(Above) A BDSM porn studio in a historic building that offers tours
San Francisco is well known for being a gay friendly city, but it is also a very sex friendly city. We spent a few days there recently and took in some of the sites. You will want to do a lot of the touristy things: eat clam chowder from a sourdough bread bowl at Fisherman’s Wharf, wander through Golden Gate Park and especially through the beautiful botanical gardens there, ride a cable car, visit the world class de Young and Legion of Honor art museums. There are also some lesser known destinations worth a visit.
Where else can you tour through a historic building and see the porn sets? That is what you get with the Armory Tour. The Mission Armory is the largest building in the northern Mission District of San Francisco, coming in at over 192,000 square feet. The exterior architecture is quite impressive. It was designed to look like a Moorish fortress. It was long used by the military, but became San Francisco’s main sports venue in the 1920s. By the 1960s it was considered obsolete, and in 1973 the National Guard moved out. It had various uses after that, and there were numerous plans to sell it that fell through. In 2007, Armory Studios, LLC successfully purchased the building for $14.5 million. You might better know them as Kink.com, one of the leading producers of BDSM related videos. Now the leather pride flag flies above the building.
You can go on a guided tour presented by Kink.com employees through the Armory building and the standing sets that are used for various BDSM related porn productions. It is a unique tour, both historical and verbally sexually explicit. The real focus is on porn, though. You won’t be touring while BDSM scenes are being shot, however. You will see a lot of BDSM gear, some great art, and have the opportunity to ask questions about this lifestyle from people who understand it intimately.
Natasha Lyn and Princess Donna on one of the Kink.com sets
If you are already involved in BDSM, or have an interest, you’ll also want to check to see if they are holding any workshops while you are there. The BDSM community does a great job with education in general, and what better place to go to for a class?
If this sounds interesting, I suggest you go as soon as possible. They may not be around for much longer. Californians are poised to vote on a ballot initiative in November that will literally drive all of the porn companies out of California. It creates a very hostile environment for the industry, including making an anti-porn industry fanatic the official porn czar over all productions. This man is the same person using money from the AIDS Healthcare Foundation to put this initiative on the ballot, money that should have gone to treating people with AIDS. He is despised intensely by the adult industry and by many gay advocates.
I have crossed paths on a number of occasions with Dr. Carol Queen and have long been an admirer. She has a Ph.D. in human sexuality, is a noted lecturer, advocate, educator and author, and has been involved for many years with the San Francisco based Good Vibrations stores (more about them later) as a staff sexologist and Chief Cultural officer.
She and Dr. Robert Morgan Lawrence founded the Center for Sex and Culture, which is in a building on Mission Street. Carol Queen is the face of the Center for Sex and Culture, and moves about the place with boundless energy and enthusiasm.
From their Mission Statement: The Center for Sex & Culture is to provide judgment-free education, cultural events, a library/media archive, and other resources to audiences across the sexual and gender spectrum; and to research and disseminate factual information, framing and informing issues of public policy and public health. The Center for Sex & Culture aims to provide a community center for education, advocacy, research, and support to the widest range of people. We offer classes that run the gamut from informational to experiential. We host classes and cultural events as well as offer our space to other organizations and teachers as scheduling allows.
Chances are they will have some type of event or class when you are in town. They tend to be very inexpensive and a lot of fun. It is a great venue for live presentations. When we there we attended a story slam featuring sex workers describing their experiences in sex work. It was very interesting as well as very entertaining.
As an avid book collector with a decent sized library of books on human sexuality, their floor to ceiling covering all the walls library had me drooling. I really wanted to spend a long time going through the books, but instead, we spent the time before the show being social, chatting with the interesting people who showed up for this event.
Good Vibrations may be the most famous adult boutique in the country. It was founded in 1977 by sex therapist and educator Joani Blank as a woman-centered alternative to adult book stores. She literally wrote the book on vibrators with her Good Vibrations: The Complete Guide to Vibrators, published in 2000. She also wrote, along with Cathy Winks, one of the best general sex educations books ever, The Good Vibrations Guide to Sex: The Most Complete Sex Manual Ever Written. She has since left the business and it is now a worker cooperative.
They now have seven stores in the Bay area. Besides launching the concept of brightly lit women friendly adult boutiques, it is also an excellent store to shop for vibrators and other toys. Everyone working there is well trained, and the toys are out for you to play with and try (but to be clear, the demo models are not the ones for sale, and by try, we just mean turn them on). This place is so nice you’d probably feel comfortable bringing your mom to it, although you’d also probably skip the part where you watch her actually shop and ask sexually specific questions of the staff.
