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Sex Panic

[whitespace] Power Exchange

A supposedly fun thing I'll never do again

By Michelle Goldberg

Depending on your persuasion, the Power Exchange smells like heaven or hell--it has a pungent, mushrooming, fermenting odor overlaid with the shrill synthetic sweetness of flavored condoms and lube and Designer Impostors perfume. The air is heavy with the thick tang of BO. It's hot and marshy inside, and you can feel your pores opening and the funk of the place oozing all over you, an experience that, depending on your persuasion, is either delicious or deeply disgusting.

I was there for Feast, a new party to be thrown at the Power Exchange every other month. Combining rough sex--there was public whipping, fucking and (though I missed it) fisting--bawdy cabaret, copious amounts of candy and finger food and a buffet served off of naked people, Feast aims to create a San Francisco satyricon, a whole new stratum of debauchery. I was excited to finally see the Power Exchange, the only sex club in San Francisco for men and women, heteros and homos. Feast put a veneer of trendiness over the sleaze and thus gave timid vanilla types like me easy entree into the perversity.

Composed of four floors with dozens of nooks and alcoves, the club itself is probably the most amazing space in the city. Walking in, you enter a lounge area with a small stage and tons of posters of '50s icons--James Dean, Marilyn, Elvis. Another room on the first floor is full of play jail cells, replete with toilets, benches and--for a fetish I can't even imagine--wheelchairs. A man was being fellated in one cell, but the rest were empty.

Downstairs was the dungeon, adorned with the usual assortment of leather benches and restraints, all of it surrounded by a chain-link fence with dozens of voyeurs crushed up against it. The third floor was the "electrified forest," a room decorated with fake evergreen boughs and teepees. There's a sex maze where, walking through, you pass numerous couples and trios fornicating in cubbyholes. You can stop and watch for a while, but eventually you want to get out of the way because there are people behind you. Kind of like at the zoo.

Because I'm the type to use journalism as a form of psychotherapy, I was at the Power Exchange to do more than enjoy a glimpse of adventure. I was there to confront my twisted feelings of appreciation, revulsion and resentment toward what is often called the sex-positive movement. While I'm all for debauchery, I've grown to loathe the swelling contingents of self-actualized strippers and New Age hookers and post-feminist porn stars and their relentless euphemisms that turn fucking into just another insipid branch of the self-help movement. And since I began living in San Francisco, I've come to realize that the only people who've ever made me feel really, really bad and guilty about my sexuality were the self-described sex radicals who wagged their fingers in my face and lectured me about my repression and the futility of monogamy.

Feast was a benefit for the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, an order of gorgeously flamboyant queens who raise money for sex-positive causes. Seeing them in their glory--hybrids, usually, of alien princesses, nuns and geishas--I wanted to believe and came as close as I can anymore to being converted.

See, the Sisters signify more than just glamorous blasphemy. They are the true avatars of sex-as-religion, a faith that's reached evangelical intensity of late. In her book Ferocious Romance, lesbian activist and Village Voice writer Donna Minkowitz draws parallels between those at the extremes of Christianity and sex-positivism, and if you substitute just a few words, you can see how right she is. Christians say we have to purge ourselves of sin; sex worshippers say we have to purge ourselves of hang-ups. Pentecostals glimpse God--a flash of the absolute--in the frenzy of prayer, while devout perverts see the divine at the moment of orgasm.

Through the prism of my own hang-ups, the Power Exchange itself began to look like a metaphor for the contradictions of fucking-as-faith. On the first and fourth floors, performers--drag queens and kings who sang all their own songs, a limp comedian, the sisters as MCs--exhorted us to take the dirtiness, the shame, guilt and menace out of sex, to set ourselves free. Downstairs in the dungeon, somber men and women brought the pain and humiliation back into sex--and put each other in chains.

Most of the people in the basement looked quite young. A hefty man in a ponytail, ruffled pirate shirt and leather pants turned his zaftig girlfriend over a leather bench and lightly whipped her bottom. On a bed to one side, a frumpy woman in glasses spanked a naked woman lying face down, using both hands and going quickly, as if she were tenderizing a steak.

In the room's center, a boy was tied down spread-eagle and gagged. Above him, a majestic bald androgyne named Caliban--he must have been seven feet tall--snarled and smiled, occasionally tweaking one of the clothespins on the boy's nipples. Wearing a bustier and leather pants that ended in deadly stiletto heels, Caliban would roughly massage the boy's crotch with his hard, shiny toes, while yet another man, the word TROUBLE emblazoned on his leather belt, drew a whip across his prostrate body.

In another corner, a middle-aged man, mustachioed and wearing a leather vest, tied his girlfriend's--or perhaps his wife's--hands to a pole and took off her top. Like him, she looked older, a weathered Barbie doll who was still beautiful but not at all fresh. She kept laughing, and her eyes darted around the room, and I kept wondering if this was her idea of fun or just something she did to please her man.

Unlike most of the spectators, they weren't dilettantes--one sensed that this is what they did, this was their life. The man obviously enjoyed showing off her tits, telling my photographer to snap as many pictures of her (but not him) as he liked. She must have been an exhibitionist too, but it still felt icky, a bunch of blasé hipsters being mildly entertained by the power dynamics between a lucky sadist and his aging prom queen. I wanted to cover her up with my coat, and then I felt guilty for being so condescending--surely she knows what she likes way better than I do.

What's happened to me that I can no longer tell the difference between exploitation and liberation? Here I was surrounded by flesh and fantasy, and all I could think about was going home, making a cup of tea and watching the rest of King Creole, the video I'd rented earlier. No doubt I'm blinded by my own uptightness, but the hedonism at Feast seemed heavy and methodical. You can pile pleasure on pleasure on pleasure, I think, but it may never equal joy.

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From the March 1, 1999 issue of the Metropolitan.

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