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Hard Times

How the recession is effecting San Francisco’s sex industry

By Bonnie Ruberg, Special to SF Station: a report funded by the Spot.us community

At Good Vibrations, the iconic white “Rabbit Habit,” a five-inch dildo paired with a friendly, bunny-shaped vibrator, sells for $90. Compared to other items available through the high-end sex toy company that has become a Bay Area institution, this piece of sculpted silicone seems like a bargain. The “Eleven,” for example, a curved rod of stainless steal advertised for both vaginal and anal play (two in one!), bears a price tag of $300. Even the most basic items don’t come cheap. The “Laya” vibe—plastic, compact, discreet—rings up at $46: enough to buy a week’s worth of groceries, or for that matter, 100 condoms.

Still, on a Friday night at the Polk Street store on Nob Hill, business appears to be booming. Despite the recession, which has pressured consumers into tightening their budgets for everything from clothing to entertainment, there’s no shortage of customers browsing the rows of multicolored butt plugs and strap-on kits, smiling optimistically as they place them down on the counter in front of the cash register.

In an airy, white back room covered with tasteful, sensual art, Good Vibes is hosting an erotica reading. Those who stay until the end receive 15-percent-off coupons for anything in the store. As the listeners file out of the reading, they don’t hesitate to mull over massage oils and classic porn DVDs, prepared to pull out their already strained credit cards.

Before the economy took a nosedive last year, accepted business sense said that certain industries would always be recession-proof. If anything, so the thinking went, those industries should be bolstered by tough economic times—when people down on their luck want to block out reality and curl up with their vices.

Alcohol, tobacco, and of course sex: they’ll always sell.

Apparently not. Pornography, the most visible sector of the sex industry, has taken a hit across the board. In January, Larry Flint infamously called for a porn bailout bill, and traditional porn studios report revenue is down 20 to 30 percent. Even online porn, free from the risky cost of printing magazines or DVDs, is feeling the crunch. Hit hard by pirated content, tube sites, and a new generation of consumers who don’t want to pay for their kicks, subscription-based sites are finding it hard to stay afloat in an age when a few Google searches turn up enough free material to get viewers off from now until the end of the economic crisis.

Using the porn industry as a measure, the answer would seem simple: sex + recession = no sale. The reality on the ground, however—business-to-business and person-to-person—makes for a much more complicated equation. In November, The L.A. Times wrote that the women at Donna’s Ranch in Nevada, one of the country’s few legalized brothels, had seen a serious drop in business, leaving them bored and penniless in their hot pants, spending their nights broadcasting seductive sales pitches on the short wave radio to reluctant truckers. Meanwhile, in the same month, sex and health bloggers across the internet began celebrating the economy as a libido stimulus. What better way to work off stress and tension than by jumping into bed?

Every city operates a little differently when it comes to paying for pleasure. Here in San Francisco, a town known for its sexual openness and its libidinous enthusiasm, consumer sex drive isn’t exactly shriveling up along with bank accounts, but that doesn’t mean potential customers are lusting to spend cash either. That is, unless what’s for sale are white silicone dildos.

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Roaming the aisles of the Good Vibrations storehouse, the vast expanse of boxes that sits beneath the Good Vibes headquarters in an unmarked SoMA building, a visitor would never expect the outside world was suffering through a recession. Shelf after shelf has been stocked with piles of fluffy blindfolds and sensual candles, of double-sided dildos in swirling colors—a veritable candy store for the proudly perverse.

Upstairs, in between cubicles peppered with vibrators, there hangs a poster of the Good Vibes corporate staff posing as sexy pirates in celebration of a recent porn DVD release. For the most part though the office appears calm. The only real hint of what these guys sell comes from the faint background hum of customer services reps answering questions about what Good Vibes’ has termed “Bend over, boyfriend.”

Carol Queen, legendary sex educator and head of Good Vibrations, confirms that sales have been brisk at all three of the store’s Bay Are locations: Polk Street, Valencia Street, and another over in Berkeley. While each has a very different customer base, she explains, none has seen a drop in sales. Whether it’s the hipsters in the Mission or the granola college kids in the East Bay, everyone is still in market for a good time.

Look at it the way Queen does, and Good Vibes’ success shouldn’t come as a surprise. Even at $90, a dildo works to a pretty good deal, thinking about it orgasm by orgasm. Say a woman uses her new toy every day for a year. That’s only 25 cents a pop: cheaper certainly than going on a date and splitting the bill, cheaper even than that latex condom.

Up in North Beach, The Lusty Lady—a co-op peep-show theater famously owned by its female performers—reports similar prosperity. Once past the flashing signs over the entrance, the bouncers, and the hall of mirrors, visitors enter the warren of viewing booths, where, for a dollar a minute, they can watch a handful of scantily clothed women in impressively high heels strut their stuff. In the back rooms, linked by tiny black and red corridors, women glam up in front of photos of their family, friends, and children. One performer sits perched on a stool, entirely naked, eating a bowl of cereal.

