Passion, Perversion and Politics

On September 23rd, the Folsom Street Fair celebrated its 29th anniversary.  Between 350,000 and 400,000 fetishists, their admirers and voyeurs gathered in what is considered the world’s largest assembly of sexual deviants.  Gay and straight leather and other fetishists meet annually at Folsom to celebrate sexual perversion.

The story of Folsom, of adult consensual, non-coercive sexual fantasy, is absent from the 2012 presidential election.  Two critical sex-related issues define the electoral campaign, abortion and homosexuality.  And the principle candidates, Obama and Romney, embrace fundamentally different positions on these issues, offering votes meaningful “values” choices.  However, hidden behind these issues lies the far more significant issue of America’s changing sexual culture and the Folsom Fair.

One measure of American’s changing sexual “values” is revealed in the fact that today’s alternative sex scene is a $50 billion industry.  It includes pornography, sex toys, adult “entertainment” (e.g., gentlemen’s clubs), underground sex parties and prostitution.  Some activities involve legal commercial exchanges like downloading online porn, buying a sex toy, paying an admission fee to a sex club or having sex at a Nevada brothel; the “legal” sex trade revenue in Nevada alone was estimated in 2011 at $7.3 billion.  Some activities involve illegal commercial exchanges, whether consensual (i.e., prostitution) or less-than-consensual (i.e., sexual trafficking).

For nearly three decades, sexual deviants of every stripe have met in San Francisco on the last Sunday in September to attend the capstone gathering of Leather Pride Week.  While the street fair is the centerpiece of the week’s adventures, every night features a special deviant-themed event.

The growing popular acceptance of once-identified sexual perversions, now labeled “deviance without pathology,” freaks out defenders of patriarchal moral authority.  The Christian right’s wars against abortion and homosexuality are part of a larger campaign to enforce the boundaries, the experiences, of sexual pleasure.

The frontline of this war is a woman’s control of her fertility, her body, thus her right to sex education, birth control an abortion.  While Roe v. Wade remains the law of the land, significant efforts at both the federal and (especially) state levels have systematically restricted a woman’s right to choose.  Similarly, same-sex marriage has become legal in a half-dozen state and accepted by a plurality of the American public in numerous opinion polls, yet 30 states have passed laws to restrict marriage between of-age homosexual couples.

Behind these two critical issues, a host of other tantalizing sexual indulgences, including porn, sex toys and sex parties, are being enjoyed by increasing number of consenting adults.

Many of the Christian right, champions of moral rectitude, embrace unfettered, free-market values.  Yet, while some privately and/or in secret indulge in once illicit sexual activities, many anti-pleasure culture warriors find unacceptable the growth of the sex industry.  They find unacceptable consenting adults engaged in illicit, if immoral, sexual activities.  They are terrified as to what is says about American’s “moral bankruptcy.”  For many conservatives, morality trumps capitalism.

While denouncing the power of “big government,” these conservatives are the first to use the state to impose their morality on others.  For them, the state trumps the freedom of the individual to decide for her/him-self.  The fight for adult, consensual sexual freedom is a battle for the future of America.

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This year’s Leather Pride Week culminated in the Folsom Fair.  The week’s events included a men’s spanking party and the Bootmen’s Dinner party, the Roll Call, a get-together for men in uniform.  There was also the long-running 15 Association men’s BDSM dungeon play party as well as a men’s fisting event.  There was a full-dress costume party billed as the “filthiest dance event of the year for the leather and fetish community” at Magnitude.  There’s also an art exhibit featuring “over 400 paintings, sculptures and photographs, from the fine art nude to the extreme erotica.”

At the Sunday fair, attendees “contribute” $10 to enter a Sadian Halloween-esq phantasmagoria.  The throng of merrymakers ranged from the straightest tourists and voyeurs to the wildest exhibitionists and performance artists.  It was packed with people from across the Bay and country, including men and women, young and old, all colors, shapes and sizes.

Under a clear, golden Bay Area sky, hundreds of thousands strolled about in every conceivable costume.  Fantasy fetish ware included anything that turned one on.  The fair is so entertaining that whole families came to gawk and party in the festive revelry.  So popular, versions of the fair take place in New York, Berlin and other cities.

