San Francisco’s Power Exchange

To my immediate left a naked woman in a gimp mask is shackled to the wall. Straight ahead, behind a chain link fence, one heavy-set woman in a corset whips another large woman. To my right, a dozen onlookers watch as a couple has sex on a bed with thick rubber sheets. And it was barely after midnight. Welcome to Couples Night at San Francisco’s Power Exchange.

The Power Exchange bills itself as an adult sexual play space for “all preferences and exotic sensibilities.” In short, a legal sex club. The top two floors are gay-only, while the ground floor and basement are for straight, bi, and lesbian couples. It’s somewhat of an odd San Francisco institution – everyone knows about it, and everyone knows someone who has been, but very few actually admit to going themselves. The Power Exchange has various theme nights, and on the fourth Friday of each month they have Couples Night. I had heard that since it was a couples-only evening, the crowd was more varied and the action hotter. Sounds like a party to me.

I arrived at the neon lit warehouse space about midnight with Jacqui. (More on her later.) We signed in at the from desk, read the house rules, paid the $40 cover and proceeded to the clothes check. (What? You expected a simple coat check at a sex club?) I hesitated on taking off my shirt. “Do you think I should check this?” I asked Jacqui, glancing around at the crowd. “Hey, if she’s going to show her tits like that, you definitely need to show yours,” the clothes check guy laughed. It was true. Jacqui had checked everything that wasn’t vinyl or see-through mesh. Well thenâÂ?¦I guess the guy had a point. Check the shirt. So dressed in vinyl pants, a spiked choker, boots and nothing else except an open attitude, we started our exploration.

The first thing that hit me when we entered is the smell. It’s a strange, almost overpowering gym locker room smell of sweat mixed with bleach, plus the unmistakable odor of sex. It would get more cloying as the night wore on, and the entire time I was there, it was never something I got used to.

The ground floor consists of about a half dozen large rooms, each with a theme. The Medieval Room features a huge banquet table complete with fake roast pig, a large bed, a pair of thrones, and other King Arthurish dÃ?©cor. With the right lighting, it could host a Chuck E. Cheese birthday party for 6-year-olds. Well, maybe if you lost the leather restraints on the rack. The Prison Room was just that – an actual group of jail cells with sex swings or dentist chairs inside each. There was a Game Room where people played pool while watching two women strip on a shimmery curtained stage. An Egyptian Room with sarcophagus led to a Bates Motel look alike. Bowls of free condoms were everywhere. (House Rule #1: Condoms are mandatory.)

Downstairs opens up into a low-ceilinged Dungeon Room with various areas for different fetishes. There’s a large bondage area and a room playing types of porn I never knew existed. We spent a few minutes contemplating the fact that people actually enjoy being strangled with a belt, not to mention that someone films it and makes money selling the video. The rest of downstairs was a dizzying maze of hallways, with small dark rooms hidden everywhere. Abused couches sagged into corners. Black lights lit cool, dark hallways streaked with glowing paint.

The clientele was mostly milling around when we arrived. Couples wandered from room to room like they were window shopping. Occasionally, crowds would form around a couple engaged in oral sex, but at the start I was really wondering what all the hoopla was about. We wandered out to the main dungeon area where one overly-skinny woman was bent over a bench and whipped by a large bald man. A naked man was splayed out, tied down and being stroked with a feather. The gimp woman in a rubber mask was yelping as a man ran an electro-wand over her back. All this certainly wasn’t turning me on, but I think that’s sort of the point of the Power Exchange – different strokes for different folks. Even if those strokes come at the end of a riding crop.

The crowd was an amazingly eclectic mix. Some couples were obviously regulars – dressed in full fetish gear. Some looked like they wandered in off the street, only here for a week from Nebraska. A young, wide-eyed Asian couple in khakis and t-shirts. A man and woman in their 60’s, shuffling room to room. A tall Mexican women in a tight dress held the hand of a short, skinny black man sporting a yellow tracksuit. Maybe half the people dressed especially for the occasion.

As the evening picked up steam, more and more rooms offered couples going at it. Lots of oral sex. Slightly less “regular” sex. I’d estimate that at any one time, less than a quarter of the people there were actually doing anything – almost always with the person they came with. The rest would mill around until some new couple decided to go at it. Upstairs, in the King Arthur Room, two women licked each other while the men they were with sat in the thrones and watched. “I can’t believe.

I expected to find more of this sexy. Or at least turn me on. Very little of it did. Maybe my undiscovered fetish just wasn’t on display that night. Maybe watching people have sex just isn’t that exciting. Maybe if Kate Beckinsale and the Playboy Bunnies were there I would change my story. But obviously, for a lot of people, this kind of thing is a huge attraction. It was clear that despite being handcuffed to a huge wooden cross and whipped with a cat o’nine tails, people were having fun doing things that they enjoyed. More power to them, I guess.

After about two hours, with the ever present smell getting to both of us, Jacqui and I wandered back upstairs. “You two have fun?” the clothes check guy asked us. “Oh yeah. It was definitely an experience,” I replied. And that it was.

Note: An extra special thanks to Jacqui for being my research assistant for the night. Without her, I couldn’t have gotten in to Couples Night. Jacqui is a friend of a friend who agreed to this without ever having met me or spoken to me via e-mail. She was great fun – getting into the spirit of things by uninhibitedly dressing up for the occasion. I definitely wouldn’t have had as good a time without her. Also, thanks to her boyfriend, whom I’ve never met, for being cool about her going to a sex club with some random guy.

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