By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
The couple had learned that police in Burleson--a town of 25,000 in Johnson County, 14 miles south of downtown Fort Worth--had issued a warrant for Joanne's arrest. But while a lawyer negotiated Joanne's surrender, the Webbs got wind there might be a raid on their home.
Frantic, the Webbs began pulling items from trunks where Joanne held her product samples, tossing into a box the Chocolate Thriller, the Love Wand, the Nubby G--as well as Pink Passion, Bathing Buddy, Magic Monarch and Jelly Gumdrop. And last but not least, Glow Boy.
Ten minutes later, Chris was racing in the family van for the Johnson County line, heading for a friend's house on the other side. "I used to be an officer in the U.S. Army," he thought. "Now I'm a dildo runner."
His transformation was complete. Last fall, Chris and Joanne Webb morphed from stalwart Southern Baptists and popular civic leaders into the couple at the red-hot center of a town scandal that pulled into its orbit virtually everybody who was anybody in Burleson. Burning up phone lines with the latest gossip about Joanne and Chris, people took sides and plotted schemes. The pressure built slowly, then climaxed in a paroxysm of blame that left the town reeling--and the butt of international jokes.
Now all involved are retreating, trying to cover their own butts. But how did it really start? Like sex scandals always do, with a tiny flame of passion.
On the morning of November 11, Joanne Webb sat in her husband's office and chatted on the phone with a fellow "ambassador" for the Burleson Chamber of Commerce about the ongoing campaign to protect the city from Joanne's miniskirts.
Joanne had gotten involved with the chamber in the late '90s after quitting her job as a teacher. Chris' home-building business had taken off with such gusto that he needed her help with phones and paperwork.
After years of moving, first as a military brat and then as a military wife, Joanne loved Burleson. Both 43 and married for 20 years, the Webbs donated their time and money to their Baptist church and the Burleson Chamber. Both sat on the chamber's board. As a volunteer ambassador, Joanne attended networking events and ribbon-cuttings, slipping the required navy blazer over whatever she wore that day.
In warm weather, it was always a miniskirt. A very short miniskirt. Though her legs were pale and she's now on the other side of 40, Joanne loved wearing short skirts. And Chris loved looking at her legs.
No one ever had a negative comment about Joanne's devotion to the chamber. Says fellow ambassador Kelli Spears, "I have not found one person who has said Joanne has been anything but kind and helpful."
But last fall, resentment of Joanne within the ranks erupted, led by Shanda Perkins, a mother of six with deep roots in Burleson. A bank employee and vice president of the Burleson Area Republican Women, Perkins and a handful of other city leaders had had enough of Joanne, Chris and their sexy ways.
His "Daisy Duke" shorts.
Her long, curly blond hair.
His flirtatious remarks.
Her augmented bosom.
His collection of 1940s advertising trinkets featuring voluptuous girls.
Her red convertible.
Rumors swirled that under all that sensual smoke there must be immoral sexual fire. People whispered that the Webbs were "swingers." It all seemed indecent, especially for "The City of Character," as Burleson styles itself.
The first spark flew in August--at a chamber ribbon-cutting--this time for Joanne's new venture. Chris' business had slowed down, so Joanne turned to a time-honored method for cash-strapped moms everywhere: multilevel marketing at home gatherings. She joined Passion Parties, a 10-year-old San Francisco-based company that markets massage oils, naughty clothing and erotic devices. Demonstrating a feather tickler and edible white chocolate powder seemed more fun than burping plastic tubs.
Naturally, Joanne wanted her company to join the chamber. She cleared it with the director and president of the board. Of course she could, they said. It was a legitimate business.
On ribbon-cutting day, most of the ambassadors showed up for another company's photo. When Joanne wielded the giant scissors for Passion Parties by Joanne, all but a few had disappeared. Soon after, though, Shanda Perkins proposed a dress code targeted at Joanne.
Over the phone, Spears and Joanne laughed at the silliness. Perkins wasn't exactly a fashion maven. Though beautiful, with alabaster skin and blue eyes, Perkins wore lots of makeup, flashy costume jewelry and kept her long brunette hair teased high. One ambassador thought someone should tell Perkins that "1985 called and it wants its dress back."
