The news broke in mid-July via an article in San Francisco’s landmark LGBT paper, The Bay Area Reporter: A fire department inspection had found code violations in the performance space located at 1519 Mission Street sufficient to close it down. The situation was compounded by the fact that the second-floor was shared by two tenants: a queer theater company, Mama Calizo’s Voice Factory, and The Center for Sex and Culture (CSC).
The CSC’s founding directors, Carol Queen and Robert Lawrence, both hold doctorates in human sexuality from the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality. Queen is also noted for her fiction and nonfiction work (her best-known book may be the how-to Exhibitionism for the Shy.) She’s also taught classes nationwide and appeared in numerous educational videos including the landmark Bend Over Boyfriend. (Lawrence also appeared in that video and often co-presents with Queen.)
Change of Venue
In 2007 when the CSC moved into the Mission Street space, it seemed like the perfect match. Karma. Previously, the building had been home to the Jon Sims Center for the Performing Arts, another noteworthy queer performance group that had nurtured such projects as the spoken-word series, SF in Exile.
The Sims Center had grown out of the work of Jon R. Sims, founder of both the San Francisco Freedom Marching Band and the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus. (Sims himself was an early casualty of the AIDS epidemic, dying in 1984.) Following a financial scandal and the subsequent dissolution of its board, in 2006, The Sims Center closed its doors.
The CSC was glad to have the opportunity to bring history full circle, but much as they’d hoped for a long run, when Mama Calizo vacated the premises, Queen and Lawrence knew they couldn’t carry the rent themselves—plus, there were still those fire code violations to be dealt with. So they began searching for a new home.
This is the third move for the CSC since its launch. Lawrence explains that their prior relocations were due largely to bad luck. “The CSC hasn’t had any problems meeting its financial obligations. We pay our rent,” he emphasizes. “We’re good at it.”
In one case, however, while the building’s landlord was okay with the CSC’s activities in theory, when push came to shove and another tenant complained, it was the CSC that was asked to leave.
Queen is realistic about the situation. “If someone else in a shared building situation gets tweaked,” she says, “then the landlord is not very likely to come down on behalf of the person who’s having sex; they’re going to come down on the side of the person who’s uncomfortable about it.”
Getting Off for the Cause
The hands-on component of some CSC events is one factor that makes finding a new space so challenging, even in an economic downturn where thousands of square feet of commercial space lie vacant all over San Francisco. “People assume having explicit sex is illegal,” says Queen. “It’s not. But it’s hard to insure, and it’s hard to talk to prospective landlords about. And they might be okay with a bunch of cute young girls having sex, but if it’s The Jacks, or the Men’s Fisting Club… There’s a level of homophobia, sometimes kink phobia or radical sex phobia that’s part of the mix.”
The CSC’s highest-profile event is the annual Masturbate-a-Thon, during which volunteers gather together to Jack and/or Jill off to raise funds for the CSC’s programs. Organized like a tongue-in-cheek pledge drive, contestants vie for the longevity record. Guest appearances by sexual celebrities such as Jiz Lee, April Flores, and Nina Hartley are also featured. Voyeurs are invited to watch for a fee, and the proceedings are often broadcast on a live web-feed as well.
While hands-on sex classes and events are only a portion of the CSC’s activities, they’re an essential one. “Hands-on classes always seem to get great feedback, as well as wonderful participation and questions from the audience,” says Shannon Katz, a sex educator who’s taught CSC classes on polyamory and fisting. “Learners see more of what is going on, get a better idea of negotiations and safety, and it helps them retain more of the information because [it’s] also on a visual level.”
“Some people aren’t ready for experiential events,” Queen admits. “It’s extremely important to meet people where they are.” That’s why the CSC also offers lectures, panel discussions, film screenings, writing workshops and erotic readings.”
Another important facet of the CSC’s work is the archive and library, both of which are accessible to the public. “There are two or three other collections that are sex-related that live in universities, but we’re the one that lives out in the community,” says Queen.
There's No Place Like Home...
Dina Fayer, Assistant Director of Operations at the CSC, reflects that the public aspect is both a great asset, and part of the problem. “What it comes down to is that the Center is public. Anyone can come and apply to look at it. It’s not exclusive. And that’s sort of part of the issue: We’re nobody’s pet project. We’re not marginalized as a people, but we are marginalized as a subject matter.”
Queen and Lawrence note they’ve had pressure from grant-makers to remove the word “Sex” from their name. “We were told by one major funder in San Francisco, ‘If you just changed your name and kept your mission, we could get you grants.’” Queen adds that charitable organizations—that must answer to board members—often balk for the same reason.
If and when the CSC finds a sympathetic landlord, there’s yet another hurdle to clear: the space
End Violence Against Sex Workers Vigil
Naked Girls Reading
(For more information on events/donations, visit: www.sexandculture.org.)] requirements for a hands-on sex education organization are somewhat unusual. “To be a proper sex space,” says Lawrence, “they have to have hot and cold water—and lots of it—[for] a shower, a tub, two showers, a mop sink, something you can rinse in. And a kitchen—not a full kitchen, but something you can produce and serve some kind of food in. A space between hospital and restaurant and club fits what we do.”
Ideally, in their next home, the CSC will have all of those things—and, of course, fire exits. “The people who have been most helpful and most cooperative, who really don’t care what we do here, are the fire department. The San Francisco Fire Department has been behind us 100 percent,” says Lawrence. “Inspectors, come on down any time, wear your uniform, you’ll be welcome.”
Light at the End of the Tunnel
Queen, who calls herself “the eternal optimist of the group,” looks forward to what the future will bring for the CSC. “When one door closes, another opens,” she says, “and it’s pretty exciting to us to have the potential option for a storefront, where we could put a sign in the window to say who we are. And also, to have a real [disabled] accessible space, because so far we’ve never been able to afford one.”
The organization is currently in negotiations with a new landlord. “While we’ll still need to work with the city permitting process to make sure it will have a large enough capacity,” says Queen, “our fingers are crossed.”
If everything works out, the CSC will begin the process of packing up the library and fundraising for move-related needs.” The CSC is accepting donations, both to help cover upcoming moving expenses and to support their ongoing operations. Lawrence says that the CSC thrives on small donations from individuals who “give little bits of money to keep us alive. It’s the little angels that keep us happy.”