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 was just too good to be true: a catfight over vibrators! In one corner, the sexy Joanne! In another corner, the churchgoing Shanda! Was Joanne truly “enhancing relationships,” as she liked to put it, between Burleson women and their husbands? Or was Joanne, as Shanda put it, “misleading women with the promise that a piece of merchandise can change their lives”? Was she, in fact, a genuine threat to Burleson’s tranquil way of life, turning its women into masturbating, sex-obsessed creatures who, as long as they had their vibrators, would no longer need their husbands?
The fight came replete with the steamiest of gossip about what was actually going on in the bedrooms of the quiet bedroom community. Rumors circulated about the strange sexual proclivities of Joanne and her husband. Other rumors circulated about prominent Burleson residents who had allegedly been caught in embarrassing sexual situations. For a while you couldn’t go anywhere in town without hearing talk about naked adults in backyard swimming pools or illicit affairs or, as one Burleson resident called it, “spouse swapping.” It all would have been laugh-out-loud hilarious if so many people’s reputations were not being tarnished.
“You know, all I wanted to do was start a simple little business and live a simple little life,” said Joanne, who has now filed a federal lawsuit challenging the state’s obscenity laws. (According to legal scholars, the lawsuit, if successful, would not only change obscenity laws around the country but would undoubtedly turn Joanne into an Erin Brockovichlike heroine to women’s and civil liberties groups.) “I still can’t understand how something so simple could turn out to be so complicated.”
As Joanne should have known, however, when it comes to sex, nothing is ever simple.
When Joanne and Chris first met, in the early eighties at a Baptist Student Union luncheon at the University of Texas at San Antonio, they were typical young born-again Christians. They didn’t have sex, but they thought about it all the time. “I was what the Apostle Paul called a ‘burner,'” said Chris. “And since Paul said it’s better to marry than to burn in lust, I was looking to get married. Suddenly, there she was, Joanne, a girl who was righteous and a fox. My righteous fox, I said.”
Joanne wore tight jeans in college, but after she and Chris married, in 1983, she began wearing shorter and shorter skirts. “I wasn’t trying to be provocative for other people,” she said. “I dressed that way because Chris loved my legs, and I wanted to please him. It made him feel good and it made me feel good. I never thought there was anything wrong with feeling sensual and feeling spiritual at the same time.”
In 1993, after spending ten years in the Army, Chris brought his wife and children to Burleson, where he went to work for his uncle in the home construction business. Chris led a Sunday school class at a small Baptist church that they joined, and Joanne sang in the church choir. Joanne also taught fifth grade at one of the elementary schools. But if she thought she was going to blend into the crowd in Burleson, she was sorely mistaken. “When I first saw Joanne, she came into the bank wearing these little baby-doll shoes and a real short skirt and a top that was very low,” Shanda Perkins told me. “I thought, ‘Well, this is not something you see around here on an everyday basis.'”
Burleson has long been regarded as one of the most conservative suburbs in Texas, the kind of place that seems designed to protect its citizens from temptation. There are, for instance, no topless bars in Burleson and no nightclubs with large dance floors. On the water tower is the inscription “Burleson—A City of Character,” and to make sure Burleson stays that way, its city leaders have adopted a program called Character First in which Burleson residents, young and old, receive brochures at their businesses, churches, and schools reminding them of the importance of maintaining such values as honesty and decency. In the mid-nineties, when a sculpture of the Burleson High School mascot, an elk, was placed in the school’s lobby, concerned school administrators had red shorts placed over the elk’s genitalia so as not to disturb the sensitivities of the teenagers.
