This is a story about sex.
There’s no way around that, so we’re getting it out of the way early. But it’s also a story about carpool moms and motorcycle trailers, about big university science and small business success, about family and friends. Finally, it’s a story about a-ha moments.
Not just one, but many. Maybe even yours.
Thirty years ago, Patty Brisben was home on maternity leave after the birth of her fourth child. She enjoyed her work—a job in medical assisting at a Cincinnati doctor’s office—but it was just keeping her family afloat, leaving nothing leftover between paychecks. She wanted to show her children that they could do more with their future.
That day, The Phil Donahue Show caught her attention. The subject matter was controversial, Brisben recalls, as the guests were women who worked for a company selling sexual enhancement aids; they attended private parties and made a tidy living educating other women about how to boost their sex lives. Brisben was intrigued enough to mention the show to a woman with whom she carpooled.
When she did, the friend was silent, and Brisben feared she had offended her. After all, this was the early 1980s in conservative Cincinnati, Brisben explains. There was no 50 Shades of Grey back then, no Sex and the City.
“It was like Stepford moms,” she says. “We took care of our kids and did PTA. That’s what we did.”
Then her friend confessed she had just attended one of the parties the night before. That wasn’t all. Afterward, she stayed to buy something. The friend wouldn’t admit what, but revealed that in the morning when she woke up, her husband had thanked her for giving him the honeymoon they never had.
The conversation sparked Brisben’s curiosity. She went home and ordered a sales kit from the company she’d seen on the show and began to plan her first party, dreaming of a day when she could have more time with her family while earning a better living.
But when the kit arrived a week later, panic set in.
“I literally sat down and cried, because I said, ‘I don’t know anything about this,’” says Brisben, a part-time Naples resident who hosted a Naples Winter Wine Festival vintner dinner this year.
A decade later, Brisben founded relationship-enhancement aid company Pure Romance. With the help of her son Chris Cicchinelli, Brisben has grown Pure Romance into the biggest company of its kind in the world. And now she has a foundation, too, promoting women’s sexual health studies at various universities. But that day in Cincinnati, she was convinced she had made a terrible mistake.
Still, there was no going back. Armed with boxed wine, she opened the door to her guests. Then something unexpected happened: Her 15 guests became 40, and the sales kit—which had been so intimidating—became almost incidental. What her guests really wanted to do was swap stories.
It was Brisben’s first a-ha moment.
“It wasn’t about what was in the box,” she said. “It was about having a safe environment for them to be able to gather and ask questions and network, and finally they were given permission to talk. What I found that night was confessions.”
This Pure Romance party is casual, but there’s definitely a dress code.
A stripe of tiger, a streak of giraffe, a pop of cheetah—each of the guests, 17 Naples women in all, is wearing some sort of animal print. The décor is in on the fun, too, with zigzags of zebra and hot pink polka-dot balloons crisscrossing the lanai. Only one table has escaped the jungle treatment: It’s pushed up against a wall and draped in a long, black cloth.
Christie Himes, a tall brunette with kind eyes, thick eyelashes and the sort of nail art that lights up a Pinterest board—rhinestones, gold, more rhinestones—works quickly, covering the table with an assortment of products. There are body sprays, personal lubricants, accessories and much more, a wide assortment of highly engineered goodies for the bedroom and beyond.
Animal print or no, it’s going to be a wild night.
Himes joined Pure Romance four years ago and is now one of the company’s top sales consultants. She does a party in Fort Myers or Naples almost every day, sometimes twice a day, driving in from Alva to talk to women of all ages about how Pure Romance can help them juice up their private lives. Fort Myers-Naples is one of Pure Romance’s fastest-growing markets; the area had a 100 percent sales increase in 2013, while Jacksonville and Orlando had 30 and 40 percent, respectively.
The target age group for Pure Romance is 25 to 45, but Himes has done parties for everyone from college kids to great-grandmothers, even parties where three generations of women were gathered together. She’s so busy that she can’t carry enough products in her vehicle; Himes had to create something bigger, a special mobile shop. It’s a modified motorcycle trailer that’s hitched to the back of her SUV, complete with air conditioning, shelves and even a small couch for clients to relax on while they wait to purchase.
“I did not foresee the trailer,” Himes admits.
Like Brisben, Himes was skeptical at first. When a friend called to invite her to a Pure Romance party, Himes hung up on her six times before she finally agreed to go. She thought the party would be uncomfortable, maybe even kinky. But nothing could be have been further from the truth.
It was her a-ha moment.
“I learned more in one hour than I had in 31 years of being a female,” Himes says.
She became a Pure Romance consultant and didn’t look back.
“After doing the parties and feeling the empowerment of what I do, how it helps women, I was not afraid to hold my head high,” she says.
The women at this particular party aren’t newcomers to Pure Romance. Only three guests raise their hands when Himes asks if anyone is attending a Pure Romance party for the first time; many of the women are already chiming in about which items are must-haves and why. Some products are deemed good enough to elicit a drum roll on the table when Himes brings them out for a show-and-tell.
Himes doesn’t mind the interruptions; questions are encouraged. Nothing tonight is taboo. Although, you might want to zip your lips if you’re dating the brother of one of the other guests, Himes jokes.
Carrie (name changed to protect the bashful), the host of this particular party, met Himes when she attended a Pure Romance party with her boyfriend’s mother.
It was an a-ha moment. She decided to invite Himes to do a Pure Romance party at her home. The first one was a huge success, in part because of Himes’ relaxed, honest style but also because it gave her and her friends a chance to do something light, fun and different. A little spicy, too.
“It’s just a good night for all of us to get together,” Carrie says.
Brisben started Pure Romance in 1993. In the beginning, she had about 50 sales consultants working for her, and her territory was primarily the Midwest. Then, in 2002, her son Chris joined the company with the goal of developing a marketing plan that would take Pure Romance to the next level.
For three years, they followed the model of traveling to different parts of the Midwest to meet and hire new potential sales consultants and share their story. The media loved Brisben’s pro-women approach, with one newspaper dubbing Pure Romance “the Tupperware of the 2000s.” The company grew quickly: Now, Pure Romance is in all 50 states and Puerto Rico. In 2011, Pure Romance expanded to South Africa, followed by Australia. The company does more than $100 million a year in business.
“I think women are taking charge,” Cicchinelli says. “People are wanting to have answers and have more communication and connection.”
For many years, the thought of buying a relationship enhancement aid conjured the image of slinking into a dark, gritty shop somewhere off the highway, Cicchinelli notes. Pure Romance changed that, giving women a confidential and comfortable place to discover and buy the products they wanted.
“We professionalized the industry,” Cicchinelli explains. “Mom pioneered the industry.”
But education has always remained essential, Brisben says. After hosting that first party in Cincinnati, Brisben made it her mission to gather whatever information she could about women’s sexuality, any kind of trivia or tidbits that would help her clients.
That’s still the spirit of Pure Romance, she explains.
“There’s a lot of training that goes along with our products,” she says.
“I’m so afraid a woman is going to be too afraid to ask. You have to build that relationship. There’s nothing off-limits. It might not be something I enjoy in my own bedroom, but I’m going to talk to you about these things because safety comes first.”
Through Pure Romance and the Patty Brisben Foundation, Brisben supports an array of women’s sexual health studies, including those at the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University, the University of Cincinnati and the University of Colorado. Brisben is especially proud of Pure Romance’s Sensuality, Sexuality and Survival, a program that provides sexual health education and healing to women who have undergone treatment for cancer.
“We’re going to continue to educate and empower women every day,” Brisben says.