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The couple launched their organization, Mission Control, in January 2001, after leasing a second-floor walk-up in the Mission. Whittaker already had her own fetish party, but she wanted to increase the clientele. "I was inviting some raver-Burner types, as well," she said, indicating that the idea of mixing those subcultures was still a little outré at that time. "Those communities really hadn't crossed yet. It was like the Goths were the fetish people and the ravers were the ecstasy people. There was no crossover."
Whittaker took it upon herself to bring the disparate tribes together, if only for the sake of throwing better parties. The result, she said, was fantastic: "colorful, costumed, sex-positive, Burning Man-oriented (but not Burning Man). We just created this space where people felt like they could explore."
The club now hosts seven different play parties, in addition to a monthly art salon. John said it runs the gamut: fairy nights, lady's nights, heavier play nights, lighter play nights, trans nights, fetish nights, sex club-oriented nights. Most events cost $30-$35 and entail a mandatory dress code. Some require all participants to bring a buddy. "You know," he said, "they want to keep the riff-raff out."
John explained that when sex parties aren't properly policed, they can attract a bad element — i.e., "dudes in sweatpants who like to jerk off while watching trannies fuck. I mean, not that it's bad to watch trannies fuck — that's hot," he said. "Sweat pants? Not so hot."
Mission Control's flagship party is called Kinky Salon, which is kind of an omnisexual catch-all. It's not polyamorous per se, but you have to be poly-friendly to go, given all the exchanging of partners that happens there. According to people who go, it looks nondescript from the outside — just a grate and a doortender. But the inside is all razzle-dazzle: wood paneling, a smokers' porch, tapestries, a dance floor with a stripper pole and mirrored disco ball, bartenders who hold your drinks (Kinky Salon has a BYOB policy and no liquor license), baskets full of condoms and lube, a back room full of beds and boxsprings and futons, people walking around in various stage of undress. Every iteration of the party has a theme (e.g., "woodland creatures," "superheroes," or "San Fransexual").
John has a fairly sunny view of Kinky Salon, at least in terms of its ability to attract a wide and representative swath of the polyamory subculture. Yes, more than half of the folks who attend are white, college-educated people in their thirties, he said. But they constitute the scene's demographic majority. "It's definitely a have-your-life-together-but-are-still-having-tons-of-fun kind of crowd," he said, adding that in general, the racial makeup pretty much mirrors that of San Francisco.
Jessica's read is a little more cynical. She's been to two Mission Control parties and says they definitely stand out in a scene that's become larger and more diffuse — in the last decade, so-called "pansexual" and "alternative adult" clubs have cropped up all over San Francisco, and many of them are a little less discriminating, in terms of the crowds they draw. All the same, she finds the crowd to be pretty specific, not so much in an elitist way as in an isolationist way. And generally, it's dominated by nerds. "You know, Burning Man people, Renn Faire people, people who are really costumed," she said. "They're older. They're not really people I'm interested in fucking."
She continued: "There's this back room where you go to have sex, and there's always this weird pile of people going at it in the middle of the room. But it's way less creepy than it could be."
Ned Mayhem, a PhD student in the sciences and second-generation polyamorist (his father also has an open marriage), would agree with that assessment. He and his partner, Maggie Mayhem, have a porn website based around their "sex geek" personae. They even invented something called a PSIgasm, which uses sensory devices to measure the strength of orgasms. (They're trying to get money to develop it, but haven't been able to work within normal fund-raising apparati — Kickstarter snubbed them.) Mayhem said that a lot of the people he meets in the so-called "sexual underground" are nerds in other parts of their lives — grad students, engineers, costume-party types, bookworms, live-action role players. They tend to be open-minded and well-educated, but always a little to the left of what mainstream society would consider "sexy."
Perhaps that explains why polyamory has formed such a flourishing, albeit circumscribed subculture. It's a scene where square pegs and misfits can reinvent themselves as Lotharios, where a self-described "socially well-adjusted" person like Jessica feels like an outlier.
Certainly, not all polyamorists attend sex parties or engage in kink — many who subscribe to the "open relationship" philosophy still consider themselves fairly vanilla. But the fact that San Francisco has such a vast and well-networked sexual underground benefits them, too, since it makes for a more tolerant environment. It also shows that the alt-sex scene, and by extension, the polyamory scene, isn't just a countercultural fluke.