CINCINNATI – Patty Brisben had never even seen a sex toy before she started selling them from her home in 1983. She has now become a leading authority on everything from G-spot vibrators to strawberry lubricants.
"It wasn't until I went through my divorce that I discovered I was entitled to use a bedroom toy," said Brisben, remembering the first products she bought to sell to other women to support her family.
Twenty-four years later, Brisben's Pure Romance direct sales business in the aptly named Cincinnati suburb of Loveland does $60 million in annual sales, and celebrities and cancer survivors alike turn to her 14,000 saleswomen to teach them about sexual health and happiness.
From the beginning, Brisben wanted the business of selling sex products to be classy and clean. Sales would be made by women to women, at home-based "parties" where friends felt free to pass around plastic penises and dust themselves with edible body powders before purchasing.
"When another woman explains something in a group of women, it becomes OK, they can ask questions without feeling inadequate. Parties are a great place for a women to empower themselves to take control in the bedroom," Brisben said.
The parties have become a popular way to celebrate 21st birthdays and wedding engagements — as well as divorces and "newly single" occasions. Some 200,000 parties were held in women's homes across America last year.
On a rainy night not far from Pure Romance's pink headquarters, a dozen women gathered in Debbie Amburgey's elegant suburban home to see the latest products on offer from Pure Romance consultant B.J. Jones.
Partners and children were left at home, wine was poured, and women aged 25 to 65 listened, giggled and shared recommendations as dozens of products were passed around.
"Men are like microwave ovens and we are like Crock-Pots," explained Jones as she extolled the virtues of a edible menthol-based "heightener" cream that helps female arousal.
"This is going to make everything he does feel good, even if he's doing it wrong," Jones said, to laughter.
The parties would not be as comfortable if men attended, said hostess Amburgey. Besides, she added, this way partners can let their anticipation build.
"I know my husband will be saying 'What'd you buy me?' None of them can wait for their wives and girlfriends to get home," said Amburgey, 51.
Ironically, Pure Romance's exclusion of men does not quite extend to its boardroom, where president Chris Cicchinelli is planning to extend sales to Europe, Australia or Asia by 2009.
But Cicchinelli is no outsider — he's Brisben's 32-year-old son, who still remembers the day he learned, as a schoolboy, that his mom was "the sex toy lady." He promptly got into a fistfight with the boy who broke the news.
Cicchinelli said he's gotten over his queasiness with talking about sex products with his mom, and has become the go-to guy for the company's female advisers, testers and developers who are looking for an occasional male perspective.
Cicchinelli, who's never attended a party himself, said Pure Romance won't be offering parties for men any time soon.
"I can't see a bunch of my guy friends coming together to talk about how heighteners are going to work," he said, noting men can buy the products online if they're interested.
Back at the party, Jones takes orders in the privacy of a bedroom so women don't have to reveal to their friends what they bought unless they choose to.
Carol Lindeman, 65, joked she was buying it all.
"Just because I have white hair doesn't mean I'm dead."