All of their stores are good, but might I suggest a visit to the one on Polk Street. The reason is because this is where the Antique Vibrator Museum is located. They feature vibrators from the late 1800s up to the 1970s.
San Francisco has a long history with Burlesque. Check out our Burlesque is Back article for some of the places you can go and see a modern burlesque show.
If something a little edgier and more completely naked is your cup of tea, San Francisco has a lot of strip clubs, and quite an interesting strip club history. Keep in mind that generally throughout California, if the women get naked, the club can not serve alcohol. It is assumed that the mere sight of breasts will not turn drinkers into uncontrollable lust craved savages, but get naked any lower than that and the drinking crowd will go mad. I am waiting for the peer reviewed studies on this.
There are plenty of modern clubs, but San Francisco also has clubs with a lot of history. One of the better known clubs, The Lusty Lady, just recently shut its doors a couple of months ago and we just missed it. It was the only unionized peep show, and was the subject of a documentary Live Nude Girls Unite.
One of the most iconic, and it is still in business, is the Mitchell Brothers O’Farrell Theater. It was founded by Jim and Artie Mitchell in 1969 and originally used as an adult movie house. By 1977 they featured dancers, and they introduced the concept of having a naked dancer sit in your lap for a $1 tip. That evolved into modern lap dancing, which they continue to have at the O’Farrell, but it can skyrocket into hundreds of times more than the original dollar.
They are the brothers who put Marilyn Chambers on the map with their adult movie Behind the Green Door. She got a huge amount of publicity for looks so innocent she had already appeared on an Ivory Snow soap box with the slogan “99 and 44/100’s % pure.” It was one of the earliest adult feature films, and the first to feature interracial sex. Costing just $60,000 to produce, it went on to earn more than $30 million. The sequel, also made by the Mitchell brothers and shot at their theater, was the first safe sex adult movie. It starred a former aide to Republican anti-porn crusader Senator Orrin Hatch. She had been active in Republican politics. With a budget of $250,000, it is considered the worst big budget adult film of all time and made almost no money. Jim often said that the only art in their movies was his brother.
Unlike at so many 70’s era massage parlors in San Francisco, the brother’s story did not have a happy ending. In 1991, Jim murdered his brother Artie. Jim was convicted of manslaughter and given three years in San Quentin. He died in 2007.
Don’t be taken in. The Hungry I strip club bought the name, but has nothing to do with the famous nightclub that launched so many show business careers. You can touch an important piece of exotic dancing history just four doors down, though. History was made at the Condor Club, and there is a plaque on the building commemorating it. The Condor Club sits on what is essentially a street of strip clubs.
The Condor Club made legendary dancer Carol Doda a star, and she continued dancing there until 1986, just before she turned 50. She passed away last year at the age of 78. In 1963 she became the first dancer of note to perform topless. Almost over night the other clubs in San Francisco went topless, and soon the entire nation (at strip clubs, I mean). The club went bottomless in 1969, becoming the very first fully nude strip club. Ever. In the world. Carol Doda was also the first well known performer to have her breasts artificially enlarged., going from 34 to 44.
The Condor Club is not your typical strip club. They have live music. The dancers only go topless, but that way they can provide a full service bar. They also have a full restaurant. You can get an artisan cheese and seasonal plate for $12. For $20, you can get a Grilled Certified Black Angus NY Steak
on a bed of Crispy French Fries with Herb Cabernet Sauce. Everything comes with a side of bare breasted ogling opportunities.
The Cake Gallery on 9th street is known for their willingness to make adult themed cakes, and they do it with relish. Actually, they do it with frosting, and their site shows off several examples of their surprisingly x-rated work.
If you don’t want your sexy to go, you might want to check out Our Gourmet Life. They offer Erotic Dinners on select days. It is an R- rated experience, not an X-rated one (Really! What were you thinking?) It focuses on the sensual. They allow singles, but they encourage couples. It is an experience, and experience often does not come cheap. The introductory dinner is $125 per person without wine pairings or $175 per person with wine pairings. The intermediate dinner is $300 per person, and it comes with wine pairings. You can learn more about what specifically takes place on the web site.
San Francisco has a very active BDSM and Swing scene. We did not make it to any of the clubs this trip, so we will leave that to a future article.
There is a tour that takes you into one of the major swing clubs, but before they open just to see what it is like. It is called The Sex in the City Tour, and it is billed as San Francisco’s Sexual Culture Tour. A bus picks you up from one of three locations, and it provides a guided tour through San Francisco’s sexual history as well as its sexual present. We did not do the tour, but if you like sex and history, and the feeling that you have learned some of the secrets of a major city, it looks well worth checking out.
Natasha Lynn and Princess Donna 2011 by Mikey Baratta
Armory lead photo from Armory Studios