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Merchants of Passion 

A Bay Area company moves the dildo into the national mainstream -- one housewife at a time

Wednesday, Sep 15 2004
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.

About The Author

Ron Russell


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