'Passion Parties' Expand Female Freedom

Feb. 7, 2004 -- In living rooms from coast-to-coast, women are seeing, touching and talking about "sensual products" — powders, potions and gadgets that can't even be shown on network television.

They're participating in a trend called "Passion Parties": trying and buying products to spice up their sex lives.

At one party in California, one party-goer named Becky said, "I'm going to get the hideaway heart pillow … the one that comes with the free vibrator."

Monica is another participant. She's a "Passion Parties" veteran — and she says it's her husband's idea.

"Everything else is, 'What do you spend and how much?' " she said. "But when it comes to this it's a different story, because he knows I'm going to come home with something fun."

The model for these festivities is the icon of suburban America: the Tupperware party.

"We kid a lot that Tupperware has a burp and we have a buzz," said Pat Davis, president of the Passion Parties company.

And through its network of 3,000 all-female sales reps, "Passion Parties" had sales last year in excess of $20 million. The typical customer is in her early 30s.

Female Freedom Grows

Like the girls in Sex and the City, women are discovering they can have a lot of fun talking about this stuff and not be blasé about it. They are part of a groundswell of women trying to take control of their sex lives.

"We now have great careers, we have five pairs of Manolos, we have fantastic apartments. We have money," said E. Jean Carroll, a columnist for Elle magazine. "These parties stand for more than the fabled gizmo. They stand for female freedom in its wildest form."

Davis says it better to have these products shown in the comfort of a customer's home, because "it offers education, it offers comfort, it offers confidentiality and it's a great way for women to get together to have a giggle and have a girl's night out."

Passion Party consultant Joanne Webb, who works in Burleson, Texas, just south of Fort Worth, says she chose to sell sexual aids over Tupperware or cosmetics because it was new, exciting and could help keep couples together.

"I thought, you know, if I could educate women on how to get the most out of their sensuality, how to give the most in their relationships through their sensuality, maybe, just maybe some of these divorce rates would go down," she said.

There is strong evidence that those relationships could use some help. A study released last year by the Kinsey Institute revealed nearly 25 percent of the women surveyed said they were unhappy with their sex lives. Other studies show that number is even higher: closer to 50 percent.

A Special Function

Webb says she wasn't surprised when women at her parties began to confide in her about the problems they'd been having.

She remembers one 26-year-old she talked to, who had been married for five years and was in the middle of a divorce. Webb said the woman told her she had never had an orgasm in the five years she was married; she didn't even know what her clitoris was.

"She looked at me and she said, 'You know, if I had known these things before I probably wouldn't be in the middle of the divorce right now,' " Webb said.

Webb signed on with "Passion Parties" last summer. She is a classic suburban mother of three, married 20 years to her college sweetheart. The part-time job brings in between $500 and $1,000 a month. But Webb says it's more important that she's getting women to talk about what used to be said in whispers.

"They'll be hearing words like 'penis,' 'clitoris,' clinical terms, 'orgasm,' that they may not actually hear spoken out loud very often," she said. "So at first they might be a little uncomfortable. By the time they're done they're using those terms."

Obscene by Two Measures

However, in Webb's area, not everyone was as comfortable talking sex as she was. The "Pink Passions" and "Moodlight G-Spots" she was been selling may have gotten her extra income, but they also got her a mug shot.

On Nov. 13, 2003, the Burleson Police left a voicemail on her cell phone saying that a warrant had been issued for her arrest on an obscenity charge.

The one-time Bible School teacher was charged and booked under a Texas law that defines an obscene device as one designed to be used for sexual stimulation.

There are shops in Texas that sell sexual devices, but they aren't breaking the law because they call the devices a novelty or a gift item.

Webb's attorney, BeAnn Sisemore, interprets Texas law as saying you can either sell the devices, or you can explain what to do with them, but you can't do both.

However, Sizemore says the Texas law that snared her client could also be used against businesses that sell condoms and don't label them novelties.

"Wal-Mart everyday sells condoms. They're ribbed condoms, for his pleasure and her pleasure. If it is used in any manner to affect the human genitalia then it falls under the statute," she said.

Local officials, including country attorney Bill Moore who brought the charges, declined ABCNEWS' request for an interview.

Talk of the Town

Around town, opinion on Webb is divided. At the Country Kitchen Café, one man said, "This is about small town politics, Southern Baptists. This is something they don't believe in so they want to do away with it."

But another woman said, "I don't believe that was the way the Lord intended for sex to be that you have to have toys."

If convicted, Webb could be fined up to $4,000 and spend up to a year in prison. While she hopes it won't come to that, she is concerned.

"My middle daughter, she won't even discuss this issue with her friends because it scares her so much," she said. "It's the idea of her mom going to jail that really scares her."

Sisemore, a veteran of the civil rights movement, says she has never been so emotionally involved in a case.

"Would I have been so brave?" Sisemore said. "It takes people like this to make people like me comfortable about their sexuality and themselves as a person. I feel a huge sense of responsibility."

In the meantime, Webb continues to conduct her Passion Parties, risking arrest with each one. But for her, what was once just means of bringing a little extra money into the home has become a cause. "I will continue to help women. That is my plan," she said.