For the last twenty-four years, gay and straight sexual deviants have met in San Francisco during Leather Pride Week to celebrate the Folsom Street Fair. This year, on Sunday, September 30th, between three-hundred-and-fifty and four hundred thousand fetishists, their admirers and voyeurs gathered in what is considered the world’s largest assembly of sexual deviants. While the street fair was the centerpiece of the week’s adventures, almost every night featured a special deviant-themed event.
One night the Leathermen’s Discussion Group hosted a “Fetish Fair” that showcased a variety of b&d/s&m demonstrations featuring “some of the most knowledgeable and respected experts in the community.” Other special events included an evening with erotic performance artists Cleo Dubois and Fakir; a formal gay-oriented uniform dinner, Roll Call 2007, sponsored by California Boots and Breeches Corp.; a male/male spanking get-together; and a host of after-hour private fetish sex parties for both straight and gay male and female adventurers.
Folsom Street Fair is the premier event of a growing, nationwide network of adult deviant sexual fantasy and play. It is a cornerstone event of America’s 4th sexual revolution, this one pushing further the revolutions of the 1840s, 1920s and 1970s. In distinction from earlier movements for sexual reform, today’s revolution remains unseen and unacknowledged, hidden behind a background of Christian evangelical battles over cultural values, Bush administration war against pornography and media pursuit of sex offenders.
Nevertheless, a sexual insurgency is taking place among consenting adults. It is mostly noncommercial in character and involves what has been traditionally identified as illicit or nonconventional sexual practices. Equally important, it is taking place within an expanding cultural environment of media, fashion and advertising industries that aggressively exploit references to a wide variety of deviant sexual indulgence. With little fanfare, a new sexual revolution is taking shape in Mr. Bush’s America.
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The people strolling along Folsom Street came from across the Bay, across the country, across the globe and from every conceivable background, including sexual inclination. So entertaining, whole families came to gawk and participate in the festive revelry.
Folsom Street was packed with people for five blocks and lined with booths offering everything from s&m whipping sessions and fetish toys, to performances by rock bands and displays by erotic artists, to AIDS/STD tests and to literature on gay-friendly evangelical churches, and to hotdogs and beer.
According to “The San Francisco Chronicle,” Tom Maiolo, a visitor from
Tampa, FL, attending his first fair and outfitted in a leather vest and chaps with his butt exposed, exclaimed, “So far, so good. I love this, and I’m just getting started.” Another fairgoer, Jaeleen Bennis, mused, “This is like Disneyland–you’ll never see anything like this in the world.”
One woman, who goes by the name Andrea Storm, was dressed in a tiny silver dress shaped like a martini glass with bra cups decorated like green olives. “It’s totally fun,” she said. “I don’t get very far because I keep getting photographed. I feel like I’m on the red carpet.”
As the Chronicle reports, ” couples led each other up and down the street with dog collars and leashes, men in thong underwear played Twister, women in stilettos and fishnet stockings spilled out of their corsets, and shoppers browsed stalls selling products such as baseball caps reading ‘Master’ and ‘Slave’ and a book entitled ‘Dungeon Emergencies and Supplies.”
One area, Venus’ Playground, was designated as a women-only space. It consisted of a tent used as a dungeon for sex play and another tent for demonstrations. Among the planned specialty events were “Beginning Bondage: Quick Tips,” “Sticks and Punching with Lady Hilary” and “Japanese Rope Bondage with Madame Butterfly.” To encourage
personal ease, the space was designated off-limits to photography.
