If you hosted a sex-toy party in your home, you probably wouldn't invite your mother.
In which case, you're missing something Dawn Montgomery has--a liberated sensibility, perhaps, or an astonishing nonchalance. Call it what you will. She has gotten to a place in her sexuality that you can only dream of.
Not only did she invite her mom, whom she lives with and who cleaned their house in Accokeek for the party, but she also asked three aunts, a cousin and a slew of friends and co-workers. She had a caterer friend make pornographic chocolates that were given out as prizes at the end, after the partygoers had viewed all the colorful battery-operated objects for sale but before they had lined up to buy them in the privacy of Dawn's mother's bedroom.
Later, while guests milled about, Dawn, 31, filed through the rack of lingerie and pulled out a blue teddy and a purple one.
"Okay, Mom, which one do you like for me?"
"Well, that blue is nice," said Jacqueline Medley, 50, relaxing on the couch as her daughter held one nightie, then the other, in front of herself. "Well, maybe that would be more for me."
Dawn, a customer service rep at the Department of Motor Vehicles, is today's sexually liberated woman. Skip the '90s; this is the Aught Age. She's not some free-lovin' hippie throwback. Her brand of sexual awareness is post-post-feminist, the marketing-age sexuality of "romance enhancements" and "relationship aids," of lotions and potions, of scented candles and vibrators and flimsy filigreed garments like the one she finally winds up buying in blue.
In other words, she is the perfect hostess for a sex-toy party--the phenomenon born in the early '70s that has swelled surprisingly in popularity and profits. Inspired by the Tupperware party and the Avon lady, sex-toy party companies hit pay dirt in the late '80s and early '90s, and now if you throw a dart at any of the Lower 48, chances are that if you don't find one of these companies' headquarters you'll at least come upon a few distributors. There's a sex-toy party company based in Tennessee, for Heaven's sake. Wait--scratch that. There are two.
"We're in the middle of the Bible Belt!" says Surprise Parties co-owner Sue Rhea, whose operation, based in Mount Juliet, Tenn., has grown from one distributor (herself) in 1989 to more than 400 today in 25 states and Canada. "If we can do this here, we can do it anywhere."
Here's the dealio on the sex-toy party: A smartly dressed woman arrives at your house with duffel bags and Rubbermaid containers filled with all manner of hardware, then proceeds to give a three- to four-hour tour of the products to you and 20 of your closest female friends. There is occasional shrieking and continual laughter. No one takes her clothes off. The demonstration itself resembles a cross between a bachelorette party and an archaeological dig, which is to say you spend half the time wondering, What is THAT?
It's a question you direct to your guide--in this case, Mary Alice Hill of Bowie, whose husband, a fire equipment purchaser, helps her set up for every party and whose Ford Bronco boasts "Tasteful Treasures by Mary Alice" with an 800 number, and whose home answering machine proudly announces her work as a distributor for the Virginia Beach-based company. Mary Alice makes $41,000 a year in her full-time work as an inventory control technician at the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, but raked in $12,000 last year from eight hours a week at sex-toy parties. Last year she used her profits to help buy her husband a Corvette and a motorcycle.
"I don't like to go to Tupperware parties," says Hill, 46, who has been in this line of work for less than two years. "But this--I think this had my name written all over it."
Hang out with these women for an afternoon and you'll come away with a conclusion you may have reached once in your intellect but not in your gut: Sex is no big deal. All the nervous tittering and closemouthedness is a lot of wasted energy. If the '80s were a time of economic prosperity layered with social conservatism, the '90s--Internet porn sites, unwanted sex e-mail and all--were a time of sexual deluge, with the release of the Starr Report onto office screens everywhere as its high water mark.
After all, says cultural sexologist Carol Queen in San Francisco, in the '80s everyone was worrying about herpes and AIDS, and discussions of sex took on a troubled tone--they weren't about sexual experimentation anymore, but sexual defense. By the '90s there had been so much "hysteria," Queen says, that "the same cultural conditions that made it a little less safe to explore sex" a decade before "were also the genesis for the atmosphere that made it more easy."
People's discussions of sex turned more prurient and more honest than they had been during the height of "sexual liberation" in the '70s, Queen says. Which leads us to the question: If you can't talk about sex with your mother, who can you talk to about it?
"What the heck is a sex party?" Jacqueline Medley said when her daughter told her about the event she planned to host.
And then she thought, "Well, I'm not gonna be there because I don't think I'm interested in that."
