The corner of Jones and Turk is being rebranded the “Uptown Tenderloin,” but it’s still a pretty solid vice district, a last frontier in our jewel city. There’s an SFPD station up the block at Eddy, but with open drug sales a block away, it might as well be the Alamo. Halfway between patrol and peddle is the Power Exchange, San Francisco’s last mixed sex club.
I’d been to the Power Exchange before at its original SOMA location, a cavernous warehouse of libidinous activity, with floors varied by orientation and gender. There are other such clubs in the city, but they cater either to gay men like me (Eros on Market, Blow Buddies on Harrison) or are private institutions, often with a leather theme (the SF Citadel). Only the Power Exchange takes all comers.
Perhaps it’s fortuitous that the Power Exchange settled at 220 Jones, a building that’s had sex in its DNA: In the ’60s, it was home to the Screening Room, the theater that launched America’s porno boom. For the past year, I’ve been shooting a documentary, Smut Capital of America, about San Francisco’s reign in the early ’70s. I want to pay my respects to a location that’s housed some of the city’s most notorious fleshpots.
It’s two dodgy blocks from Market till I reach the Power Exchange’s front door. The bouncer gives me the run down: "It's a sex club. Be respectful. No phones. No cameras. No smoking."
The old venue was divided like a Kinsey scale, with gay and straight on different floors and a couple’s area as a bridge. This new spot is entirely mixed, and I steady myself for a little muddling. As a gay man, I’m used to all-male environments, but I’m prepared for a challenge here.
Inside, it’s bright with black light. After paying my money ($40 for men; $20 for couples; free if you’re wearing a dress), I push through the curtain, grabbing lube that’s packaged in clear plastic containers like take-out ketchup, and a handful of condoms.
The Power Exchange took over the troubled Pink Diamonds “gentleman’s club” last year, and a long tongue of lighted runway, pierced by a stripper pole at the end, still remains. As my eyes adjust, I see that a naked man in wedge sandals is wiping the stage with Windex. Though his actions aren’t exactly erotic, he’s fully erect.
It’s early, 11 p.m., but still I’m surprised at how tame the mood is. Most people are still fully clothed, and some wouldn’t be out of place at a Boggle tournament. A few are wearing swatches of leather.
On the couch, a couple that could be Edith and Archie Bunker are holding hands. Other people mill about uncertainly – an older woman and younger men; a big blond with a Latino boyfriend; a couple of single guys. I’m acutely aware that I’m one of the latter, and I scan the room for possibilities.
Finally, a woman – black, mid-forties, dressed for a ladies’ night out – climbs onto the stage and begins dancing. She keeps her back to the pole, slides down it with her hands behind her head to keep balance, and when she reaches a squat position, spreads her legs. A few people turn to watch, but with the noncommittal interest afforded to an opening act.
I see a tall blond woman with a short black boyfriend heading down a staircase, and I follow them.
Downstairs is a series of playrooms all doused in black light. Each room has been painted with neon colors and is decorated by theme: Egyptian, Halloween, Medieval. The couple disappears quickly, but it's easy to find the action. I see a group of men crowd around the doorway of a room with South of the Border décor. I hear heavy sex play, but all I can see is a sombrero on the wall.
I jockey for a bit, trying but failing to get a glimpse. At another room – this time it’s the Egyptian – I find a smaller crowd and a better view. A woman in a corset gives an older man a lap dance. He slaps her ass and she grinds on him. Skin presses into skin, but even with a direct shot, I still catch less than a pornographer’s camera could.
Men crowd around me in the musty air, but they’re just trying to get a look at the action. I’d been hoping I might stumble upon a wayward husband with a curious wife, but so far I’m defaulting to the role of voyeur.
At the back of the warrens, however, there’s a dark room with porn playing. On-screen, there’s a woman having sex, and two men are masturbating in her general direction, but I suspect she’s just a decoy. I’m right. As soon as I walk in, one of the guys turns and gives me a heady stare. I stare back.
I stay in the darkness for a while, but eventually move on. Sex clubs are a constant cruise, and even momentary commitment is fleeting. I walk back through the maze of warrens, and I see a man who appears to be in his late 30s – stocky, dark, maybe Latin – slapping the ass of a large woman bent over an improvised work station.
The area is wide and open, and a crowd starts to form. The man takes a whip the size of a hand broom and swats her ass as if it were the ball in a game of table tennis. Her white skin turns pink, and her grimace turns to a smile and back again. After a few more minutes, she thanks him, then gets up and pushes down her latex skirt. She moves to another bench and another man.
The whipper introduces himself as Mr. Goodtimes and explains, “I only do light to medium." He gestures to the other man. "That's Mr. Sunshine. He does the medium to hard. I'm the warm-up."
Mr. Goodtimes is friendly, and I’m glad to have a break in the tension. He’s from Fremont, and pays the full entrance fee each time he comes here. Unlike the strip club that used to be here, there are no hired performers at Power Exchange. (Owner Mike Powers equates his role to that of a gym manager. He just provides equipment; the rest is up to the people who come.)
"A girlfriend of mine introduced me to it,” Mr. Goodtimes tells me. “I was afraid I was hurting her, but she turned and asked for it harder." He tries to get here once a week.
He shows me three different floggers – one of cloth, two of leather – and holds them out for me to feel. As I pause to consider the prospect, three college-aged girls approach. At first, I confuse them with tourists looking for a giggle, but one with braces seems intrigued.
Mr. Goodtimes asks her if she’s looking for a little fun, and swings a leather whip gently against the bench. "Maybe later," she says.
“Nice to see you,” he responds. He waves her good-bye, and I decide to follow her lead.
The energy upstairs is starting to pick up now. One man is chaining a woman to the stripper pole, while another – the erect guy with wedge sandals – uses the pole to steady himself while he showcases some oddly placed body jewelry.
The tension of an hour ago has broken and in its place is mild abandon. Two men are masturbating; a third performs oral sex on a woman while the others watch. Despite the live sex, the voyeurs are respectful. Everyone gives the couple space.
Behind glass in the exhibition booth, two women compete to blow a longhaired good-old boy in flannel, like a censored lost episode of Roseanne . The club smells like a locker room, and the pheromones are intoxicating.
I look for a well-built guy I spied earlier, and find him back in the warrens. He’s otherwise engaged, though, giving head to a transsexual. In another corner, a man and woman are necking on the couch. I drift back.
The warrens are a carnival now. There are more bodies, more gawking, more cruising. I walk by Mr. Goodtimes, but he’s with another client. An older man – ruddy face, white hair, mid-fifties – is watching and we start to talk. He’s from Tulsa, but makes it to the Power Exchange as often as he can. I ask him if there’s anything like this in Tulsa.
"There's a private club in Oklahoma City," he tells me. "But there you have to pay for it. In San Francisco, they give it away for free."
Forty dollars isn’t exactly free, but he has a good point. The Power Exchange is part of San Francisco’s id, a stop on an underground railroad that can run infrequently these days. It embodies the spirit of a town that birthed both free love and Craigslist. It’s DIY sex culture, and while it’s not always pretty, it’s certainly real. Forty years after the start of the sexual revolution, some San Franciscans are still having a blast.
The Power Exchange is located at 220 Jones, between Turk and Eddy. It’s open Thursday through Sunday, from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. Men (“in male attire”) pay $40, couples $20, women (bio and trans) are free. Half-price Thursdays and Sundays.