Friday, September 28, 2007
Like any venerated holiday, the Folsom Street Fair (folsomstreetfair.com), the world's largest daytime celebration of kinkiness, happens but once a year. This weekend, it's leather Christmas in the city — and if the weather holds up, we'll likely see the estimated 400,000 BDSM-lovin' attendees sweating it out in rubber and leather (or nothing at all) to get a taste of our very own internationally attended Disneyland for kinksters.
I don't attend every year, and I'm not as kinky as you might think — like many attendees, I just like to watch. One year, a freak thunderstorm rained on the fair, sending leathermen (of all genders) running for cover, while waterproof, rubber-clad bystanders casually moved to drier confines (and in some cases, accent on the confined part). While it rained, the Gary Floyd Band (remember Floyd from that old punk band the Dicks?) played and sang until the water shorted them out, at which point the Buddhist bear frontman Floyd (a friend) finally stopped singing to thank the sky for its blessing.
Another year, I was squeezing my way through the crowd, ogling and trying not to touch anyone's exposed bits by accident, when I ran into a pair of old friends. It was my recently married pals, Ron and Elisa (not their real names) — and I wasn't so much surprised to see the house-in-the-suburbs (of Oakland) couple there, as I was to see Ron. He had just returned from his second tour in Iraq; I was elated and relieved to see him home safe and, well, so happy he was grinning from ear to ear. I asked the excitedly affectionate pair, "So, what are you two kids up to?" Elisa exclaimed, "We're going to go get whipped! Ron was so excited to be home in time for Folsom."
Like a couple at an amusement park, they were seeing the sights, and were on their way to stand in line for a light taste of the Folsom Street Fair's fare. Ron concluded, "It's so good to be home. See you later!" We hugged and I mused on the amazing patchwork quilt that makes up our definition of the "all-American" couple. As the afternoon passed, I caught a glimpse of them still wandering through the crowd, with matching striped backs and more big smiles. (Ron returned to Iraq for a third tour, and is now home, safe and for good.)
Folsom, for the uninitiated, is a taste of our so-called San Francisco values and much more. For locals, it's just another weekend of impossible-to-get taxis, leather-studded bulges on parade in the Castro (even in Walgreens — is nothing sacred?), and strategizing errands around the SOMA shutdown. We might forget that going to Folsom can be the funnest, craziest, most claustrophobic, most shocking (and for some, arousing, or a sort of homecoming) experience a grown up can have in a daytime, carnivalesque atmosphere. You can buy as many overpriced beers, corsets, whips, BDSM books, DVDs, and "Got Slaves?" T-shirts as you can carry. Or have your slave carry for you, as the case may be.
Folsom is a lot of fun — and it can even be a bit trite, ridiculous, hilarious or boring, as the mystery, fright, and hype about BDSM and kink are (in some cases explicitly) exposed into the light of day for attendees to view from all angles, ask questions about, and see for what they really are about: consensual adult playfulness, in all its colors and extremes. It's for experienced players and tourists alike, though I think the tourists are the most important part. Not just for the money they spend in our city, but for the chance they get to compare the reality of kink to the media hype — hype seen everywhere from Fox News to Hollywood (where seemingly every serial killer is dressed in a BSDM or transgender wrapper) to last week's SF Weekly cover for its story about the death of local anti-drug activist Joe Konopka, who was found sans pulse, in BDSM gear.
The Weekly's cover shouted "Sex & Murder," in bold black with "S" and "& M" in bright red. Inside, the article attempted to explore Konopka's death — there is still no official conclusion as to whether it was foul play, or an opportunistic scene-gone-wrong with a shady character tying the proverbial knots. The article begins as an unbiased bio about Konopka, but is undercut by the message that kink and BDSM are dark and highly dangerous habits that can kill you. The article's conclusion states that Konopka's (allegedly) BDSM-scene-related death isn't "the first time a bondage session has gone awry." In one of the final paragraphs, we're cautioned that "Any time anybody plays, they are literally trusting the other person with their life." We're also referred to the article's (in print only) sidebar, misleadingly titled "Safe Words", which does not explain in any way what a "safeword" is, but cites four reported deaths from 1985-present where BDSM was somehow involved — or not. The first instance is simply a reported discovery of a naked body in handcuffs.
"Sex & Murder" serves up yet another disservice to the community it attempts to report on, by dramatizing fear, stereotypes and misperceptions about kinky sexual practices and practitioners — a very large worldwide community that will be sending some ambassadors to have a big party in SOMA this Sunday, thank you very much. It's not just that media outlets (predictably) don't understand the sex acts they're hyping, or who practices them; they're not explaining how these self-defined "safe, sane and consensual" sex acts are conducted. Which, in addition to helping understand what might have happened to Konopka, would go a long way in telling a much more interesting story, providing a more valuable (and controversial) piece of reporting, and not continuing to portray all the (too often frighteningly boring) people who enjoy BDSM fantasy and sensation sex play as fringy, possibly murderous freaks. And, just in time for Folsom.
The truth is, kinky people — like the masses about to descend on San Francisco — engage in a flavor of sexuality (fetish, kink and fantasy play) that requires them to be more honest about what they want sexually than the rest of the herd. Being honest about fantasies, expectations, concerns, and boundaries is the kinky person's insurance against miscommunication; it prevents mishaps, trust issues, and can keep you from getting involved with someone incompatible. Consent is a necessary tool when playing with strangers or someone new. There might be a lot to discuss, such as fantasy details, rules and limits, safewords, what type of sex is OK, safer sex (who's got condoms, etc.), spending the night (or hour, or weekend) together, who pays for the rubber panties or hotel room, and more. Kinky people know what they want to have happen to them, and what they don't.
We may never know what happened to Joe Konopka. We may also never know what the SF Weekly's safeword is — but I'll at least tell you what the term actually means. A safeword is a word you both agree means "stop now." It's often suggested to select an unusual word you seldom use, and to avoid using "no" or "stop" in case you'd like to feign resistance to your predicament. Everyone should have a safeword (including SF Weekly readers), and some people have a word for "stop" and a separate word for "a little less, thank you." Stoplight colors — red, yellow and green — are very popular.
There are dozens of books and videos available that explain in savory detail all of the intricacies of BDSM, rope tying, spanking, in addition (if you want) to how to choose a whip and wield it with menace on cowering submissives (or how to become the squirmy bottom of your dreams). You'll be able to find a lot of them at the Folsom Street Fair, where there will be oodles of booths offering education and titillation alike. You don't need to be a bondage whiz, a whip expert, a traditional S/M scenester, or know a famous dominatrix to check out (or have) a hot S/M scene — or to write news items that include these practices. Like BDSM itself, all you need is a motivation that turns you on, and a little common sense about the practicalities.
The fantasy BDSM murder drama might make for a fun but mindless "CSI" episode, but it looks a little like dated saggy chaps-and-harness on a local weekly. Plus, can't we save the sex drama for Sunday?
Not that we're expecting a shortage.
The Folsom Street Fair will take place on Sunday, September 30, 2007 from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. It will be located in San Francisco's South of Market district on Folsom Street between Seventh and 12th streets. There is a complete entertainment lineup at folsomstreetfair.com/entertainment/.