I remember many a night I stumbled down the stairs of 2519 Mission St., the home of Mission Control, my knees wobbly from dancing, my panties bunched in my pocket. Mission Street was shockingly desolate at 3 a.m. — the freezing wind was always a harsh contrast to the sweaty, womb-like labyrinth of debauchery I had just left. Mission Control seemed like an endless maze that led to all kinds of curiosities: clown wrestling matches, puppet séances, puppy piles of naked people, a paddock full of zombie strippers. It truly seemed like a fantasy world where almost anything could happen.
But, like so much else in the Mission, Mission Control is gone, wiped out in December by the evictions that have become ubiquitous in the neighborhood. Its lease was up, and two multimillion-dollar complexes were about to become its neighbors. Like so many other San Francisco tenants, it had little choice but to pack its bags and leave after more than a decade of calling Mission Street its home.
Now San Francisco's notorious sex parties are on the road. Polly Whittaker, who founded the space alongside artist Scott Levkoff, continues to carry the torch of Mission Control and hosts creative sex parties at secret locations across the Bay Area. While community support and memberships have not wavered, attendance has. Whittaker admits that the temporary locations just aren't quite the same, and is still searching for a forever home for Mission Control.
As the daughter of a radical sex therapist and a hot air balloon enthusiast, Whittaker was never destined for the ordinary things in life. Born in London, her heart most certainly resides in San Francisco. Her recently released memoir, Sex Culture Revolutionary, chronicles her adventures.
“San Francisco has an incredibly rich history when it comes to sex culture,” she says.
Along the way, she met Levkoff, whose Salvador Dali mustache and penchant for wild, interactive art projects won her heart and inspired her to dream bigger than she ever had before. The pair initially conceived of Mission Control in 2001 as a live/work artists' community. But sex paid the rent more reliably than art, so they quickly switched to the business model of hosting creative sex parties every weekend. Costumes were required, not recommended, and consent was paramount. Together, they threw colorful sex cabarets with themes like “Cowboys and Unicorns” and “The Heavy Petting Zoo.”
But since the eviction, things have changed.
Levkoff has split from Mission Control. He now focuses on what he calls “immersive creative environments using technology.” His upcoming project, Mr. Nobody's Spookeasy, is staged in an abandoned vaudeville theater in Chinatown. It's a costumed cocktail party, live show, dance party, and game all rolled into one.
“People can even turn their phones into ghost-hunting tools,” Levkoff says. “When a ghost is near, the ghost's image and backstory will show up on your phone. Once you get five ghosts, you get a free drink.” It has the same whimsy he brought to parties at Mission Control, but without as many bodily fluids.
Even in the city's current climate of evictions and sky-high rent, Levkoff and Whittaker seem steadfast in their commitment to creating alternate realities for San Franciscans to fall into for a night.
It would be easy for these two to be discouraged about losing their space on Mission Street, and many local artists are anxious about losing their place in the city as its culture changes.
Still, Whittaker remains optimistic. “These booms have a bust and it never lasts forever,” she says. “Whether we can survive and weather the storm, only time will tell…[but] I still believe in the San Francisco dream.”
That dream — of fanciful sex parties, surreal art experiences, dungeons, drag queens, parrots, and pride — may be in danger. What will happen to San Francisco if the creative communities that have shaped it no longer live here?