Several people with the chamber warned Joanne that Perkins was circulating a 1988 city ordinance banning sexually oriented businesses to see if it could be used to shut her down; Joanne just brushed it off. She wasn't doing anything wrong.
But Perkins wasn't an adversary to be taken lightly. She was a Gillaspie, the daughter of prominent Pentecostal preacher Gloria Gillaspie and sister of Burleson City Council member Stuart Gillaspie, now running for mayor. (He "feels strongly about the moral issues" of the city, says his page on Burleson's Web site. That "goes hand in hand with his strong faith and his involvement with the Steppingstone Family Church, where his mother is pastor and he is on the board of directors.") Perkins was either related to or had gone to school with everyone in town.
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.
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."
Ah, the good old days.
They didn't last. When stag films started featuring vibrators in the 1920s, the ads faded from respectable women's publications. No more shopping for sex in the "wish book."
With feminism and the sexual revolution, the vibrator made a comeback in the '70s. There was no doubt this time about its intended use: It was usually shaped like an erect penis, made from lifelike latex, with external nodes for additional stimulation. Today, some models light up, talk ("ooh baby!") or feature rotating ridges, like the Rabbit Pearl model featured on Sex and the City.
Medical treatment for sexual dysfunction sometimes includes the use of vibrators. For women who have difficulty reaching orgasm--some studies show two-thirds of women can't climax through intercourse alone--vibrators can transform frustration into fantasy fulfillment.
In Texas, says BeAnn Sisemore, you can sell a Rabbit Pearl to stick on top of a cake. But selling one to a woman and explaining how to use it is illegal.
Sisemore sits in her office decorated with cherubs and nymphs and Victorian girls in gilded frames. Wearing high heels and a pantsuit with a fur-collared jacket, she's a bulldozer disguised as a girly-girl. She's filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of five other Passion Party reps challenging the Texas statute that got Joanne arrested.
Widowed at 24 and still single in her 50s, Sisemore says she attended one of Joanne's Passion Parties and learned more about her sexuality than she had during marriage and years of dating. "I'm from Mineral Wells," she says. "I was raised a Southern lady. She might do it in the back of a car, but she doesn't make any noise. I never said the word orgasm out loud until I took this case. I had never heard about my G-spot. I didn't know they had a cream that would make you more sensitive."
Sisemore whips out a package of condoms and points out that they are not approved by the FDA for either contraception or protection from sexually transmitted diseases. They're marketed to increase genital stimulation.
"Why aren't they raiding Wal-Mart?" she asks. "What about Bob Dole and Viagra? A woman's device is criminal, but a man's device is a blessing. I think that is bullshit! This is about a woman's right as a person, whether with another person or alone, to be as sexual as she wants to be."
A Righteous Fox
From the beginning, the Webbs were a sensual couple. Some would say too sensual.
When Chris Webb saw the girl with long copper-colored hair greeting people at the Baptist Student Union, he turned to his friend Dan Castro and said, "Now there's a righteous fox."
Nineteen years old and a virgin, Chris was looking for a wife. Despite his commitment to God, Chris knew he was what St. Paul might have called "a burner." (I Corinthians 7:9: "But if they cannot contain, let them marry; for it is better to marry than to burn.") Moses and Abraham had gorgeous and godly wives; Chris believed God would bless him with a "righteous fox."
Chris' buddy eyed the conservatively dressed Joanne. "She just radiated beauty," says Castro, now an attorney in Austin. "All the guys wanted to date her." Then Castro looked at Chris--curly blond hair, 5-foot-6, Coke-bottle eyeglasses--and said, "You don't stand a chance."
After accepting Christ in the fourth grade, Chris was so on fire for God that he was licensed to preach by the age of 16. In 1978, attending the University of Texas at San Antonio on an ROTC scholarship, Chris witnessed on the street, in pool halls, anywhere he could reach people who'd never set foot in a church. He prided himself on being a renegade for God.
Joanne, a Catholic who'd been "born again," liked the Baptist Student Union because it was the most active Christian group on campus. But she had a boyfriend. Besides, Chris was too cocky and flirtatious. Chris considered his beguiling ways a ministry, building up the self-esteem of others--usually women.
