On a hot August afternoon in Burleson, a quiet bedroom community of 25,000 residents and 53 churches just south of Fort Worth, an attractive 43-year-old woman named Joanne Webb is preparing for a sales presentation. Sitting in the family room of her custom-built home, the walls filled with photos of her husband and her three children, she lays out the products that she plans to show her customers later that evening. She flicks the switches on some of the products to see if they are buzzing properly. She flicks the switches on others to make sure they are moving up and down or in a circular motion. She checks to see if she has the manuals that will teach her customers how to use these devices in innovative ways. “Honey,” calls her husband, Chris, from the kitchen, “you want anything to eat?”
“Not right now, sweetheart,” says Joanne. “I’ve got to get some new batteries into the Nubby G.”
“Mom,” shouts her teenage son from another room, “have you seen my cell phone?”
“Haven’t seen it,” Joanne shouts back as she scoops up her products and places them in a large blue container. She takes a look at herself in the hallway mirror, fixing her lipstick, running a brush through her curly blond hair, and tugging slightly on her miniskirt. Then she lugs the container out to her Ford Excursion, tells her family she’ll be home soon, and drives away to do what saleswomen have been doing for years for such companies as Tupperware and Mary Kay. Joanne is headed off to sell her products to a group of women at a prearranged home party.
Joanne, however, is not going to be offering those women plastic food containers or makeup. Her inventory consists of flavored lotions, scented powders, genital-stimulating creams, massage kits, and what seems like an endless array of dildos and battery-powered vibrators: vibrators that turn in circles, vibrators that glow like Christmas lights, vibrators that run underwater, and oddly shaped vibrators like the Nubby G that are designed to hit a woman’s fabled G-spot.
Joanne, a happily married mother, sells sex toys. And if you’ve read a newspaper in the past year, then you already know that she is considered to be a very dangerous woman.
THE IDEA THAT SOMEONE MIGHT be threatened by a woman selling vibrators to other women seems, well, quaint. This is a culture, after all, where almost no sexual taboos exist. Bob Dole and Mike Ditka sell erection pills. Porn stars write autobiographies that make the New York Times best-seller list. Every season, the television networks release reality shows about young women trying to decide which young men they should take to bed.
But in November 2003 Joanne Webb was arrested by Burleson police officers for violating a Texas criminal statute that bans the selling of an “obscene device,” which is defined as “a device, including a dildo or an artificial vagina, designed or marketed as useful primarily for the stimulation of human genital organs.” According to Texas statutes, owning such a device is legal. So is using one. But selling or promoting the device as anything other than a “novelty” is not. The Burleson police said that because Joanne was openly selling vibrators to other Burleson women for their real purpose—in other words, because she was telling Burleson women exactly how her vibrators could provide them immense sexual satisfaction—she was committing a class A misdemeanor, punishable by a $4,000 fine and up to a year in jail.
Needless to say, the criminal charges set off an international yukfest. Everyone from the BBC to the China Daily News ran stories on Joanne’s arrest, and in the United States the networks couldn’t get to Burleson fast enough. “Forget Michael Jackson! Forget Kobe! This is the case!” guffawed Jeffrey Toobin on CNN. Newspaper headline writers trotted out their best double entendres to describe the controversy—the Fort Worth Weekly titled its article “Shtupperware”—and just about every reporter who wrote about Joanne could not resist using some line about Texas’s law hitting below the belt. How was it possible, the reporters asked, that a working mother like Joanne Webb could get arrested while the state’s sleaziest adult bookstores got off scot-free?
Joanne told interviewers that she had become the victim of a witch hunt by some of Burleson’s most conservative old-guard families. She believed that her arrest had been orchestrated by her longtime nemesis, Shanda Perkins, an officer at Burleson’s First State Bank Texas and the very proper daughter of one of Burleson’s most well-known pastors, Gloria Gillaspie, who leads the Lighthouse Church of Burleson. “There’s no question Shanda is afraid of me because I feel comfortable expressing my sensual side and because I want other women to be comfortable with their sensual side too,” Joanne said one afternoon this summer while she cleaned the kitchen, her surgically enhanced breasts pushing against her blouse and her miniskirt barely covering her panties. “I can’t tell you how many Burleson housewives and mothers have told me that my parties have changed their lives. They’ve told me how my products have brought romance and excitement back into their marriages. I’m helping Burleson! But for some reason, that threatens Shanda.”
“I have nothing against sex,” the 46-year-old Shanda told me in her soft, drawling voice one Sunday after services at her mother’s church. “I have six children, you know.” A striking woman herself, with long brunette hair, slightly poufed in the back and touched with red highlights, and turquoise-colored eyes that seemed to glow from beneath thick brown eyelashes, Shanda was dressed in a navy-blue blazer, buttoned in the front, with a matching navy-blue skirt that came just below her knees. “But I do feel that Joanne’s parties have helped create a promiscuous mind-set in Burleson. We know women who have gone to her parties and been encouraged to experiment sexually, even with other people. My mother has even had to counsel women who have been to Joanne’s parties and whose marriages have suffered because of them.”
For reporters, the story