The hors d'oeuvres were in the kitchen, the ladies were in the living room and the party was on. Someone turned down the music so the assembled guests, in bare feet and fuzzy slippers, could focus on the evening's business -- a table laden with pheromone-scented lotions, edible lubricants, blindfolds, handcuffs and other passion "enhancement" products.
"Ladies, we are going to taste, touch and feel tonight," said Katherine O'Neill, who sounded as though she could be optimistic in a hurricane. "This is your time. There are no kids screaming 'Mommy, Mommy,' no dishes in the sink.''
The guests, among them a former teacher, a graduate student, several waitresses and a grandmother, listened intently. All were first-timers -- "virgins," as O'Neill put it -- to a Passion Party, where women meet to consider products like Lickety Lube and the Love Wand much the same way in the past they have inspected Tupperware storage tubs and Mary Kay cosmetics. Passion Parties of Brisbane did about $20 million in sales last year through women-to-women sales in homes across the country, a tripling over three years ago.
"Tupperware just didn't rock my boat,'' said O'Neill before the start of the party, held in an ordinary Sunnyvale apartment on an otherwise ordinary Monday night. "This is my niche. How fun is this?"
The company's network of 4,000 representatives earns money through sales, and also by managing their own lines of sellers -- stay-at-home moms, retirees and working women who want to make extra cash. In a mix of bonding session and home-shopping network, they are selling to an expanding clientele of women, capturing the imagination -- and pocketbooks -- of buyers who would not go to a sex store or an X-rated Web site. The all-time top seller is a Memphis grandmother who rakes in a six-figure annual salary.
"That's a whole lot of loving," said the company's 60-year-old president, Pat Davis, also a grandmother with a sensible hairdo who looks more as if she belongs at a knitting store than at something called Passion Parties.