No one has been more diligent about maintaining Burleson’s moral tranquillity than the Gillaspie family. Gloria Gillaspie, whose great-great-great uncle, a Baptist preacher, founded the town in the 1880’s, was so concerned about making sure that Burleson’s youth were given the right kind of Christian grounding that in the mid-seventies she quit her secular job and started her own youth center in the heart of the city, which she eventually turned into a church because so many of the kids’ parents were also showing up at the center to listen to her Bible studies. In Texas it is extremely rare to find a woman leading a theologically fundamentalist church, but today the Lighthouse Church of Burleson has about six hundred members, all of whom seem to adore Gloria, who is in her mid-sixties and who has fluffy white hair and whose sermons are usually focused on the joys of living a Christ-centered life, free from the sins of the flesh. She makes sure that her services are upbeat, with a live band and young female soloists who sing contemporary Christian songs, their voices equal to that of Kelly Clarkson’s, the Burleson native who won the first American Idol television competition, in 2002. “We are a community for families who love old-fashioned family values,” said Gloria. “We care about decency. We care about raising children the right way. That is, after all, why so many families want to move here.”
The four Gillaspie children inherited their mother’s love for the Burleson way of life. During their teenage years, Shanda, the oldest, and her sister, Richelle, were the most popular girls in town. Shanda was a junior high school cheerleader and was voted best-dressed in high school despite the fact that her mother would only allow her to wear skirts that came just above the knee. Richelle, who according to the family was miraculously cured in childhood of severely twisted ankles during a Wednesday-night prayer meeting, was voted most beautiful in high school. Today, they sing in the choir at their mother’s church (Richelle also works there as the church secretary) and lead Bible studies or teach Sunday school. The two Gillaspie sons are equally devout members of their mother’s church. Otis lives just outside Burleson and runs a drinking-water business, and Stuart is another Gillaspie “miracle child,” who was supposed to have been born dead (doctors had told Gloria when she was pregnant with him that they couldn’t hear a heartbeat) but was born healthy. Stuart is now a Burleson city councilman who is not embarrassed to say that he makes political decisions based on God’s will. According to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Stuart raised his hands skyward during a recent public meeting about a proposal to allow alcohol in Burleson restaurants and declared, “Alcohol is not our salvation . . . The blessings of God have rained down our way. God is our salvation.”
Because of Shanda’s bank job—she is in charge of marketing and new-business development for First State Bank Texas—it is almost impossible not to see her around town, driving from one place to another in her PT Cruiser, which has the name of her husband’s graphic design and printing company, Hosannah Graphics, displayed on the windows. Shanda is a charming woman, and she can be very persuasive chatting with Burleson businessmen about the benefits of her bank. “How are you?” she exclaims, her voice buttery as a biscuit, when a favorite customer comes through the door. “It’s so good to see you!”
It has been suggested by some observers of the vibrator war that one reason Shanda was unhappy about Joanne’s arrival in Burleson was because of the way Joanne, the new girl in town, was able to draw so much attention. Not true, Shanda told me. But she did admit that Joanne created a sensation with her short skirts, which she wore when she took her children to school, when she went to the grocery store, and when she went to church. “Here comes Joanne,” people would whisper whenever she made an appearance. “Let’s see how short her skirt is this time.”
People hadn’t seen anyone like Chris either. Almost everywhere he went, he wore sleeveless shirts and form-fitting shorts that he had bought from the International Male catalog. On weekends he was often seen jogging through Burleson in flimsy running shorts decorated with the Texas flag. What’s more, he covered his office walls with a collection of forties-era calendars of voluptuous women as well as photos of Catherine Bach, the actress known for her “Daisy Duke” shorts on The Dukes of Hazzard. “He loved to flirt with women,” Shanda said. “One time he saw me at the bank and complimented me on my legs, which I thought was inappropriate. Besides, I thought, how would he know what my legs look like? My legs were covered.”
“Yes, I was a professional flirt,” Chris said. “And Joanne was a pretty young thing. But that was just the way we were. It didn’t make us bad people.”
In the late nineties the Webbs began to step up in Burleson. Chris opened his own custom-home building and remodeling company. Joanne quit her teaching job and became one of the most active volunteers in town, showing up in her sporty red Mustang convertible to help out at such events as Honeyfest, Founders Day, and the Tour de Burleson bike race. She and Chris became members of the Burleson Chamber of Commerce, and Joanne joined the Ambassadors Club, the all-volunteer public-relations arm of the chamber. As an Ambassador, she not only attended ribbon-cutting ceremonies for businesses that had joined the chamber but also visited other new businesses opening in the area, trying to recruit them to join the chamber too. “She was extremely active, a devoted volunteer, one of the best recruiters the chamber had,” said the chamber’s president, Greg Solomon. Her rival for top chamber recruiter was none other than Shanda Perkins.
