Sex Toy Story

You can't buy a vibrator in Burleson, but there are plenty of dildos

Saying goodbye to Spears, Joanne retrieved a message on her cell phone: "This is officer Havens with the Burleson police. I need to make you aware that a warrant has been issued for your arrest. Please turn yourself in today between 4 and 5 p.m. with a $1,500 bond."

Joanne felt dizzy. Her heart raced. Her only run-in with the law had been a speeding ticket. She tried to call the officer. He wasn't in. Joanne phoned Chris. Both racked their brains to figure out what crime she'd committed.

Sergeant Chris Havens called back and told Joanne that on October 7, two undercover narcotics officers had visited Chris' office, where she'd posted a small Passion Parties by Joanne sign, and bought from her two "obscene devices"--in other words, penis-shaped vibrators. Havens informed her that the purchase violated Texas Penal Code 43.23, which prohibits the sale of any obscene device for stimulation of the genitals. Joanne was told to turn herself in.

BeAnn Sisemore marched into the County Attorney's Office and demanded, "What is this war on the clitoris?"
Mark Graham
BeAnn Sisemore marched into the County Attorney's Office and demanded, "What is this war on the clitoris?"

Spears, the media-savvy promotions director at Chili Pepper magazine, instantly grasped the ramifications. She called a banker who'd presided over the dress-code meetings. "This has Lifetime movie written all over it," Spears told him. "Burleson just thinks it got its 15 minutes of fame with Kelly Clarkson. This is going to make the national news and cause Burleson huge embarrassment."

True enough. The story of Joanne Webb's arrest went national, then global--from the China Daily to the London Times--with reporters, columnists and talk show hosts heaping abuse on the city of Burleson.

When Fort Worth lawyer BeAnn Sisemore, a 5-foot-2 blond firecracker in stiletto heels, took up Joanne's cause, the prestigious American media got involved. Who could resist the trash-talking lady lawyer posed as the Statue of Liberty lifting high a throbbing vibrator? This was about nothing less than women's sexual rights. Females everywhere deserve good orgasms!

After a story in The New York Times, the Webbs and Sisemore flew to New York to appear on Good Morning America and Primetime Live. As TV crews roamed downtown Burleson, focusing on the residents who seemed the most redneck, civic leaders watched their "City of Character" image implode.

The whole thing would be funny if the gossip and righteous indignation hadn't nearly destroyed a family. His business blackballed, Chris had a nervous breakdown and now hauls trash to pay the bills. The Webbs' vehicles have been repossessed or sold, and in February they declared bankruptcy. If convicted of the misdemeanor charge, Joanne faces a fine of up to $4,000 and a year in jail. As a "sex offender," she will lose her teaching certificate.

The Webbs' saga supposedly started with an anonymous tip to Burleson police. (Don't they have caller ID?) But it has its origins somewhere else: in the hearts of a handful of town leaders. They saw the lusty lives of Joanne and Chris Webb as an affront to their religious beliefs and allegedly conspired with high-ranking Burleson police officers to run them out of town.

Says one former Burleson officer: "Basically the city powers-that-be looked at them as an embarrassment. It was political from the start."

Vibration Is Life

Only four states, including Texas, still have laws banning the sale of vibrators. Adult stores get around the rules by marketing the devices as "novelties," "gag gifts" or "cake toppers." You know, for birthday cakes.


A better marketing ruse would be medicinal purposes. Vibrators were actually developed for use in the early 1880s by time-pressured gynecologists.

For years, male doctors had given female patients "vulvular" massage for the relief of physical, emotional and sexual tension, according to The Technology of Orgasm: "Hysteria," the Vibrator, and Women's Sexual Satisfaction, a 1999 book by historian Rachel Maines. She explains that the 1899 edition of the Merck Manual for doctors listed genital massage for treatment of "hysteria." Its symptoms: depression, irritability, insomnia, forgetfulness, confusion, weepiness and ticklishness.

Vibrators cut doctors' time for treatment from as long as an hour to a few minutes, Maines writes, and kept women coming back for more.

By the turn of the century, at least two dozen vibrator models were on the market. Powered by electric current, water, gasoline or air pressure, most were intended for use externally. Doctors used the devices to treat other ills--constipation, for example--but treatment of "pelvic hyperemia," or congestion of the genitalia, remained their primary use.

Electrified after the sewing machine, fan, teakettle and toaster, but long before the vacuum cleaner, vibrators were marketed directly to women in the early 1900s as home appliances. Manufacturers advertised in magazines such as Needlecraft, Woman's Home Companion and Modern Priscilla with slogans like "vibration is life."

Sex and orgasm were never mentioned, Maines writes. Vibrators were shown being applied to a model's head or back. But any woman could figure it out. One ad: "Swedish movement right in your own home! Just a few minutes use of the wonderful vibrator and the red blood tingles through your veins--the same treatment you would have to pay at least $2 for in a physician's office!" And no need to go into a store to be embarrassed by your purchase. "Aids that every woman appreciates," boasted the copy for a vibrator in the 1918 Sears Roebuck & Co. catalog. "All the pleasures of youth will throb within you."

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