Outside the Power Exchange -- the city's largest and only licensed sex club -- tango instructor Christy Cote stands in a sparkling blue evening gown and matching boa. She smiles from the shadow of the entranceway and indicates the stairs with a gracious wave of her hand. Under a canopy of oversized balloons a sign reads: "No poppers. No drugs. No alcohol. No smoking. You must wear a condom when having sex." The hall is cool and dark, and, for a moment, taking high tea here seems like an affront to the sunlight outside, but muted giggles from the lounge around the corner mitigate the gloom.
As with all the rooms in the Power Exchange, the windows of its social chamber have been painted black. Neon, dim overhead lamps, candles, and the red twinkle lights that festoon the stage illuminate a pool table covered in finger sandwiches, cookies, cakes, and crudites, and a juice bar strewn with china teacups and punch bowls. Over 50 women -- between the ages of twentysomething and 60-not-telling -- sit around tall soda fountain tables and on low couches, most of them holding their backs very, very straight and their hands very visible. Some wear straw hats and flowered dresses, others wear knee-length skirts and summery blouses, or trim shorts-ensembles with clean white sneakers and tennis socks. Even with a bevy of unabashed female exhibitionists wearing sheer white shifts over black lingerie or nothing at all, the crowd is one of the most unlikely ever assembled in the Power Exchange. Scraps of tight-throated conversation and goosey laughter are exchanged over the croissant tray: "I don't know, it seemed interesting, and it's for a good cause." "Oh yes, breast cancer affects us all and it's certainly more San Francisco than attending a stodgy old dinner party." "They aren't really going to make us strip, are they? I can't."
As promised -- and reiterated in countless reassuring phone calls -- there are no men present, except four bare-bottomed serving boys in dog collars, who circulate trays of edibles and pitchers of punch. With maternal concern and a swish of her crimson micro-minidress, Marie Powers encourages a table of ladies not to be shy, and sternly reprimands one of the faceless men in leather masks for allowing their glasses to run empty. The women smile and chuckle, while one leans in to tell the others the punch is spiked with champagne.
"Thank god!" says "Melissa Mackman," a 33-year-old floral arranger with a straw handbag, who downs the contents of her glass in one deft swig and holds it out for more. As the slave retreats, she stares for a long moment at his pink, hairless butt cheeks; then, catching herself, she glances at her friends with a coy smile.
Christy Cote, who was diagnosed on her birthday last year with breast cancer and whose suggestion it was to benefit the Breast Fund, steps onstage, happy to be in remission and feeling well qualified to teach the ladies some sexy moves. The women rise to their feet, leaving the center of the room conspicuously vacant. The first move is shoulder wiggling. The ladies smile and stiffly wiggle their shoulders, tittering together in support.
Cote laughs, "C'mon, we're just shaking our shoulders, here!" She demonstrates a sexy shake: head up, eyes forward, cleavage proudly realized. She demonstrates a not-so-sexy shake: head down, shoulders slumped, everything hidden. The ladies respond with genuine laughter; the champagne begins to rise in their cheeks. The music and alcohol help, and the ladies shake.
Then, it's on to running their hands over their hair, raising one arm a la Monroe to frame their faces, running their hands down over their bodies, and wiggling their hips. After 15 minutes, inhibition is all but gone and the crowd resembles a libidinous jazzercize class, with the ladies sexy-walking from one end of the room to the other. A few of the women stand out as naturals, including Leslie Landberg, a slender girl with curve-revealing jeans and wavy red hair flowing well past her waistline.
"I used to be a dancer," says Landberg. "Now, I'm an escort. I advertise in the Weekly, but I came here to meet some cute girls and maybe spank a few cute boys."
Most of the crowd isn't quite ready to join Landberg in "fence-sitters anonymous" but they're curious about some other things. Powers leads a group upstairs, into the "campgrounds" -- a very dimly lit floor filled with tents, fake foliage, porch swings, and the sound of running water. She indicates several walled-off cubicles, where porno movies are playing on small televisions, and a room of glory holes. The ladies crowd in the doorway, craning to see over each other's heads, murmuring questions to one another. Then they crowd around the tents, peering inside.
"When there's people inside having sex, you can get a group as large as this just watching," says Powers. "Some people just like to watch."
The ladies make startled noises and move away. Two tall sisters with blond hair and wire-rimmed glasses break from the pack to watch a porn video, laughing and pulling on each other's sweater sleeves.
