GRAIN VALLEY, Mo. — On the evening I visit Julie Bunton’s new house in this small farming town that seems to grow more tract homes than crops, family is gathered inside the living room — mothers, daughters, cousins, in-laws — along with a few friends. There is diced fruit, vegetable crudités and a tray with marshmallows ready for dipping into a chocolate fountain.
Brooke Reinertsen, a saleswoman for one of those multi-level marketing home-party outfits, is giving a sales presentation. But it sounds nothing like a Tupperware or Mary Kay event.
“OK ladies, now rub, lick, blow. Rub, lick, blow. Feel that? You can just about breathe your partner to orgasm with this!”
Reinertsen, a no-nonsense 30-year-old suburban mom from Shawnee, Kan., goes on to demonstrate “Gigi,” a male masturbation sleeve, by squeezing a generous amount of lubricant into it, then sliding and twisting it up and down the penis-shaped lube bottle.
“This is going to make your job so much easier!” she says, sounding a lot like a vacuum salesman who’s just spread topsoil on the carpet.
At that, 15 women turn to look at me, as if to say, “Well?” It's then I realize that being the only man at a Passion Party can be uncomfortable.
But in this room, I'm the only one blushing, which is saying something because Cathy Pearson, 44, is here with her two daughters, 18 and 24. Not only is she not embarrassed, she regards the sex toy party as a chance for some mother-daughter bonding, a deliberate effort to change the sexual conversation she heard as a girl.
“I was so sheltered … I was very naïve,” she tells me. Like many in the area, she grew up Southern Baptist, got married out of high school and “all I knew was this little world. When I got divorced 10 years ago, I felt so stupid.” She doesn’t want her daughters to feel the same way.
This is exactly what Pat Davis, the president of Passion Parties, the Las Vegas-based company that supplies Reinertsen with her products and training, calls the company’s mission. “We are really helping educate women, helping them have better relationships,” she says.
If my three nights of Passion Partying in small-town Missouri are any indication, Davis has tapped into a very receptive audience, and one quite willing to pay for vibrators, dildos, lubricants and other products that boost their sexual pleasure.
Reinertsen’s sales network, which includes herself and those she has brought into the fold, made more than $1.2 million in sales in 2005. She took home more than $100,000 in personal income. She’ll do better in 2006, and most of those sales will come from small towns and rural locations in eastern Kansas and western Missouri.
Nationwide, the company does more than 128,000 parties a year, reaching more than 1.2 million women.
“This year we will have 38 women whose organizations will do over $1 million,” Davis says. “At least three women will do over $5 million.”
Davis won't give out the private company’s gross sales, but I did some math and suggested to Joanne Harvie, the vice-president of finance, that the corporation sells something like $100 million dollars worth of sex-related products per year.
“You could say that, rest comfortably, and sleep very well at night,” she says. Sales are growing at a double-digit pace.
Competitors like Pure Romance, based near Cincinnati, are also seeing big gains, so much so that adult industry veterans like mail-order giant Adam & Eve are getting into the home-party act, too.
Sex and the suburbs
While the adult home-party industry exists everywhere, the bulk of the sales occur in small towns and suburbs. “We do well in the small communities,” Reinertsen says. “Having a Passion Party is like a night out.”
Most women I meet don’t fit the convenient boxes into which the noisiest combatants in our culture wars would place them. Viewed through the prism of a Passion Party, stereotypes like “red state” and “Bible belt” become meaningless. They want the same excitement, orgasms and variation as the women they see on "Sex and the City" and they are surprisingly tolerant of the ways others might seek the same.
During my stay, I hear:
“That’s a new thing I learned in tantric…”
“My doctor told me, ‘No food products any more.’ No more bananas!”
“Well, officer, if you drop your drawers, I’ll show you what it does...”
“Shoot, practice’ll teach ya you do not have to gag.”
“I was raised very strict Southern Baptist,” says a woman at my second party (where most of the women worked for a police department in a nearby town as officers or dispatchers and so requested I not use their names). “As a child, there was no dancing, no cars, no kissing. My mother told me you get pregnant from French kissing. That was my sex talk.”
She hadn’t let her own husband see her completely naked for the first two years of her marriage, she says. But while she described herself as “very conservative,” and not especially sexually experimental, “I don’t care what anybody else does. Bondage, threesomes, I would not look down on anybody else for it. Don’t pressure me, I won’t pressure you.”
She, along with every other woman in the room, had watched porn, usually with their husbands. Several had shopped at an adult store, though they drove to another town to do it so neighbors wouldn’t see their cars in the parking lot.
That’s why they like these parties so much — and they clearly do like them. Once the front door closes, they don’t have to worry about what anybody else is going to think.
On my last night with Reinertsen, I see how powerful the lure of these parties can be. We drive down a country road looking for Tanya and Matt Willoughby’s place. When she spots a couple of balloons tied to a mail box and a pickup truck for sale in the yard, we turn into the gravel driveway.
Inside the small house, two photo portraits of Tanya Willoughby’s brothers sit on a bookcase; one brother is in his National Guard uniform, the other in his Marine Corps dress blues. A copy of "The Open Bible," a popular study Bible, sits on the coffee table, and baking dishes of sweet butter cake and other snacks are spread on the kitchen counter.
Once again, this party turns out to be multi-generational. When I tell 48-year-old Peggy Frizell, whose daughter is one of the hostesses, that I’m surprised by the sight of mothers and daughters talking sex toys, she laughs at me.
“We’ve had these parties before and they are usually multi-generational,” she explains. “People are going, ‘That’s your mom? That’s your aunt? Your cousin?’ My sister would be here but she’s working … There’s a joke in our family, ‘Who gets the toys when we die?’”
Reinertsen begins her presentation but, unlike the other parties, about half the women here are weirdly subdued. A young woman in a John Deere T-shirt (“Been there. Cut that.”) eyes me nervously. Reinertsen sweats like a stand-up comic working a tough room.
After a few minutes, I ask for an explanation and they tell me it’s my fault. They have no desire to be exposed attending a Passion Party. They may be eager to expand their sexual menus, but they don’t want the rest of their community to know.
But they do loosen up a little, and begin cracking a few jokes about vibrators and talking about where to go for a bachelorette outing the next weekend.
Somebody suggests Shaft, a gay nightclub in St. Joseph. “I like it there. The gay guys know how to dance, they’re fun, and they don’t try to pick you up.”
Her first time
After her presentation, Reinertsen and I sit in a tiny back bedroom with a half-finished Winnie the Pooh wallpaper border — Willoughby is expecting — and wait for orders. (In what seems like a quaint practice, given the freewheeling talk at most parties, all ordering is done in private.)
After a few minutes her first customer, a 26-year-old single woman, walks in.
“I come from a small town,” she says by way of explanation for why she won’t give me her name. “My graduating class was 18 people.”
She’s reluctant to buy, or more precisely, to be seen buying. It would be her first sex toy, “so this is a big deal," she tells me.
“I want the Pulsating Orbiter,” she decides.
Brian Alexander, a California-based freelance writer and MSNBC.com's Sexploration columnist, is traveling around the country to find out how Americans get sexual satisfaction. Alexander, also a Glamour contributing editor, is chronicling his work in the MSNBC.com special report "America Unzipped" and in an upcoming book for Harmony, an imprint of Crown Publishing. In the next installment in this series, he attends a fetish convention.