They became friends, but Joanne kept her distance. After breaking up with her boyfriend, she began praying for a man with a passion for God. Chris kept coming to mind. He was so intelligent and funny. They could talk about anything.
Their first date was a Halloween costume party. By Thanksgiving they were engaged. They set a date for the following summer. But a lot of kids at the student union didn't think the match was made in heaven. "In the circles we were running in," Castro says, "everything you did was under scrutiny for how spiritual you were." Castro and others saw in Chris the warring of two natures: the spiritual and the sensual.
"A lot of people had problems with us as a couple," Joanne says. "I was too sweet, and he was too brash." And their ardor too blatant. At one point, the director of the student union pulled them aside and cautioned them: "I'm reminded of the marriage bed." They had no clue what he was talking about; they weren't sleeping together. Joanne had experienced only one sexual relationship, and Chris was still a virgin.
When Chris left for officer candidate school, friends confronted Joanne with their concerns. On the day Chris learned he'd scored high enough to receive an Army commission, he got two letters from Joanne. One was a love letter; the other was a Dear John. Chris went to his bunk and cried, he says. "It was the best and worst day of my life."
They stayed apart 30 days. "I'd dumped him six weeks before the wedding, and he was still telling everyone how much he loved me," Joanne says. "I realized at that point I would never find anyone who loved me as much as Chris."
On May 14, 1983, they got married. The next morning, Chris was commissioned a second lieutenant. They packed his pickup truck and drove to Georgia, spending their honeymoon in motels along the way. Finally they could have sex. No more need to burn.
For the next 10 years the Webbs moved from base to base. During the '80s, they had three children. But motherhood didn't mean matronly. With Chris' insistence, Joanne's skirt hems marched steadily upward, and her tops became more revealing.
Crushed that he wasn't sent to Kuwait during the first Gulf War, Chris became the Army liaison officer for postal and shipping services to the troops. Traveling all over the United States, Chris dropped in at Hooters restaurants, where he gave waitresses pins urging people to write to soldiers. He inadvertently became a traveling cupid, a Johnny Appleseed of love. "I've met three men who came back and married the Hooters waitresses who corresponded with them," he says.
After the war, Chris survived two RIFs (reductions in force), but a married officer with three children costs the Army a fortune. In 1993 Major Chris Webb reluctantly took early retirement, his 10-year Army career over. The Webbs were faced with deciding where to raise their family.
"I had driven through Burleson once," Chris says. Though his mother and several relatives lived in the area, the town seemed a dull backwater. "I've lived in all these beautiful places. I said, 'Thank God I don't have to live here.'"
Then Chris heard a whisper in his heart: "You're going to live in Burleson some day."
Chris told the voice, "Devil, get out of here."
Sex and Salvation
At first, Carol Curlee and others on the hiring committee thought the job applicant seemed straitlaced--long hair, to-the-calf dresses. "She almost looked like a holy roller," says Curlee, who was teaching at a Burleson elementary school. Curlee and the other fifth-grade teachers liked to go out for a drink on Fridays, and they didn't want to work with a prig. "We wanted someone who could laugh and cut up and have a good time."
Joanne needed the job. They'd used Chris' pension to build a house in Burleson. Selling insurance with little success, Chris says, he went to the mailbox every day praying the Army would call him back.
On the first day of school in 1993, the committee hired Joanne and soon discovered she was no prude. "She was wonderful," Curlee says. "She was funny and had a sense of humor. She would take the problems of the children to heart. Joanne was just a sweet person."
Curlee thought Chris was extremely intelligent but such a flirt that she figured he cheated on Joanne. "But as I got to know him, that's just Chris," she says. "He'd say, 'Carol, you look so pretty today.' I'm just a fat old woman."
She envied the Webbs' romance, but Curlee didn't like the way Joanne dressed. The holy-roller dress had long disappeared, replaced by miniskirts. If Curlee mentioned it, Joanne's comeback was always the same: Her husband liked her in short skirts.
Joanne hadn't been proud of her body until she married Chris. Her mother had died when Joanne was 13, and her sense of confidence had floundered. Joanne thought her hips too big and her breasts too flat. "I hated my legs," she says. "I got out of gym and into band so I didn't have to wear shorts that showed my white legs."
