Erotic City: How S.F. went from prudish to porn capital

In obvious ways, and in ways less obvious, sex shapes city living. That's true in all cities, of course, but in San Francisco — well, come on, it's San Francisco. "Yet, contrary to common lore," Josh Sides writes, "nothing in San Francisco's history determined it to become an internationally renowned bastion of sexual libertinism. Instead, sex radicals created it, despite fierce resistance from several generations of the city's residents."

Sides' new book, Erotic City: Sexual Revolutions and the Making of Modern San Francisco, delves deeply into familiar and forgotten matters of hedonists versus moralists, but with a big-picture perspective and a plain and simple premise: that comprehending urban culture depends very much on comprehending sexual culture, here and everywhere. As Sides puts it, "San Francisco's street-level battles over prostitution, pornography, homosexuality, nudism, transgenderism, 'social diseases,' AIDS, and marriage have prefigured the nation's for over half a century."

Sides has a knack for showing how the city's sexual and cultural evolution has not occurred linearly, but instead through an intense series of pendulum swings and other contrary movements. He reminds us, for instance, how the creators of On Our Backs, the first sex-positive feminist porn mag and (eventually) a beacon of late-'80s lesbian culture, got booed and almost beaten up for their explicitness at the 1985 Frameline film festival. "When On Our Backs sponsored a night of female erotica with Susie Bright at the Castro Theatre in 1989, the response was quite different from that in 1985," Sides writes. "The lesbian crowd spilled onto the streets; there were complaints again — this time the chief complaint that there was not sufficient lesbian erotica to satisfy demand." As for the "unspoken sexuality of Golden Gate Park," suffice it to say it now has been spoken. And it is hard to imagine what the writers of those editorials criticizing public hugging in the park in the 1870s would make of the Speedway Meadows Be-Ins and Gay-Ins about a century later.

And gosh, even now it seems like so long ago that The New York Times Magazine, unhappily corroborated by then-Supervisor Dianne Feinstein, called San Francisco "The Porn Capital of America" in 1971. That same year, an organization known as the San Francisco Committee on Crime reported that the "range of prostitution in this city is fantastic." It was not an endorsement. Or was it?

This being a history book, written by a professor and published by a university press, it might be seen by some San Franciscan aficionados of cities and erotica to lack intimacy. There is evidence throughout of a dry wit, and one chapter is called "When the Streets Went Gay," but beyond that, Sides' copiously researched, stylishly written report really doesn't try to be cute. Or hot. Or personal. There is no "This reminds me of the time I ..." And that is very much for the best.

In fact, for the sake of context, a little bit of academic dispassion never hurt. Sides, the director of the Center for Southern California Studies at California State University, Northridge, has distance and discretion enough to recognize what he calls the "political liability of prudishness in San Francisco." Even his most direct political pronouncements are calmly substantiated, as when he writes, about AIDS, that President Ronald Reagan's "failure of leadership undoubtedly worsened the mortality of the epidemic." It's arguably easier to see from this even-tempered perspective how that failure also prompted a crucial, influential wave of San Francisco AIDS activism.

Helpfully, Sides includes city maps showing where to find licensed massage parlors; the relative neighborhood concentrations of lesbian households; how San Franciscans voted on Prop. 8; and more. You never knew your neighbors so well.

 
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