Genteel Sex Shop Spices Up Life for Middle Class

Times Staff Writer

Barbara and Tom Moss of Irvine are a middle-aged, middle-class couple devoted to their family business. Every day they drive her Saab or his Pontiac to their shop and warehouse in a nearby executive park. Sunday mornings, they watch evangelist Terry Cole Whittaker. “We subscribe to her ‘prosperity thinking,’ ” said Tom. “You can have anything in life you want if you put your mind to it.”

The couple take particular pleasure in their business. For their business is , in fact, pleasure. Adult pleasure.

In most towns, such a business would be run--if at all--in the seedier commercial sections. You might expect pornographic magazines, furtive customers, jaded panderers. You might also expect complaints from neighbors or ordinance-makers.

But the Mosses have for the past four years quietly operated their sex shop, the Pleasure Company, in the Airport Business Center of the master-planned city of Irvine without a single complaint. They are members in good standing of the Irvine Chamber of Commerce.

Even some City Hall employees were surprised when asked about the city’s sex shop. “You mean we have that in Irvine ?” said an astonished Betty Davidson, an administrative coordinator in the Community Development Department. “You’re sure it’s not Newport Beach?”

Irvine has no laws prohibiting the sale of sexual paraphernalia, and when the Mosses applied for a business permit, the only problem was getting a lease from the developers, said Tom Moss, 45, former manager of a small computer firm. “They were afraid other tenants might move out. But we talked to everyone, and now they’re very supportive. They’re delighted. They capitalize on the foot traffic.”


Growing Demand

One reason they’ve raised few eyebrows is that they belong to a young and respectable industry that supplies a growing demand for what one purveyor called “middle-of-the-road kink.” Most customers are married, middle-aged, middle-class women. “Women cops are big buyers,” said Barbara Moss, 44, a former high school counselor. “Preschool teachers, women in real estate, nurses. Anybody medical is good.”

Two other companies in Orange County sell “sensual lingerie and romantic accessories” to women through home parties similar to those at which plastic kitchenware or cosmetics are sold. The Pleasure Company also has 133 saleswomen who host home parties on commission, but it is the only one catering to middle-class women that operates a walk-in store.

The Pleasure Company is under a modest wood sign between two hi-tech stores. The window is filled with lace nylon stockings on two-dimensional legs. Inside, the atmosphere is bright and low-key.

From the back warehouse, Tom Moss appeared, his hand extended, as he wound his way through the lace and satin, fishnet and feathers. He is a genial tour guide. The two front rooms, he explained, hold “your basic sexy lingerie.” He pointed out the robes, teddies, gloves, G-strings with animal faces, panties with musical computer chips and the Big Beautiful Women sizes.

He strode beyond the lingerie to a small, dim room where novelty lotions and your not-so-basic devices of plastic, surgical rubber and fur are displayed. Some are also shaped like animals and motorized to vibrate rapidly. One plugs into a car lighter. Clerks are trained to explain it all to you in a matter-of-fact, clinical fashion, said Moss.

He demonstrated how some of the products work and explained why some customers are willing to part with $50 to take one home. He smiled like a Sunday school teacher.

Make Body Jewelry

He continued into the warehouse where items they distribute and manufacture are stored. They make their own body jewelry--a sparkly gel to be worn at nightclubs, he said. He waved his hand at a wall of plain brown boxes. They contained a board game called Fantasy and Romance that he and Karen Curry, Barbara’s daughter from a previous marriage, designed. No players have ever finished it, he said, grinning with pride.

He moved into the company’s meeting room. It is painted pink and purple. “Share the Wealth” is emblazoned on the wall. Underneath are the words: “A Fascinating New Life and Career Await You.”

Married for three years, Tom and Barbara Moss met five years ago through a video-dating firm. She was a counselor at Fountain Valley High School, and he was manager of a computer firm. They discovered they both liked bridge and both had always dreamed of owning their own business. They signed up for a Saddleback College class for beginning entrepreneurs.

They settled on a sex shop after Barbara noticed that while a popular sex book, “Shared Intimacies,” recommended the use of vibrators for couples, such devices were difficult to find. Women would not want to patronize a shop with an adult-bookstore atmosphere, she figured. Nor would they want to order products through the mail, which would result in their name ending up on mailing lists for sex items. “Tom came up with the home party idea,” she said.

