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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
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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 (www.cakenyc.com) 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.

About The Author

Eliza Strickland

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