Pick your pleasure

In-home sex toy parties play up women’s wild sides

Erin Adler

Sophomore Jamie Schlies, 20, and her roommates made a recent pilgrimage to Sex World. They came back mostly empty-handed, save a few items purchased for comic value.

When it was time to buy the lubricants, cock rings and vibrators they might actually use, however, Schlies and 15 female friends opted for something more Ö intimate. They had a party – and invited a colorful selection of wares into her home, passed them around, and tried them out.

The products came with a representative from Pure Romance, Inc. to explain each item’s use, lead games and answer questions – first to the whole group, and then in a separate room where the women could also inconspicuously purchase the items.

“You’re in a setting where you’re handed a dildo; it makes everything out in the open,” said Emmy Schindler, 19.

Despite the effort made to keep purchases private, Schlies, who had been to six such parties previously, said the attendees openly discussed the $500 worth of items they collectively bought.

“We’re all friends,” she said, noting that while some women are uncomfortable talking about sex toys, “they weren’t here.”

Parties like these, often called “in-home romance parties” or “passion parties” after one company’s brand name, have been around for a decade in some areas and demographics. But the parties seem to have only recently hit the female college set in Minnesota. Their prevalence means some women have attended multiple parties, put on by different companies.

“Business is just booming. Everyone wants these parties,” said Amy Filipek, a Party Gals representative who attended a recent bachelorette party planned by Katie Rich, 26.

Beneath the colorful translucent silicon, though, lie different party experiences – and messages about women’s sexuality.

A different use for plastic

Since the advent of Tupperware parties in the ’50s, women young and old have proven they’ll buy anything (think candles, baskets and cosmetics) if presented with the stuff at an in-home party. Sex toys are no different.

Filipek, who said her mission is “to educate, enlighten and entertain” women, started the party with a game of sex bingo, in which each attendee yelled out phrases like “I have a vagina” or “You’re so big” instead of “bingo.”

This particular party was loud and crowded, she said, so she didn’t do her whole routine; she only shared selected personal stories and didn’t pass around the complete range of products.

“Normally, there’s a lot more education. It’s enlightening,” she said.

Had she known about the career option of selling sex toys in-home earlier, she would have paid for college through the job. Her average sale per party is $800, she said.

Party Gals sells a variety of items in its 42-page catalog, ranging from silly (a laser pointer that flashes phrases like “nice tits”) to sexy (40 vibrators shaped from realistic to dolphin). The “lotions and potions” category offers bikini line shaving cream, lubricants and pheromone sprays.

Many items have dual uses, such as the shaving cream that doubles as hair conditioner, or the anal numbing gel that can be used on sore teeth and gums.

These “alternative” purposes, coupled with Filipek’s instructions to refer to the clitoris as a “hoo-ha,” reflected a sheepish, less-than-comfortable undertone at the Party Gals party. Despite this, though, one of the party’s best-selling items was a vibrating butterfly cock ring.

University alumna Dana Kitchen said she’s attended parties by different companies. Overall, she said she agrees with the companies’ assertions that they are a positive thing for women.

“I mainly think they’re positive because of masturbation being such a taboo issue for women,” she said. “I don’t think it should be. We need it more than men.”

Janie Clark, 27, said the parties are also enjoyable because she gets to talk with friends about sex.

“For me, it’s fun to have the discussions,” she said.

Sex education for adults

University alumna Laura Reese, 25, began selling sex toys five years ago after attending a party similar to the one Filipek put on. She started out working with a woman-owned company like Party Gals.

“I was really excited that I was doing something for women,” she said.

In time, though, Reese left that company; today, she acts as an independent consultant for Minneapolis-based store The Smitten Kitten. Reese splits the profits with the woman-owned store, and customers are able to purchase high-quality silicone toys, among other products.

Reese’s calls her gatherings Pussy Parties, and while they sell many of the same things, they have a different flavor than those of larger companies.

“Something I try to do,” she said, “and that I pride myself on, is the sex education part.”

She said she’s put on parties in which 30-year-old women had never seen a condom before. Thus, Reese begins her hour-and-a-half spiel by reviewing a hand-drawn female anatomy diagram. She then turns the page to reveal seven larger-than-life pictures of vulvas, adorned with glitter glue.

The photographs reflect her enthusiasm for what she does – and for sex in general.

“I think it’s a huge problem in our society that women are not able to ask for pleasure,” she said. “Taking sex out of the bedroom and into the open is the best thing.”

The attendees of this party caught on to Reese’s informative approach; one woman shared her latex condom allergy, and another echoed one of Reese’s anecdotes about yeast infections.

Most of the women said they had been to parties like this before.

Co-host Lida Gilbertson, 23, said she chose The Smitten Kitten to put on the party because it was locally owned and female-friendly, she said.

“We were all kind of talking about how we needed some new toys before this,” she said, and it prompted the party.

Lindsey Frey, 23, said that though she’s been to other sex toy parties, this one offered different merchandise.

“I’ve never really seen a sex swing,” she said. “And there were some different videos here.”

Reese said she tries to offer more than just variety in merchandise; she also aims to cater to a variety of people and types of relationships. She has presented to mixed groups of gay men and straight women, to heterosexual couples and to gatherings of lesbian and bisexual women.

“I want to avoid the angle of ‘Of course you’re going to be using this with your husband,’ ” she said. “I try not to make assumptions about people’s sexuality, who they’re using things with, that they’re monogamous or if they’re using them with other people,” she said.

These are subtle assumptions often made by other in-home sex toy companies, she said.

At The Smitten Kitten, co-owner Jessie Jacobsen said that despite some philosophical and product line differences between Pussy Parties and other companies, she sees the party trend as “good overall.”

“The parties encourage a different level of comfortability with sex in general,” she said.

Co-owner Jennifer Pritchette said she agreed.

“I think the parties open a dialogue that maybe was happening before, but under the radar,” she said. “The parties are a nice little baby step.”