The following story was written as a sidebar for a magazine piece on the History of Sex. The main story was cancelled because … well, sensitivity in an era of sexual uncertainty. I thought it worth a run, though, so I’m putting it up as a blog post. Marj Easterling is an impressive woman on many fronts and she is gaining bona fides as a genuine leader of the women’s movement in Roanoke.
It was a couple of generations ago that married people could not occupy the same bed on TV and god help anybody who uttered the vulgar “pregnant” out loud.
In 2017—and for quite a few years before that—we have had suburban women meeting at Tupperware-style parties where the items on sale are sex toys. And nobody’s embarrassed.
Marj Easterling, a tall, statuesque, impressive woman, who owns Big Lick Screen Printing and works as a dental hygienist, used to be one of the women selling vibrators, bondage whips, strap-ons, creams, ointments and cock rings (among many others) at these parties. It is an industry worth $15 billion, same as the chiropractic medicine, spa, recorded music and plastic surgery industries, for example.
Marj, who grew up in western Bedford County, was an exotic dancer for 10 years prior to her sales position, working elegant clubs in places as diverse as New Orleans, Atlanta, New York, Alaska, Russia and Japan. She was never a hooker, though “some of the girls had sugar daddies. I never did.” Often, she says, in some of the better clubs, “I’d spend the entire evening with my clothes on, just talking to a man.”
But she had two sons (Dorien, 13, and Julien, 21) and finally needed to be more settled than globe-trotting and returned home. The stripping (sometimes for the mob), she says, often resulted in “stupid fucking money” and the pay for home sales of the sex toys was, and remains for those involved, quite good.
Along the way, she has been an inveterate college class-taker, a woman in love with education.
Her dancing started at 19 when she wrecked her car and got a job—temporary, she thought—to pay for repairs. “It was the hardest thing I ever did,” she says. “I was exposed and vulnerable and I couldn’t dance my way out of a wet bag. So I just walked around and people gave me money.” She never danced in Roanoke because “there were a lot of shitty clubs here.”
“The places I worked were strict and high-end,” she says. “You couldn’t have purple hair and you had to cover your tattoos. I wore a $400 evening gown” two decades ago. “Hooking would have cut off the money supply, so almost nobody did it. … We mostly worked conventions.” For 15 years, she worked the exotic dance circuit “walking around,” engaging in conversation, sometimes “wearing a bathing suit and never taking it off.”
Then came Tasteful Treasures, a big name in sex toys. “I was an independent contractor,” she says. “Had to buy the party kit and set up parties in people’s homes. The company was strict about presentation. The philosophy was, ‘You can do anything tastefully.’” There “is a difference between porno and art.”
From the beginning, the attitude was informational, not judgmental, and women reacted positively to the presentation. “It was empowering and educational,” says Easterling. “When I first started, people were shocked. Some of the women didn’t even know their own (anatomical) parts, let alone the physiology of getting from Point A to Point B” sexually. She presented workshops that helped educate.
Now, she says, “Sales is sales. I learned to read people as a stripper. They wanted conversation and entertainment. I think it taught me to be successful, helped me acquire boldness.”
Her company, she says, was bought by Love Links and “the No. 1 distributor in the U.S. lives in Roanoke. There are a bunch of groups here” still meeting and still selling toys. Still making a lot of money.
“These professions,” says Marj, “paid my way through college and prepaid a college fund for the boys. They supported [us], paying for karate, trips and classes all for my kids.” As any mom would want to do.
Marj has strong opinions on sexual harassment and has developed a strong defense simply by exhibiting a powerful presence. This is from another piece I recently wrote, which was omitted from the published story.
Marj says the sexual harassment began almost as soon as she reached puberty. “A neighbor offered me money to take off my shirt and a math teacher said it would improve my grades” if she cooperated with him.
She says she’s had “three stalkers, one of them a woman.”
“It is a rape culture, though people deny it. Social media is a market place. I send a friend an innocuous message and get 200 messages with two [penis] pix back. It is a constant dodge and parry, not just physically, but also verbal.”
Marj says she doesn’t have to endure sexual harassment often “because of the way I carry myself. I don’t dress provocatively” and she is self-confident, assertive and “I don’t look like an easy target. I look like I won’t take any [harassing]. The last person to get harassed doesn’t look like an easy victim.”