Suburbs to Sex Fairs—Losing My Folsom Virginity

When I first saw I was assigned to go to the Folsom Street Fair, I let out a deep sigh — but not for the reason you would think.

As a sheltered child from the suburbs of Santa Clara, I assumed it meant making the trek up to Sacramento for what I thought would be a local carnival-type arts and crafts fair. In a roundabout way, I was right. A quick Google search told me that I wouldn’t have to drive three hours to the middle of nowhere, and that I would actually be attending one of the country’s largest BDSM, fetish and kink fairs. A wave of immense relief washed over me as I realized I wouldn’t have to spend the day in the central valley.

The Folsom Street Fair began in 1984 and is California’s third largest street event following the Tournament of Roses Parade and San Francisco Pride. The gay leather community began to grow in San Francisco following World War II when gay members of the military were discriminated against and discharged for their sexualities. Many settled in larger, coastal cities like San Francisco, which were known to be more liberal and accepting. 

Anyone is welcomed to participate in the activities at Folsom but the event finds its origins amongst members of the LGBTQ community during the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. As the AIDS crisis drove city officials to close bathhouses and regulate bars, the community rallied together to create a street fair that would be a safe space for community members and enthusiasts to educate and embrace themselves.

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My excitement only grew as I imagined what it would be like to be surrounded by folks who are empowered by the way they embrace and approach their sexuality. Growing up, my exposure to the BDSM community did not extend beyond the reaches of pop culture – media which often portrays a skewed and often inaccurate version of those it attempts to depict. These TV shows and movies exploit the violent nature of BDSM while excluding key elements of communication, emotional maturity, boundary setting and mutual trust from their audiences. The only expectation I maintained approaching the weekend was to go in with an open mind to allow myself to learn as much as possible about the tight knit community.

Upon arrival the enhanced security at this year’s event was apparent, particularly the increased police presence. It was hard to distinguish if they were officers or participants, the only indicator being their choice in orthopedic footwear (a fashion crime no one within the gates would commit.) After being greeted by the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, I proceeded to ditch my friends at bag check to explore the thirteen blocks of kinky festivities. I followed the sounds of cheering to the window of an apartment building where a sign read, “Fem/dom spitting- LOOK UP”. First and foremost, as a person who is pedantic about grammar and punctuation, I was already impressed. I was overjoyed when I saw a stunning Asian American woman aiming her spit at the open mouths of her group of admirers. Seeing someone that looked like me owning her sexuality outside of the “submissive and shy” narrative Asian Americans are almost always relegated to, was refreshing. I experienced a sense of comfort, knowing that I didn’t have to subscribe to the labels, expectations, or stereotypes in that space for the next few hours.

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The BDSM lifestyle is entrenched in trust among its participants which carries over into the way people conduct themselves throughout the fair.

Folsom Street Fair is the grand finale to “Leather Pride Week” and I was enamoured by the beautiful leather creations on display at every turn. Once I laid my eyes on a pink pair of handcuffs, I knew my life would never be the same; they were my favorite shade and would most definitely give my mother a heart attack- they were perfect. I saw people in full latex body suits, body harnesses, chastity cages and costumes of every kind. Most importantly, everyone had an air of contentment and confidence about them. People from all walks of life were in attendance, all of whom were authentic to themselves in their own variations of self expression. Most high school sex education programs barely cover basic human anatomy, much less teaching young adults about seeking pleasure in safe spaces in the same way Folsom does every year. The BDSM lifestyle is entrenched in trust among its participants which carries over into the way people conduct themselves throughout the fair. Signs were posted around the festival emphasizing the importance of asking individuals if taking their picture was okay and not touching people without obtaining their consent (which I think should be mandatory, festival or no festival.) Those who chose to go nude often covered their exposed areas when walking through crowds to avoid coming into contact with someone, or stood off to the side to soak in the experience without ruining anyone else’s. One of the dominatrixes, Maxine, whom I saw perform in a live demonstration is also the founder of the “Ask First” campaign, which aims to increase awareness about non-consensual behavior at BDSM festivals. More often than not, these behaviors are written off as “part of the show” and the “Ask First” campaign distributed stickers and temporary tattoos at last year’s festival as a reminder to people to be respectful first and kinky second.

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Being able to watch Maxine and her redheaded counterpart Barbary was the highlight of my week and left a lasting impression. Clad in leather and lace ensembles with shoes that would make Carrie Bradshaw jealous, they introduced themselves and some of the punishments they would be doling out to their submissive. To say I was in absolute awe of these women is a serious understatement. Their personalities were magnetic — even while spanking their respective submissives, they remained charming and charismatic in presentation. Even as an audience member, I felt included in their work as they showed us their favorite toys- including a cattle prod which they gleefully showed off in their performance.  They were glowing as they shared a glimpse into their world of pleasure, and as their confidence permeated through the air, I sensed that I could take over the world if I really wanted to. You knew these women were in control, not just in the bedroom but in every facet of their lives. That’s the beauty of it all. They were funny, warm, and overall badass – it was like I found the older sisters I had always wanted in life. After their performance, people lined up to greet them.

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The unspoken camaraderie, acceptance and support between everyone is as unique as its participants, and I feel privileged to have been apart of it this year.

The only fair assertion to make about BDSM is to say it is an art form. The intricate practice of tying a multitude of knots for both pleasure and functionality is something to be admired. Watching a live bondage demonstration felt like watching a live art installation; skilled hands manipulating yards of rope into a creation that seemed to take on a life of its own once completed. I felt as though I should thank the people around me for sharing their talents, craft, and creations with the world. It was as if I was a guest at a party where everyone welcomed me with open arms, even if I was a complete stranger. Upon leaving, I finally understood why it is called the BDSM community. The unspoken camaraderie, acceptance and support between everyone is as unique as its participants, and I feel privileged to have been apart of it this year. While Folsom is a large part of San Francisco culture, it is always important to remember the history of the event and its significance to LGBTQ visibility. I won’t say if I will be indulging in any of the activities, but I did leave feeling inspired to be authentic to myself and to enjoy the feeling of owning my own power.

// Read more Sounding Board stories here. Illustrations by Anthony Rogers. Have your own Folsom story? Send us a little email here.

Suburbs to Sex Fairs—Losing My Folsom Virginity
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