Divine secrets of the Ben Wa sisterhood
Passion Parties doesn’t just sell lubes, lotions and sex toys in the suburbs. The company’s best product may be its compass for navigating the tricky legacy of the sexual revolution.
Forget the penis; that thing must be bigger—longer, yes, and wider around—than my entire forearm.
Were it not hot pink and lying prone in a woman’s hand, I might worry about it being alive and venomous. “We’re gonna have an icebreaker,” Brenda Norberg is saying, conspiratorially, over the clamor of giggly chitchat. A curvaceous woman with lush curly hair and an amiably impish expression, she has proffered this floppy double-headed dildo, and the other women, roosting cozily throughout the Rancho Cordova living room, are exchanging glances. I’m the only man present, and everyone but Brenda seems a little nervous.
She instructs the ladies to stand facing each other in a tight circle. She holds the beast between her knees—expertly, I’m afraid to say—and explains that the object of the game is to pass it around the circle without using any hands. “This is crazy—I’ve never seen anything like this!” someone says. Brenda says, “If you drop it, you’re out.”
She picks up a remote control. The stereo murmurs some safely mainstream country-pop tune; a generic singer eases her way through a generic love song. “So, when the music pauses,” Brenda continues, “the person who’s holding it is out.” For a moment, lost in concentration, the women go mum. Then their giggles resume, and gradually, limply, the dildo makes its rounds. I’m relieved to have been excluded from the circle, but what does it say about me that I’m watching this so attentively and taking notes?
Maybe it isn’t the first thing I’d expect to see on a Saturday night in the suburbs. From the outside, it looks mostly like any other quiet outer-Sacramento neighborhood, with modest low-slung homes, abbreviated driveways studded by basketball hoops, and the din of the nearby highway filling the night. One unusual detail is the big diesel pickup truck, which Brenda, an executive-level passion consultant and the leader of this evening’s festivities, has embossed with glittery variations of “Passion Parties” script, turned into a mobile sensual-enhancement workstation and parked in front of the hostess’s house.
Her day car, Brenda told me on the drive over, is a Mustang convertible, but the truck resulted from a company bonus. Clearly, she reinvested.
Upon our arrival, as Brenda began unpacking her products from the back of the truck, I offered to help her carry her sizable display table into the house. She declined, unwittingly prompting in me a neurotic tizzy about the tricky codes of modern chivalry, particularly in an unprecedented situation such as this. I held the door while she lugged the table through, and that seemed like an acceptable compromise.
Now it stands under a brushed-velvet drape, adorned with candles and various Passion Parties paraphernalia. As company protocol dictates, Brenda has begun with the oils and creams. “Keep all the edibles on your left hand, all the non-edibles on your right,” she announces. “Righty rubby, lefty licky.” She moves through the room, dabbing our extended hands with various ointments. One contains actual pheromones. In no time, she has us all discreetly moistened, glistening and smelling good enough to nibble on.
The business end of pleasure
Passion Parties has close to 10,000 consultants nationwide, and the company estimates that 130 of them are now active in Sacramento County. That’s the highest concentration in California, which leads the country in both retail sales and new-consultant inductions. Sacramento already has more consultants than Los Angeles, more than San Diego, and more than San Francisco and Orange County put together, according to Passion Parties executives.
That our city should be so conducive to small groups, usually but not exclusively of women, gathering in each other’s usually but not exclusively suburban homes for sex-enhancement sales calls, seems somehow obvious and mysterious at once, like good sex.
Naturally, I wanted to look into it.
Brenda Norberg lives in Sonoma County, but she gives Passion Parties anywhere within range of a two- or three-hour drive. Her business brings her to the Sacramento area at least twice a month. As a Passion Parties executive director, she also presides over a team of 150 consultants in 34 states, including Meredith Collins, our evening’s hostess. Brenda joined the company two years ago. “At first I was like, ‘Forget it. I am not sitting around the living rooms of strange ladies and passing around plastic penises,’” she told me. “Then I got laid off.” Brenda’s bookkeeping job hadn’t exactly felt like a calling, but, for a single mother with bills to pay, a calling sometimes can seem like a luxury.