But Chris adored every inch of Joanne and made sure she knew it. Short skirts, she says, "make me feel more self-confident. More than anything, my husband likes them. It's one of the basic things he asks me to do."
For her, Chris got contact lenses. He flaunted his diminutive but muscular body in the sizzling Texas summers by wearing boots and a cowboy hat with short cut-offs and sleeveless shirts. Joanne thought he looked hot.
After working for his uncle's construction firm, Chris started his own company and did so well that by 1997, Joanne no longer needed to teach. A year later, Joanne was chosen to be an ambassador for the chamber, where the membership had soared from 451 in 1997 to 1,025 by 2001. She was one of the chamber's best recruiters.
The Webbs' lives revolved around the chamber and Cana Baptist Church. Joanne sang in the choir and chaired an important church committee. Chris taught a popular adult Sunday school class and served on the pastor's three-man accountability team.
And, in his quest to build the self-esteem of the world's women, Chris had continued to flirt. "A kind word can have a powerful effect on people," Chris says. But some Burleson men didn't appreciate his flattering comments to their wives. Chris appeared a little too interested in them. And if some women were offended, others may have seemed a bit too pleased.
Despite their eccentricities, by 2000 the Webbs had gone from strangers in a community dominated by a handful of old families to leaders. In 2002, Joanne was chosen to present hometown American Idol star Kelly Clarkson with an award from the chamber.
But beneath the façade of friendliness burbled malicious gossip. Did you see Joanne's new tits? I heard she bent over at Wal-Mart and you could see her panties. They're always throwing wild parties. Did you hear they got kicked out of Cana Baptist?
In whispers at the Country Café, at the Safari Hair and Tanning Salon and in the pews at churches, people began trading tittle-tattle about the couple's sex life, their "alternative lifestyle." When word got out that Joanne was selling "sex toys," Perkins and a handful of decent people knew something had to be done.
Nasty Little Town
From its inception, Burleson has seen schisms between conservative and liberal Christians.
The town was founded in 1881 by Parson Henry Carty Renfro, who named it after his mentor, Rufus Burleson, president of Baylor University. But late in life, Renfro embraced "free thought," brought to Texas in the mid-1800s by German intellectuals seeking liberty from political and religious oppression. "Freethinkers" refused to accept the authority of church leaders or scripture. Accused of "advocating and preaching the doctrine of infidelity," Renfro was booted out of the ministry and the Baptist church in 1884.
Even after his death a year later, Renfro was controversial. Though the Baptist hierarchy insisted that Renfro had renounced his liberal heresies before succumbing, his family claimed otherwise. But Baptists had the last laugh. Today, of the 55 churches in Burleson, 18 are Baptist, far more than any other denomination.
Burleson has always been a conservative town, but city leaders privately admit that in the past, it also had a reputation as a racist town. People joke that the only high school football game in Texas with no black players on the field is when teams from Burleson and nearby Joshua compete.
Those outside the usual Christian denominations can also feel like outsiders. Spears, a Mormon, says she's experienced religious discrimination. In the 1990s, fundamentalists, led by Gloria Gillaspie, tried to ban some textbooks. Others on the school board tried to control twirlers' uniforms and even dictate a sculptor's art. Some critics deemed the genitalia of a bronze elk in front of the new high school too large and lifelike.
One longtime resident says she got so sick of Burleson's narrow-minded powermongers that she moved to Joshua. "Burleson is a nasty little town," she says. "If you're not one of the chosen people, they're going to do everything they can to get rid of you. It's a competitive viciousness, like a virus. It's in the churches, in the schools, in the chamber and in the town. It's eating away at them."
In 2001, when the Webbs left Cana Baptist, the Burleson grapevine kicked into overdrive. The problems at church had been building. Some churchgoers were appalled by Chris' collection of advertising memorabilia from the '40s featuring Vargas-type girls--once brazen, now antiques. Word got around that Chris had been showing some teenagers around the house when he opened a closet door, revealing a glimpse of Joanne in a nude photo. (Joanne says Chris liked to take her photo in Playboy-type poses.) But the Webbs say this never happened. An adult friend touring the house insisted on seeing inside closets, spotted a photo and asked, "What if teenagers saw them?"