At ribbon-cuttings, there they would be, both of them on the front row for the group picture—”Two women living parallel lives in the same universe,” said Kelli Spears, a fellow Ambassador who, like many of the other Ambassadors, loved studying Shanda and Joanne. Shanda was not an unfashionable dresser: With her business suits she often wore strappy sandals and painted her toenails pink. But she simply would not show her thighs or any cleavage because, as she told me, “The Bible teaches us to dress modestly. Our attractiveness comes from the way we let the spirit of Christ shine through our lives.” Meanwhile, Joanne never appeared at a ribbon-cutting without a miniskirt, and just after her forty-first birthday, she appeared at the ceremonies with new breasts. Her implants had taken her from an A cup to a whopping D cup. In a photo taken at one ribbon-cutting ceremony, a man who had just opened a gas station in Burleson could be seen openly gawking at Joanne’s breasts while she tried to hand him a plaque that welcomed him to the city.
Shanda told me that several chamber of commerce members came to talk to her about Joanne’s role with the Ambassadors. “Not just the older members were bothered by Joanne, but the younger ones too,” she said. “They asked me, ‘Is Joanne the image of Burleson we want to present to other people?’ I’ll never forget when Kelly Clarkson came back to Burleson for a citywide celebration [after her American Idol victory]. When Joanne came up onstage to give a speech and present Kelly with an honorary Ambassadors jacket, she was wearing a skirt that really did look like a loincloth. A teenager came up to me and pointed to Joanne and said, ‘Mrs. Perkins, is that woman a prostitute?'”
In many ways, Joanne had become Burleson’s version of the Barbara Eden character in the old movie Harper Valley PTA. There were a lot of people wanting to know what she was really up to as she flitted around town with her little skirts and her bouncing breasts. Some women had heard that Joanne was an exhibitionist. In fact, the owner of a Burleson beauty shop had been in the Webbs’ house one day (her husband was working with Chris at the time) and taken a peek inside the master bedroom. Hanging from the wall in Chris’s bedroom closet, the beauty shop owner later related, were seminude photos of Joanne. Other women suspected that Joanne was going to try to sleep with their husbands. One day two married couples came to Shanda and told her one of the most shocking stories she had ever heard. They said that at the end of the 2001 chamber of commerce gala auction at the Holiday Inn South, they went with the Webbs to the hotel bar. Everyone danced, and when the bartender announced last call, Joanne and Chris asked them if they would be interested in coming upstairs to a hotel room. The Webbs clearly didn’t want to have a few after-hours cocktails, the couples told Shanda. It seemed to them as if the Webbs wanted to engage in “sexual mate swapping”!
At one point, the pastor of the Webbs’ Baptist church met with Chris to discuss complaints he had been receiving from church members about Joanne and her outfits. (Among the complaints: When she had bent down to pick up a hymnal during a choir rehearsal, her miniskirt had slid up to her waist, upsetting some of the other choir members who had been closely watching her.) The pastor also said that some church members were uncomfortable about Chris’s wearing shorts when he came to the church’s Wednesday-night dinners. According to Chris, the pastor asked the Webbs to submit themselves “to the authority of the pastor” and change their attire. Chris replied that the church should not judge people on how they look. He and Joanne had been loyal members, he said, contributing time and money to the church. The pastor, however, suggested that if Chris and Joanne couldn’t submit to his authority, then they needed to look for another church.
Devastated, Joanne and Chris moved to an interdenominational church in Burleson. But even there they sensed that people were talking behind their backs. “I kept asking myself, ‘Why are so many people in Burleson so bothered by us?'” said Joanne. “‘Are they really that repressed?”’
In fact, Joanne began to wonder if there was anything she could do to make her enemies more tolerant, more easygoing, and more fun-loving. Eventually, she came up with an idea. She decided to get Burleson buzzing.
