Featured Organization: Center for Sex & Culture
When was the Center for Sex & Culture founded, and why?
Carol Queen (Executive Director and Co-Founder): The idea for CSC was developed in 1994 when founders Robert Morgan Lawrence and I were visiting erotic artist and “Mother of Masturbation” Betty Dodson in New York; we discussed the lack of places in the Bay Area for her workshops and she said, “You kids should start a place.” We realized she was right — we were involved in many communities (San Francisco Sex Information, The Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality, Good Vibrations, among others) and had a big archival collection of books and ephemera ourselves. The initial idea was to collect important materials and make a space for sex education and cultural events for people across the sex and gender spectrums — essentially the function we serve today.
Tell us a little bit about your archive.
Miss Ian (Librarian and Archivist): Our archive is a special one because it holds onto much of the history of sexual activism and education, produced mostly in San Francisco, which includes manuscripts, photography, correspondence, drawings, zines, ephemera, personal belongings (whips, boots, caps, buttons, paddles, etc.).
Dorian Katz (Gallery Director): The relationship between sex and communities is tangible in the archive. By keeping safe the collections of individuals who built sexual subcultures together, we preserve these multilayered histories. The culture-making of the 1970s and 1980s women’s BDSM community is a terrific example — several key ideas on sexuality commonly accepted in contemporary feminism were first explored and fought for by this group.
Preserving the thinking and histories of these groups is of value to contemporary thinkers and part of how we move forward as a culture. We hope future generations do not have to reinvent the entire wheel.
Miss Ian: To highlight a few things: We have a collection of porn posters from the Golden Age of porn:
And a collection of safe sex posters created during the height of the HIV crisis:
We have a large collection of porn star and censorship activist Nina Hartley’s fan mail:
The archive holds large personal collections from BDSM community figureheads Larry Townsend and Patrick Califia. We have meeting minutes and original manuscripts from the women’s BDSM community in SF, two filing cabinets full of erotic, artistic, perverted, informative, and empowering zines, and many shelves of decades’ worth of erotic pulp books.
What do you see as the relationship between sex and culture, and what are some of the ways this relationship plays out at the CSC?
Carol: I think in a country with really poor sex education, cultural tropes and products become THE major way people learn about sex and come to terms with their opinions about sex. It’s extremely important to retain this information (library and archive-wise) so we can understand what the cultural influences have been. Plus, each cultural event we support brings a sex-positive or interestingly complicated way to consider sex and gender.
Miss Ian & Dorian: A lot of us don’t see ourselves represented in public education or mass media, which can make us feel very confused and lonely. At CSC, we organize open communication, creativity, art, and sexual dissidence. Finding out who and what you are, learning what gives your body and other bodies pleasure is activism always. We foster a safe space for that exploration. And through that and our programs we create culture.
You’ve described your space as intersectional; could you explain what that means to you, and discuss some of the possibilities and problems that come with serving a variety of audiences?
Carol: For us intersectionality includes a broad awareness and respect for diversity, and embedded in that is trying to serve as diverse a community (really communities!) as we can. This awareness involves race, class, culture, varying sexual orientations/interests, gender identities… basically, we understand our big-picture goal as trying to serve as widely as we can. Of course we’re challenged in doing it sometimes because intersectionality is a big and complex thing, and so much cultural access, even in the sexual realm, centers a certain kind of person: white, educated, often cis.
Miss Ian: I totally agree with Carol, and in my personal experience, on top of all that intersectionality is also Age. Our library and gallery bring people with alternative sexualities from different generations together in one room. It’s always very inspiring to 1) meet the people who have made it possible for myself and others to exist more openly, and 2) to listen to all the firsthand accounts and filthy stories that make me feel like my future isn’t aimless.
Carol: People are so accustomed to participating with members of their own sex/gender identity community that we constantly hear things like, “I thought that was a gay space.” “I thought that was a straight space.” And so on. It’s not as normative as we’d like to think for people to gather across these lines, especially in a space where sexuality will be discussed directly.
These are difficult times for art and cultural organizations, particularly smaller ones. What is the greatest challenge you face?
Carol: Getting the word out.
Miss Ian: And now more than ever, just like many artists and nonprofits in the city, it’s our ever-rising rent.
Dorian: Also being taken seriously as an arts organization. We show remarkable art being made now and all kinds of materials from the archive. Because lots of people don’t want to deal with sex for a variety of reasons, many foundations don’t want to fund us, and our credibility as a respectable arts organization is undermined. Groundbreaking art comes from the margins.
What does an average week or month of programming look like?
Dorian & Carol: It varies month to month, but we have workshops with Midori about Rope Dominance and How to Eat Pussy with Ali and Mina; literary events like Writing Ourselves Whole, TMI Story Telling, Perverts Put Out, Sex Worker’s Writing Workshop, and Erotic Reading Circle; then throw in some film screenings, panels, play parties, fashion shows, fundraisers, about six inspiring gallery openings a year, and weekly library/gallery hours every Tuesday (which usually includes a screening of a film from our archive).
Miss Ian: Some of the things I adore are: We are the only publically accessible library/gallery with stripper poles (to my knowledge). AND there is a group of homosexual men who set up wrestling maps and grapple each other. It gives you this warm feeling to be sitting between a wall of books on all types of sexuality and expression and a wall of sexually progressive art, watching a bunch of large, beautiful, grown men spend their free time after work wrestling their friends for a few hours.
What should we be asking you?
Carol: What does a venue like CSC add to the culture of San Francisco? In my mind, it consolidates everything that has made SF a pioneering city for people to live in as themselves, sex-and-gender-wise, especially during times when not everyone elsewhere has had that privilege. Just as we understand the role this city (and the greater Bay Area) has played in the LGBT movement, the same is true for many other sexual subcultures.
San Francisco has given us Good Vibrations, San Francisco Sex Information, COYOTE and the modern US sex workers’ rights movement, the diverse and vibrant BDSM community, and so much more. We are the venue where all these communities, entities, and threads of history connect, because sexuality in culture and society can’t be understood in a siloed fashion. And this is, frankly, a moment when some of our gains are being called into question. A place for people to gather, one that preserves our history, is needed more now, in some respects, than it was the day we opened our doors.