Although, as she puts it, she had no faith in network marketing, Brenda found her way to a Passion Parties convention, where she discovered women from all walks of life sharing their experiences of the company. She heard firsthand stories of consultants making enough income to allow their husbands to stop working. “In the past, people took 10 years to get to this level,” she said. “In one year, I made three times what I made as a bookkeeper. And now I’m the one taking my child to school. I wish I had known about it when she was a baby.” More to the point, perhaps: “I’ve done other in-house marketing before and couldn’t recruit a single person. With this business, people just come.”
Indeed. Actually, a crucial part of the job, the part that for detractors most evokes a pyramid scheme, is the sponsorship, whereby consultants have a financial incentive to recruit and train more consultants. They will say there’s a personal incentive, too, in the bond that often forms between them. They will say it’s like a sisterhood. “It has been an awesome, life-changing opportunity for me,” Brenda told me more than once, always making it clear that it wasn’t just about the money. “It really is about being able to open the lines of communication. I’ve saved marriages. My aunt was going through a divorce; Passion Parties saved their marriage.”
Once colloquially and not kindly referred to as “fuckerware,” the Passion Party concept clearly owes its ancestry to the Tupperware party. It offers, through in-home demonstrations, a wide array of lotions, lubes, toys, books and games. It has been endorsed by Oprah. Passion Parties doesn’t disclose its revenues (estimated yearly in the tens of millions) but claims a steady sales growth of more than 500 percent over the last five years. Exploring the company’s phenomenal success is one way of determining whether feminist progressivism and entrepreneurial business savvy can make good bedfellows.
Now Brenda is explaining that Pure Satisfaction, a unisex enhancement gel, is the company’s best-selling product. “People think it’s expensive,” she says. “They’re like, ‘Whoa, $39.50?’ But when you break it down, that’s about 7 cents an orgasm, so that’s not a bad deal. There’s about 500 pumps in the bottle. It only really takes about one pump, but sometimes you can be a two-pumper or a three-pumper. If you’re not really sensitive, you might be a two-pumper. If you’re very sensitive, you might be a half-pumper. I tell people if you have a problem getting to orgasms, this is the product for you; if you have no problem, great. We’ll take it to the multiple level.”
The second best-selling product on her table is a man’s masturbation sleeve called Gigi. “It will save you a lot of work,” she says. “Gigi can be your best friend.” That sounds a little like a line for shilling useless kitchen gadgets that ultimately wind up cluttering the junk drawer anyway. But the women show interest, and Brenda responds.
What follows is an increasingly complex assortment of vibrators, each with unique aptitudes. Before long, the coffee table is full of twisting, flipping, blinking vinyl and plastic dicks. It’s half like a Christmas sale at Toys R Us and half like a pile of underwater creatures freshly pulled from some alien pond and gasping for breath. One costs $153, is waterproof and has 21 speeds. I become sullen. It’s not that these things make me feel inadequate (though they do). It’s that a table full of disembodied, android-like appendages doesn’t seem like the place to go in order to enhance human contact. Now the women are talking about the pliability of vibrating C-rings and sounding like NASA engineers. Already I’m nostalgic for even a few minutes ago, when it was only us and the Double Delight (as it is officially known) breaking the ice. Things seemed a lot simpler then.
One day in 1951, without being asked, a single mother and saleswoman named Brownie Wise decided to inform her company’s founder that when it came to marketing, essentially, he was a bonehead. That’s still not an easy thing for a woman to do, but at the time it was almost unimaginable. The executive was Earl Tupper, and the product was his line of resealable plastic bowls, which Wise by then had been selling in stores for a couple of years. Her experience had taught her that an in-home demonstration could be a powerful sales tool, especially when the product’s salient feature—indeed, its essential technology—had been provided by Tupper with the boorish moniker of the “burping seal.”
