Comes Naturally #71 (May 29, 1998):
The Proud Sexual Roots of San Francisco

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COMES NATURALLY #71 (May 29, 1998)
(c) David Steinberg



Playboy senior editor James Petersen came to San Francisco a few weekends ago, in the role of tour guide. Petersen gave up his long-standing post as the Playboy Advisor to focus on writing a "History of the Sexual Revolution" that has been appearing in Playboy for the past two years. Now he is on the road, promoting his series with city bus tours of sites where important events of sexual history have occurred. The San Francisco tour follows on the heels of similar excursions to sex-historical sites in New York and Washington, D.C., with a tour of Los Angeles due this fall. "This is where 25 years as the Playboy Advisor has gotten me," Petersen laughs, "to leading guided bus tours."

The local tour, an unabashed (and successful) attempt to garner press attention, provided an opportunity for Petersen to expound on the vagaries of San Francisco's long and colorful sexual history, tell a number of entertaining and eye-opening stories, and offer what proved to be a thoughtful overview of the various ways that sex has been expressed, regulated, controlled, confined, and emancipated over the past 100 or 150 years.

Petersen is a veritable fount of historical detail, juicy anecdotes, and social philosophy. "Each article [covering one decade from 1900 to the present] takes me about three months to prepare," he says. "I load up four shopping bags full of books, spend about six weeks reading, two weeks writing, and another month rewriting and editing."

The San Francisco tour paid passing homage to such local sex monuments as The Great American Music Hall (once a dance hall and brothel), the O'Farrell Theater (birthplace of high-budget sexual entertainment), the exclusive Bohemian and Olympia men's clubs, the Saint Francis Hotel (site of the 1921 Fatty Arbuckle sex scandal), the notorious Barbary Coast red-light district, North Beach (the birthplace of topless dancing), the Haight-Ashbury Free Medical Clinic, the Castro District's Twin Peaks Bar (first gay bar with indiscreet picture windows), the Libertarian Bookstore (where Californians Against Censorship Together long held their meetings), the home of COYOTE (the nation's foremost prostitute rights organization), and such centers of state-enforced sex regulation as the U.S. Customs Building and San Francisco City Hall.

On this particular tour, Petersen's historical patter provides entertaining and informative narrative as the bus makes its way from neighborhood to neighborhood with its small entourage of the sexually and historically curious souls -- press people plus a smattering of civilians. One young couple, who has won free tour tickets on a local radio station, aren't quite sure what they are in for, but by the end of the two hours they are quite glad for the experience.

We learn that the baroquely decorated Great American Music Hall, formerly The Music Box, has a long history as a dance hall and brothel owned by renowned stripper and fan dancer, Sally Rand. Rand, who performed her dances regularly at The Music Box, also performed nude with the whole world watching the celebrated 1939 Pacific Exhibition and World's Fair.

Petersen points across downtown Union Square to what was once the Barbary Coast sex district -- wall-to-wall brothels in the Gold Rush days, when San Francisco men outnumbered women fifty-to-one and the one major city west of St. Louis was indeed a wild and woolly place. Establishments with names like the Hotel Nymphia sported scantily-clad women sitting in every window, enticing men from the streets to join them. Eventually, Petersen explains, the respectable people of San Francisco closed the Barbary Coast down, but they needed a wave of moral hysteria to do it. The red-light abatement campaign that swept the nation shortly after the turn of the century came in the wake of sensationalized reports of a basically non-existent White Slave Trade corrupting innocent young girls into prostitution. The San Francisco reformers triumphantly renamed the most notorious street of brothels virginal Maiden Lane, now famous for its elegant and impeccably reputable restaurants and boutiques.

Across Union Square from the site of the old Barbary Coast sits the nowelegant Saint Francis Hotel, site of the Fatty Arbuckle sex scandal of 1921. It seems that Arbuckle, in San Francisco to film a movie, enjoyed filling his room with ladies of the night when not on set. After one of his debauches, a young woman suspiciously died. Arbuckle was accused of killing her. He was tried three times, producing two hung juries before he was finally acquitted. (The final jury went so far as to apologize to Arbuckle for his inconvenience.) Although legally vindicated, Arbuckle's acting career was destroyed by the scandal and the film industry was so embarrassed that it wrote a code of moral behavior for actors that was written into film contract for years thereafter. This practice of legislating what show people did with their private time led to the church-dominated Legion of Decency which managed to severely restrict sexual activity shown in films for decades, and lives on today in the motion picture rating system.

Nationally, the legislative outcome of the White Slave Trade scare was the Mann Act of 1910, the first Federal attempt to regulate consenting sexual behavior among adults. The Mann Act made it illegal to cross state lines for extramarital sexual purposes, no matter how consensual the sex might be. A couple from San Francisco, trysting in Reno, for example, were subject to arrest unless they were married. Indeed, Petersen explains, the FBI was first organized for the purpose of enforcing the provisions of the Mann Act. "So you see," he notes with a wry smile, "it was the regulation of sex that gave us J. Edgar Hoover."

While sex has often had its effects on broader social history, Petersen observes, so have broader social issues impacted sexual attitudes and practices. When immigrants began flooding into the United States around 1910, for example, they brought with them attitudes about sex far more liberal than those of the starchy Americans. The country was in an uproar. Expanding American industry needed the cheap labor that immigrants provided, but the good patricians were scared to death of being overrun by foreigners -- particularly dark-skinned foreigners -- and their distinctly foreign ideas. "One of the most frightening foreign ideas," says Petersen, "was non-procreative sex."