Like Good Vibes, The Lusty Lady has seen steady profits since the beginning of the recession. Princess, one the peep show’s managers, explains. “The cost of coming here is so much lower than going to a strip club,” she says, where customers often get hassled to shell out more cash for tips, drinks, and lap dances. The Lusty Lady, on the other hand, offers triple the girls for a fraction of the price. Fuschia, a fellow manager and dancer, points out that couples get an even better deal. They can squeeze two into a booth—provided they’re willing to kiss at the door to prove they’re not just looking for 50 percent off.

Princess says the tough economic times have even been driving more performers to The Lusty Lady. With less money to go around at strip clubs, women are up and moving to establishments that can offer them a steadier income. And at this institution, all the profits get split between dancers. Everyone aims to please, because otherwise no one makes money.

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Vibrators and peep shows aside, not everyone in San Francisco’s sex industry is doing so well these days. At this time last year, Kink.com, the internet’s leading fetish porn studio, was growing fast. In 2007 they moved into the Armory, a faux-Moorish castle that dominates a city block at 14th Street and Mission Street. Since its start in 1997, Kink has opened more than seventeen sites, filling niches like water bondage, naked female wrestling, and sex machines. The landmark building the studio now inhabits, once the home of the National Guard, has since been renovated and filled with S/M sets.

Not long ago, it seemed business for the subscription-based porn company was going strong. Studio heads remained “cautiously optimist” about making it through the recession unscathed. They had a consistent customer base, reliable growth, and a plan to continue the millions of dollar worth of renovations on their kinky Moorish castle.

That was according to now ex-Public Relations Manager Thomas Roche. Only three days after speaking on the subject, he was let go, along with more than 10 percent of the Kink.com staff. His concern, even before he knew the impending doom of his job: that the company had expanded too quickly, that cracks had formed in its foundations. It seems he was right.

Without a PR rep, Kink has since declined to comment on the apparent shift in their finances. In the end, they suffered the same blows as other online porn studios. And as arguably San Francisco’s largest sex-based institution, their downturn doesn’t bode well for businesses outside their crumbling red-brick walls.

But there may still be hope. One of the more optimistic theories about the fall of the adult industry goes as follows: the recession will weed out all the lazy, bloated, or otherwise undeserving film makers. In their place, it will leave behind the crème de la crème -- the most creative and cutting edge. Think of it like the great purge of pornography.

That would explain why, while Kink scrambles with its “cautious optimism,” another San Francisco studio is on the up and up. Pink & White Productions has no massive office space, no official shooting area -- unless the second-floor apartment of renowned alternative porn maker Shine Louise Houston counts. Houston started Pink & White after working at Good Vibrations, where she realized just how few well-shot, queer-oriented, female-director pornos were on the market. So she went out and made them.

Houston admits that the sale of her DVDs has dropped off in recent months, though she thinks that’s more due to changing times than the recession. Instead she’s focusing on internet distribution, and she says have been climbing. From her living room sofa in Bernal Heights, she expresses no signs of worry that her online sales will go the way of Kink’s. Houston is offering a unique, concise product. She isn’t the fat that gets cut away. She’s the lean cutting edge that gets left behind.

And that makes sense, but if there’s one trend emerging from the jumble of contradictory reports coming from San Francisco sex businesses, it’s that people are still willing to pay for their pleasure -- but only if they can’t get the same pleasure elsewhere for less.

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Peridot Ash has worked on and off as an escort for fifteen years. A San Francisco local operating under a pseudonym and the author of her blog Friction, Ash recently re-entered the prostitution workforce despite her reluctance. Up until last year she was making decent money as a professional dominatrix—or “pro domme”—but a flood of sex workers has saturated the market, driving prices down so low she decided to return to the higher rates of prostitution proper.

Unfortunately, says Ash, these days prostitutes aren’t earning what they used to either. As escort reviews sites like ErosGuide.com make it easier for independent sex workers to see clients without paying agency fees, and the recession leaves more and more people out of work, she’s seen hundreds upon hundreds of new working girls (and boys) take up the business, driving down prices for all. Add to that the obvious fact that less customers are willing to shell out a few hundred dollars for an hour of fun. “Now my phone only rings two or three times a week,” says Ash.

Ash admits porn and sex toys offer cheaper releases for recession-inspired tension. In passed time of crisis though, as she remembers it, consumers were less likely to keep their wallets closed and their flies zipped tight. After 9/11 her business soared. “Everyone was thinking,” ‘Oh my God, I have to get laid before the world ends!’ I’ll probably never see money like that again.”

If the people of San Francisco think the current economic crisis heralds the collapse of western civilization well, they’re hiding it well. Either that, or they’re planning to wait out the apocalypse under the covers with a new sex toy.