However scandalous that description may have been to genteel sensibilities, the product itself was ingenious. It had the potential to change many American lives, but in order to do so, it would need a soft sell. A woman’s touch. Tupper’s more ingenious idea was to appoint Wise as the general sales manager of a new business unit, Tupperware Home Parties, and thereby, though he probably didn’t plan it this way, to establish her as a role model, particularly for working-class women of limited means. She became the very first Tupperware lady and later the first woman to appear on the cover of Business Week magazine. As 1951 drew to a close, Tupperware products were gone from stores, sold entirely through direct sales at the parties. Thanks to the hardworking and wise Ms. Wise, it proved a very good year for plastic bowls with burping seals.
The following year, as it happens, was very good for vibrators. In 1952, the American Psychiatric Association decided after much deliberation that female sexual arousal was not a medical ailment after all and finally took “hysteria” off its books. It meant, among other things, that the genital-massage machines physicians had been using for nearly a century, to induce “paroxysm” in long-suffering patients, no longer would qualify as medical tools. Vibrators had been developed because doctors’ fingers got tired. Now they were liberated to meet their destinies as instruments of pleasure.
Logically, the first stirrings of women’s financial and sexual independence plus the inventive use of plastics was bound to add up to a cultural sea change. Less than a decade later came the birth-control pill, and 13 years after that, abortion became a federally protected right. Women had begun at last to acquire the surest and most basic sign of liberty: options.
They’re still being worked out. The sovereignty of sexuality, both private and public, became a bitterly divisive issue for the women’s-liberation movement, polarizing feminism into “sex-positive” and “antisexual” camps, prompting the “pornography wars” of the late 1970s, underscoring the political pendulum swing of the ’80s and the political scandals of the ’90s. The legacy of that rift has been complicated for everybody, and now it saturates our popular culture. Now we don’t need opinions on Betty Friedan and Susan Brownmiller to be with it; we need opinions on Pam Anderson and Paris Hilton. Maybe we don’t need to have seen The Vagina Monologues and Girls Gone Wild and Sex and the City (which made a star of Passion Parties’ Rabbit Pearl vibrator) and Desperate Housewives, but we must have heard of them, as surely as we’ve deleted un-diminishing e-mail spam of sexual explicitness bordering on high absurdity. We even may have noticed that last fall’s splashiest new nonfiction books included contentious and timely titles like Female Chauvinist Pigs, Pornified and Are Men Necessary?
Who knows, meanwhile, if our variously liberated, technologically enhanced, highly commercialized lives allow us even a daily minimum of something recognizable as true intimacy?
Passion Parties knows. Or so the company would like us to believe. “We feel we’re a movement as much as we’re a business,” Passion Parties President Pat Davis told me. “Women are taking more responsibility for their sexual satisfaction. Eleven years ago, they were seeking information; we were really at the right place at the right time. We’ve had babies named after our reps.” Davis cites the company’s emphasis on monogamous long-term relationships—and, of course, its business model—as the agents of its success. “The model of a party plan just works very well,” she said. “Because of the nature of our products, the environment is safe, comfortable, confidential, educational and fun.”
“It’s a very valuable asset to elevate the selling of sex toys to a level where you can promote it to enhance intimacy in relationships,” said Granite Bay clinical sexologist Fran Fisher, who had a passion consultant for an intern. Fisher supposes she is, loosely speaking, a competitor of Passion Parties and admits surprise at their local prevalence. “They want to be mainstreamed,” she adds, “and they won’t be mainstreamed if they present themselves as purely sex-toy enthusiasts.”
True enough. “Sixty percent of our sales are lotions, foreplay products,” Davis said, readily. “Only 40 percent require batteries. Only 17 percent are phallic.” Could she have a reason for knowing those statistics that isn’t implicitly defensive? Recently, the company relocated its headquarters from the Bay Area to Las Vegas, but, as Davis has often pointed out, certainly not for the “sin city” cachet. She eschews any Passion Parties association with that city’s bawdier elements, preferring the Las Vegas of family-safe (and lucrative) entertainment, of comfortable retirement, of tax breaks.
Similarly, perhaps, the consultants very deliberately avoid crude language, but they also seem to avoid explicit language of progressive piety, of raised consciousness or patriarchy-busting feminist idealism. “Given the fact that they’ve been banned by states like Texas, I think they’ve got quite the banner to crusade under,” said Fisher. Late in 2003, passion consultant Joanne Webb was arrested in a small town south of Dallas for violating state obscenity laws by selling vibrators to undercover cops. Prosecutors later dropped the charges. Although “it’s good publicity,” as Brenda Norberg said about that incident, passion consultants still tend not to be women who wear “I have the pussy, so I make the rules” T-shirts.