Not Alone

They were not alone. By the end of 1981, the year they started their company, there were 40 companies in Orange County running in-home sex-product parties, said Tom. “Some went out of business, some bankrupted themselves,” he said. The Pleasure Company is the smallest of the remaining three, which include FUN (For Us Now) Parties in Garden Grove and Lady Desiree in Santa Ana.

With 29 offices in 17 states, Lady Desiree will gross $4.5 million from its parties this year, said Ardeth Meier, 38, president of Lady Desiree. She sells more lingerie than sex toys and prefers to think of her product as more romantic than erotic. She said she also sells a lot of bathing salts and bubbles because “romance is not only in the bedroom, but in the bathroom. All our bubbles are edible.”

Meier, a former high school teacher of Victorian literature, said, “We have taken a product that in the past was considered sleazy and given it dignity. Women fought so hard for their freedom. Now they’re choosing to be feminine again.”

She said her best customer is 35, married or remarried, has her own checkbook and has just about raised her children. “They may buy a piece of sexy lingerie to wear under a three-piece suit. They know it’s there, and they feel feminine.”

The industry--run mostly by women for women--exists because the average woman has become older (32), knows what she wants and is willing to experiment, said the entrepreneurs. Also, people are working harder at relationships, said Meier. “We’ve been contacted by people who run weekend marriage encounters to help nurture relationships or put the spark back in an old one.” One of her distributors is a woman minister, she said.

The entrepreneurs’ basic strategy has been to reduce intimidation and embarrassment by replacing the pornographic with the romantic, the erotic or the educational, they say.

In the Pleasure Company’s store, many customers want to shop alone, or as nearly alone as they can get, said Barbara Moss. During busy seasons, such as Christmas or Valentine’s Day, men and women will line up outside the store even though there is room inside, apparently to give one another privacy, she said.

‘Schoolteacher Look’

When a customer comes in looking confused or embarrassed, the clerk calls upstairs for Barbara. “I come down with my schoolteacher look.” One man didn’t find what he was looking for but was grateful to her for listening to his marital problem, she said.

Men customers never hassle the women clerks in the store, she said, because “we’re so clinical.”

The Mosses also dispense advice. Sometimes they speak to college human sexuality classes. Some of their clients are referred from sex educators and therapists.

“They are great. They are making a wonderful contribution to people’s level of permission to enjoy sexuality,” said Mona Coates, an Orange County sex therapist and professor of sociology and human sexuality at Orange Coast College. “A lot of it is their attitude. They’re not seedy, hard core or pornographic. They simply have sexual aides and toys to help normal, happy, sexually functional people enjoy their lives more.” She also said she refers clients with inhibited sexual desire.

“We say it’s OK to be a sexual being and it’s also OK not to use these things,” said Barbara.

“If you’re having a rocky relationship, now is probably not a good time for (sex toys),” said her daughter, Karen Curry, 22, a distributor who has hosted 500 home parties. “If he’s insecure, you need to reassure him about how you feel about him as a person.”

“At first, we did a lot of educating,” said Barbara. “It was absolutely amazing how little people know. A lot of women were tremendously ignorant of their own bodies.” At one party, she said, a 23-year-old woman admitted she had never had an orgasm. Then, five others also admitted they had never had one either. “The whole place was in tears. They were expressing relief they weren’t the only ones.”

When mothers and daughters attend the home parties together, it’s more the daughters who are ill at ease, said Karen. But men are more intimidated, said Tom. “Men in groups have this macho image,” he said. “They’re afraid they’re going to be replaced by a vibrator.”

“We say vibrators can’t hug you, take you out to dinner or pay the bills,” said Karen. One of her mother’s favorite sayings is: “Vibrators don’t make sex mechanical. People do,” she added.

How easy is it to run a sex shop with one’s parents? “My mom, the vibrator queen,” Karen said wryly, recalling her first reaction to her mother’s new business. Sometimes, she is still amazed to see her mother enthused over a new shipment of sex products. “She’s still my mom,” she said, “a loving, caring mother.”

“It’s just that, at work, she’s Barbara, not mom.”

The Mosses said they were slightly apprehensive about breaking the news to their own parents about the nature of their new business. But they all agreed it was a good idea, they said. Barbara sold her mother a vibrator.

When they started their business, the Mosses promised each other that they would quit when it wasn’t fun anymore. Barbara smiled broadly. “It’s still fun.”