the penis-shaped vibrators she's brought along. The products are lined up like miniature statuettes on a folding table in the living room.