How this sex-toy business is helping transgender youth
Chris Cicchinelli had a different outlook on human sexuality than most kids in his conservative suburban Cincinnati neighborhood: His mom ran Pure Romance, which sold sex toys and other “intimacy enhancers” at house parties.
Yet Cicchinelli—a conventional guy who went to college on a football scholarship—found himself unprepared when, beginning at age 3, his son said: “I’m a girl, not a boy.”
After years of resistance, Cicchinelli realized in 2015 that he needed to help his child make the transition. When he discovered a lengthy waiting list at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Center for Transgender Adolescents, Cicchinelli’s relationship with the hospital’s CEO moved his child to the front of the line. Even so, he realized that wouldn’t help the growing number of other families on the list.
So in 2017 Cicchinelli launched the Living With Change Foundation, which has set a goal of raising $3 million to help Cincinnati Children’s Hospital expand services for transgender children.
Suddenly a city with a well-earned conservative reputation has one of the fastest-growing children’s transgender clinics in the U.S., funded in large part by local business leaders, and is drawing inquiries from around the country.
Milford, where Cicchinelli’s mom, Patty Brisben, founded Pure Romance in 1993, is a middle-class suburb across the Little Miami River from Indian Hill, home to mansions of senior Procter & Gamble executives. It’s also just a few miles from the home of the founder of Citizens for Community Values, a group that helped Cincinnati earn a national reputation for prudishness by prosecuting porn peddlers, along with the director of the Contemporary Art Center for an exhibition of homoerotic photos by Robert Mapplethorpe.
Cicchinelli recalls some people picketing outside his home in protest against his mom’s business: a national network of women selling vibrators and lubricants at home parties. “There were people who wouldn’t allow their kids to play with us,” he recalls.
While the business, of which he became CEO in 2000, might have made Cicchinelli more open-minded, he at first didn’t accept LC’s assertion (LC is his daughter’s new name, legally changed recently). “LC would say, ‘I’m a girl. I’m a girl. I’m a girl.’ We were saying, ‘You’re a boy. You’re a boy. You’re a boy,’” Cicchinelli says.
By age 8, “We saw our child becoming a recluse, not communicating with the family, very angry, just depressed,” he remembers. “One night I said to LC, ‘What is your problem?’ She said, ‘Dad, I have nothing to wear to go to dinner.’ I said, ‘Buddy, you’ve got a whole drawer of clothes.’ And she said, ‘But, Dad, those are boys’ clothes. I’m not a boy. I’m a girl.’”
At that point, Cicchinelli says, “I snapped. I’d just gotten home. My wife was crying. LC was being very mean to the other kids.” So he issued a challenge: If he took LC to Macy’s to buy girls’ clothes, she’d have to wear them in public.
“This is where my whole life changed,” Cicchinelli says. “LC grabbed the blue skirt and white top. I remember LC coming out and twirling in a circle and saying, ‘Dad, this is beautiful.’ We went to dinner that night, and LC wore it out in public.”
Still, Cicchinelli had no idea what to do next. He called his friend Michael Fisher, CEO of Cincinnati Children’s, who described the hospital’s transgender youth center. The center, Cicchinelli says, changed his family’s life.
“They walked us through things, hand-held us, made us feel comfortable,” Cicchinelli says. “They helped us communicate, and that’s what we did.”
At the time, Cincinnati Children’s center for transgender youth—since redubbed the Living With Change Center—had a six-month waiting list. Cicchinelli wondered: “What do we do about all these other children?”
So the family made a multimillion-dollar commitment, funded in part through proceeds from the RGB sexual-intimacy product line, created by Pure Romance for LGBTQ+ customers.
A perfect storm
The Cicchinellis came for help in “the middle of a perfect storm” in 2015, says Lee Ann Conrad, director of the Living With Change Center.
“We had recognized the need, but I don’t think we realized how big the need was,” Conrad says. “Caitlyn Jenner was not out yet. Jazz Jennings did not have a TV show yet.” The December 2014 suicide of Leelah Alcorn, an Ohio transgender teen whose parents wouldn’t accept her female identity, had just made national news. “Families, who may have been waiting it out or sweeping it under the rug, realized that their child who was talking about gender could be at risk for suicide as well,” Conrad says.