"I feel like Willy Wonka giving a tour in the chocolate factory," says Powers, leading the group into the workout room. "I've seen things in here I couldn't believe," she adds, suddenly striking the demure pose of new mother, small-business owner, and failed dominatrix. The ladies smile and nod understandingly.
"Germans are very heavy into bondage and domination," continues Powers. "There's this one woman -- 6-foot-2 -- whose fantasy it is to ball herself on the floor and get kicked. Afterwards, she just gets up and goes outside to have a cigarette. I'm more of a voyeur and a sensualist." More understanding nods.
The ladies are led into the "prison," most of whose accouterments came from the old precinct house on 18th and Mission streets. The women begin to ask questions about the apparatuses found in each cell -- saddle horses, elaborate slings, racks, and cement-filled toilets.
"These can be good for anal or vaginal fisting," says Powers, positioning a slave boy and spanking him. "The toilets are for comic relief." A couple of women climb into the cells for photo ops.
"We don't have anything like this where I come from," says a very small, trim, meticulously dressed 29-year-old nurse from Rancho Cucamonga who attended the tea on her own. "I've never seen anything like it, but I feel safe with all women. It's very interesting."
In the "banquet hall," the slave is again positioned for a demonstration and the women are invited to spank. Landberg rises to the challenge, smacking and stroking, smacking and stroking, whispering, "That feels good, doesn't it?"
"I think we have a professional in our midst," says 53-year-old Roseanne Dolan, adjusting her gold chain-link necklace and matching earrings.
In "lover's lane," a few ladies stop off to watch pornography from the '30s on one of 15 televisions while the slaves are tied to racks in the dungeon. The ladies are given instruction on proper spanking and flogging techniques. A few volunteer, spanking the slaves, then asking if that hurt. Two ladies in white tag-team, one on each cheek, but even they stop intermittently to make sure the slave really enjoys this sort of thing.
Powers invites everyone back this evening for free. "The regulars are really friendly and interested in teaching novices," she says. "Sometimes you get a guy who says he's a submissive just so he can hook up with you, then he starts working on you -- just like in life." Loud agreement from the ladies. "But not very often."
Back in the lounge, Powers demonstrates how common household effects can be good devices for titillation -- potato chip clips, duct tape, carpet brushes, pipe cleaners, feather dusters. Mistress Mommie demonstrates some domination techniques with her "dog" and her "boy." She makes her dog bark and crawl on all fours, which seems to tickle everyone present. The crowd is noisy now, into the spirit of the day. One woman asks in a highly excited voice if Mistress Mommie's slaves are slaves all the time, if they always obey no matter what. Another asks if they get turned on doing housework.
Mommie's final surprise involves a "pleasure wand," a beautiful electrified staff that operates on tesla technology. She rubs it lightly over her slave's buttocks, causing his skin to ripple. Someone asks if she can use it on his genitals. "I can use it wherever I please," says Mommie and her slave jumps as contact is made with his penis. The crowd yelps sympathetically.
The lights are extinguished and Mistress Mommie swirls rubbing alcohol across her slave's lower back. She touches him again with the wand and light blue flames twirl over his flesh. The crowd "oohs" like they're watching a fireworks display, then they line up to have the wand touched to their own skin. Mistress Mommie attaches the wand to herself, turning her fingers into conductors, and offers head rubs. Everyone waits for the opportunity, moaning or squealing with delight and shock when they experience first contact. Some go back for seconds, saying every hair on their body is standing on end.
In the corner two women in their late 40s practice spanking a slave boy, who encourages them with phrases like, "C'mon ladies, beat that ass. Make it red." One of them barely manages an audible clap before burying her face in his back and apologizing profusely. The other says she'll be working in the activity more at home.
Impressed with the club's elaborate spread, Heather Hill, a lissome 25-year-old beauty freshly returned from South America, says she'd gladly come back on her own. The sisters would like to but they have tickets to the ballet.
In the Power Exchange boutique, Maria G., a lovely woman who says she's "definitely seen 60," tries on a pink vinyl jacket to match her pink sweater and pink straw hat. "How does that song go?" muses Ms. G. " 'In days gone by, a bit of stocking was something shocking/ Now, lord knows, anything goes.' " She buckles her pearlescent jacket and thinks better of the purchase. "It used to be you could catch someone's attention by flashing a little thigh. Now, everything seems so complicated. It was very interesting, but I think I'm glad to have been raised in a time when a little cleavage would do the trick."
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By Silke Tudor