Folsom Street Fair

“The world is not divided into people who have sexual fetishes and people who don’t. There is a continuum of responses to certain objects, substances, and parts of the body, and few people can disregard these and still enjoy having sex.”

This quote from Pat Califia exemplifies fetishes and why we have them, and no fetish community is more prominent than the BDSM community, with its harrowing triple acronym (bondage & discipline, domination & submission, sadism & masochism) that includes most all fetish and kink acts. There is also no larger
BDSM fair than the Folsom Street Fair held in San Francisco. With the fair comes 400,000 visitors who are into all sorts of things, including leather, bondage, sadomasochism, drag, and petplay, to name a few.

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The Folsom Fair itself can be traced back to the origins of leather culture, which is a huge part of the BDSM community and one of the earliest communities for those into BDSM. Leather culture started in San Francisco in part because of the blue discharge, a discharge from military service for being gay. With these came multitudes of gay men who were dropped off in San Francisco and decided ‘why not just stick around.’ Among the areas that became popular among gay men in this early San Francisco, from the mid-40s on through the 80s were the Embarcadero and Folsom. By the 70s there were 30 different leather bars, leather clubs, and leather merchants on Folsom Street.

An extensive list of what each color and placement represents in hanky code

From this time the hanky code also originated, an excellent example of the structure that the leather community, and typically other kink communities, take on to communicate desires and rules. The hanky code is where someone has a colored hanky on their person, with the color and the placement indicative of what they are interested in, placement on the left meaning they are a top, and placement on the right meaning they are a bottom. Some common colors are red for fisting, grey for bondage, and black for s&m. Parallels can be drawn between this informal but almost official set of guidelines with Califia’s explanation of the guidelines the dictate public sex and turn it into more of a “quasi-public” act. Folsom can certainly be identified as quasi-public, as it occurs in the open but is confined to several blocks that are cordoned off so nobody just wanders in. To those inside Folsom though, everything is more public, which is part of the appeal of the fair. Being present at the fair is participation in some form, and as Justin Bond said in Shortbus, “voyeurism is participation.”

What is the appeal of Folsom and BDSM anyway? In Califia’s article “Feminism and Sadomasochism” she states that: “wearing leather, rubber, or a silk kimono distributes feeling over the entire skin. The isolated object may become a source of arousal. This challenges the identification of sex with the genitals.” Certainly appropriate, as the BDSM community deals with fetishes and fetishes by definition are sexual arousal towards something other than genitals. This erotic sensation that can be had from wearing leather and rubber underlies the BDSM community and the Folsom fair, with many participants wearing some or mostly leather and/or rubber. This challenge of arousal at the genitals also extends to other sub-categories of BDSM, most notably petplay. Petplay is a very common sight within Folsom, either very obviously, like wearing the gear that is involved in petplay, to more subtlety, like wearing a collar. Petplay also tackles on the idea of arousal and affection being directed at something other than the genitals. The arousal can come from the dominant and submissive roles that the two partners engaging in the act take on, it can also come from the intimate moments that are shared within the action. These moments also skew the classic sense of what is romantic and erotic by replacing verbal action with non-verbal action such as petting, holding, or stroking. Within this subset we can also find guidelines and rules established by the community, like collar etiquette. If one is wearing a collar, at Folsom or outside of it, one is assumed to have a partner. For those who like wearing collars but who do not have a partner or are not exclusive, having a collar with an open lock signifies this. Within this community and all the communities at Folsom rules and codes create an ordered environment where everyone can have safe and erotic fun.

Someone in full pony gear engages in an aspect of pony play at Folsom, pulling the dominant partner in a cart

Folsom stands out as a very intimate fair that challenges many norms. It is a BDSM fair that occurs outdoors, where many would consider such acts inappropriate. It also has a very large attendance which may contradict those who think that BDSM is a fringe thing and that fetishes are not common among people. The fair itself stands to challenge norms and it also establishes its own norms which is a wonderful thing in itself. On top of this all, the fair raises money for charity so head on out to it with your best leather and rubber gear because you are doing so for a good cause.

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