On the dance floor, a young woman in red lingerie with scarlet wings on her bare shoulders undulated between two other girls in black lace panties. Gals in tight, overflowing bustiers lounged on velvet couches alongside fellas in khakis and button-down shirts. A looping black-and-white porn clip was projected on one wall: In one shot, a sweetheart in pigtails caught a load on her face. About 50 patrons sipped cocktails and watched the action, sometimes leaping up to be part of it. Some male skin was on display as well, most notably Leo's. He danced barefoot in black pinstripe underwear, body glitter sprinkled across his shoulders and a row of rhinestones stuck to his chest, navel to collarbone. But the scattering of male dancers was the only obvious tip-off that this event wasn't the realization of some straight man's fantasy.
It was a typical party for Cake, an outpost of mainstream, third-wave, sex-positive feminism, where women are encouraged to be as wild as they want to be and reminded to respect themselves in the morning. A New York City institution after only five years, this woman-run, woman-centered "sexuality enterprise" wants to start a new branch in San Francisco. The company offers a helping hand to primarily hetero, well-off young ladies, giving them a space to publicly explore and express their sexuality.
The group's founders consider their undertaking to be explicitly feminist, building on the success of feminists who went before. "Cake takes the next step in achieving female sexual equality," reads a Web site mission statement. "We believe that the next wave of feminism will be our generation of women demanding that sexual empowerment leads to gender equality." As women have demanded new roles at work and home, they say, so should they seek new dynamics in the most basic male-female interaction.
"Things have progressed," says Cake co-founder Melinda Gallagher in a later phone interview from New York. "We've gotten over the large myths and misconceptions; we've accepted that women's sexuality is a good, positive thing, with pleasure and all that. Now it's about the details. It's about getting down and dirty with yourself."
Cake has provided a wildly popular venue for that dirtiness, both in New York, where parties easily draw 800 people, and at its more recent satellite location in London. Women strut their stuff, and men are allowed past the velvet rope only if escorted by a lady. Some of the group's events have a more educational theme, like the lesson on female ejaculation (partygoers cheered on the demonstrator), and others have played with male exhibitionism, with men recruited to be amateur strippers and lap dancers. But those affairs are outnumbered by the strip-a-thons, lingerie parties, and regular events at which hordes of women turn out to take it off. Cake has succeeded because it taps into a trend that's much larger than the group itself: In a cultural moment defined by porn chic, the sexual habits of the mainstream American female are raunchier than ever before.
Jenny Stark, a 25-year-old with waves of blond hair, went to her first Cake party in New York in the fall of 2002. It was a members-only event with the typical dirty dancing, young women with strips of duct tape covering their nipples, and plenty of make-out sessions. Stark says it fit her to a T. Before the night was over, Stark's two girlfriends were dancing on the dais while she stuck dollar bills in their underwear.
"The whole point of it is, it's none of your business to tell me what I think is hot," Stark said at the Impala event, at which she played hostess checking names at the door, switching porn tapes. Her easygoing, confident manner makes it clear that she knows what she wants. "If you like something and it gets you hot, you should explore it to the degree that you're comfortable with," she continued. "If you don't like it, don't do it."
Meanwhile, a couple of fully clothed guys stood by the bar, sucking down beers. They weren't hip to the Cake philosophy. They'd gotten past the bouncer with a rudimentary trick: "We said we were with Johnny, the tall guy who was inside," explained one with a laugh. They'd been at another bar down the street and had no idea what they'd wandered into, although they liked the looks of it. "Is this a Playboy lingerie party?" one asked, wide-eyed.
As Sex and the City's Carrie Bradshaw might write, I couldn't help but wonder: What does it mean when one woman's empowerment looks like objectification from the outside?
All this is tame for San Francisco, of course. Two weekends ago, the city hosted the Fetish Ball, a celebration of leather and latex, the dominatrix and the dildo. The Folsom Street Fair is a cherished civic institution. The burlesque scene is thriving. And in late May, more than a hundred people will gather at the Center for Sex and Culture for the fifth annual public Masturbate-a-Thon, which offers an award for the most time spent getting one's rocks off (last year's record was seven and a half hours).
Clearly, many locals are comfortable flaunting their bodies and their kinky desires. But most of these events cater to gay city-dwellers or to a particular sexual subculture. When a hetero chick in the nubile prime of her life looks around, she sees fewer options.