Long before safe words were ubiquitous enough to be a punchline on Portlandia, the Center for Sex & Culture, co-founded by pioneering San Francisco sex education expert Carol Queen, PhD, and her partner, Robert Lawrence, EdD, was holding workshops on rope bondage tying techniques, safe fisting practices and hosting memorial services for deceased porn stars. “More than anything else we did,” Queen says, “I loved these memorial services best. … You’re not going to get invited to your favorite porn star’s funeral. … But we could make space for each other.”
Unfortunately, that may no longer be true. At the end of January, the center, a nonprofit organization created, according to its mission, to “provide judgment-free education, cultural events, a library/media archive and other resources to audiences across the sexual and gender spectrum,” permanently closed its Mission Street space. “The mission was multipurpose and overwhelming,” Queen says, but “this was a substantial part of all of our lives, and, all of a sudden, we’re not all showing up at the clubhouse anymore.”
A community-based alternative space that housed a massive archive of sexuality-related material, the center was another fallen domino in the decadeslong chain of exponentially rising rents. The organization will transition to a pop-up model, exploring new formats such as video and podcasts. The archive, which presents a cultural history of progress on human sexuality, will be spread across multiple libraries, the lion’s share landing at the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America at the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University.
“Americans have been battling over sex for centuries,” says Jane Kamensky, director of the Schlesinger Library and a professor of history at Harvard. “The rich collections assembled by the Center for Sex & Culture document lives, communities and practices that cast light on who we are as a people, how we got here, where we’re headed. Radcliffe’s Schlesinger Library is honored to preserve these materials.” Kamensky is currently writing a history on the sexual revolution in the U.S., centered on Candida Royalle, a feminist, performer in underground theater, pornographer and founder of femme films. This type of work, as well as other pieces, equivalent to more than 350 linear feet of material, are headed to Harvard. That’s more than half the height of the Salesforce Tower, according to Laura Frost, scholar, cultural critic, Center for Sex & Culture board member and temporary adviser to the archive during the closure.
“Carol and Robert’s collecting philosophy was radically inclusive,” says Frost. “Socially responsible hoarding,” Queen calls it. But the ephemera in the collection is particularly special. “One of the strangest objects I unearthed was a defective breast implant stored in a Tupperware bowl,” Frost says.
Another choice holding in the decades’ worth of “LGBT, BDSM, kink, sex work… ideas and behaviors and materials,” that Queen began collecting in the 1970s includes antique vibrators belonging to Joani Blank, founder of Good Vibrations, the sex-positive adult toy company started in San Francisco in 1977, where Queen is a sexologist.
“The kind of honest and shame-free sex education that is so necessary in America was developed in overlapping CSC communities and decades before #MeToo, there were groundbreaking conversations about consent,” Frost says. The center, she adds, has yet to receive the recognition it deserves for advancing mainstream conversations around sex and sexuality, but the archive’s move to Harvard will make the collection widely accessible. And, according to Queen, there’s still a lot of work to do.
“I think about the ways the ‘disrupt’ culture has been fed by some of these alternative streams of thought,” Queen says, like queer rights, trans activism, sexual health education and new innovations, including the #MeToo-inspired intimacy choreographers in the entertainment industry. Dancers and stunt performers have choreographers; actors in sexually intimate or violent scenes should too. One of the first podcasts Queen wants to record is with Maya Herbsman, associate artistic director at Cutting Ball Theater and intimacy choreographer on La Ronde, a play about sex and sexuality in 10 illicit parts. “ICs are helping shape and make comfortable the space of touch and connection and intimacy, and how you present all of that” in media, Queen says, which, she thinks, is ultimately good.
“We’ve been talking about this shit for 50 years. It’s not new. But it being on the editorial pages of The Washington Post? That’s new,” Queen says. “[It’s] really one of the things that has made a difference—the way the press had popped up as a participant in our discussions. And it’s about time.”
Originally published in the June issue of San Francisco
Photography by: Illustrations by Nathan Hackett