The battle against foreign influence was virulent and widespread. Inflammatory racial and ethnic stereotypes were trumpeted everywhere. But when World War I put millions of American young men in Europe, far from their wives and girlfriends, the battle against foreign ideas -- at least foreign sexual ideas -- was lost forever. "How ya gonna keep 'em down on the farm once they've seen Paree?" popular culture asked. Indeed, once these hordes of sex-deprived neophytes were introduced to the wonders of "French sex," there was no way they were going to give up their newly discovered pleasures at home, no matter how many states had laws defining oral sex as an act against nature. War had enlarged the American sexual experience once and for all.

The sexual tour bus stops at City Lights Books in North Beach. It was City Lights poet and visionary Lawrence Ferlinghetti who published "Howl," the long celebrated poem of his good friend Allen Ginsberg in 1957. "Howl" was prosecuted as obscene shortly after it was published (as was Lenore Kandel's beautiful little book of sacramental odes to sex, "The Love Book"), but in fine San Francisco tradition, both Ginsberg and Kandel were exonerated.

We get out to stretch our legs and take a short walking tour through North Beach, home of the Beat revolution against social conformity in general, and sexually hypocrisy in particular. Outside the Condor Bar, a stone's throw from City Lights, Petersen points out the bronze plaque that proudly commemorates the spot where Carol Doda kicked off the nation's topless dance craze in 1958, expanding to full on-stage nudity in 1959.

"San Francisco has always had sex as a visible part of the landscape," Petersen admires. "San Francisco has always protected sexual diversity and made it visible," whether by hosting the Barbary Coast of the 19th century, or more recently by being home to the Summer of Love, by serving as a "Mecca" for gays and lesbians tired of being secretive about their sexual orientation, or by continuing as the unparalleled current capitol of sexual exploration, erotic publishing, and freely accessible sex information and tools.

As the bus descends from the heights of Twin Peaks, Petersen points towards Good Vibrations, San Francisco's distinctively woman-friendly sex store, where the idea that women as well as men should be entitled to unabashedly pursue sex for pleasure was given both a voice and an outlet twenty years ago by founder Joani Blank. Joani Blank and her philosophy of open and unfettered celebration of women's sexual prerogatives, says Petersen, has validated women's pursuit of sexual pleasure on their own terms as being as important as any other aspect of feminism. "Who," Petersen wonders aloud, "do you think has done more for women, overall -- Gloria Steinem or Joani Blank?" The answer, he claims, "would have to be Joani Blank."

"The world," Petersen summarizes, "is divided into two camps: Those who think that sex controls you, and those who think that you can control sex. People who think that sex controls you have to be afraid of sex and seek to regulate it at any cost. But those who think that you can control sex are free to welcome and enjoy sex fully."


Driving around San Francisco, listening to Petersen's tales, placing current sexual dilemmas into historical context, is a surprisingly cathartic experience. In the same way that the historical place of women and African Americans has been rendered largely invisible by white male historians, so has the appreciation of sex as a significant historical force been undermined by antisexuals who understand the societal importance of sex only when it is a threat to health, safety, or the rational control of human behavior.

Understanding changing sexual fashions and attitudes over time -- seeing how sexual issues have influenced and been influenced by other major social and political questions throughout history -- is, in part, a way of reclaiming a suppressed cultural heritage, not unlike the way that African Americans, or women, or Jews, or Native Americans, have been enriched and validated by connecting with their own unacknowledged cultural and historical traditions.

The sexual issues that are such an important social and political battleground in these times are issues that others have faced before us. Resistance to oppressive sexual prohibitions and constraints was not invented in the 1960's. The struggle to pursue and legitimatize sexual joy and pleasure in the face of a culture that tries to relegate sexual pleasure and diversity to social and historical fringes has been raging for hundreds of years. So-called sexual "deviance" has a history as colorful, varied, and profound as the history of resistance to slavery, or the social movements of women struggling for gender equality. As far back as Colonial America -- as well as in earlier European societies -- there has always been a well-developed underground supporting sexual expression outside the narrow confines of antisexual propriety. And the interface between that underculture and the attempts of church and state to suppress and control it has shaped not only sexual expression itself, but all other social, political, and economic issues as well.

Once sexual issues are placed in proper historical context, sex itself gains a degree of social and political legitimacy and respect that is otherwise easily lost. If sexual deviance has always existed as an important social phenomenon, it becomes impossible, for example, to dismiss contemporary sexual experimentation as the mere diddling of irresponsible hedonists, or to write off social upheavals like the sexual blossoming of the 60s and 70s as incidental psychedelic wrinkles on an otherwise bland and homogeneous social landscape.

As long as religiously and state-mandated sexual regulation denies the sexual reality of a major proportion of men and women, organized sexual "deviance" is here to stay, with roots as deeply embedded in this patriotic American soil as those of any blue-blooded Son or Daughter of the American Revolution.

Now, let's see, where's that petition to have September 23, the birthday of Victoria Woodhull -- outspoken suffragist, free-love advocate, sometime prostitute, and the first woman to run for President of the United States -- declared a national holiday?

[This column was originally published in Spectator Magazine (see If you would like to receive Comes Naturally columns, and other writing by David Steinberg, regularly via email, send your name and email address to David at Columns are sent as blind carbon copies, meaning that no one will have access to your name or email address.]

David Steinberg
P.O. Box 2992
Santa Cruz, CA 95063
(831) 426-7082
(831) 425-8825 (FAX)

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