Photo by Tenaya Hills "The Cyber Wabbit is a fabulous choice," Ellen enthused, reaching for one of the dozen or so enormous red vibrators lying on the bed. "Just remember to use a ton of lube with it, honey."
If only she had been so candid during our previous three hours together—three hours that I spent at a sex party at a home in San Clemente.
I'd been told Ellen's product-preview demonstrations are like Tupperware parties for the modern woman. They weren't.
"I was worried about you before the party," she confessed, "because you said you were Catholic. I'm glad you don't feel any shame about purchasing our products."
Funny—shame was the exact opposite of what I felt. In fact, I had been the first volunteer to head back to the private "order room," a decision that proved quite amusing considering I was now sitting in a Laura Ashley-decorated bedroom chock-full of sex toys and other erotic pleasure enhancers. If anyone had felt shame at all during the night, it was more likely to have been Ellen herself.
She had begun her presentation by noting she used to be a slave to the corporate sales world. After hearing about the money to be earned in the world of sex parties, she quit her job and is now financially independent and self-employed as a nationally rated saleswoman for the her company, earning a six-figure salary from her own franchise as well as a portion of the profits from the 19 other women working for her.
The ever-escalating success of Ellen's company, it turned out, would be mentioned often during the evening, so much so that at times it seemed Ellen was selling her company—and the lifestyle afforded by its pyramid structure—more than its products. Claiming to be one of the nation's fastest-growing in-home marketing programs, it presently has more than 3,000 distributors and in 2001 totaled more than $15 million in customer sales. It's little wonder why: when she wasn't hawking her products, Ellen was encouraging us to throw parties of our own—or, better yet, buy a franchise.
But the money talk didn't end there. Often, while demonstrating a product, Ellen would phrase her sales pitches using symbolic, status-oriented terminology. "Ladies, why would you ever want a Cadillac," she asked, gripping a whopping, carnation-pink vibrator named "Decadent Indulgence," "when you could drive a Rolls Royce?" Later, she recommended we use one of the lubricants to take our partners "places they've never been before" and follow through by demanding, "'Honey, I want the trip, I want the car, I want the diamond.'"
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Of course, it is well understood by now that sex and money are bound inextricably in a complex web of interpersonal hush-hush—maybe especially here, in the land that gave us the trophy wife—and so to this end Ellen's how-to instructions for gold digging were predictable. Sort of. Less predictable, however, was the shame belying more than a few of her product descriptions. When discussing the "Anal Beads Jelly," a blue rubber string of graduated beads topped by a pull ring, Ellen suggested that perhaps the greatest benefit of the beads wasn't the fantastic prostate orgasm our partners would receive, but rather the position we'd hold afterward. "If your man ever tries to leave you," she warned, growing increasingly more ecstatic, "just tell him that you're going to let everyone know how he likes to have blue beads up his butt!"
Moreover, considering that few of the women attending the party appeared to be entirely at ease during Ellen's presentation—save for the one who joked early on that she'd gone to the bathroom to do a line of coke—it appeared that the shame wasn't limited to the bedroom. "I'm a business owner," said one woman, explaining her refusal to be photographed. "Having my picture in the paper would not be appropriate." Another woman admitted she felt ashamed to be there. Even Ellen, whose business card reads, "Personal Consultant" and who refers to herself as a "Romance Enhancement Specialist," has yet to reveal to her father the precise source of her stellar income.
The shame seems so retro—unless you consider all the recent, salient cultural events: FCC Chairman Michael Powell calling for regulations following Janet Jackson's Super Bowl show, a congressional investigation into same, Jackson's saccharine apology, Justin Timberlake's emetic plea for forgiveness at the Grammy's, the Laguna Beach school board's decision to kill a contract allowing MTV to shoot in the city. And then it becomes clear America is still mixed-up about sex, and clear that Ellen—through her work—has the opportunity to change that, to treat sex as something liberating, something powerfully spiritual. Instead, she treats it as a tool of social control, an instrument of power, and, well, that's a shame, too. Ellen and Powell and the NFL and Laguna Beach are, each in their own ways, afraid of pleasure, and that's why I decided not to use her real name or to identify her company: I'm ashamed for her.
Still, in the end, she made her sale. I walked into the order room with an open mind and a credit card, and I left with a tube of butterscotch lube and the ridiculously large—albeit Honda-priced—Cyber Wabbit. I might not ever drive a Rolls Royce, and it may take a while before I convince my partner to go prostate with his orgasms, but when I do, the fact that he likes blue beads up his butt will be the least of our concerns. Besides, he could always tell everyone about my red Wabbit.