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Just Desserts 

Cake offers straight women a comfortable woman-friendly place to be sexy. So why does it feel so retro?

Wednesday, Mar 29 2006
Late on a Thursday evening in early March, the North Beach strip clubs were in full swing. The Hungry I's sign glowed in the night, 10 tall feet of luscious neon curves. A few doors down, the Garden of Eden's posters showed airbrushed blondes slung around poles, their come-hither glances inviting men in to drool over forbidden fruit. The exterior of the Impala was a bit more subtle — just a vertical sign with lettering in crimson — but past the bouncer and down the steps into a deep red grotto revelers found a room full of languid limbs and beautiful asses. One thing set the scene apart from the boys' clubs on Broadway: That night at the Impala, female sexual fulfillment was the name of the game.

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.

When Jenny Stark left the East Coast after college, Cake parties had been part of her social life for two years. Although she comes from a conservative family, Stark says her fondness for Cake wasn't about rebelling; it was a question of finding a place where she fit in. Back in her native San Francisco she missed those monthly helpings of dessert, and naturally looked around for the equivalent. She tried out Pleasure Zone, a once-a-month event at various clubs around the city that bills itself as "hip, sex-positive, girl-centric entertainment for women and couples." Pleasure Zone uses a lot of the same language as Cake — the "grrrls" are encouraged to wear whatever turns them on, and to show off their assets free of pressure or judgment. But while women wear lingerie at the spring party and bikinis at the summer bash, men are invited to attend as "dashing dates" in crisp pants and collared shirts.

"Pleasure Zone was targeted more towards couples and single women," Stark says. "It was more of a swinger scene. It was guys dragging — well, I shouldn't say dragging, but guys getting their wives and girlfriends to go to fulfill some fantasy. I actually stopped going because it made me really uncomfortable." (The founders of Pleasure Zone, Aimie and Dennis, take exception to that description. "It's really not a couple's party. It's really a party about the girls, and giving them a place to let their hair down and have fun," says Dennis, who prefers not to use his last name.)

Stark also had little patience for the downtown nightclubs or the Marina bars, calling the vibe "predatory." Eventually she asked Cake's founders if they'd consider coming West. At the time they were busy writing their book, A Piece of Cake: Recipes for Female Sexual Pleasure, which came out last November. But since they'd already branched out to London, it was just a matter of time before they got the travel bug again.

One of Cake's co-founders came to San Francisco in February on a scouting mission, and stayed through the Impala event. Emily Kramer, a savvy 28-year-old, helped create the Cake phenomenon out of one thing: female desire. In person, though, she kept it businesslike. Kramer wasn't bursting with cleavage like many of the other women present. In cargo pants and a tank top, she sauntered around the room, making connections and managing the mood. Her wary eyes were heavily rimmed with eyeliner. After getting burned by a few feminist writers of late, Kramer is slightly defensive and careful to present Cake in all its complexity.

What happens at a Cake party has nothing to do with being objectified or objectifying other women, she explained. Rather, it's about becoming a sexual subject, in control of the agenda and enjoying every moment of it.

"It's not just about what a guy thinks about seeing someone in lingerie," she said. "It's about, 'What are your fantasies? How do they relate to what turns you on, to what makes you feel good, to what you think about the next day?' It's less, 'What does a guy think about her the next day?' but 'What does she think about?' And from the female perspective, how does being in this environment where your sexual pleasure is encouraged and supported affect the next day?"

Kramer and Gallagher have said they'd love to see a West Coast branch of Cake emerge, if women here are willing to take charge. Stark is up to the challenge; she's hoping to host another event in late April or early May. Cake does put a new twist on the morning after, she says. Hosting the Impala event kept her too busy to fully engage in the fun, but after previous parties she enjoyed flashbacks for days. "Usually I'm strutting around NYC feeling sexy, thinking about everything that happened — the people I met, the great performances, hot dancing," she writes in an e-mail. "I hold my head high, and smile a lot. I'm sure people seeing me are wondering what the hell I'm smiling about ... it's CAKE!"

