Executive editor Skip Hollandsworth on getting Burleson's Joanne Webb to talk about her sex-toy business.
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texasmonthly.com: When did you know that you would be writing this story for the magazine?
Skip Hollandsworth: I had read many newspaper accounts of Joanne Webb’s arrest in Burleson for selling sex toys. I was very interested in what Joanne had to say, of course, but what equally intrigued me was her nemesis, the woman whom Joanne believed was trying to push her out of town. Her name was Shanda Perkins, and she was the daughter of the town’s most prominent pastor, who happened to be a woman herself: Gloria Gillaspie. I thought it was enormously interesting that a woman was the head of a theologically conservative church in Bible Belt Texas, which seldom happens. I kept thinking that there was a much bigger story here than what was making the newspapers. “Was what was happening in Burleson,” I thought, “a larger cultural battle about American women and what they want?”
texasmonthly.com: How did you get Joanne Webb to talk about her sex-toy business?
SH: Joanne has always been available to talk about her business and her arrest. So I had no problem getting an interview with her. It was Shanda who refused to speak to the press. As a magazine piece, the story was not going to work unless Shanda and her mother talked. What I did was write them a letter and honestly tell them that for all the attention given to Joanne Webb and her battle to change the state’s laws about sexually oriented businesses, I wanted to write as well about Gloria’s and Shanda’s battle to keep Burleson an intently conservative, Christian suburb, which it always has been. The truth is that there are more women in this state like Gloria and Shanda than there are women like Joanne, and sometimes journalists don’t take the time to listen to those women. So I basically wrote them that I wanted to do a story that seriously explained Gloria’s and Shanda’s beliefs about why Joanne’s business was not right for Burleson. And they agreed to talk. I found them utterly delightful, personable women who were not defensive or angry. They were simply not going to be swayed from their belief about what the Bible teaches women about how to live.
texasmonthly.com: Was Joanne what you were expecting? Why or why not?
SH: To be honest, before meeting Joanne, I had that basic male bias about what Joanne would be like. Because she wore such short skirts and tight tops, I assumed she would be coquettish or flirtatious or perhaps not as serious as other women who don’t dress that way. But she was very thoughtful and well spoken when talking about her life and the controversy over her arrest. She made excellent points about her desire to help women get more in touch with their bodies, and she did it in a way that didn’t make her look like one of those two-bit sexual therapists who you sometimes see on HBO’s Real Sex show. She talked and acted like a very normal housewife and stay-at-home mom in most ways, and she still seemed to be a very grounded Christian. As you’ll learn in the story, she was a devout Southern Baptist for many, many years. She simply has no qualms, as she likes to say, about being both spiritual and sensual. She says there is nothing un-Christian about her love of skimpy clothing (which she says she wears for her husband’s pleasure) and her desire to sell sex toys at in-home parties to help other women.
texasmonthly.com: Were the people you interviewed for this story comfortable talking about sex? Did you have to change the way you approached people?
SH: I thought what was most interesting was that Shanda and her mother, Gloria, were not uncomfortable when I sat down and talked to them about their feelings regarding sex. They gave me very clear answers about what the Bible says about sex and about the joy of sex between married couples who are bound together by God’s love. With that kind of sex, they argue, there is no need for plastic sex toys. They make the argument that sexual toys actually prevent intimacy between a man and a woman. Whether you agree or disagree with them, it is fascinating that they have clearly thought through the issues and are willing to articulate them.
texasmonthly.com: In your opinion, what do most people in Burleson think about Joanne and her sex toys?
SH: I think the entire town is divided. Some people say that Joanne has a right to run her business as long as she does it in other people’s homes and does not set up a retail business in Burleson (which she says she would never do). I think others believe Joanne is trying to corrupt churchgoing women. I think some people believe Joanne is only doing this because she loves the attention she’s getting from the press. And I think there are many in Burleson who believe Joanne and her husband, Chris, are swingers. They think the two of them like to, as one Burleson man told me, “spouse swap” with other couples. The rumor has been out there for a couple of years. Needless to say, Joanne and Chris are very aware of the rumors. They have heard the rumors that Joanne uses her business to recruit women and their husbands to swing with her and Chris. But what makes this entire issue thorny is that Joanne and Chris simply won’t address the rumors. They say that a person’s sexual life, whatever it is, is private and that no one has to tell anyone else anything about his or her sex life. That’s what they are fighting for in this lawsuit, they say—the right of people to do what they want sexually without governmental interference. They say that if they even deny the rumors, then they are being hypocrites to what they’re fighting for.
texasmonthly.com: Do you think that Joanne has a chance at winning her lawsuit?
SH: I don’t know. I do know that the law about selling sex toys has been challenged many times. But Joanne’s challenge is unique. It’s coming not from a basic porn operator who runs an adult shop but from a stay-at-home suburban mom running a business out of her home in which she sells sex toys to women in other women’s homes. It might take years for the case to get to the Supreme Court, which is where the case has to go for there to be any change in the law. That would be a sight to see, of course: Joanne Webb, in one of her miniskirts, going to Washington, D.C., to listen to the greatest justices in the land discuss her vibrators.
texasmonthly.com: In the last scene of your story, you are present at one of Joanne’s parties. What was that like?
SH: The party was an amazing cultural event for me. I sat in the back of the room, typing in what I saw on my laptop. A few women came by and made sure I was not putting their names in the magazine article. A few others giggled and told me that their husbands were a little worried about a strange man being at the party, watching them buy sex toys. But after a while, everyone forgot I was there. After the oohing and aahing and silly jokes about why they were there, the women began talking to one another about how they wished their marriages were better in certain areas and how they wished they were more comfortable themselves with their own sex lives. It became a kind of therapy session.