On Sept. 21, 400,000 fetish and BDSM enthusiasts — along with plenty of gawking tourists — will take over 13 city blocks to celebrate all that is kinky, perverse, and quintessential to San Francisco. Not everyone likes getting tied up, but for those of us who do, this time of year is when we all come out in our Sunday best. Also, San Franciscans tend to get antsy if we don't have a huge, citywide, mostly naked party every few months or so.
You will hear people say, “Happy Folsom!” to each other while they hug gingerly in the streets, making sure not to snag a latex dress on a metal chest harness. The street fair may seem like merely an excuse to parade around in a sexy outfit and get weird, but Folsom is first and foremost a community event. Each year, Folsom Street Events raises hundreds of thousands of dollars for charity. Last year, the fair wrote its largest check ever, donating $358,779 to 13 organizations that support LGBT communities, as well as people living with HIV and AIDS.
But Folsom is known mainly for the debaucherous afternoon street fair, where human ponies parade through the streets and old men jerk off in the gutters while young women are publicly flogged. Some conservatives may call it a sign of the End of Days, but here in the Bay Area, it's just part of our lives.
This city has been home to a vibrant kinky subculture for more than 70 years. The Sailor Boy Tavern on Howard Street opened in 1938 and is cited as the first “proto-leather” bar, where young sailors who liked leather, motorcycles, and other men could find each other. Some of those gay sailors stayed and made homes here, just blocks away from where they had gotten off the boat, and by the time the sexual revolution rolled around in the 1970s, SOMA had transformed into the epicenter of gay leather culture. Sometimes when I drive through the neighborhood in the early evening as the wind starts to pick up, I like to imagine the Folsom Street that I never saw: the Folsom of the late '60s that was home to dozens of businesses and clubs catering to leather-clad men who loved each other — they called it “Miracle Mile.”
Now, most of those clubs and businesses are gone, but Folsom Street Fair continues to grow, and each year there are more tourists and voyeurs who are being exposed to BDSM for the very first time. I once took a newcomer to the fair, and he asked me, in all seriousness, if it was okay to “just grab a girl and start hitting her.” Consent is a crucial element to any aspect of BDSM, but to the untrained eye, Folsom may look like a free-for-all of Bacchanalian hedonism where anything goes.
I love the fair, but I must admit that the crowd can get pushy, grabby, and downright overwhelming as the day goes on. “I was astonished at the amount of people who felt that they had permission to grab and touch my body, specifically my ass and breasts,” local sex worker activist and kink professional Maxine Holloway wrote on her blog after attending last year's fair.
“I got responses from tons of people sharing similar stories,” she says now. “I have considered not attending Folsom this year because of the amount of harassment I experienced.” But instead of staying home, Holloway has launched the Ask First Campaign as a way to remind fairgoers that consent is key. Holloway and a crew of volunteers will pass out bright yellow stickers that simply say, “Ask first.”
“Non-consensual behavior seems to be on the rise as these events grow larger,” Holloway explains. “I'm hoping that something like these simple stickers will remind the kink community (and the people visiting our community) that consent is important in all spaces, and encourage people to demand it.”
So at this year's fair, whether you attend as a participant or a wide-eyed voyeur, please remember that Folsom is about so much more than whips and chains. Community, freedom of expression, and consent are as important to Folsom as leather, rope, and dungeons. Kink culture is a rich part of this city's history, and Folsom is a time to celebrate all that is kinky, subversive, and quintessential to San Francisco.