But the central conflict came down to spiritual authority. Cana Pastor Charles Stewart, under pressure from other parishioners, told Chris he had to rein in Joanne. "She needed to pull her hair back and wear longer skirts," Chris says. The pastor said the Webbs had a "spirit of sensuality" and needed to come under his authority or leave.
Authority is an explosive issue among Southern Baptists. The wife is under the authority of the husband, and the husband is under the authority of the pastor, who is under the authority of God. "It's one of those black lines between moderates and conservatives," Chris says, and denying their God-given sexuality to submit to the pastor's authority was not an option.
The Webbs seemed to have drawn their own black line; many other religious couples have great sex lives but choose to keep it to themselves.
Their old friend Castro saw in Chris a determination to be a martyr for the cause of sensuality. "I told Chris, 'How hard is it for Joanne to wear her skirts three inches longer?' I tell him you're not happy unless people are pissed off at you. He could never make the connection that it was his choice. It was like they were trying to convert everyone to their way of thinking. It was absolutely a losing battle."
The heartbroken Webbs left Cana.
At about the same time, Chris went into partnership with home remodeler Michael Hughes. A year later, C&M Construction set up office in a strip center next door to the Safari Hair and Tanning Salon run by Hughes' wife. But within a few weeks, the Hugheses' already troubled marriage had combusted.
In hindsight, Joanne believes that the epicenter of the "lifestyle" rumors was the Safari salon. She heard from several ambassadors that Perkins told them the Webbs caused the Hugheses' divorce because they "were so free sexually." Joanne's daughter Katy got upset after a friend's mother said she'd heard at the salon that the Webbs were swingers.
The Webbs had joined the church the Hughes family attended but decided instead to take a breather from organized religion. That fueled scuttlebutt that Joanne and Chris had been "kicked out" of two churches for immorality. When Burleson folks learned that Joanne was involved with something called Passion Parties, some came to the logical conclusion: They must be having orgies.
To Throb or not to Throb
Joanne's first encounter with a "sexual device" occurred in 1987. When Chris was deployed to Belgium for three months, he presented his wife with a vibrator. "Thanks, honey, but I don't think so," Joanne said. But three months was a long time, she says. "I got real familiar with it."
In February 2003, Joanne signed up to be a Passion Party consultant. She liked the emphasis on educating women about their bodies. Men and girls under 18 were not allowed. At the end of each party, women talked privately with the saleswoman in the order room. Joanne spent $250 to buy samples, read a book by a gynecologist, started handing out business cards and joined the chamber of commerce.
The chamber's director was excited about her new venture, Joanne says. "He used it as a sterling example of the open-mindedness of the chamber."
Marketing her services at a Dallas bridal show, Joanne found a customer in Monique, who threw a party in Irving for a bride-to-be. Dressed in a black pantsuit, Joanne displayed her wares with wit, warmth and frankness for about 20 women. Silly games broke the ice. Chips and salsa made the rounds. Some sipped water, others rum and Coke. As the women got louder and more animated, Joanne soldiered through the noise, injecting education as she went.
In the last 20 minutes of an hour-and-a-half presentation, Joanne brought out what she calls the "big boys"--vibrators of all shapes, sizes and prices, from the Jelly Osaki ($31) to the Flaming Dragon ($119). Women giggled and passed them around.
Afterward, alone in the ordering room, Joanne says, women often divulge their sexual problems. "Most of what I teach I learned after I was 40," Joanne says. "One woman had been married five years and had never had an orgasm." Joanne encourages them to talk to their partners, and if the problem sounds medical, to their gynecologists.
Monique's party turned out to be a profitable one for Joanne, who sold $900 in merchandise; the average is $400. Only three women bought vibrators. The big sellers: Nipple Nibblers, edible gels in raspberry, strawberry and watermelon flavors, and Pure Satisfaction, a gel that stimulates both male and female sex organs. Though expensive at $39.50, that works out to about 50 cents an orgasm, Joanne helpfully pointed out.
Shame on You
At a specially called meeting in September, Joanne confronted the ambassadors over the dress-code proposal. "Is this about me?" Joanne asked. People hemmed and hawed until Shanda Perkins blurted out yes.
Joanne thought she and Perkins were friends. But now Perkins turned on her. "I'm a mother of six children, and I deserve to be heard," Perkins said. "I had a 17-year-old boy ask me one time if you were a hooker."
