I FOUND myself last Friday morning in a sunny living-room in north London with 14 other women and a selection of vibrators. We passed the vibrators around, laughing nervously. A few of the braver women switched them on and vibrated their noses. The others said, "Yuk, how revolting."
I was there with a friend (who shall remain nameless). She had been invited by the hostess, whom she has known for years but seldom sees these days, to an Ann Summers party. The invitation had said bring a friend, and she brought me. So there we were, 10.30am, our kids at school, sitting in this very smart living- room (copies of Vogue and the MCC Yearbook on the coffee table, grand piano by the French windows), looking at PVC playsuits and peephole bras. It was just like a Tupperware party, except that a different kind of plastic product was for sale.
We were jollied along by Heidi, a large and friendly Ann Summers representative, dressed in a jacket not unlike those worn by Butlins Redcoats. Heidi sized us up (middle-class, middle-aged, but curious as to what she had to offer or else we wouldn't be there) with some "naughty party games".
"Pay attention, ladies," she said, and handed out pens and bits of paper with saucy little drawings on them. We played "Silly Sentences", which took quite a long time to explain: "Every other lady picks a letter," said Heidi. "Just call out a letter, girls. No, not you, the next lady." Finally we got the idea, and each of us tried to write an amusing, preferably lewd sentence. The best one got a prize: a rubber willy to stick on the end of your pen. I though mine was the best, but Heidi said no, it was the second best, so I didn't win.
Then Heidi got out her portable rack of Ann Summers underwear, and encouraged us to try various items on. "Anyone who gets the nipple tassels to rotate in different directions wins a free set," she said. No one volunteered. "Never mind," said Heidi philosophically. "The ladies are usually a bit wilder at an evening party."
I went upstairs to the spare bedroom and changed into a "Pamela" 100 per cent polyester G-string body with a saucy bow detail at the back. I examined myself in the mirror, and, quite frankly, I looked ridiculous. "Come and show everyone," trilled Heidi from downstairs, "I'm sure you look stunning!"
I whipped the G-string off before she could come and fetch me, and put my sagging leggings and large baggy jumper on. Fortunately for Heidi, not all the ladies were boring party-poopers; some of them moved on from coffee and chocolate biscuits to a few glasses of white wine, and before long they were prancing around the living-room in underwired bras and matching lace thongs.
"Oooh, isn't that gorgeous," said Heidi.
"Lovely, really lovely," we all agreed.
"I've got something for everyone," said Heidi. She flourished a frontless, backless little number. "It's a bit fun, girls, if you feel like serving breakfast in bed. We call this outfit Poppy, because you poppy out of it! We also sell handcuffs and ankle shackles, padded with suede to keep them comfortable."
"Do you sell whips?" asked one of the posher ladies.
"Yes," said Heidi. "Plaited leather, £8.25."
"How do you keep the nipple tassels on?" asked another, growing bolder by the minute.
"Blu-tack or Pritt Stick," said Heidi. "But whatever you do, steer clear of Superglue!"
Heidi had lots of other things to show us, too. There were "Booby Drops", avail- able in lager, cherry, pineapple or straw- berry flavours; a Sperm Bank ("a cheeky pottery money box"); and the afore- mentioned vibrators (the "Black Prince"; the "Emperor"; and the "Ladies' Secret", which came in a girly pink and gilt case to keep in your handbag).
The order forms were handed out, and everyone started filling them in. "£140?" said one of the guests. "I can't believe I'm spending so much!"
You didn't have to buy anything; but you felt you probably should. Heidi had been so nice, after all, and we'd eaten a large number of free biscuits. We didn't actually get our goods at the party: it might be embarrassing, if for any reason you wanted to keep your purchase secret. Heidi will post them to us next week, or drop them off at the hostess's house and we'll pick them up from there.
I looked through Heidi's rack of nylon underwear, and couldn't imagine wearing any of it, but in the end I bought a "Faye" ("the essential stretch lace body hugger"). I handed over my cheque, and asked Heidi how many parties she did every week.
"It depends," she said. "I've got a two- year-old daughter, and I fit them in around her. It's a very convenient way to work. Would you be interested in being an organiser?" I said no, probably not. I don't think I'm jolly enough. You have to be able to whip up some conspiratorial fun: like a giggly midnight feast at a girls' boarding school, or a hen night when you laugh a lot and make jokes at your boyfriend's expense.
You can see how the Ann Summers party might be held as a triumph of femi- nism: women bonding together, cele- brating their vibrant sexuality in every shape and form (the clothes go up to size 26, and there's a special range called "Twice As Sexy: Sensual Styles for the Fuller Figure"). Ann Summers proclaims itself to be "a company run by women for women", and the formula seems to work: £38 million worth of sales last year, and 4,000 parties in Britain every week, apparently.
But I'm still slightly uncomfortable with the whole concept. On the way home from the party, I began to feel sick: perhaps because I had eaten too many chocolate biscuits, or perhaps because of a surfeit of lingerie. !
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