Here's the recipe for Cake: Take two smart girls from middle-class, liberal backgrounds. Toss them into gender studies programs in New York City universities — Kramer has a bachelor's in women's studies from Columbia, and Gallagher holds a master's in human sexuality and public health from NYU. Mix in a good dose of feminist history and theory. Add a dash of unfulfilled longing, and bake in the hot oven of Manhattan's nightlife scene.

The two founders had known each other for years; Gallagher has been dating Kramer's brother, Matthew, since high school. But it wasn't until the women's academic pursuits overlapped that they began the conversations that would lead to Cake.

Gallagher was born in 1973, the same year the Roe v. Wade decision came down. She says she grew up with the knowledge that many of the major feminist battles had already been fought and won. "We grew up all empowered, and we can go and get advanced degrees and live our lives the way we want to," she says. And although she had the idea that she could express her sexuality however she saw fit, she soon found that it was hard to put into practice. She wanted to be openly and publicly sexual — to try on costumes and roles, to talk about what got her hot — without it being automatically construed as an invitation.

When Gallagher and Kramer started asking around, they realized they were far from alone in their cravings. Many women seemed comfortable with their sexuality inside the bedroom, but couldn't bring it past the front door without getting spooked. They wanted a nonjudgmental, woman-friendly place to play and to explore with likeminded folks. As it happened, that untapped market was also a lucrative demographic. Most of the women who take to Cake are in their 20s or 30s and childless, with college degrees, good jobs, and disposable income.

The co-founders say that even in 2000, many myths still needed to be dispelled about female sexuality — like the idea that women aren't turned on by visual images and watch porn only reluctantly. Gallagher and Kramer decided to start by throwing a Porn Party. In July of that year, they sat down with every type of porn they could get their hands on, and edited hundreds of hours down to a four-hour highlights reel. The two rented a posh bar with four large-screen TVs on the walls, and told their friends and acquaintances to spread the word. They hoped to get 20 women. Instead, they got 200.

Kramer says the women who showed up weren't there as an act of rebellion, but rather out of curiosity. "It wasn't an invitation to act out or to prove one thing or another," she says. "We weren't at that point out to prove anything; we were just out to question and enjoy." They set up a Web site on which women could post their thoughts about the event, and received an overwhelmingly positive response. Some women had been surprised by their own arousal, while others admitted that porn had been part of their sex lives for years. You could say it was Cake's version of the feminist "consciousness-raising" sessions that sprang up across college campuses in the 1970s.

Kramer and Gallagher decided to plan a few more events and see where the momentum took them. They had started with nothing more than a Web site and a name: Cake, because it's sweet, sticky, delicious, indulgent, and slang for female genitalia. To get some start-up capital, they turned to all the ladies in the house. They introduced a $100 annual membership, available only to women who applied with a brief essay explaining their motivations. Gallagher says she has been criticized for being more of a capitalist than a feminist, but that the testimonials in the applications quickly reassured her.

"The overall theme was, 'Yes, this is what's been missing,'" recalls Gallagher. "'Everything else has been going so great, but there's this part of my life missing. I want to be able to express my sexuality; I want to respect it and own it and talk to other women who feel like that. Yes, here's my $100 for the year; give me my Cake card — let's go.' That for me was when I thought, 'OK, I think we're on to something here.' It's not just about a trendy event; it's about building a community, from the grassroots up."

Now the group has more than 1,500 members in the U.S., mostly around New York, and about 200 more in London. More than 30,000 people get the mailing list, with its party invitations and wide-ranging news bytes on everything from where, how, and why to get a Brazilian bikini wax to updates on abortion rights.

No one who takes time to explore Cake's Web site ( can doubt its founders' noble intentions and feminist bona fides. They talk about how AIDS affects women worldwide, chastise fashion editors for perpetuating unrealistic standards of beauty, and counsel against unnecessary plastic surgery. As Carol Queen, one of San Francisco's beloved sex-positive icons, explains, "This is not just a stripper girl movement without an academic base."

But the academics are mixed with and overshadowed by the celebration of raunch. During its first year of operation, Cake held three "Striptease-a-Thon" events — by popular demand. Women couldn't get enough of these parties, leaping onto the stage to flip up their little skirts and pull off their thongs for the cheering mob. Even some of Cake's biggest fans say they're less interested in the political aspect than the real-world application. "I don't feel like my involvement is particularly feminist — I don't know if it is at all," says Jenny Stark. "But it is really fun, and I love having that avenue to explore."