"What did you tell him?" Joanne asked. "That you knew me and I was a good person?"
"I've defended you many times, Joanne," Perkins said. But there had been complaints about the Webbs' "inappropriate lifestyle" to the chamber, she said. At the Safari salon "people are saying y'all are swingers."
Joanne was hurt and angry. "Shanda, you've known me for years," she said. "You know that's not true. Shame on you for receiving this kind of gossip about me. And shame on you for spreading it here."
Several people got up and left, muttering, "This is out of control." Disgusted, Kelli Spears told the group, "This is so 'Harper Valley PTA.'" Joanne went home in tears. (A chamber employee says they never got any complaints from citizens directed at the Webbs--only from a few ambassadors.)
A single mother with sleek brown hair, high cheekbones and sophisticated but understated clothes, Spears participated in meetings on the dress code that turned bizarre. Women should just wear pants. Women should wear skirts no shorter than fingertip level. What about women with long arms? Short arms? Who would be designated to measure?
"We spent a lot of time on breasts," Spears says. "Cleavage or not cleavage? What kind of shirts? I thought, 'Am I dreaming, or are these grown people discussing women's boobs?'"
Arguing against the code, Spears pointed out there wasn't another chamber in America that dictated attire. "I talked to other members who didn't agree with it and thought it was a personal attack," Spears says. "But they didn't do anything. I was shocked. They were afraid they'd be blackballed, like Chris and Joanne and their business. It would stick in my craw if I didn't stand up for what's right."
The dress code later passed. "You know Joanne will never conform," Spears told the group. "No," Perkins said. "She already quit."
Burleson police officer Robert Thomas watched in early November as Havens handed a warrant to another officer for Joanne's arrest if she didn't turn herself in. "Fourteen years of law enforcement," Thomas says, "and I'm trying to recall if I'd ever seen this before. Supposedly it was an anonymous complaint. But this thing was almost drafted as a narcotics operation. If you put cocaine in the place of the dildos, it's a drug operation."
An affidavit by Havens describes what happened on October 7. At 4:10 p.m., two undercover officers posing as a couple went to Chris' business and asked to see Joanne's catalogs. She encouraged the woman to get some girlfriends together for a party. That way, she could get free goodies.
But the "couple" insisted on buying something right away. They chose two items, and Joanne drove home to get them. When she returned, they handed over $63.11 "in official S.T.O.P. Task Force funding" in exchange for two vibrators. The 30-minute sting was captured on video.
Thomas had encountered the Webbs earlier, when Chris filed a complaint against him for calling Joanne "walking implants" in the Safari salon while investigating a trailer parked illegally at the strip center. (After years of being unhappy with her flat chest, Joanne had splurged on a pair of D-cups. Thomas says someone else at the salon made the remark.)
The officer had heard the "lifestyle" gossip from other officers and members of the city council. "The rumors made it sound like there were big orgies going on," Thomas says. "They were always referred to as 'those kind of people' in the department. For me, it didn't fit. Her personality isn't seductive at all."
Thomas later ran afoul of the character-keepers. In early fall, he'd told his superiors he needed treatment for alcoholism. After rehab, Thomas returned to work. "But it seemed after that I became a liability to them," he says. Punished for minor infractions, Thomas thought they were looking for reasons to fire him.
"Maybe I was paranoid," Thomas says, "but in hindsight, I should have gotten treatment on my own and never gone to them." Bitter, he quit the department in January.
Sisemore marched into the Cleburne office of Johnson County Attorney Bill Moore and demanded: "What is this war on the clitoris?"
She knew Moore's reputation as a gentleman, but Sisemore also knew he could exercise discretion in choosing which cases to prosecute. Moore refused to dismiss the charge against Joanne.
On November 11, Joanne had called her director with Passion Parties, who recommended Sisemore. Flabbergasted to hear the charge, Sisemore called the police department and asked, "Can I have the dildo patrol?"
The attorney negotiated to bring Joanne to the station but got tied up in court. On Thursday, Sisemore was told if Joanne didn't appear, officers were coming to get her. After leaving court at 6 p.m., Sisemore obtained a $1,500 bond, piled the Webbs in her Corvette and raced to the county jail in Cleburne. On the way, her coffee spilled and ruined the document. It looked like Joanne would have to spend the night in the pokey.