Given San Francisco’s peculiar climate, the city can be warm in late September.  This leads many man and women to strip down to the least that turns them on – often nothing.  From full leather to near nudity (shoes & boots), every fantasy display is welcome.  As the fair organizers proudly remind visitors to their website, “nudity is not a crime San Francisco.”  Private sexual fantasy is ritualized as public spectacle.

Leather Weak celebrations come to a head, figuratively speaking, at the daylong Sunday fair.  Over the years, the fair has spread out from a deserted alleyway, perfect for illicit sex, to a moneymaking jamboree that spreads out over 13 city blocks with little but cash exchanged.

This year, the fair featured a central performance stage for live music and innumerable booths lining the street.  These booths offer everything from hotdogs and cold beer to s&m whipping sessions, fetish toy sellers, erotic art displays, AIDS/STD tests and even literature on gay-friendly evangelical churches.  It also includes Venus’ Playground, a woman’s and gender-queer area consisting of a tent used as a dungeon for sex play and another tent for demonstrations. To encourage personal ease, the space was designated off-limits to photography.

The Folsom Street Fair is the centerpiece of a growing number of gatherings of formally illicit or deviant sexual practices that are taking place across the country.  For heterosexuals, such get-togethers include Hedofest (Washington, TX), Couples Choice (Eagle Nest, NM), the Orlando International (Orlando, FL) and Life Style West (Las Vegas), a four-night extravaganza.  Gay-centric but hetero-friendly events including the Key West Fantasy Fest, the International Leatherman (ILM, Chicago) and the Mid-Atlantic Leather Association (MLA, Washington, DC).

These public gathering are but a small sampling of what adult sexual adventures, from Christian romantics to the most radical, secular atheists, are engaged in.  These sexual adventures also include the private noncommercial liaisons between single people, married, other couples and groups that involve all manner of formerly forbidden sex play.  This expanded sexual palette also includes commercial exchanges easily arranged through free newspaper ads, online websites and email promotions.  The sexually once forbidden has become the ordinary.  Not surprising, this aspect of sexuality is absent from the “culture war” issues being addressed in the 2012 election.

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American’s adult alternative sex scene is a nearly $40 billion industry.  Porn has never been bigger.  The digital media and the Internet revolutionized the production and distribution of porn.  In a January 2012 CNBC estimate, porn generates about $14 billion in revenue per year.  As the Internet replaces the older media of print, TV, movies and DVDs, a new set of players, including Vivid Entertainment, Digital Playground and Manwin, are replacing the once-formidable Playboy and Penthouse empires.

Earlier this year, the Supreme Court marginally extended broadcast TV freedom on expression by rejecting two long simmering FCC “obscenity” cases.  One involved the spoken word and was against Fox over what are known as “fleeting expletives,” words like “fuck” and “shit” uttered by Cher, Bono and Nicole Richie at the Billboard Music Awards in 2002 and 2003.  The second involved the displaying of unacceptable, lewd images and was against ABC for briefly showing a female actress’ nude buttocks during an episode of NYPD Blue.

In the now celebrated 1997 decision Reno v. ACLU, the Court invalidated provisions of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 that criminalized “indecent” and “patently offensive” forms of Internet communication.  As a consequence, child pornography and pedophilia set one boundary of permissible “speech” for online media.

The sex paraphernalia marketplace is huge and getting, sexually speaking, bigger every year.  It includes the fetish objects, sex toys, lubricants and costumes that enhance, fulfill sexual fantasy.  Hamilton Beach patented the first electric vibrator in 1902, about a decade before it introduced the electric iron and vacuum cleaner.  Trojan, having sold condoms in drug stores for more than eight decades, introduced vibrators in 2010.

Stefan Dallakian, owner of Paris Intimates, an online sex toy distributor, estimates the sex-toy business grossing $15 billion in annual sales.  With regard to the U.S., even amidst a severe economic downturn, Dallakian claims that his sales have skyrocketed.  Perhaps, with less money to go out, couples (especially women) are “investing” in their sexual pleasures.

A generation ago, people (mostly men), part of the much-scorned raincoat crowd, would slink into a shabby shop in a down-market section of town to buy porn and other sex accouchements.  First with catalog shopping and now, even more widespread, with the Internet, those days are over.  On the net, (ostensible) anonymity rules!