It's not easy to get fired up politically at a club, with the liquor flowing and the music throbbing. At such places the larger statement Kramer and Gallagher are trying to make about the status of women gets lost in the shuffle. While the women who come to Cake parties are clearly grateful for the good times, it's an open question whether a crowd of gals primarily interested in going out and getting off adds up to a feminist movement.

Last weekend in Berkeley, the first annual Girl Fest Bay Area brought together a collection of women who take a dim view of stripping, pornography, prostitution, and the mainstream glorification of those practices. The event was a new branch of a successful Hawaiian festival that raises awareness of violence against women. Saturday's panel discussion featured Melissa Farley, a San Francisco psychologist at the nonprofit Prostitution Research & Education, who has studied prostitution for the past decade.

Farley is amazed that prostitution has seeped into mainstream culture, writing in the introduction to her recent book, Prostitution, Trafficking and Traumatic Stress, "All women are socialized to objectify themselves in order to be desirable, to act like prostitutes, to act out the sexuality of prostitution. In Western popular culture, the experts on women's sexuality are in fact prostitutes."

Her take is just the latest salvo in a conflict that has been going on for decades.

Many young women don't know about the "porn wars" or "sex wars" that nearly blew apart the feminist movement in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The group Women Against Pornography was one of the most active campaigners, with high-profile leaders like Gloria Steinem, Andrea Dworkin, and Susan Brownmiller involved. They argued that pornography represents hatred of women and that when men pay to see women degraded, dehumanized, and humiliated, it affects how they view women in everyday life.

The movement quickly ran into trouble. In 1983, the members of WAP pushed forward a ban on pornography in Minneapolis, which they hoped would serve as a national model. Suddenly, their support dropped through the floor. To many, the campaigners began to look like puritans who were taking things too far, and free-speech activists rose up with a shout. Finally, a few young women emerged with shocking news: They liked pornography.

Carol Queen was among that crowd of rowdies. Today she's affiliated with Good Vibrations and runs the Center for Sex and Culture, but back then she was a 22-year-old troublemaker living in Eugene, Oregon. "I remember crossing the picket line at a movie theater to go see Story of O," she says, referring to the famous porn flick documenting a woman's education in sexual submission. "Even though it was rumored to have been written by a real, live woman, feminists did not accept that — they said it must have been written by a man using a woman's name, because no woman would ever think this way. That was the root of the issue."

Other voices spoke up about the pleasures they found in kinky sex, much of the discussion bubbling up from San Francisco. Annie Sprinkle, a prostitute and porn star, was one of those who took the next step, loudly proclaiming her satisfaction as a sex worker. These firsthand accounts were hard to deny, and eventually WAP crumbled. No one can recall exactly when the argument seemed to be over, but everyone agrees that the antiporn feminists lost.

"I think the antiporn feminists were exhausted," says Pamela Paul, author of the recent book Pornified: How Pornography Is Transforming our Lives, Our Relationships, and Our Families. "It's a tough position to take. You're attacked. You're called a prude, you're called a reactionary, you're called anti-sex, you have no sense of humor, you're not sex positive."

Queen first heard the term "sex positive" at San Francisco's Institute for the Advanced Study of Human Sexuality when she enrolled in its Ph.D. program in 1987. "I wouldn't define it as, 'I like sex!'" she says. "It's more like, 'Everybody has the right to be who they are as a sexual individual, and access to information in a nonbiased environment.'"

Nearly two decades later, porn chic is the name of the game. But when you stop taking our sex-infused culture for granted and look around, it's profoundly weird. Cake is on the thoughtful end of the spectrum. Towards the other end, there's the thriving SuicideGirls business, in which tattooed hipster chicks compete for hits on an alt-porn Web site. The ever-growing "Girls Gone Wild" video empire is certainly not at a loss for subjects to flip up their shirts. And the vast majority of feminists accept all this under the rubric of "choice."

Even the executive director of California National Organization for Women is willing to defend the "Girls Gone Wild" videos. Those teenage girls are just taking the first step toward defining their own sexuality, Helen Grieco says: "I think it's about being a rebel, and I don't think it's a bad notion. Flashing your breasts on Daytona Beach says, ÔI'm not a good girl. I think it's sexy to be a bad girl.'"