And then she thought a little more and said, "Well, okay, I'm gonna buy me one of those things because I'm getting older."
"So is my husband."
The event, when it finally happens, is a downright banquet. There's white zinfandel, champagne, pina coladas, fruit platters and fried chicken. There's a chocolate-covered cake that would be X-rated if anyone could figure out precisely what body part it's supposed to look like.
"I think it's a guy with a girl," says Dawn's aunt, 53-year-old June Queen, who, like the rest of her 10 siblings, has a name that starts with "J."
"That's a bellybutton," notes Dawn.
"Maybe she's lying down!" yells another woman.
Into this atmosphere Mary Alice Hill enters, wearing a red suit, red pumps and sparkle on her eyelids. She passes around chocolate body topping and candy condoms that are "just like Fruit Roll-Ups." There's more, of course, but you'll have to use your imagination.
"I have used almost everything on the table," notes Mary Alice Hill in an aside, gesturing at the spread of toys and novelty items. She has to, she adds. How can she vouch for them otherwise? How can she promise that they're safe? Besides, "it's one thing that keeps the romance going, 'cause the love life dies after a certain while."
Hill, like representatives from companies based in California, Florida, Louisiana, Nevada and other places, likes to stress the "educational" aspect of her shows. Representatives also make the point that women aren't eager to go into adult bookstores. The all-female parties seem safer.
And there is, without a doubt, the sheer titillation factor of the sex-toy party. During one party in November at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, where sixty-some sorority girls squeezed into a living room meant for 20, the spiked punch flowed freely and screeching erupted with each new contraption. Later, a man calling himself Keith arrived. He wore a cowboy hat and--within minutes--nothing, aside from a thong.
The whole evening, from sex-toy sales to stripper, could have been nothing more than thrills and eye candy. But these girls were buying. They stood in slow-moving lines leading to the back room, where they wrote checks for as much as $100 for a hefty, twirling object known as "The Rabbit Pearl."
No trade organizations seem to exist to offer hard statistics on the trajectory of sex-toy parties. But their growth, both in terms of the number of companies around and in terms of the expansions of these companies, seems undeniable.
Moe Levy founded a sex-toy party business in Los Angeles in 1981, and four years later sold it to Holiday Products, a start-up based in Chatsworth, Calif., that sells sex toys and novelty items to party companies. He says he knows of half a dozen larger party companies and many more tiny ones around the country.
"Our growth was incredible," Levy says. "It was 50 percent a year for five years. It's still in full bloom."
Tasteful Treasures, for example, has 525 part- and full-time distributors in 14 states. For some reason, they seem to do best in suburban and rural areas, in states like Maryland, Pennsylvania and Minnesota. President and founder Kim Williamson says the company had sales of $2.5 million in 1999, compared with $342,000 in 1995, when the company was founded.
As for Mary Alice's pocketbook, at this particular party she pulls in $525 from 14 women in four hours. Of that she gets to keep $210, which averages just over $52 an hour.
"A good night," she says.
These women buy lotions and glitter and something called the "Pirate's Cove." Many are candid about their purchases, talking about them or opening their plain stapled paper bags to let a curious reporter peek inside. Another of the J sisters, Jaynie Moreland, 40, decides to become a distributor like Mary Alice, and four days later she sends in her application for a kit and an instructional video. As a whole, the family shares an easy frankness about plug-in pleasure, pleasure at different speeds, pleasure in a book and on a string--all of which, after a while, begins to seem downright conventional.
"It's always been that way with the whole family," Dawn Montgomery says.
Which is not to say they don't sometimes roll their eyes.
"You're kidding! You must be freaky!" Jacqueline Medley says when she finds out one of her sisters goes to sex shops. "Some people you think you know."
And as it turns out, Medley is the only one to show a bit of coyness. She spends about $80 on a lewd key chain and some other things she doesn't specify.
"I want to know what kinda key chain she has that cost her $80!" says her sister, Janice Swann, 52. Swann didn't make it to the party, unfortunately.
"Not to say I didn't order mine," Swann says. "I ordered my sex toy and not to say that was the first sex toy I ever bought!"
CAPTION: From left, Robyn Robinson and Nichelle Brown take a whiff of what's new on the sex-toy front, while Adrienne Ferguson pores over an order form in the Accokeek home of host Dawn Montgomery.
CAPTION: Customer Adrienne Ferguson, left, shares a laugh over her order form with sex-toy party host Dawn Montgomery.