There are kinky parties, there are BDSM conferences, and then there are sexually alternative cultural experiences. That's what Folsom Street Fair is—a cultural experience. On the last Sunday in September every year, several hundred thousand kinky people—dressed in leather gear, wild costumes, or nothing at all—take over about a dozen blocks of downtown San Francisco. The roped-off streets are lined with booths offering everything from kinky toys and clothing to literature from gay-friendly churches. It's a cross between a street party and an open-air mall for perverts. This year I even saw a recruiting booth for the San Francisco Police Department. I wonder if it got a lot of interest from the folks with uniform fetishes?
Folsom has changed some since I first went in 1992. The core crowd of gay leathermen was much less diluted by gawking onlookers then, and I remember marveling at being part of such a huge sea of kinksters. Thirteen years later, the crowd seemed about half dressed-up kinky people and half folks who at least looked vanilla, whatever their private pleasures might be.
At first I felt a little sad about that, but as the day went on I began to notice an interesting phenomenon. While the feeling of being in an enormous perverts-only space was lessened, the more equal split was leading me to have conversations with curious vanilla folks that I don't think I would have had otherwise. You see, when I find myself as one of a few kinksters in the midst of lot of vanilla people I'm definitely on my guard. I'm a sexual minority and I don't ever forget that there are plenty of people in the world who think I'm a fucked-up freak who needs shock treatments, jail time, or a good punch in the face to show me the error of my ways.
On the flip side, when I encounter vanilla people who've stumbled into a BDSM event, I get the feeling I'm not seeing their best side, either. They often seem wary at best—and at worst they're hostile and jeering, or sexually predatory.
Because the numbers were pretty balanced, Folsom felt like neutral ground. As one of the pervs, I felt free to be as naughty as I liked, because this is a fetish event so large that it constitutes a suspension of everyday reality. There were enough of my people around for me to not feel worried about being physically assaulted by a stray leatherphobe. Any such person would have been instantly smothered under a pile of outraged leatherdaddies, drag queens, and butch dykes.
The vanilla people seemed pretty relaxed, too. I think they also felt they had enough critical mass to feel okay about being there. And the event is so big, no one feels trapped into looking at things they don't want to see. They can just keep moving.
As I moved through the crowd, I would see vanilla people looking confused. "What's that for?" they'd ask their equally perplexed companions. "Why is she doing that?" I'd catch their eye and try to explain it to them—something I probably wouldn't do in other circumstances.
Sometimes the questions were purely technical: "What do you call that thing he's holding?"
"A violet wand. It's like a low-amp tesla coil, it gives you a little zap when you touch it."
I also got to try to explain the motivations of BDSM people. "So, what's the point doing something like that?" one woman asked me, gesturing skeptically toward a suspension-bondage scene my partner Max was doing.
"Well, you can whip someone when they're tied up like that, or fuck them. But mainly, it's just fun," I said.
"But doesn't it hurt?" she challenged me.
"Sometimes. But see, she's laughing. Haven't you ever had something be fun even though it's physically strenuous?"
She stared at the woman dangling for a minute, then gave a half-smile. "Yeah, okay, I guess I can see that."
A small moment of bridge building in a throng of strangers.
THURSDAY 10/6TASSEL TWIRLING
FRIDAY 10/7WOMEN-ONLY NIGHT AT THE WET SPOT
Socialize, flirt, and do BDSM with the girls. All orientations welcome. Wet Spot, 270-9746, firstname.lastname@example.org, 9 pm–3 am, $15, members only, female ID required.REDMOND RANCH
Party at the friendly Eastside swing club. Single men must RSVP for the waiting list, couples and single women can just show up. 425-868-8169 or www.redmond-ranch.com, doors at 7 pm, new people must arrive by 8 pm, $45 for couples/$25 for single women.
SATURDAY 10/8BDSM NEGOTIATION FOR COUPLES
Curious about BDSM? Learn communication, fantasy fulfillment, boundaries, and structuring a scene. Register at www.sanctuaryintime.net, 7–9:30 pm, $40 couple/$25 single.'OKTOBERFEST'
In Toi Sennhauser's performance piece, audience members are invited to drink beer brewed with a trace amount of the artist's own vaginal yeast. Crawl Space Gallery, 504 E Denny Way # 1, 322-5752, 6 pm, free.
SUNDAY 10/9EROTIC MASSAGE NIGHT
An evening of sensual touch for couples and singles, facilitated by David Longmire. No experience required. Wet Spot, 270-9746 or email@example.com, 5–9 pm (doors close at 6 pm), $10, members only.