“People no longer have to drive to the porn store and make a face-to-face purchase,” Dallakian said. “Online ordering with discreet shipping saves you the embarrassment of exposing your kinks to strangers, and there’s absolutely zero risk of running into somebody you know while shopping.”

“Passion parties” are women-only get-togethers where sex paraphernalia is sold.  A local “host,” “consultant” or “sales rep” organizes the event and receives a commission (often 10%) from the night’s sales.  The host acquires products and other materials from a growing number of sex-toy providers.  The industry even has a trade association, Certified Adult Home Party Association, representing companies including Athena’s Home Novelties, Fantasia Home Parties, For Ladies Only, Party Gals and Temptations Parties.   There is even a flourishing Christian women’s sex toy parties intended to enhance marriage.

However, there is another and quite different notion of “passion parties” flourishing throughout the U.S., this one involving real sex and real parties.  These parties are broadly conceived as non-coercive, non-commercial adult “entertainment” and include swinger play parties; gentlemen’s clubs; explicit “safe sex” clubs for gays and straights; and gay bathhouses.

Swinging, far from the shameful, underground scene it once was, is now a multi-million dollar industry with conventions, travel agencies, resorts, hotels, events and club franchise opportunities; it’s growing every year. According to the North American Swinger’s Club Association (NASCA), the nation’s largest swingers group, 15 percent of American couples have engaged in swinging.

“‘Swinging’ is not really a favored term anymore,” declares Tony Lanzaratta, a retired Los Angeles police officer and head of NASCA.  “Swinging kind of connotes 1950s wife-swapping crap,” Lanzaratta adds, “it has little to do with that, and that’s why lifestyle organizations prefer to use the term ‘play couple.’”  Referring to San Diego, for example, Lanzaratta says that it is a virtual hotbed for what he calls “play couples.”  “A lot of people just have little neighborhood get-togethers in their homes, five or six couples who go for it.”

NASCA identifies 168 swingers clubs across the U.S., with California (26) and Texas (20) having the greatest number.

Swingers also gather at various 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 good number of these gatherings, whether a formal club or hosted at a private home, are busted by local law enforcement.  Most revealing, these busts suggest just how extensive such gatherings are throughout the country.

Gentlemen’s clubs represented another form of a sex party are no longer limited to Las Vegas.  According to TUSCL, a website of strip clubs, lists 2,471 clubs operating throughout the country.  Texas (211) and Florida (205) have the greatest number.  A recent University of Las Vegas study estimates the number of strip clubs might be as high as 5,000.

Explicit adult “safe sex” clubs for gays and straights operate throughout the country.  Specialized fetish clubs catering to b&d, s&m and other once-perverse tastes operate in many major cities are often hosted by a professional dominatrix.  New York’s Paddles attracts a heterosexual crowd, while Los Angele’s Slammers and San Francisco’s Blow Buddies welcome gay men.

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The Folsom Fair started in the early ‘80s when the wild hedonism of the preceding ‘60s-‘70s sexual revolution confronted the specter of AIDS, a curse just beginning to take its toll on the city, the nation and the world.  It’s almost impossible to imagine San Francisco’s pre-AIDS radical sex scene.  Gayle Rubin, an anthropologist of sexuality and women’s studies at the University of Michigan, documented one such event that took place on March 21, 1980.  She reported, it was “the first time significant numbers of kinky gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, and heterosexuals partied together in the Bay Area.”

These sex radicals gathered at the Catacombs, an invitation-only leather, s&m and fisting or “handballing” club in the South of Market (SoMa) district.  The club was founded by Steve McEachern and opened in May 1975; it closed in August 1981 following McEachern’s sudden death due to a heart attack.

The same summer McEachern died, in June 1981, the San Francisco General Hospital reported increasing incidents of an unknown ailment attacking gay men.  The San Francisco Chronicle reported, “a mysterious outbreak of a sometimes fatal pneumonia among gay men has occurred in San Francisco and in several other major cities.”

In 1984, the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) was identified as the cause of AIDS, the acquired immune deficiency syndrome.  Rock Hudson came out as gay, an AIDS victim and would die a year later.  The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the first HIV antibody test.  In a political struggle that bitterly divided the city, San Francisco officials closed gay bathhouses as “menaces” to public health, facilitating unprotected sex.