In the spring of 2003, Joanne joined a California-based direct sales organization called Passion Parties, which had a nationwide sales force of about three thousand women, all of whom used home-based gatherings to sell the company’s sex toys (or, as the company prefers to call them, “sensual products”). The top saleswomen made up to $250,000 a year, which was an appealing factor to Joanne, who had been looking for a job to help with the family finances.
Joanne held her first party at her home. She invited about twenty women—Burleson housewives, mothers, and a couple of grandmothers—served them chips and dips and some wine, and then had them sit in her family room while she told them about the way they could spice up their marriages. She showed them everything from a cream they could put on their genitals so that they would be “in the mood” when their husbands came home from work to a cream that they could put on their husbands to prevent premature ejaculation. And Joanne said that for those nights when the women were especially restless, she had just the thing, whipping out power toolsize vibrators with such names as Decadent Indulgence, Jungle Jiggler, Nubby Satisfier, and Chocolate Thriller.
Eight of the women at that party were so thrilled that they told Joanne they wanted her to do parties at their houses for their friends, which she did. Soon, word was flying through Burleson that Joanne was selling vibrators. The Gillaspies were horrified. “The Bible teaches us that sex is a sacred act between a man and a woman, blessed by God,” Gloria told me. “And adding some kind of rubber toy into the sex act only diverts attention away from your partner, which is where God wants you to focus.” What disturbed Shanda was that Joanne had registered her business with the chamber of commerce and sent an e-mail to the Ambassadors asking them to attend a ribbon-cutting ceremony at her husband’s office, where she had put a sign in the window advertising her business: “Passion Parties by Joanne—Where Every Day Is Valentine’s Day!”
“If she had done this quietly out of her home, that would have been one thing,” Shanda said. “But she was getting the chamber to help publicize her sexual beliefs. She was using the chamber to cram her ideas about sex down our throats.”
Shanda said she did not put pressure on the chamber’s other 23 Ambassadors to boycott Joanne’s ribbon-cutting. But someone did. Only 4 men and 1 woman arrived for the ceremony, and when it was time to take the photograph that would appear later in the Burleson Star, the woman hid behind one of the men. Joanne still gave an enthusiastic speech to her tiny audience about the wholesome virtues of erotic appliances. “You guys,” she declared, “if I can open communication between couples, if I can save marriages from crumbling, then I have been successful!”
There was a silence. Finally, one of the male Ambassadors said, “Well, I guess women have got to buy this stuff somewhere.”
Not long after the ribbon-cutting, Joanne was informed that a series of meetings had been called at the chamber to discuss a proposed dress code for all Ambassadors. The code, if approved, would prevent the women from wearing any dress or skirt shorter than an inch above the knee. At one of the meetings, the fur finally flew. An enraged Joanne accused Shanda of waging a smear campaign against her. Shanda said she had had nothing to do with arranging the dress code meetings, but she did say that the Ambassadors needed a more professional look. Joanne replied, “Let’s be honest here. This is about me, isn’t it?” Shanda then unloaded on Joanne, telling her that she was harming the good people of Burleson. She said that she knew all about Joanne and Chris trying to seduce two other couples at the Holiday Inn South. The other Ambassadors gasped. Joanne and Chris? Swingers?
Joanne shouted that Shanda was spreading lies. “Shame on you, Shanda,” Joanne said. “Shame on you for receiving that kind of gossip about us and shame on you for spreading it here!”
Before the meeting ended, Joanne told the other Ambassadors that no matter what any church or chamber of commerce wanted, she was never going to change the way she dressed. Sure enough, at a subsequent ribbon-cutting ceremony, she arrived in a white lace top and a matching short skirt. From where Shanda was standing, the outlines of Joanne’s nipples were visible through the top. Some of Shanda’s supporters were so worried that Joanne would physically attack Shanda that they made sure to stand between the two women.
Shanda told me she went to city hall to ask for a copy of the ordinances banning sexually oriented businesses, ordinances her mother had been instrumental in drafting in 1988. But she said she took the ordinance only to chamber executives, trying to persuade them that they should not officially sponsor what was obviously a sexually oriented business. She insisted that she did not go to the police. “I did not believe Joanne needed to be arrested,” she said. “I just wanted someone to talk to her.”
