Monday, September 19, 2011

Goddess Power: Jennifer Jolicoeur & Athena's Home Novelties

When you’re gearing up for a tough battle, it’s always good to “have a strong goddess archetype” working for you, observes Jennifer Jolicoeur. And battle was very much on her mind when she began selling “romantic enhancements products” – sex toys, erotic DVDs, sensual oils, and the like – from her home in Rhode Island in 1998. People – including her own father, a retired firefighter – told her that she was making a very big mistake. She needed a name to rally the troops with. Aphrodite, the goddess of love, was just too gentle, too soft. So Jolicoeur opted for a tougher Olympian, and Athena’s Home Novelties sprang into being, much as the goddess of wisdom herself did in Greek mythology.

“I needed the wisdom of Athena on my side to help me impart the knowledge that sex is pleasurable, normal, not something to feel ashamed or embarrassed about,” the entrepreneur explains. She liked the fact that in the stories, Athena is always “using her brain, planning strategy” because she herself was declaring war on patriarchal attitudes regarding female sexuality. “I was going to be fighting the beliefs of men and women -- and organizations – because when it comes to sexuality, people tend to be very judgmental.”

Today, Athena’s is a multi-million-dollar company with more than 1,600 independent consultants -- known as “Goddesses” and “Adoni” -- selling adult-novelty products to women and men at home. “Very similar to the Tupperware parties of the `70s,” Jolicoeur says breezily. “Different plastic.” She herself is the Mother Goddess and president and has three volumes of thank-you notes from some very happy customers. She used to test the products herself, but now there’s a Goddess Advisory Board of 10 women that handles that. “It’s funny,” she reflects, “when you’re testing a toy, your mind is focused on how it works. Is it powerful enough? Is it quiet enough? Do I like the feeling of it --? It’s a tough job, but somebody’s got to it.”

The Adoni (yep, that’s the plural of Adonis in case you were wondering) or male presenters are a more recent addition. “A few years ago, we had some men come and say they wanted to take part. They were primarily gay men. The women have been very receptive because they [gay men] tend to be very good presenters and very knowledgeable about human sexuality.”

This past February, Athena’s marked another milestone with the release of their first publication, Goddess Bedtime Stories: 21 Stories to Keep You Up All Night. Not all of them are written by heterosexual women -- the anthology includes work by gay men and lesbians -- and the stories run the sexual gamut. About 20 per cent of them, for instance, involve stranger fantasies, which surprised Jolicoeur. But she understands how that particular formula “gave them the freedom to express themselves without fear of judgment.” She herself wrote a more-the-merrier story, “although in my real life, I would never have anonymous group sex.”

It’s all light years away from the time town officials tried to run her business out of Woonsocket. The zoning board actually came into her office, demanding to know whether she was operating a sex ring. Jolicoeur, who was married to her childhood sweetheart and the mother of two children, was “devastated” but managed to show them the error of their thinking. “In subsequent years, my mayor would send me a wreath for my door.” She pauses. “And I would send her a basket of vibrators.”

Athena’s has now become something of a family concern. Her husband, Curtis, a chef,  has chosen to be a stay-at-home dad for the last 13-and-a-half years, giving her more time to build the business up. Her mom heads the accounts payable department. Her dad is now “one of my biggest fans.” And her 83-year-old widower grandfather collects bras for Athena’s Cup, which Jolicoeur calls “my attempt to break the Guinness Book of World Records for most bras linked together as a united stand against breast cancer.” Her grandfather “wears the ‘Can I have your bra?’ button when he goes to dances at the senior center. They ask, then bring him a grocery-bagful.”

Once, Jolicoeur had lunch with one of her grandfather’s lady friends – a seemingly typical little old lady with a wig and little old-lady high heels. Evelyn leaned forward and said in a quavery voice, “Jennifer, your grandfather tells me you sell sex toys.”

“I do, Evelyn.”

“Oh, my, there was a time when you could buy them through the Sears Roebuck catalogue, but then they disappeared. And in the `70s, you could find them in the back of the catalogue, but they were loud.”

More needs to be said about those bras. Jolicoeur has received them from the Bahamas, Australia, Ireland, and, of course, across the United States. She has gone to the Emmys four times to collect bras from celebrities. Girl scouts have collected them from their moms, grandmas, aunts, and cousins. “I was asking women to release the bras that no longer serve them,” she says simply. “Practically every woman presses a bra against our chests. It’s such a symbol.”

The bras often have tributes written on them. “Breast cancer survivor 2002.” “Cancer took what God gave me, but science re-made me during mastectomy.” “Mom, can’t wait to have tea in Heaven.” Or one that’s especially heart-breaking, written in big black block letters: “I miss my mom.”

That’s one way in which Athena’s is helping women. It has also provided them with work opportunities. Women in abusive marriages or relationships suddenly have the financial and emotional wherewithal to leave. Another woman joined up “to earn enough for health insurance because she had no health insurance. Women who have suffered severe agoraphobia have become top salespeople. It’s amazing to see women arise from difficult situations and find a place like Athena’s, where they can soar and find empowerment. They are able to find equality financially and sexually.”

In a sense, Athena’s has enabled Jolicoeur to do some transforming of her own. “The whole point of Athena’s was turning my pain into my passion,” she admits. She talks about the old sexual double standards and how when she was 14, her father left her mother for a younger woman. "As a teenager, I was acutely aware of what my mom was going through. I really have come from the place that when people are having great sex, they are less likely to stray….I believe there’s balance when you have god and goddess. And there needs to be a balance in the bedroom.”

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Anonymous said...

Jen rocks!!!!

T. J. Banks said...

Yep, what she has accomplished is pretty incredible.

ANO07 said...

WOW! Imagination can only go wild! This story is intriguing, interesting and ingenious all in one. Fantastic job you, as the writer, did, walking 'the very fine line' while writing about these topics, still considered taboo for still too many. This woman is creative in her artwork (I think I can call it art) and her business. Few individuals can say the same thing about themselves. And you brought all these qualities and much more into sharp focus, on the main stage, where they belong. I hope more of us have the bravery to do similar things. Also, it was a fun read. Funny and mind opening in the same time. Way to go! Look forward to continuing reading about the success stories of your Sketch People. They are truly inspiring!

The Vampire Countess

T. J. Banks said...

Thanks, Alex. This was indeed one of the more unusual interviews, and you're right: it was funny and mind-opening at the same time. Jennifer's passion for what she does is very clear; she was very open and honest about what she does, and what got her there.