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Texas mom faces trial for selling sex toys

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Justice and Rights

DALLAS, Texas (Reuters) -- Joanne Webb is a mother of three, a Baptist, a booster of the town of Burleson, Texas, and a former schoolteacher. She also faces trial for being a smut merchant.

Webb, 43, was arrested in November by two undercover police officers for selling sexual toys and charged with violating Texas obscenity laws. She could face up to a year in jail and a fine of $4,000 if convicted.

Webb is a representative for Passion Parties, a California company marketing potions, lotions and sexual toys sold at gatherings that mimic Tupperware parties.

Women over 18 meet in a private home for what the company calls a "girl's night out of giggles and fun," during which products designed to enhance sex lives are sold.

It was not a secret in Burleson, a small town near Fort Worth, that Webb sold vibrators, edible creams and racy lingerie.

But not everyone was happy about it.

According to reports in the local media, police said a few residents, who they declined to identify, lodged complaints. A few prominent citizens with strong Christian beliefs were angered by Webb and her activities and asked police to investigate, local media reported.

Two undercover police officers posed as a couple trying to spice up their love life and Webb sold the woman a vibrator. Webb instructed her on its use and explained how it could enhance lovemaking.

That's where she got into trouble.

Texas law allows for the sale of sexual toys as long as they are billed as novelties, BeAnn Sisemore, a Fort Worth attorney representing Webb, told the Houston Chronicle before a gag order was issued by the judge presiding over the case. But when a person markets sex toys in a direct manner that shows their actual role in sex, then that person is subject to obscenity charges, she told the newspaper.

Webb said she turned to Passion Parties to supplement her family's income when her husband's construction business went into a slump.

"For women to become self-confident in their sexuality ... that's what I'm in this for," Webb told the Dallas Morning News before the gag order was imposed.

She added that because of her arrest, she has found herself in a role she never imagined -- a public advocate for allowing women and couples to make personal decisions about their sex lives.

Sex, lives and passion parties

Police and Johnson County prosecutors declined to discuss the case, even before the gag order was issued.

Gloria Gillaspie, a pastor at Lighthouse Church in Burleson, said she has met and counseled some women who had talked to Webb about the products she sold.

"It was causing problems with their marriages," she said.

Gillaspie said Webb and her family were asked to leave two churches in town. She did not name the churches.

"They didn't want to comply with what was really Christian conduct and that is why they were asked to leave those churches," Gillaspie said.

But James Brown, a member of the local chamber of commerce and an acquaintance of Webb's, told Reuters: "Most of the people in town support Joanne."

Sisemore said she wants to use this case to overturn obscenity laws in Texas and other states.

"I will fight this all the way with her," Sisemore told the Houston Chronicle. "This is the first time I have felt that my government has overstepped its boundaries."

Sisemore has said she plans to file a federal lawsuit challenging Texas obscenity laws, which she said are so vague that they could be used to prosecute anyone who uses or sells condoms designed to provide stimulation for sexual pleasure.

Patricia Davis, a 59-year-old grandmother and president of Passion Parties, said: "We are very proud of Joanne Webb. She believes in the mission of the company and she is doing a really nice job of representing us."

Passion Parties has been doing booming business. The company racked up $20 million in sales in 2003 and saw 30 months of consecutive growth above the 50 percent mark.

The company has representatives in every state and is doing some of its best business in California, New York and the Bible Belt, a section of the United States where Christian beliefs and clergy are influential.

"Women are looking for ways to enhance their relationship, enhance their sensuality and they have nowhere to go," Davis said.

When women get together at a friend's home to peruse body lotions, shower gels and battery-operated devices the company calls "passion toys," Davis said many are able to overcome embarrassment and talk openly about sex.

"We are doing a lot to help women, to help couples and to help families," Davis said.

Copyright 2004 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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