Folsom week involved a wide range of scheduled public events. They included: an art show, “Daddies and Dukes”; “a spoken word smut salon,” “Perverts Put Out”; a women-only event, “This Shit Will Fuck U Up”; a veterans fund raiser, “Mr. & Miss Gay Bridges Uniform Party;” and a full-dress gala at the Magnitude dance club (with tickets running $90 a pop). Folsom Street has something for almost everyone. [San Francisco Chronicle, “Leather and Corsets and Whips, Oh My,” October 1, 2007; BAR, 27 September 2007]
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The fair generated considerable national attention when the conservative group, Concerned Women of America (CWA), came out against it. CWA branded the fair “reminiscent of biblical Sodom and Gomorrah.” It was especially disturbed by the fair’s take-off on Leonardo da Vinci’s “Last Supper” as its promotional poster. The twelve apostles and the devotional wine and bread were replaced by men and women decked out in S&M leatherwear and a table full of sex toys.[www.folsomstreetfair.com]
CWA spokesperson, Matt Barber, noted in a press release, “Scripture says that God is not mocked, yet it doesn’t stop people from trying.” It added, “[a]s evidenced by the latest stunt, open ridicule of Christianity is unfortunately very common within much of the homosexual community.” Barber expressed considerable displeasure over taxpayers being “forced” to pay for the fair in which, in his words, “‘gay’ men and women [are allowed] to parade the streets fully nude, many having sex–even group orgies–in broad daylight, while taxpayers funded police officers look on and do absolutely nothing.”
CWA launched a national campaign against Miller Brewing for its promotional support of the fair. The campaign picked up momentum when Fox and other cable news networks jumped on the story. While Miller is a long time supporter of LGBT events, the brewer capitulated and removed its logo from the poster. Andy Cooper, of the fair’s events committee, joked, “I guess it wouldn’t be Folsom Street Fair without offending some extreme members of the global community.” And added, “[t]he irony is that da Vinci was widely considered to be homosexual.”
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Folsom Street is part of an adult, noncommercial deviant sexual culture that is growing throughout the country. In its “Leather Community Calendar,” the gay-oriented Leather Journal lists approximately two hundred fetish events that take place across the country. Like Folsom, are major annual happening including the Gay Pride Day parades that bring out diverse fetishist contingents in cities across the country and the Key West Fantasy Fest that draws over 80,000 deviants.
Other annual events include the more hardcore, weekend-long gatherings like the International Leatherman (ILM, Chicago) and the Mid-Atlantic Leather Association (MLA, Washington, DC) conferences that bring three to five thousand in full regalia–men, women, gays, straights, tops, bottoms, blacks, whites, Latins, although predominantly white gay men.
The Journal also lists some three hundred and fifty clubs and other organizations serving male and female, gay and straight fetishists into leather, rubber, bears and bikers as well as s&m, b&d, water sports, fisting and other indulgences. One of these groups, the Satyrs Motorcycle Club of Los Angeles, recently celebrated its fiftieth anniversary.
Some additional indicators of this new sexual culture are:
* Explicit sex clubs which operate throughout the country. They include Power Exchange (San Francisco), the Peepshow (New York), The Green Door and The Fantasy Social Club (Las Vegas) and all catering to a heterosexual crowd (although they encourage female homoeroticism). Establishments like Blow Buddies (San Francisco), Slammers (Los Angeles), El Mirage (New York) and Jacks (Philadelphia) are gay male-only clubs.
In these adult-only “safe sex” venues, nearly anything goes.
* Fetish clubs catering to b&d, s&m and other tastes operate in Atlanta, Baltimore, Birmingham, Los Angeles, Miami, Milwaukee, Phoenix, St. Louis, San Diego and other cities. Some are hosted by a professional dominatrix.
* NASCA International, a swingers association, identifies one hundred and sixty-eight swingers clubs across the U.S., with California (26) and Texas (20) leading the count. In addition to intimate liaisons at members’ homes and party venues like Club Kama Sutra (Philadelphia) and the BackDrop (Mountain View, CA, now in its thirtieth year, America’s oldest swing club), swingers meet at local and national conventions like Hedo-fest (Washington, TX), Couples Choice (Eagle Nest, NM), the Orlando International (Orlando, FL) and Life Style West (Las Vegas), a four-night extravaganza.
