Squeals on Wheels By: Nina Wegner
Posted June 21, 2009
On a wooden deck overlooking rolling farmland in Upstate New York, Melody Surace, a petite woman of 5’3, stands front and center. She wears a tight black T-shirt with the name of the company she represents, Pure Romance, emblazoned in pink rhinestones across her chest. Her voice has gone hoarse from yelling over the rowdy party.
“Do not insert this into your vagina!” Melody hollers at a group of howling women. She holds up what looks like a silver bullet attached by wire to a remote control. It’s called a clitoral vibrator and it’s Melody’s best-selling product.
Melody works as a pleasure party consultant — in essence, this generation’s answer to the Avon lady. Instead of beauty products, she sells sex toys to women. When she schedules a party, she makes a house call lugging a suitcase full of “bedroom enhancement products,” as the company’s website calls them.
She sells everything from lingerie to vibrating nipple clamps, flavored lube to vagina tightening cream, bondage gear to vibrators. Media outlets from Oprah to college newspapers have documented the pleasure-party trend. But “trend” doesn’t do the industry justice; “tidal wave” is a more apt description. Pure Romance grossed $1 million in 1994, its first year in business, and $50 million in 2005.
From Mrs. Doubtfire to Mrs.Focker
Melody averages three to four parties a week. Her youngest customer was 18, her oldest, 84. She sells to all women: single, divorced, married, every ethnic group, religious affiliation, and profession - at least one candidate for office attended a recent party. Tonight’s party is heavy in teachers. Melody drove more than an hour to reach a rural home in Unadilla, a farming community of 1,051.
Sherry Backman’s friends and family planned this risqué celebration for her 33rd birthday. College friends, co-workers, sisters, and even mother-daughter duos make up the party’s 25 guests. Their ages span from 18 to mid-50s. Penis-shaped candies and “snatch cookies,” topped with brown coconut shavings, line the snack tables. “You want a blue ball? They’re cream filled,” says Kerry Osterwald, the hostess, offering a phallic-shaped dish of cream puffs covered in blue sugar.
Standing at her demo table, Melody lobs quips about penis size and anal sex as naturally as she tosses her strawberry blonde hair. She talks about the G-spot, demonstrates how to position a cock ring, and explains how a dildo is different from a vibrator. (The difference? A battery.) She is a self-styled sexpert, and she educates women while she sells.
This hasn’t always been Melody’s life. After spending 18 years working in a daycare, Melody turned to party sales as a part-time gig to raise tuition for her teenage daughter. By her second party, Melody was hooked. She loved many aspects of her new job: the fast cash, travel that afforded her alone time, and, of course, getting paid to attend parties. Now, her work for Pure Romance provides most of her income.
In three and a half years with the company, Melody has nearly doubled her yearly earnings from $26,000 to $49,000. At an average gross profit of $300 per party, Melody earns in two nights what she made in a week of wiping runny noses and sharpening crayons. Still, Melody holds down a day job as a bus monitor for the local school district. “Mrs. Doubtfire by day, Mrs. Focker by night,” she says with a chuckle.
Despite the national boom, not everyone finds the industry so amusing. Melody has taken heat from family members and friends who disapprove of her work. “There’s definitely a stigma with it. Prejudice comes from everywhere,” she says. “But stigmas don’t bother me. I am who I am, and I do what I do, and if I’m comfortable with it, so be it.”
Morality isn’t the only issue at hand. Some scientists and academics remain skeptical of the information offered at parties, or lack thereof. Melody undergoes mandatory training — a sort of corporate sex ed where she learns the ins and outs of how to use each product, as well as the basics of sexual health.
She can rattle off medical findings about sex, such as the percentage of Americans who masturbate (92 percent of men and 62 percent of women, according to Alfred Kinsey’s landmark studies, or how research suggests that the release of oxytocin during orgasm may prevent breast cancer. She weaves this information into her demo, calling attention to the dangers of vaginal infection and the importance of proper sex-toy hygiene.
“You have to have training in sexual health. I can’t just go sell somebody something without telling them how to use it, what it’s going to do for them, and how it’s going to work on their body,” Melody says. Still, some sex therapists criticize the industry for inadequately addressing serious sex problems. “Alex” Caroline Robboy, a clinical social worker, certified sex therapist, and founder of the therapy institute Center for Growth, Inc., in Philadelphia, says pleasure parties primarily aim to sell products. Rather than taking a holistic approach to problems in the bedroom, they offer temporary solutions for profit.
“There’s a good chance for misinformation going on,” Robboy says. “The common one is that the leader will really push lubricant. But you’re not teaching the woman to lubricate [on her own].” Some bedroom, body, and health issues cannot be lubed away and require the help of a specialist or therapist.
The products sometimes raise skeptical eyebrows. The so-called vagina tightening cream, for example, seems on par with the mythical penis enlarger. Ultimately, sales drive the business, which begs the question of whether some products prey on the insecurities of women. “A penis enlargement pump would probably last five minutes, whereas vagina tightening creams probably don’t work at all,” says Dr. Kenneth Levey, a gynecologist practicing in New York City
“The vagina’s supporting structure is made up of a lot of different types of tissue. I don’t know of any medication that increases the integrity of those tissues.” Anything advertised as a vagina tightening cream probably only induces temporary swelling by increasing blood flow to the area, he says.
Levey still allows the pleasure party industry some leeway. “They’re not claiming they’re doctors, they’re not claiming medical miracles. And they’re selling more than creams at these parties — they’re selling undergarments, sex toys, books, videos. As much of a rip-off as most of these creams probably are, that’s not [the consultant’s] main focus,” he says. “The question is, ‘Do you have to have a medical degree to sell dildos?’ The answer’s no.”
But, Robboy says, “There are some amazing positives that can happen at a pleasure party. It can open dialogue among women.” And, she adds, “I think it can be a lot of fun.” Even the gynecologist agrees. “There are probably lots of psychological benefits from talking to other women in the camaraderie at parties. There are some benefits that you don’t pay for when you go to these things,” Levey says.