When a woman is arranging dildos and cock rings on your coffee table, there's not much you can say to her that doesn't feel like small talk. Probably the best you can do, as she pauses to find space for a gently curved, pink-jelly G-spot vibrator with clitoral shelf that's so big she's got to hold it with both hands, is make certain your conversational surrender is completely obvious. "Could that be a bit of a Rhode Island accent I hear in your voice?" you might ask. "Well, yes, it is an accent," she might acknowledge with a gracefully victorious smile and shrug. "But I'm from Australia."
And now that your crushing defeat is complete, probably the best you can do is join her in a laugh at your own expense. Because amid the anal beads, Ben-Wa balls, erection lasso and senso vagina, it should have been completely obvious all along that this is a woman who comes from Down Under.
"I never fit into corporate America," says Laurie Beth Martin as she hangs a selection of lingerie featuring a broad range of design elements—teddy, baby-doll, leopard-print, crotchless dominatrix —on a small rack she's set up in the corner. Martin chuckles, then allows that she wasn't an especially good fit in corporate Australia, either. "I've been kicked out of so many jobs because I've always wanted to be my own boss and because I have such a big mouth. That's why I'm so happy with this job. No. 1, nobody is telling me how to run my business or how to behave. No. 2, I've always been very sexually open, so something like this means, 'Cool, I can get all the latest stuff first—and at cost.'"
Martin's conversation is full of double-entendres and throaty laughter. "You can't do this job unless you're comfortable with sex and good with people," she says. "Otherwise, you're going to bomb—and I'm making a good living."
Martin wears her red hair long and curly. She carries neon-orange business cards that read "romance consultant." She describes her job as "Passionate Playmate." And then she cautions you not to jump to any conclusions. "The typical misconception is that all we do at my shows is get down and get naked," she says, and suddenly among all her kittenish come-on lines has emerged a very clear and uncrossable one. "That's not what we do at all."
Martin is a traveling saleswoman who works out of the Fullerton office of a company called Passionate Playthings. She peddles exotic lingerie, sex toys and other so-called adult novelties in the privacy of her customers' homes—and, usually, in the titillated company of their friends. Her sales parties are modeled after the kind made famous—and profitable—by Tupperware. Martin laughs.
"I call my merchandise 'Fuckerware,'" she says.
The comparison isn't far-fetched, and not only because it wouldn't be out of the question for the winner of the icebreaking game at both parties to go home with a free melon baller. "We both offer merchandise of a kind and quality that our customers just can't get in stores," says Martin. Of course, the important difference is that some of Martin's merchandise is sold in stores people might not want to visit. "A lot of women—and even a lot of men—do not feel comfortable going into a normal triple-X bookstore," she agrees. "So having someone come to the house—someone who is not afraid to talk about anything and can answer almost everything—is a service that is really needed out there."
Passionate Playthings is not the only local company that supplies that service; the Pleasure Company in Irvine has both a store and a house-party division. If this is, indeed, a growth industry, Martin regards that as a very healthy development. "I consider it a public service," she says, "because we're providing something a lot of women are too ashamed to know they may need. Or men, even."
Although Martin likes to keep the focus on the sexy fun, she acknowledges that most of these parties also serve an educational and therapeutic function. "Women are just amazed that other women have the same problems they do as far as their sexuality, that orgasms don't just magically happen—poof!—out of thin air," she says. "Unless they've taken some human-sexuality class in college or something, probably nobody's told them that not every woman is multi-orgasmic or not every woman is going to get off that easily. They need to know that they might need a little help, a little helper by the name of B-O-B—that is, a battery-operated boyfriend. They need to know it's okay to bring BOB along."
Martin laughs about that but admits that the insight her work has given her into at least one issue surrounding sexuality causes her some distress. "It really upsets me when I get these cute little women who are trying to live up to this Barbie-doll image—worrying so intensely about a few extra pounds," says Martin, a rather large woman whose size hasn't diminished her attractiveness. "I show them some lingerie, and they say, 'I just don't have the body for it.' I tell them, 'Look, I have the body for it. I'm completely confident about my sexuality. If I can look good in lingerie—and, trust me, I do—then you can, too.'
"It's disheartening to see women thrashed to pieces by media images that cater to men's fantasies, instead of what men really want. When they get down to it, men just want women to be themselves and be comfortable within their sexuality and enjoy themselves."
The majority of parties are booked by women and attended by women only. But an increasing number are coed events, usually attended by couples. There's often a little extra apprehension in the air when men and women first sit in the same room with a long table covered with sexual-positions manuals, bondage cuffs, warming lotions and mentholated candies designed to enhance oral stimulation by making your partner feel like you have ice cubes in your mouth. And most of the nervousness usually comes from the men. "Men love the idea that I sell what I sell," says Martin. "It fits into a typical male fantasy—'Oh, we're gonna go over there, get lingerie, play with sex toys'—but that's exactly what it is: a total fantasy. They find they're a little intimidated when it comes to a party situation and talking openly and frankly. They invariably leave those fantasies at the door."
But if they're willing, says Martin, they can go beyond fantasy to an even more adventurous and intimate reality. "Couples are amazed when they come to realize how much vulnerability they share," she says. "Usually, the woman's chief worry is whether her thighs look fat. The guy's just worried about whether he can get the woman off."
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