“What do you two think about my cock ring?” With a baby blue T-shirt on top and bare as a baby’s bottom below, the stranger nodded down toward his crotch. A bright yellow, adjustable strap was fastened around his pink dick and balls.
“It kind of looks like a watch.” I said abruptly, a bit taken aback by his appearance. I was more modestly dressed in a flowery lingerie set, a UC Berkeley lab coat tied around my waist.
In stark contrast, my close friend and Cal-alumna was wholly unfazed by his sudden, very naked presence. “You should get a figure-eight cock ring!” She advised. “One ring goes around your balls and one around your shaft.” She wore an underbust black dress which showed off her much-complimented heart-tattooed nipples.
“God, I know, right? My boyfriend got this one for me.” His velvety soft dick gently brushed up against my hand like a delicate feather boa. “I wish it was black,” referring to the cock ring.
Last week was the first time I attended Folsom Street Fair, the world’s largest event for BDSM wares and fetish culture. As our Lyft driver pulled up a street away from 8th and Folsom, a man in assless underwear sprinted toward what we could only assume was his kinky oasis. Taking up a sprawling five blocks, I marveled at bondage demonstrations, two public blowjob scenes and the strangest of them all, a plethora of Bud Light stalls.
While others were receiving the blood and body of Christ on Sunday, I received a Bad Dragon grab bag yielding two glow-in-the-dark condoms, a coupon for their high-fantasy sex toys, and their coveted collectable mini silicone dicks, otherwise known as Teenie Weenies. The sex shops and burlesque shows I attended in the past paled in comparison to the absolute spectacle and sexual liberation that embodied Folsom.
Though I have been a longtime patron of the kinky arts, the first time I ever interacted with kink in real life was through a second-hand experience of another Berkeley friend a few years ago. Their experience wasn’t the most ideal, as their ex-boyfriend had cheated in order to explore his interests with more seasoned kinksters.
At Folsom, they were asked, as a Filipino, “how are your people so smooth,” by their ex’s white kink mentor. I was horrified to hear that a seemingly more mature BDSM practitioner unabashedly fetishized Asian bodies. While the sadomasochistic community’s motto is “safe, sane, and consensual,” I realized these words couldn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s easy to forget that existing social stratifications can permeate communities we normally consider to be free of such restrictions.
This is most noticeable in “raceplay” roleplaying in the BDSM community, which frequently focuses on a slave (usually a person of color) servicing their master (usually a white person). While I definitely do not want to be a kink policer, one must note that many kinksters are white and male. Engaging with these scenes uncritically can lead to excusing oppression as simply a “fetish.”
Seeing my friend’s genuine heartbreak and confusion opened my eyes to the potential negativity the BDSM community held within its leather clad jaws. While I still enjoyed consuming kinky content, I was intensely judgemental when my friend’s old flame showed up to a 4th of July barbecue with his “daddy,” who easily looked double his age.
Despite going to Folsom accompanied by a more kink experienced friend, I still had a lot of reservations. Nevertheless, I was determined to challenge my preconceived notions towards kink’s true shades of gray.
When the same cockring man, who also happened to be white, first approached us, I steeled myself for the inevitable harassment and entitlement.
As soon as he said, “women usually don’t tell you what they like, but you two really speak your mind,” I was ready to fall back into the comfortable trap of my preexisting antagonism toward white kinksters.
Feeling defeated, I replied with, “Well, that’s also because many women are still shamed when they talk about sex openly,” and prepared myself for the excuses and false apologies.
After a beat of thinking, he said, “Oh, you’re right! I never thought about it that way.” He ended the exchange with a cheery “Happy Folsom!”
Even my friend, an active participant in kink since her teens, was surprised by the lack of nonconsensual touching and photography, which she had warned me about beforehand due to her previous experiences. Besides that and the masses of entry-level gay boys who wore the same leather chest harness and frayed jorts, the only other discomfort I faced was the oppressively hot sun beating down on all of us — the ultimate dom.
I realized Folsom wasn’t a whirlwind of perceived blasphemy. It was the first time I saw such a variety of racial demographics and age ranges congregate for a specific event. As well as that, snug among all the flogging paraphernalia were free HIV testing stalls courtesy of Trans men 4 men, Queer Asian education booths and gay-friendly doctors. Folsom Street Fair itself is a nonprofit, generating approximately $300,000 annually, and provides a home for other organizations focusing on sex education, AIDS research and kink-friendly psychotherapy, such as Planned Parenthood.
Among the genitalia, latex and leather, Folsom feels like the epitome of debauchery, but it is also inherently tied to education and charity culture. As I watched an older East Asian man lead his White partner around with a chain secured to his balls, I felt like this was the true beginning of my quest to understand the complexities of the BDSM world. Just like Indiana Jones, I will continue to uncover the lost treasures of kink with a crack of my bullwhip.
A previous version of this column incorrectly referred to the author’s friend using the incorrect pronoun.