When the Cicchinellis came calling, appointment requests were surging. Since then, in part due to their support, the center has dramatically cut new-patient wait times, Conrad says. It has also increased training for medical students and residents and launched a Midwest Regional Transgender Research Collaborative.
The center had about only 300 patients when LC first started receiving care. It now has more than 1,500, coming from as far as West Virginia, Tennessee, Illinois and New York, Conrad says. Hospital administrators from Minneapolis, Washington and Alabama have been connecting to see how the center operates.
Another lesson for Cicchinelli: Cincinnati isn’t as conservative as he grew up thinking. The family originally considered moving to Chicago, New York, Los Angeles or Miami to get treatment for LC before realizing they could help build what was needed close to home. Cicchinelli recently raised his goal for the Living With Change Foundation endowment to $3 million, in part through galas like one he hosted locally in June.
Cicchinelli was hoping to draw 250 to 300 people and raise $200,000. Instead, he drew 500 and raised more than $300,000.
“This area that everyone thinks is so conservative, I think it’s less and less conservative and more and more socially responsible,” Cicchinelli says. “We were totally blown away at the number of businesses who came to sponsor, the number of CEOs from organizations who said, ‘It’s time to have these uncomfortable conversations and talk about gender fluidity and compassionate care in general.’”
Seeing sex toys in a new light
Cicchinelli also has learned that he didn’t understand the sexual intimacy market as well as he thought.
Developing the RGB Collection (Red Green Blue) to help fund Living With Change has opened Cicchinelli’s eyes to the needs of the LBGTQ+ customer base.
“We really did a lot of focus groups, and I was hearing things I was not really comfortable with,” Cicchinelli says. “We thought we were always servicing [those customers] with our products, but what they did not like is that we catered to the female base—lots of pinks and purples—while they wanted more neutral colors, more grays and beiges. They wanted be more educated on how they could incorporate products into their lovemaking and be talked to differently about their relationships than hetero couples.
“I learned things not only as a father of a trans child but as CEO of a company that should be responsible for the sexual well-being not just of heterosexual couples, but of everybody.”
Since its launch in 2017, RGB has generated $1 million in sales and is part of a booming overall business for Pure Romance, which has gained acceptance that would have been hard to imagine back in 1993.
Even before it began working with transgender youth, the company received tax incentives to locate a new headquarters building not far from Cincinnati City Hall in 2013—albeit after the state of Ohio backed out of a pledge to provide additional incentives.
The privately held company has had 19 years of double-digit growth, Cicchinelli says. Annual sales are more than $200 million, mostly through 30,000 distributors and their house parties, although the company sells about 10 percent of its merchandise directly to people whose distributors have moved on.
Research firm Technavio expects the global sex toy business to grow 7 percent annually and reach $10 billion by 2023. Cicchinelli expects to grow faster in a world where even Walmart has rolled out private-label vibrators.
“I remember when I couldn’t even run advertising outside the midnight-to-4 a.m. time slot,” Cicchinelli says. “And then Randy Michaels [the former Clear Channel executive] was able to get me into midday. ... It’s amazing to think our society has advanced this much, and it’s good. People understand that sexual wellness is important, relationships are important.”
But media advertising is not so important anymore for the category. Cicchinelli doesn’t do much of it, though paid social media on Facebook and Instagram helps supplement the reach of Pure Romance reps.
For millennials, a gig economy
Cicchinelli sees that group of 30,000 reps, mostly women and buoyed increasingly by millennials looking to join the gig economy, as an army fighting the divorce epidemic.
“These are enhancement products for your relationship,” he says. “These are communication tools … for you to have that spark, to have that intimacy.”
But Pure Romance is also more than sex toys. It sells lingerie, perfumes and beauty products or, as Cicchinelli puts it, “Bathroom, boardroom, bedroom” products to “make you feel good about yourself.”
And he’s not worried about Walmart or e-commerce, either. “People still like to be able to get together in apartments and homes, where they can ask the consultant about how they can incorporate these products into their relationships,” Cicchinelli says. “The one thing I hear when people buy it online: ‘We need to be educated about how to bring this into our love life,’” he says.
As for LC, she will be 13 next month and is a changed person in more ways than one. “She was at the bottom of her class before this,” says Cicchinelli. “She’s now at the top.”