By Ian Kerner, Ph.D., LMFT
Picture this: A group of female friends lounge around a living room, noshing on snacks and sipping wine. At the center of the circle, a woman gives a presentation on her wares, sharing bits of knowledge with the hope that some of the women will choose to purchase her products.
I've just described a typical "party plan," a marketing technique that melds a social event with direct product sales. Party plans are nothing new, Tupperware, Pampered Chef and Mary Kay have been around for decades. What makes this scenario different is that the consultant isn't hawking egg slicers or lipstick. Instead, she's sharing the buzz on the latest vibrators, lubricants and other bedroom accessories.
It's a creative, blush-free way to bring these products to women who may be squeamish or shy. But are the attendees walking away with more than just a bag of sex toys?
Sex toy parties have been around since the 1970s, although they didn't truly begin to gain popularity until the '80s and '90s. These days, such get togethers have gone mainstream. Most women I know have attended at least one, often at bachelorette parties. It's estimated that there are tens of thousands of consultants in this country, working for Pure Romance, Intimate Expressions or one of the many other franchises. As with other party plans, consultants give product presentations, with the host typically receiving merchandise or a discount in return. But that may be where the similarities between sex toy parties and, say, Tupperware parties end. Sex toy parties go beyond simple commercialism and can teach women about their sexuality, according to Patty Brisben, founder of Pure Romance.
"We are not about the sale of a product, we are about the education behind it," she says. "Our mission is to provide a very safe environment for women to learn about and discuss sex and sexuality. The bottom line is that people will not use their products if they don't know how to use them or are intimidated."
In fact, party-goers may rely on consultants to expand their knowledge about sexuality in general: A 2009 study by researcher Debby Herbenick and others at Indiana University's Center for Sexual Health Promotion found that sex toy party consultants are often asked for accurate sex advice and may even have backgrounds in health or sexual education. Similar research by the same authors, published in the November 2009 issue of Sexual Health, suggests that such parties allow women to learn more about specific topics, including increasing desire/arousal, orgasm, erection and ejaculation, and vaginal dryness and lubrication.
"Female in-home sex toy party facilitators have the potential to provide a diverse group of women with opportunities to access sexuality information, products and communication," they write.
While other party plans might involve testing out a recipe or demonstrating a makeover, sex toy parties tend to have greater goals. Passion Parties, for example, are primarily geared to women in couples; their mission involves fostering "passionate monogamy." Surprise Parties seeks to help women achieve sexual fulfillment. And Pure Romance focuses on female empowerment.
"Sex toy parties should be a platform for women who want to be responsible for their own sexuality," says Brisben. "We are the place for women to start getting a better understanding of their needs, their wants and their desires. And when you understand the mechanics of what makes you feel good and why, it allows you to know what to ask for."
Whether you're easily embarrassed or totally comfortable talking about your sex life, sex toy parties can be a great opportunity to chat with your girlfriends, learn something new, and become a little (or a lot) more in-tune with your sexuality.
Who knows, you might even leave with a few new treats. Above all, have fun. Isn't that what parties are all about?