The police, for their part, already knew about Joanne. The Burleson police chief had been with her and Chris that very year on a chamber of commerce–sponsored cruise to Mexico. At one point in the trip, some of the Burleson crowd walked out to the pool to sunbathe—and froze in their tracks. Joanne was already there in a thong bathing suit, her butt cheeks glistening in the sun. “Hey, y’all,” she said, waving. She then participated in one of those cruise-ship games where the women are asked to jump in the pool, grab pieces of fruit that are floating in the water, and stuff as much as they can into their bathing suits. Because of the size of her suit, Joanne came in last, though she was able to get a banana under the straps of her thong.
“Around the department, she and Chris were referred to as sluts, swingers, what have you,” said Robert Thomas, who was a Burleson police officer in 2003 (he’s now retired). “And I know people in the department began looking through the penal code to see what they could do about her business.”
Although the city ordinances on sexually oriented businesses did not cover a direct sales company like Joanne’s, someone found the clause in the state obscenity laws, passed in 1976, which made it illegal to sell anything that was being marketed as a device to stimulate human genitalia. Sex shops get around the rules by marketing their products as “toys” or “cake toppers” (gag gifts to be used at parties). To see how Joanne marketed her products, the police sent two undercover officers, a man and a woman, into Chris’s business, where Joanne was sitting at the front desk answering the phone. Joanne showed them her catalog, pointed to the Nubby G, and then told the woman that if she maneuvered the Nubby G in a certain way, she would hit her G-spot. The officers bought the Nubby G and another vibrator, the Double Hot, drove back to the police department, and filed an affidavit claiming that Joanne had broken the law. A police officer called Joanne and said that she needed to turn herself in. Joanne and Chris, fearing that the police might raid their home, threw all of Joanne’s products into a car, and Chris drove as fast as he could across the county line. He had become, he later said, a dildo runner.
After the arrest, Shanda refused to be interviewed, but Gloria did tell one reporter that a few women had come to her to say that Joanne’s parties were ruining their marriages. She wouldn’t go into detail, but the word around town was that Joanne had asked these women after the parties if they and their husbands would be interested in swinging with her and Chris. According to other rumors, she and Chris had invited well-known Burleson couples over to swim naked in their pool. Joanne had also supposedly tried to lure a handsome, churchgoing teenage boy into her bedroom to deflower him. “Your reputation in this town should have driven you out by now,” wrote a Burleson citizen to the Webbs, one of many letters they received. “I wonder if your children know that you are swingers and whores.”
The Webbs added to the uproar by refusing to address the swinging rumors. “It’s no one’s business what happens in someone’s bedroom,” said Joanne. “That is exactly what we were fighting for. No one should need to tell the world what their sex life is or isn’t, and the world shouldn’t have the right to know.”
It was an admirable argument, but it only gave ammunition to people who thought Joanne was using her parties to turn Burleson into a giant mate-swapping orgy. As the uproar grew, the Webbs’ teenage daughter, Katy, a member of the school’s drill team and drama club, became so upset that her grades plummeted. (Ironically, she said, one of the students at school who remained nice to her was Shanda’s teenage son.) Katy started taking antidepressants, and Chris began taking them too. Because of the controversy, his already faltering business had completely dried up. He was unable to make an $800 health insurance payment and their cars were repossessed, including Joanne’s beloved convertible. What hurt just as much for Joanne was the news that the Ambassadors Club had voted for the proposed dress code. If Joanne wanted to remain an Ambassador, she would have to wear skirts that came almost to her knees.
By the start of this year, the Webbs were wondering if they should move from Burleson. Chris had filed for personal bankruptcy, closed his business, and was trying to make ends meet by hauling trash from construction sites. Joanne was bringing in about $1,000 a month from sales of her merchandise at out-of-county parties, which was hardly enough to cover the family’s expenses.
But one day Joanne turned to Chris and said, “Honey, Shanda is not going to run us out of town.” They showed up at the annual chamber of commerce banquet, Joanne wearing a black slip dress that stopped at mid-thigh. At the end of the banquet, the membership announced the names of the top two recruiters: Joanne was second, Shanda was first. Both women walked up on the stage to receive their awards, smiling widely and barely saying a word to each other.