While the jailers fingerprinted Joanne, Sisemore and Chris dashed around until they found another bondsman. Sisemore says the idea that his wife might end up in jail had Chris acting like "a wooden robot." By 10 p.m., when they got back to the courthouse, Chris was almost in tears.
Inside, Joanne was handing out business cards. Seeing an acquaintance among the inmates, Joanne called out: "What are you in for?"
"Traffic tickets," the man hollered. "What about you?"
"Selling an obscene device to two undercover officers," Joanne yelled.
The policewoman handling her booking looked up. "You're kidding," she said. "I used to sell those. Who the hell did you piss off?"
Though the jail visit seemed surreal, the next week reality hit. Unable to pay their bills, the Webbs closed the office, called creditors and started selling everything they could. Joanne called Passion Parties headquarters and asked for help with Sisemore's fee. No one in the company's history had been arrested for selling vibrators. They recommended Joanne call the ACLU.
Earlier, in a scene out of the movie Norma Rae, Joanne had sat down with Katy, 16, and Matt, 13, and explained that their mother was going to be arrested on an obscenity charge.
"Oh, my gosh," said Katy, a popular teen who sports black and red streaks through her platinum hair. "You're a criminal!" They hugged and cried a bit. Then Katy said, "We'll be there for you, Mom." Everybody high-fived.
But now the teens were fielding embarrassing questions from friends. The family received a hate letter: "I wonder if your children know that you are swingers and whores...You both should be ashamed. You look like a couple that has the potential of being a classy couple. Too bad you are covering it up with your filth. Why, I can smell you through this paper. Gross. Signed, Sad for your children."
Katy was furious. "I love my parents," she says. Then Katy discovered anonymous posts on a blog blasting the Webbs: "[Joanne's] skirts are way too short and she prances around as if it is okay to be flaunting herself in front of our husbands and OUR KIDS!" "These sex toys were not a job for them but a way for them to have sex with others!"
The teen fired back: "Shame on you acting like sixth-grade girls. I can already say I'm more mature than you are. And I'm not even ashamed to sign my name." But the furor bothered Katy; her grades dropped dramatically, and she stopped going to work.
Joanne tried to bolster the family's morale, but Chris sank into depression. He asked his stepfather to take the guns out of the house so he couldn't commit suicide. After Joanne dragged him to the emergency room, he was diagnosed as clinically depressed.
During his usual visit to the Webbs around Thanksgiving, Castro was shocked to see Chris. "He was in pretty bad shape," he says. He made Chris get out of bed and walk around the block. Over the next few weeks, Chris, now taking Zoloft, began to pull out of his despair.
The Webbs and Sisemore decided it was time to fight back. They had to focus public attention on the unfairness of the law. A few stories about Joanne's arrest had appeared in local newspapers and on TV. By the end of January, reports about the arrest had appeared in media outlets around the world, including The New York Times, CNN, NPR and the BBC. The tenor was always the same: What are those morons in Burleson thinking?
If the story of Joanne's arrest was a joke in the media, it wasn't to dozens of Passion Party consultants who inundated Sisemore with calls asking if they could be charged with a crime. She had to tell them yes.
When the fax from County Attorney Moore arrived on January 28, Sisemore was first puzzled, then irate. Citing pretrial publicity, Moore had filed a motion for a gag order for the "protection" of Joanne's right to a fair trial.
"Thank you very much," Sisemore told Moore on the phone, "but I don't need you to protect my client." He declined to withdraw the motion.
The next day, Sisemore appeared before Judge Robert Mayfield in his chambers. (According to their official Web sites, the judge and county attorney attend the same Burleson Baptist church.) Mayfield blamed the defense for creating a "circus" out of the case.
"The judge was so mad at me he was shaking," Sisemore says. "He said, 'This case is disrupting the courthouse, and it's causing all kinds of problems. I'm getting phone calls every day.'"
Sisemore's reply: "Maybe they don't like the law."
She told Mayfield her client didn't want the gag order. The assistant county attorney handling the case argued that the state was entitled to a fair trial as well.
