February 2009 Issue • Volume 37 • Issue 2

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09mtgLooking Forward to the 2009
Annual Meeting in San Francisco

Sex in the City:
A Sociological Sexual
History of San Francisco

by Siobhan Brooks, Lawrence University

The city of San Francisco could not be a better place for the 104th American Sociological Association Annual Meeting, with the theme "New Politics and Community." San Francisco is known for its progressive movements (Civil Rights Movement, Women’s Movement), including being open and inclusive toward sexuality. From the first free clinics to same-sex marriage to unionized strip clubs like the famous Lusty Lady, San Francisco leads the nation in a public sociology of sexuality.



San Francisco’s famous Castro Theater

In the early 1900s the Barbary Coast and its connection with the waterfront brought together encounters between sailors, prostitutes, and other transient people. These relationships carved an environment of sexually liberal lifestyles and later many pornographic businesses, such as strip-clubs, which are mostly located in San Francisco’s North Beach district.

Since the 1940s, San Francisco has been a haven for gay men (and to a lesser degree lesbians) attempting to avoid the oppressive treatment of gays and lesbians, which was rampant during the 1940s and 1950s. In San Francisco, after World War II, white flight occurred in the Castro, which was once a working-class Irish neighborhood that had experienced, like manuy other major cities at the time, the migration of many different groups. However, unlike the migration patterns in many cities that consisted of various racial groups migrating to urban areas for better jobs (i.e., Blacks migrating from the South to western and eastern cities), this migration was of queer people (mostly white but also some people of color) hoping to find acceptance and community in a homophobic country.

The first uprisings against police brutality that occurred among the queer community were actually not at the Stonewall Inn in New York City in 1969 as is commonly cited, but at Compton’s Cafeteria in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district in 1966. Compton’s Cafeteria was one of the few places transgender people met. Because they were not welcomed at gay bars, and cross-dressing was considered illegal, police would raid the Cafeteria. The riot started when a police officer attempted to arrest a transgendered woman after management called the police to report what was perceived to be a rowdy crowd. The woman threw coffee in the officer’s face sparking a riot that became a turning point for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) movement.

The 1960s

In the summer of 1967, as many as 100,000 hippies moved to San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury to establish and celebrate alternative lifestyles, which included communal living (free food and the establishment of free medical clinics), anti-capitalist values, psychedelic drug use, and the philosophy of free love and non-monogamous relationships. This became known as "the summer of love." However, San Francisco could not accommodate the increase of people. By the 1970s many of the alternative values that defined the hippie community diminished and were replaced by a drug-focused culture. Soon the Haight was plagued with drug abuse, violence, and homelessness as the original hippie population moved out.

During this time, San Francisco elected Harvey Milk, its first openly gay politician, who served as a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors until his assassination in 1978 (along with Mayor George Moscone) by another supervisor, Dan White. Promoting the famous "Twinkie Defense" argument, White’s defense attorney argued that White was not responsible for his actions; he cited disappointment in politics of City Hall and a junk-food diet as the reasons for committing the murder. White was acquitted of the murders and charged with voluntary manslaughter, promoting protest and riots, which were referred to as the "White Night Riots." Shortly after, the gay flag was created in 1978 by Gilbert Baker, in honor of the gay community. The recent film, Milk, staring Sean Penn, is an excellent portrayal of the life of Harvey Milk and the history of San Francisco’s Castro District.

Women’s Businesses, Public Eroticism, and Publications


Skyline of the City of San Francisco

The 1970s were also known for the birth of the second wave feminist movement, through which many rights for women were gained. New feminist businesses emerged, which focused on women feeling comfortable and empowered in their sexuality and engaging in sexual pleasure. Good Vibrations, a San Francisco sex toy store, was started in 1977 by sex therapist Joani Black as a women-centered alternative to adult bookstores offering videos and books about sexuality.

San Francisco is known for public sexuality, especially its leather and S&M communities, which emerged during the 1970s but has existed in the gay male community since the 1940s. Pat Califia (aka Patrick Califia), a transgender erotic fiction writer, founded the first lesbian leather subculture in 1978.

The 1980s outbreak of AIDS devastated the gay community nationally; the gay and lesbian community of San Francisco especially lost many members to the disease. The lack of funding for AIDS research and discrimination against people who were HIV-positive or had full-blown AIDS sparked queer activists and organizations, such as ACT-UP, which is still very active in the community.

Queer and feminist publications also expanded in the 1980s. Cleis Press was formed in 1981 in Minneapolis by Frédérique Delacoste and Felice Newman before moving to San Francisco. Some notable books published by Cleis Press are Sex Work: Writings by Women in the Sex Industry and The Whole Lesbian Sex Book. Cleis has published queer writers such as Susie Bright, Annie Sprinkle, Tristan Taormino, and Essex Hemphill. In 1984, the lesbian magazine On Our Backs, one of few erotic magazines catering to lesbians was started by Debi Sundahl and Nan Kinney as a response to the anti-pornography views of the feminist movement.

Sex Worker Activism

Sex worker activism in San Francisco dominated sexual politics of the 1990s as the service center expanded the number of women entering the sex industry. One of the first sex worker organizations in San Francisco was COYOTE (Cast Off Your Old Tired Ethics), which was founded in 1973 by ex-prostitute Margo St. James who argued that sex work should be viewed as just that, work, and that sex workers should be entitled to worker rights and protections.

The Lusty Lady Theater located in San Francisco’s North Beach District became the first strip club in the country to form a successful union in 1996. I am fortunate to have been part of this historic union movement while a college student at San Francisco State University. The dancers at the Lusty Lady unionized with SEIU Local 790 in response to racial discrimination in shifts, and to customers videotaping dancers without their permission through three one-way mirrored windows. The Lusty Lady still remains the only unionized strip club, but the union movement led to national organizing among exotic dancers. This is documented in the film Live, Nude, Girls, Unite!, written and directed by former Lusty Lady dancer and union organizer, Julia Query. The Lusty Lady is still unionized and is now also a worker-owned business.

Contemporary issues regarding sex and politics, such as gay marriage and the recent passage of California’s Proposition 8, which restricts marriage to a union between a man and a woman, have promoted activism within San Francisco’s queer community, and is reflective of the city’s rich history of counter-culture, public sexuality, and sexual politics. logo_small


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