As Brenda put it, “It’s empowering women from the bedroom to the bank.” Probably the most peculiar aspect of the Passion Parties culture is its way of making even a catchphrase like that seem wholesome. With this in mind, what’s easy to get wrong about the company’s adoption of the Tupperware business model is the assumption that it constitutes a cultural regression. The Passion Parties vision isn’t nostalgic for a prim, repressive 1950s world. Rather, it’s naively hopeful for a world full of monogamously sensual Brownie Wises.
“This is Tupperware with a whole new kind of rubber,” consultant Christine Deibel announced, to a chorus of laughter, at another Rancho Cordova party a few weeks ago. Radiating warmth and composure, she wore a subtly come-hither ensemble: spike-heeled leather boots, black flare-cuffed capri pants and an open-throated black top, under which a hint of hot pink gently emphasized her figure.
Lisa, the hostess, had arranged a gorgeous display of hors d’oeuvres, and the ladies were enjoying pomegranate martinis. Sixteen other women had shown up, and in many ways this party was a lot like Brenda’s: the easygoing friendliness, the varied ages and body types, and the dress tending toward an urban-casual motif of jeans and boots. Even the house seemed to have the same floor plan. The major difference was that, for the sake of her clients’ comfort, Christine asked me to leave before they got to the good stuff. Didn’t she know that I’d already witnessed a Double Delight dance circle and a coffee-table vibra-thon? It was OK. I was jaded now and could imagine becoming bored or beleaguered again as this evening wore on. The only toy I had a chance to play with here was the foreplay-fortune-telling Mystery Sex Heart (like a Magic 8 Ball, but heart-shaped), which answered my unspoken questions with “massage breast” and “their choice.” Fair enough.
Our time together seemed more meaningful a few days later, when I met Christine in her 5-year-old daughter Zoe’s room at the UC Davis Medical Center, where she’d been staying since before Thanksgiving. For Christine, long hospital stays, including difficult stints in intensive care, have become common. Zoe was born with a rare lymphatic disorder, about which her mother speaks with the detailed knowledge of the reluctant expert. She speaks about Passion Parties with the detailed knowledge of the willing expert.
“It’s a great equalizer,” she observed of the company, in which she too is an executive director. “No matter what your background, you pull yourself up. And it gave me more of a sense of personal purpose again, which is something I thought I’d lost in the drama of becoming a mother,” she said. “For a long time, I kept thinking about how much longer it would be to have my life back. But this is my life. There’s no getting it back.” With help from a staff of dedicated nurses who’ve become friends, Christine often works from the hospital, hosting conference calls, talking to company brass about setting up benefits packages for executive-level consultants and making party arrangements. “It’s very cathartic to go to my parties,” she said.
Dressed unceremoniously in a T-shirt and sweat pants, she had curled up on the worn recliner next to Zoe’s bed. Shiny balloons, shaped like a butterfly and a unicorn, hung in the corners. Books and games and finger paints lay scattered on the floor. Zoe and a nurse had just disappeared down the hall for playtime. “She had 10-15 appointments a week,” Christine recalled of the tough early days. “She came home with all these tubes sticking out of her.” An IV stand loomed nearby. They’d customized it with shiny decoration, but that didn’t entirely undo what I saw as its air of menace. Now that I think about it, though, the machine itself wasn’t menacing; the machine was here to help.
In any case, this reality seemed far removed from the literal fantasy world of the other evening’s party. Here, in a room cluttered with medical devices and totems of love, the forceful confluence of technology and intimacy happened in a very different way. It was easier here to know who Christine is and what caregiving really means to her.
She grew up in Nevada City, went to college at St. Mary’s in Moraga and now lives with her husband in Elk Grove. Most recently, she was a manager at a bar downtown. When it closed a couple of years ago, she decided, “It’s time to close that chapter in my life and move on.” Not that it was easy. “I was pretty much drowning at that moment. In fear, anger, guilt over the circumstances, also in financial chaos. And it wasn’t like, ‘Oh, I’ll just put my kid in day care and get a job.’ It was the first time in my life that I really felt trapped by my circumstances. I didn’t want to become a mother who’s only a mother.”