"Can you show me where the Constitution protects the state?" Sisemore retorted. "If you're trying to protect my client, that's my responsibility, and if you're filing it on behalf of the county attorney, you need to put that in there."
Mayfield said he was going to grant the gag order. "You are not going to speak about this case," Mayfield told her.
"Yes, I am," Sisemore said. "You can arrest me now."
She asked Mayfield to go into the courtroom and put his statements on record. The judge refused, granting Sisemore's request for a continuance so she could research the law and file an answer, but he imposed the gag order until a hearing on February 12.
By now, Joanne's case had become Sisemore's crusade. Growing up, Sisemore had wanted to be Perry Mason. But a teenage pregnancy derailed Sisemore's dream. When her husband died in a 1973 car accident, Sisemore wrangled a job as a paralegal with Fort Worth attorney Jerry Lofton. "He included me in everything," Sisemore says. "It was an education every day." Soon she was all but practicing law.
By her 30s, Sisemore was driving a Mercedes. "I didn't see the need for law school," Sisemore says. Then she met the love of her life, a rich man who wanted her to travel with him. "I'd never felt that heat of passion until I met this guy," Sisemore says. But it ended when she balked at leaving her job. Devastated, Sisemore stopped eating. "I wanted to die," she says. "I had finally found love and it was gone."
Dragged out of bed by her son and Lofton, who told her she was going to law school, Sisemore protested--she was 40 and didn't have a college degree. "You can go in your bathrobe," Lofton told her, "but you're going."
In 1998, after only four years, Sisemore had earned a bachelor's degree and graduated from law school. What kept her going was the belief that once she was a lawyer, she'd feel confident enough to commit to her lover. Meanwhile, he married someone else.
Attending several of Joanne's parties and hearing women share their intimate secrets was eye-opening. "Suddenly they can talk about sex and nobody's frowning at them," Sisemore says. "Now I've got all this education and no boyfriend!"
On February 12, Sisemore and the Webbs returned to court. When Mayfield again refused her request to hold a public hearing, Sisemore pulled out a gold sticker she'd peeled off a vibrator package: "Sold Only as a Novelty." She stuck it on the gag order.
"It's not a gag gift," Sisemore said. "It's not a novelty. It's not a cake decoration. It's an effort to hide the truth, and I want a hearing out there. Don't say you're trying to protect my client, because it's not true."
Clearly furious, the judge said nothing for a long time, then sent her to Moore's office to work out a compromise.
Sisemore had a decision to make. "I had a judge who was so angry he wanted to put me in jail," she says. Moore wouldn't drop the case. "What kind of mud would be on their faces?" Sisemore says. "But if Joanne pleads guilty to anything, she never teaches again."
Sisemore and Moore finally agreed that the defendant and her lawyer could talk about anything except the events of October 7. Joanne's trial is expected to take place this summer.
On January 24, at the Burleson Chamber's annual meeting, Joanne Webb and Shanda Perkins stood in front of the group while Perkins was named top recruiter for 2003. Joanne received the second-place prize. Perkins and most of the other dress-code committee members have since resigned; Joanne has taken a leave of absence.
The Webbs considered moving out of Burleson; for now they've decided to stay. But the big question in everyone's minds remains: Are they swingers?
Michael Hughes, Chris' one-time partner, says so. "Everybody in Burleson assumed it," Hughes says, "so they decided they might as well do it." Hughes says that early last fall, Chris became obsessed with a Web site for swingers. His screen name: Righteous Fox.
"He was in it for about six months or so," Hughes says. "It got to where we weren't doing any work. Chris would sit on the computer and chat with all the swingers out there."
Joanne and Chris refused to confirm or deny the rumors.
"This town has taken such an interest in our sex lives," Joanne says. "If my husband and I decide to become swingers, it will be nobody's business.
"That's what we're fighting for--the right to privacy in our bedrooms."
To some that's confirmation enough.
Passion Parties netted 600 new consultants in the month after Joanne's appearance on Primetime Live and finally coughed up $3,000 for her defense. The Webbs brought the 20 vibrators back from the friend's house, and Joanne has started doing Passion Parties again--outside Johnson County. But Joanne keeps the "big boys" in a separate suitcase in case they need to make another run for the border.