* Gentlemen’s clubs are no longer limited to Las Vegas. Strip clubs, some with X-rated nude dancers, lap dancing and private backrooms for other, more intimate services, can be found throughout the country. TUSCL, a website of strip clubs, lists twenty-eight hundred; Texas (217) and Florida (215) have the greatest number.
* Gay bathhouses remain notorious venues for sexual liaisons. They operate in New York (East Side Sex Club, Wall Street, West Side Club and 82nd Street Club in Flushing, Queens), Portland, OR (Club Portland), San Francisco (Eros), San Jose, CA (Watergarden) and Seattle (Club Seattle) as well as Boonville, MO (Megaplex). In addition, there are successful chains like Flex Baths (Columbus, Los Angeles, New Orleans and Phoenix)and Steamworks (Berkeley, Chicago and San Juan).
This is a small sampling of venues available for adults to live out their fantasies.
This sampling does not include private liaisons between married or other couples which incorporate all manner of deviant sex play, nor commercial exchanges legally available in Nevada or easily arranged throughout the rest of the country through weekly newspaper ads and online websites like Craigslist. Nor does this discussion include the increasing explicit role of deviant sexual imagery in the mass media (i.e., movies, television, videogames and magazines), fashion and advertising. These areas encourage a more tolerant sexual culture, lubricating the appeal of deviant sexual experience.
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America is in the midst of a 4th sexual revolution. In contrast to the previous revolutions of the 1840s, 1920s and 1970s, forbidden or deviant consensual sex has become an accepted practice among many adults.
With conservative moralists, Republican stalwarts and Christian fundamentalists in retreat, it is the right time to examine America’s best kept secret, today’s sexual revolution. The on-going sex scandals involving Republican and Christian worthies have taken the proverbial wind out the sails of the new puritans. Wedge issues that defined the 2006 election like abortion rights, gay marriage and stem-cell research have lost their edge. America just might be ready to face, embrace its
darker sexual side.
Deviant practices have always been a feature of America’s sexual landscape. In the past, such activities existed at the periphery of acceptable society; today, however, they have become an integral feature of popular experience. Deviance has become an accepted indulgence among a growing number of consenting adults.
While no authoritative estimate of the number of adult Americans engaged in consensual(and mostly noncommercial) deviant sexual practices is available, such indulgence is not uncommon. Two critical developments over the last thirty-plus years have set the stage for this new sexual environment.
First, the American Psychiatric Association, in the 1973 revision of the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Psychiatric Disorders” (DSM-III), reclassified homosexuality from pathology to (in its most egodystonic form) paraphelia. This transformed sexual perversion from a mental disorder to what some analysts’ label “deviance without pathology.”
Second, the Supreme Court’s 2003 landmark “Lawrence and Garner v. Texas” decision sanctified the right to personal sexual privacy among consenting adults, whether they be gay or straight, female or male. This legitimized (noncommercial) deviance among consenting adults. Where it was once a mental disorder or a crime, sexual deviance has become a lifestyle.
Sexual deviance is rooted in a relationship, be it to oneself, to another, to an object, practice or fantasy. It is a ritualized relationship, a dialectical tension between that which attracts and repels, of self with otherness. It involves nonconventional sexual practices among consenting adults and differs fundamentally from nonconsensual activities, whether labeled pathological or illegal.
For deviants, sexual otherness is not denied but rather ritualized with illicit erotic significance; this is what psychiatrists call “nonpathological” or “egosyntonic” deviance. For those with sexualized pathologies (what are called “paraphelia” or “egodystonic”), nonconsensual acts like rape, sex slavery, pedophilia, lust-murder or other acts of violation deny the autonomy or humanity of one or more of the participants. This is the (often fuzzy) line where sexuality turns against itself and one or more of the participants is harmed. They are less about sex and more about existential power.
Over the last four centuries of American history, the boundaries of acceptable sexual practice have been challenged, changed and redefined. The Folsom Street Fair makes explicit the increasing popular appeal of deviant sexuality. It is an appeal not limited to San Francisco.
DAVID ROSEN can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.