Christine’s mother had a friend whose daughter had become a passion consultant, so they all discussed it. “I was a complete virgin to the whole thing,” she remembered. “Um, bad term.” She laughed. “I started it as a hobby and have turned it into a business. I’d already understood that sales is very much about building trust. And I wasn’t tied to the concept of a salary, per se.” She also enjoys being a sponsor, she said, because, as she put it, “it’s the one thing where you get to be both selfish and altruistic at the same time.” Her natural ease had dispatched any cheap rhetoric of empowerment. She looked tired but still strong and remarkably self-possessed. Her guileless brown eyes maintained their warmth, and she smiled often.
Inevitably, I lost track of what she was telling me. For a moment, all I could think about was that by finding myself attracted to a married interview subject in a hospital room, I was triply terrible and probably going straight to hell. I think she could tell what was on my mind. Of course she could. She’s a professional.
“Our party was $1,400,” she said. “That’s 500 in my pocket. That’s a pretty good night.” Right, so, back to business. The sex toys. Goodness. Smiling again, Christine noticed that a nurse had taped a note to the closet door asking to schedule a Passion Party.
Happy Hearts and minds
“I don’t like going into adult stores,” another Sacramento passion consultant told me. “There’s always a bunch of perverted old men. And then when you go with a girlfriend for safety, the men are like, ‘Oh, they’re together.’” One of the women at Brenda’s party told me that even a famously sex-positive shop like the Bay Area’s Good Vibrations can be overwhelming and intimidating by contrast to a Passion Party.
That’s not so hard to believe; for the most part, these are modest, unprepossessing, suburban middle-class women. Their reservations reveal less a denial of frank sexuality than a very reasonable fear of facing down an urban-hipster sales staff. To some, it might seem like shopping in that certain kind of record store, where if you don’t know what you want, and you don’t already have an encyclopedic knowledge to match the clerk’s, the atmosphere of knowingness, however well-intentioned, only exacerbates your sense of shame. Whereas the passion consultant conveys not a dreaded more-sex-positive-than-thou attitude, but the trustworthy aura of a regular-gal confidante. And she comes to you, in the deliberately sheltered environment of your friend’s living room. Does that make it ideal? Not necessarily, but to some women, it’s still the preferred option.
“People have said that at the Passion Parties you feel pressured from your friends and from the hosts,” said Fisher, the sexologist. “But I think things have changed.”
Kiss N Tell, the erotic boutique that bills itself as “Sacramento’s classy alternative,” will follow the Passion Parties example and begin hosting its own in-home parties this spring. (Though the two companies have several products in common, no direct commercial relationship exists between them.) Employees from Kiss N Tell’s Arden Way and Fair Oaks stores will become house-calling consultants themselves. “The reason is we’re getting a lot of requests from our customers,” said owner Joseph Long. “We’re not a typical store. We’re a little softer, and we cater more toward women. For them, this helps eliminate the taboo.”
Presumably, the more conservative the clients, the more reliable the need for the liberation of the Passion Parties experience. Certainly the strategy is opportunistic; whether it’s a matter of knowing the target audience or condescending to it is open to debate. But to think Passion Parties is out of tune with the legacy of the sexual revolution is to seriously misjudge it; to write the phenomenon off as mere fuckerware is perhaps to dishonor the memory of Brownie Wise.
I tracked down about a dozen local passion consultants, but not all of them could or would talk. Actually, not all of them were allowed. The company seems almost coquettish about its public image, at once highly approachable and jealously guarded. I was initiated through a mutual-seduction dance with the Passion Parties public-relations department. I tried to be patient and understanding. After a while, I found myself behaving in some weird, archly polite way, as men sometimes do when we’re just trying to get into women’s pants.
