By Erin Sherbert
By Rachel Swan
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By Erin Sherbert
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By Erin Sherbert
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.
Even Davis describes the owners as "extremely low profile" and "publicity shy" about the businesses. "They're both family men and really sweet guys, but to tell you the truth, not even I see them that much," she says. "They turned [Passion Parties] over to me to run, and they basically check in once a month to see how things are going."
Dillingham is perhaps the better known of the duo. He's a partner in Dillingham & Murphy, a downtown corporate law firm whose blue-chip clients include DuPont, General Motors, Home Depot, and Safeway. Since 1990 he's been a trustee of St. Thomas More Chapel at Yale University, his alma mater. Although his law firm résumé lists him as head of the practice's business transaction group, it makes no mention of his involvement with Xandria and Passion Parties. Clark is a frequent contributor to Democratic candidates and causes who is an adviser to the Horizons Foundation, a social justice organization that serves the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender communities. Neither of the men responded to interview requests for this article.
Since its inception in 1983, Xandria has become one of the nation's leading mail-order purveyors of sex toys, using small ads in popular magazines and, more recently, on the Internet to distribute its catalog. Its offices are down the street from Passion Parties. Although they operate independently from one another, the companies share the same warehouse.
Besides an array of dildos and vibrators (some of the same models are sold by Passion Parties under different names), Xandria's inventory offers plenty of items that would never find their way onto its sister company's in-home display tables. They include a full line of fetish kits, collars, leashes, whips, and floggers. There are also erotic videos with titles such as Bad Boys Next Exit and Taboo, which the company markets with the disclaimer that "the models used are over 18."
As one might expect, confidentiality is king. Xandria's catalog is never shipped unless requested. Customers have to pay for it to get one, although the $4 charge is refunded as a credit with the first order. You won't even find the Xandria name on packaging in which its products are sent. Rather, shipment and billing are handled by the more discreet-sounding Lawrence Research Group, an umbrella entity under which Xandria operates.
Clark and Dillingham's business was thriving when the Passion Parties concept fell into their laps. The business model had long been there for the taking. A few small companies have attempted to sell sex toys Mary Kaye-style to women in their living rooms since at least the late 1970s. Among them was one started by a chain-smoking suburban Los Angeles divorcee named Freddie Wellman, who founded For Us Now, which she promoted as the FUN Co. The women who comprised its sales force were, of course, FUN Ladies.
Wellman became ill with cancer, and her company fell on hard times. By the early '90s FUN's checks were bouncing and some 200 FUN Ladies, mostly in the South and Midwest, could no longer get products to fill orders. "It was an unmitigated disaster," recalls C.J. Haynes, an original FUN Lady who enjoys a reputation as the "first lady" of Passion Parties. (She and the women selling under her expect to do $5 million in sales this year.) After a grim meeting with a Wellman lieutenant in Las Vegas in early 1993, Haynes was packing her bags to fly home to Memphis and tell her "girls" that FUN was toast. Then she got a call from a friend in the business who suggested that she meet with the folks at Xandria.
The next day, instead of going home, Haynes flew to San Francisco, where she was greeted warmly if cautiously by Clark and Dillingham. The men didn't have a clue about direct sales and knew even less about the party plan. But they recognized a gift horse when they saw one. Their mail-order company was accustomed to fulfilling orders of, say, $50, one at a time. Here was Haynes, representing a small army of disenfranchised sex toy saleswomen, each desperate for a supplier to ship them thousands of dollars in merchandise every few weeks.
To top it off, neither Haynes nor Brenda Eberhart, another of FUN's displaced leaders, wanted anything for herself. "We just handed them a business lock, stock, and barrel you might say, but that's OK. All we wanted was for the two Bills to be fair with us, and they certainly have been," says Eberhart, of Springfield, Ohio.
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.
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.
"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.
"Whether you're single and just want to meet your own needs, or you're dating and it's time to impress someone, or you're in a long-term relationship and just want to spice it up, we have something for everyone," Moestue intones.
For the next two hours, she leads the women through a sensual Candyland, starting with an array of potions and lotions -- including the company's best-selling Pure Satisfaction enhancement gel (a little dab will do you) -- that purport to be endowed with seductive powers. The women giggle as they're handed paper towels and instructed to choose an "edible arm," to which Moestue applies lickable powders, puddings, and creams formulated for southerly regions of the carnal landscape. She brings out self-hypnosis CDs (including a sexy-talking beach fantasy called Passion Up) for getting in the mood. She has a heart-shaped device that becomes a long-lasting "hot" massager once boiled in water and a spray that makes ordinary cotton sheets feel like silk.
But those are mere preliminaries.
After an hour Moestue declares that it is "time to show you some of the things that go buzz in the night." The room suddenly grows quiet as she picks up a robust piece of simulated manliness called the Pulsating Orbiter ("It doesn't just vibrate, it pulsates") and passes it around as the women ooh and aah. "It's one of the few toys I have that comes with batteries, so you don't have to stop at 7-Eleven on your way home," she says.
The Orbiter and another favorite, the Jack Rabbit (at $49 it's a downscale cousin of the Rabbit Pearl), aren't for everyone, she warns. "Men are either like, 'Yeah, bring on the toys,' or they're intimidated about being replaced. So if you think this is true of your man, I would advise you to start with something smaller." She holds up a tiny silver- colored clitoral stimulator that is reputed to have saved marriages (she doesn't say how) and whose shape gives it its name: the Bullet. "Hopefully, he's bigger than that," she says as the women erupt in laughter.
With churning motors and flashing lights, some of the vibrators sport more features than domestic cars. There are ones with dual speed controls and dual reversible rotation. They come with nubby ticklers, fluttering wings, feathers, and even rotating pearls. One model, dubbed Decadent Indulgence, features "eight levels of accelerating vibrations" and "three unique patterns of graduated rhythmic motion." The Jungle Jiggler is equipped with a little blue dolphin attachment at the tip that dips back and forth. "And it's waterproof!" Moestue enthuses.
Just when the women think they've seen everything, Moestue pulls out Gigi, a squishy pink silicone sleeve that might best be described as the most popular girl at the party. In essence, Gigi's job is to simulate an oral act not all women enjoy performing. "Here, stick your finger in this," she tells them, passing Gigi around. "I'm afraid my husband would like this better than he does me," cracks Wendy, amid hoots and howls.
Once the presentation is over, the women, who've kept track of the items they want to buy using order forms handed to them at the start of the evening, slip into the kitchen individually to sit down with Moestue. It's a Passion Parties tradition that orders be taken in private, lest any shy souls be intimidated. Moestue makes a habit of lugging enough merchandise to her parties so that customers can take home their goodies and eschew the mail.
Wendy, the most vocal attendee, is first to emerge from the kitchen toting a black shopping bag with the Passion Parties heart logo. "I didn't get a vibrator because I already have five at home," she chuckles. She has acquired other delights, however, including a jar of nipple nibblers, a strawberry-flavored edible lotion, plus erection rings for her husband.
The only guest to leave empty-handed is Cynthia. But it isn't her first Passion Party, and it apparently won't be her last. "Where else can you get with girlfriends and talk about this stuff?" she says. "It's been fun."
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