But new critics are beginning to emerge. Radical feminists are launching blogs and taking up that old debate again, in a tougher cultural context. Often they're women who've survived or worked with survivors of incest, rape, abuse, and harassment. They are women who didn't find sex work rewarding or empowering, but soul-crushing and destructive.

"In order to accept prostitution, pornography, and stripping as part of mainstream sexuality, you have to not know how violent and exploitive it is, the emotional damage it does, how profoundly racist it is, how many of the acts meet the legal definition for torture," says Prostitution Research & Education's Melissa Farley. "And you have to not know that many people in it really want to get out."

The disconnect between the two camps quickly becomes obvious. Women who go to Cake parties haven't seen or experienced the horrors brought up by people like Farley. It's a pretty safe bet that nobody at the Impala was contemplating a career as a sex worker, that none of the attendees had ever been slapped around by a pimp or spent a six-hour shift pole-dancing for ranks of leering men. These unscarred, prosperous girls were just playing.

Critics say this kind of behavior is both elitist and insensitive. "A lot of these women, they're trying on these roles because they think it's edgy or hip," says Rebecca Whisnant, who co-edited a book called Not for Sale that was discussed at Girl Fest Bay Area. But they don't think about the effects of that play-acting, she explains. When camera-ready girls talk about stripping by choice, they camouflage the fact that many women in the sex industry have few other options.

It's a symptom of free-market feminism, says Whisnant, in which the rights of the individual consumer are paramount. "This is something that you see a lot in the statements of Ôfeminist' porn producers and so on. ÔIf this doesn't harm me, if in fact it's good for me, then it's feminist' — which is about the most piss-poor conception of feminism I've ever heard. Feminism is dead at that point, as far as I'm concerned," she states. "Feminism is not necessarily about doing what's good for you — hopefully it will be good for you. But it's about considering the implications of your choices and everybody's choices for women in general. That has just disappeared completely from the whole world of so-called sex-positive feminism."

The big, unanswered question is why so many women are embracing exhibitionism. Two splashy books recently came out that tackled parts of that query. Pamela Paul's Pornified and Ariel Levy's Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture both say Cake is one symptom of a much larger problem.

Women are emulating male sexual behavior, they say, in a garbled attempt at equality. By reading Playboy, admiring porn stars, and adopting a more casual, anything-goes approach to promiscuity the modern girl is trying to show that she's one of the guys. She doesn't sue her boss if he invites her along to the strip club after the client dinner; she looks at it as a mark of his favor and a good networking opportunity.

"I think it's a very twisted way of looking at women's liberation to assume that every step towards aping men is a step forward," Paul says. "I think women are kidding themselves. They talk about owning something, empowering yourself. You can talk about all of that, but if I go out and eat 20,000 Big Macs, am I owning McDonald's? Am I empowering my body by co-opting it myself? It doesn't make any sense. "

While some women legitimately enjoy the power that comes with exhibitionism, not all who pull their tops off are fulfilling a secret desire. In early March, for example, the American Medical Association conducted a survey of female college students and recent graduates. Asked about behavior on spring break trips, 57 percent agreed that being promiscuous was a way to fit in.

The societal expectations that tell women that overt sexuality is the "right" way to be sexual have helped Cake become a phenomenon, although its founders are loath to admit it. Kramer and Gallagher may not have set out to prove anything when they threw their first Porn Party, but over the years they have become more determined to portray Cake events as part of a feminist empowerment movement.

"I feel like we're right in the middle of this long story," says Gallagher. "We've now progressed to a certain level. We have this sense of equality, and female sexuality is a priority in our lives, and we have a positive body image. Now where do we take that in our lives?"

So far, the best answer they've come up with is to put female sexuality on display on top of the slick bar, in a scene that can be mistaken for a Playboy party. It may be that there aren't many new ways to create an erotic charge in a room full of men and women — we're limited by biology, after all, and millions of years of conditioning. Or it may be that we're not as far along in the story as Gallagher thinks, and that when real female sexual empowerment comes along, it will look quite different.

About The Author

Eliza Strickland


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