Defensiveness should be expected from a company that is both profitable and sex-related. Notwithstanding the potential for sudden religious conversion and corresponding renunciation, though, it seems unlikely that any credible dissenters will come out of the woodwork to call Passion Parties a cult or accuse it of Enronesque malfeasance anytime soon. If the consultants seem especially obedient and protective of their company, evidently that is their earned prerogative and not due to any kind of coercive fear. Besides, the protectiveness is mutual. Even the routine admonishments that consultants should check with the PR department before talking to the press seem mild as far as corporate scoldings go. Their severity likely is proportionate to how much money those consultants bring in.
The busy, dangerous intersection of commerce and technology and human closeness has never been harder to navigate. In a society saturated with both sexuality and consumerism, a pornified world of rampant raunch culture, the Passion Parties approach is firmly to remain in the middle of the road. Is it prudent or prudish? As Fisher allowed, “I believe that we’re in conflicting times. In our society, where we are so overwhelmed with pressure, it’s good just to be reminded that we have a sexual component to our lives. The bigger the toy box, the better.”
By braiding a version of sex-positive values with a version of traditional family values, Passion Parties has proven its niche in sexual-identity politics is at the very least a commercially viable one. It is the range between urbane über-feminists and small-town girls gone wild. It’s probably safe to say that most adult female Sacramentans see themselves within that range. Passion Parties marry heartland ideals with California ideals, and Sacramento is California’s heartland.
Every day is Valentine’s Day
At Brenda’s party, as the evening deepens, the conversation becomes at once more leisurely and more serious.
“Ben Wa balls scare me,” one woman admits.
“Why?” Brenda asks.
“I don’t know why.”
“Have you used them before?”
“Nope. They just scare me.”
“They’re just to strengthen your muscles.”
“Right. I know.”
“Do they scare you because you don’t like the idea of balls being up inside you?”
“Yeah. Because … I mean … what happens if you lose ’em?”
“Oh, you can’t lose ’em. They go in; they have to come out. I’ve heard stories of people, of them getting lodged up in there, but they’ll come out if you jump up and down or if you just stand up long enough. In fact, in more cases than not, they’ve come out, um, unwantedly. Like, you’re wearing them out to the grocery store—”
“Who does that?”
“Oh, you’d be amazed. You ever hear someone walking, and you hear a little jingle?” She laughs. “I’ve heard true stories about them rolling down the aisles.”
“That would be so embarrassing,” says the other woman, legitimately mortified on behalf of the unfortunate grocery shopper. Brenda is ready with the story of a client whose son took her balls to school for show and tell, thinking they were marbles, and prompted an embarrassing call home from the teacher. “She’s like, ‘I think we have something here that belongs to you.’”
Aside from the nuts and bolts of condom compatibility and vagina friendliness, one of the most instructive parts of the Passion Party experience is the peer-review reassurance that you’re not abnormal. Or maybe you are, but it’s no big deal; it might even be funny.
“When we get into the ordering room, when we’re doing separate orders, I sometimes find that I’m the sex therapist,” Brenda tells me. “When we get to one-on-one, I’ll have people that’ll just spill their beans. I don’t give them answers. I can give them suggestions and recommendations. At our conventions, we get trained on a lot of that stuff, so we have a little background on it. But we are always supposed to recommend that they go see their gynecologist. Always recommend that they see an expert,” she says, repeating the rote-learned mantra.
After the demonstration is done, the ladies take a break. They whip out cell phones and call their significant others. A few of them disappear into the kitchen, continuing a debate about threesomes.
Later, they order their products, privately and one at a time, in another room.
“Oh, is there anything out?” Meredith says as the party winds down. “Because the boys are home.” Headlights shine in from the driveway. Luckily, by now the living room has been rendered passionless.
“We don’t want them to be educated too soon,” someone says. In a flash, two young boys—Meredith’s roommate’s son and a friend—charge through the hall, on the way to a video game in a bedroom. They only take a moment to register some irritation at finding all these ladies, and me, filling up the house. A couple of the woman step outside to say their thanks and goodbyes to Brenda. Finally, I get in the truck with her, and we pull away. I can’t help but notice the lingering pheromones.
“I get that all the time,” Brenda says on the way home. “People tell me, ‘Wow. I’m in the wrong business.’ They want to do what I do.”