Oral histories

Tales of the early ’90s underground gay sex club scene

By Marke B.
Thousands of fantastically perverse revelers (most of them gay) will flood San Francisco for the Folsom Street Leather Fair on Sept. 23, ensuring that every cranny of the city brims with wanton copulation — which really is the way it should always be in our famously lewd burg, no? Too bad that for the other 364 days of the year, good ol' slutty San Francisco is considered by erotic tourists to be one of the most prudish cities in the world.
Unlike other civic dens of iniquity, San Francisco has no gay bathhouses, no sleazy back rooms in bars (well, none that the cops have sniffed out yet), and a dwindling amount of mischief in the bushes. This sorry state of affairs is due partly to the advent of Internet hookup sites in 1996 (thanks, AOL) and partly to the break in gay traditions caused by the loss of a generation to AIDS. But mostly it's due to the "sex panic" of 1984, when well-meaning gay activists looking to protect gay men from their supposedly unsafe urges convinced the city to ban all bathhouses and enforce rules that separated public sex from any sort of alcohol consumption and unmonitorable activity. Gay folks would just have to go to Berkeley to get wet and have sex. That may have made BART more fun, but for many it seemed like a forced expulsion from SF's sexual garden by Big Brother.
In 1996, gay city supervisor Tom Ammiano tried to get the baths reopened by proposing a set of HIV-risk-reducing regulations that included no private rooms, no alcohol consumption, safer-sex education materials and condoms on-site, brighter lighting levels, and the presence of staff monitors to ensure against unsafe activity. Pretty oddly, the city adopted most of his proposed regulations — leading to the rise of today's slick, commercially licensed sex clubs — but kept the bathhouse ban. This means that it's now OK to pay to have sex with strangers in a public setting, but if there's any kind of water running other than from a broken toilet, you're in trouble.
Whether or not gay men in San Francisco should be left to their own sexual devices is still a matter of polemical debate. Or is it? Not many people seem to talk about it anymore. But you can't stop the party. From 1989, when the last bathhouse was closed by a city lawsuit, to 1997, when San Francisco began using commercial licenses to approve sex clubs, a vibrant sexual underground ruled. Often subject to raids by police, the underground included anonymous-encounter mainstays like Blow Buddies and Eros, both of which opened on a members-only basis in hopes of circumventing any legal trouble. It also included less formal play spaces like the Church of Phallic Worship and Orgasm, naughty nooks that live on only in legend.
This dark period — or golden age — of underground sex clubs (and with the lights off, it was probably both) has largely been forgotten. But exciting tales of the past still issue forth from it, and with the current revival of ’70s bathhouse nostalgia, it's interesting to note that bathhouse culture extended well into the ’80s — yep, folks were dropping towel to Paula Abdul's "Cold Hearted Snake" — and poured out into the underground sex clubs of the early ’90s before being sucked toward the Ethernet of now. We asked a few of the scene's regular, anonymous players for their memories of some clubs of the time.
"You'd ring a little bell at this house a few doors down from the Powerhouse — tingaling-aling — and they'd open the door, and at the top of this long flight of thickly carpeted stairs, there'd be this guy sitting in a chair who would say in this flat, uncommitted voice, 'Welcome to my party. Friends tend to chip in $5 to help cover costs.

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