San Francisco, that 49-square mile thumb hitching a ride in the fog, an extremity of American thought and geography, is the perfect home for an institution like the Center for Sex & Culture [CSC]. I spoke with another institution, its co-founder, Dr. Carol Queen.
“Our culture tends to decouple sex from everything else,” she says in the meeting room of the Center’s new home on the corner of Mission and Grace Street. “But San Francisco’s history is uniquely tied to its sense of sexuality.”
Amond Queen’s greatest hits are her books “The Leather Daddy And the Femme” and “Exhibitionism for the Shy” (which was translated into Chinese, which I think will prove to be a cultural game changer), her prominent place in the history of pioneering adult retailer/tastemaker Good Vibrations, and her “Bend Over Boyfriend” video series. She is also tremendously accessible as a mentor and as a Bay Area cultural cheerleader.
Queen cited San Francisco’s birth as “The Barbary Coast” following the discovery of gold in 1849.
“It’s the Gold Rush town ‘where men danced with men and the women were whores,'” she says. “It’s the bawdyhouses in one century and the Summer of Love in the next, as well as the Beats who preceded that in the 1950s. [Author and historian] Susan Stryker also pointed out that San Francisco was a muster-out point for soldiers in World War II, and there was a hospital here to “treat” gay veterans, many of whom looked around and decided they liked it here.”
“So they weren’t cured?” I ask, horrified at the waste of my tax dollars.
“San Francisco would not be the city, the sexual city that it is, without the gay infrastructure.”
The Mission/Grace location in the fifth for the Center, Queen says, and the building has historically house a foundry, a church, and a clinic. Today, its event calendar full, CSC hosts several writing groups and readings series, classes, workshops, performances, and art installations (there are currently several prints and objects on display from Annie Sprinkle’s Ecosexual project). There is also a tremendous film and video archive as well as several years of San Francisco’s groundbreaking Spectator (the Bay Area’s more highbrow but just as dirty answer to Screw) and ten years’ worth of fan letters to Nina Hartley.
San Franciscans get away with things that would never fly anywhere else in America, except maybe New Orleans.
A visitor can’t help but notice that Kink.com, 220,000 square feet of controlled vice and depravity, is housed at San Francisco’s Armory, a former National Guard fortress that’s on the National Register of Historic Places. They even give tours. Can you imagine Jesse Jane leading a college class around Digital Playground’s historically restored adobe structure, or Ginger Lynn showing Vivid’s art collection to visiting dignitaries?
But Queen is quick to point out that San Francisco embodies living history and a mutable cultural dynamic.
“At the same time, you can’t go to the corner of Haight and Ashbury anymore to find the Summer of Love,” Queen says. “That ship has sailed. Instead, you have to go to Burning Man.”
(Queen calls this sort of dislocated pilgrimage “Deep Tourism.”)
Queen and her partner, Dr. Robert Lawrence, launched the CSC several years ago. At first it was an idea and a series of events held at rented halls. It then took shape in larger and larger leased offices, some that were more suitable than others. The current location just feels right, though; Lawrence laid a massive parquet floor that, along with the combination of deep chairs, church pews, and heavy BDSM equipment, makes the venue look like a timeless boardwalk dance hall.
I mention to Queen that San Francisco already seems—at least by comparison with Los Angeles—a city comfortable in its own diversity, even if there is a tendency for historically marginalized groups to themselves become exclusive.
“It is,” she says, “and there are plenty of places people can go to be with their own tribe. But our goal for the Center is to create a place that unites rather than separates.”
“Is there a chance that you do this job of inclusivity and illumination so well that you work yourself out of existence?” I ask.
“Yes,” Queen says, “but not for a really long time, and that would be a good problem to have, eventually.”
But now there is the very real challenge of making the CSC sustainable independent of the magnetism of Queen and Lawrence, who are themselves beloved of many San Francisco communities.
“For one thing,” Queen says, “we’ve got to ease out of the ‘All Volunteer Love Army’ model, where I take a check I got yesterday from a donor, run it to the bank this morning, and then pick out a bill to pay; where I can transition from Director to [Emeritus]; where we have a Director of Collections and a Librarian; where Robert and I don’t succumb to Founder’s Syndrome.”
But there’s a lot to do in the new building before any of that happens, like sort out the screening room, clean the lobby, organize dozens of boxes of San Francisco’s sexual history.
How can people help the Center?
“The first thing you can do is come here and visit,” Queen says. “We are always open to donations, but you’ve got to come here to see what you’re donating to.”
Previously on Porn Valley Observed: Annie Sprinkle invites the Moon to her marriage; Madison Young turns your guilty masturbation into art
See also: Carol Queen, Center for Sex & Culture