Chris decided to protest Joanne’s arrest by wearing a kilt around town, explaining to anyone who asked that he was a fighter for freedom just like the kilt-wearing Mel Gibson in the movie Braveheart, willing to stand up for the rights of “persecuted citizens” like his wife. He also went on a letter-writing campaign to the local newspaper blasting Shanda’s brother Stuart, who was then running for mayor. He tried to get nonchurchgoers to the polls, saying that Stuart and his family were trying to keep Burleson in the dark ages. When Stuart lost the mayoral election to another city councilman by 24 votes—a shocking result, by all accounts—even he said that Chris’s campaigning and the negative media attention over Joanne’s arrest had possibly hurt him.
But in the most shocking news of all, in July the county attorney dropped the criminal charges against Joanne. The attorney would not comment publicly on why he dropped charges, but according to one source close to the investigation, he and other Burleson leaders had grown tired of the attention focused on their town, and they had also realized that if Joanne was ever thrown in jail, she would become even more famous than she already was, a national martyr for women’s rights.
Besides, they had accomplished what they wanted: They had gotten Joanne out of business in Burleson. According to Joanne, a police captain made it clear to her that even with the charges dropped, the police still considered what she was doing a criminal offense and that if they received another complaint about her, they would investigate her business again. “It looks like the only way I can do business in Burleson is if I win my lawsuit,” she said. But her chances of success are remote. Legal experts say previous challenges to obscenity laws have failed. “Just recently, a federal appeals court in Alabama struck down a challenge to that state’s obscenity laws,” said Rachel P. Maines, a Cornell University researcher and the author of the book The Technology of Orgasm: “Hysteria,” the Vibrator, and Women’s Sexual Satisfaction. “When it comes to sex, the courts always endorse hypocrisy. As long as we don’t say what we’re doing with sex toys, then it’s fine to do it. But if we’re honest about what we’re doing, then we’re in a lot of trouble.”
Shanda told me that she is not unhappy that the criminal charges have been dropped. For the past year, she said, she has been the object of great derision in the newsmedia, and she too is ready to move on. “Outsiders think I’m this mean, self-righteous woman,” said Shanda. “But all I did was stand up and say we’re a community that doesn’t believe in promoting sexually oriented businesses. Is it really that awful of us to want a community driven by a certain kind of morality? I know that a lot of you who make fun of us would love nothing more than to have a place like this to raise your children too.”
Despite the vibrator war, it is hard to imagine Burleson abandoning its famous moral tranquillity. Just weeks after the charges against Joanne were dropped, the Lighthouse Church opened a new 20,000-square-foot sanctuary, and Gloria Gillaspie was hard at work trying to fill it with more Burleson residents with whom to share the joy of living a Christ-centered life. Gloria told me that she would gladly welcome a visit from Joanne at the church. “I really think Joanne has a heart to help women, and she’s been misdirected and missed her calling,” said Gloria. “I think she could lead a biblically based women’s ministry.”
No thanks, said Joanne. She told me she loves teaching women about the joys of their own bodies. “There are women out there in their forties and fifties who still don’t know all the ways they can have orgasms,” Joanne said. “There are women who are devastated that their sex lives aren’t working, and I know I can help them.” When I watched her recently at one of her parties in a suburb not far from Burleson—the hostess had called the police department earlier that day to make sure she wouldn’t be arrested for having the get-together—Joanne was indeed as animated talking about sex as an evangelist like Gloria is talking about heaven. Most of the women there were in their thirties, wearing shorts, T-shirts, and flip-flops, carrying cell phones in case their husbands called. (“Our husbands are all sitting at home worried that they’re not going to measure up to whatever we buy,” one woman giggled.) They oohed and aahed when Joanne brought out “the big boys,” and many of them slipped into the bathroom to try a sample of Joanne’s best-selling product, the cream that supposedly can get a woman in the mood within seconds.
One young woman came out of the bathroom, her eyelids blinking rapidly. “My God,” she said.
Joanne smiled. “It’s spiritual, isn’t it? And ladies, it’s only $39.50 for a 2.5-ounce bottle.”