Amidst this crisis, hardcore gay leather and fetishist activists, aggregated in the city’s deserted SoMa district, fashioned a new social culture embracing here-to-fore sexual perversions.  Drawing from the sex clubs, bars and local community organizations, the Folsom Fair was launched during this increasing sexually troubling period.

Since the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision there’s been a great shift in America’s electoral spirit.  Four decades ago, Pres. Richard Nixon launched the right wing counter-revolution; it sought to overturn the preceding half-century of New Deal and Great Society America.  Corporate interests and conservative ideologues, working stealthily through a bought-and-paid-for Congress, began the great restructuring of the American economy: from national market to globalization, from manufacturing to finance, from democracy to oligopoly.

The Christian right served as the morality police of this great restructuring.  Since Roe, they have waged an increasingly mean-spirited campaign against a woman’s right to an abortion and to nonconventional sexuality, particularly homosexuality.  As its influence over the Republican Party expanded, American politics got increasingly bitter.

Four decades ago Pat Buchanan, Pres. Nixon’s ideological puppet master, conceived the right wing’s counter-revolution.  His campaign sought to end the once grand effort to realize American’s promise of democracy determined by genuine equality.  Buchanan played the race card and remade the political landscape.  A significant chunk of old-line New Deal Democrats, from both Southern and Northern ethnic working classes, fled to the Republican party.

During the tumultuous post-World War II “American century” of 1945-1972, significant progressive gains were made.  Income inequality was contained; institutional racism confronted; patriarchy eroded.  The “American century” was also the era of the pill, teen sex ed and an overwhelming consumer society that sexualizes everything.  The boundaries of the sexually acceptable expanded, “perversion” normalized as “deviance without pathology.”

In the 2012 election, sexuality – especially abortion and homosexuality — is a critical, if secondary, issue.  In this election, morality is second to economy, jobs, as a critical concern.  The defenders of patriarchal moral authority are waging a war to contain the boundaries of sexual pleasure.  The frontline of this battle is a woman’s control of her fertility, her body, thus her right to an abortion, to birth control and proper sex ed.  Sadly, this battle has been going on for more than a century.

While Roe remains the law of the land, significant efforts at both the federal and (especially) state levels have eroded a woman’s right to choose.  Similarly, same-sex marriage is legal in a half-dozen states and the District of Columbian as well as been accepted by a plurality of the American public in numerous opinion polls.  Nevertheless, 30 states have passed (un-Constitutional?) laws to restrict marriage to of-age homosexual couples.

A century ago, women wore ankle-length dresses with corsets, masturbation was decried, intercourse was for procreation not pleasure, birth control prohibited, abortion a crime, pre-marital sex forbidden, pornography an obscenity, homosexuality a sin and interracial sex a hanging offense.  Over the last century, these and other sexual values have changed.  Yes, American sexuality has been irreversibly transformed … and there is no going back.

Like a perverse Japanese No play, the 2012 election symbolizes more than two candidates or two parties.  Behind the scenes, unreported by the media, the election is also about values, a choice between two unstated but obvious ethical standards.  Once again, Americans have to choose between the humane, the secular or the moralistic, the religious.

American culture, especially national sexuality standards, changes like the great shifts in the earth’s tectonics plates, slowly but profoundly.   We are amidst such a period of change.  On one level, a new social order is taking shape, the 21st austerity-oligarchy society.  This restructuring is coming; globalization of capital demands it.  The only questions are: how fast?, and how can it be resisted?  And how will it affect popular sexuality?

With the Democrats, this restructuring will likely be slower, the worst deprivations softened; with the Republicans, restructuring will be swift, like a guillotine, Jacobin justice, suffering enforcing authority.  Much is at stake in the 2012 election.

David Rosen writes the “Indie Current” blog for Filmmaker and regularly contributes to AlterNet, Huffington Post and the Brooklyn Rail; he can be reached at

David Rosen is the author of Sex, Sin & Subversion:  The Transformation of 1950s New York’s Forbidden into America’s New Normal (Skyhorse, 2015).  He can be reached at; check out