Leather men, masochists, rubber faeries, fist pups — Folsom is our playground. We all discover the famed festival in San Francisco’s SoMA district, get bored with it, then rediscover it again. Folsom has tamed down or amped up, depending on who you ask, refusing perennially to be pinned down. For this reason, the Folsom Street Fair is a lovely reflection of kink itself: communal and intimate, carnal and beautiful, requiring only your loss of inhibition and a bottle of lube. Whether you’re a seasoned attendee or breathless first-timer, these 38 DOs and DON’Ts will help you navigate the largest leather event in the world.
A Word of Warning From Writer Alexander Cheves (above center)
My name is Alexander Cheves, and I am known by friends in the kink and leather community as Beastly. I am a sex-positive writer and blogger. The views in this slideshow do not reflect those of The Advocate and are based solely off of my own experiences. Like everything I write, the intent of this piece is to break down the stigmas surrounding the sex lives of gay men.
Those who are sensitive to frank discussions about sex are invited to click elsewhere, but consider this: If you are outraged by content that address sex openly and honestly, I invite you to examine this outrage and ask yourself whether it should instead be directed at those who oppress us by policing our sexuality.
For all others, enjoy the slideshow. And feel free to leave your own suggestions of sex and dating topics in the comments.
Hungry for more? Follow me on Twitter @BadAlexCheves and visit my blog, The Beastly Ex-Boyfriend.
1. DO plan ahead.
First time Folsom-goers, you’re in for a sensory overload. San Francisco is breathtaking enough without hundreds of hot leather men from all over the world walking its streets. There are dozens of party options and endless DTF kinksters within a mile radius. You will be overwhelmed, so make plans beforehand. Have a relaxed itinerary. Better yet, go with someone who has been before.
2. DON’T buy drugs in a club or on the street from a stranger.
Bring them with you or get them from a trusted source. Dealers come into the city specifically for Folsom revelers with drugs that are anything but what they are selling them as.
3. DO remember that drugs and alcohol will effect you differently in the sun and heat of Folsom as opposed to the dark and air-conditioning of a club/party.
Stimulants quicken your heart rate and raise your body temperature. This isn’t usually much of a problem in a dark club, but outdoor heat can be dangerous. Use caution if you plan to take them during the day.
4. DON’T go alone.
Folsom is best done in groups or at least with a trusted friend — particularly if it’s your first time. Friends make your trip safer and way more fun!
5. DON’T try to go to every party.
You will run out of money and exhaust yourself long before the fair is over. Pace yourself. Energy and money are valuable resources at Folsom, and you want to conserve both wherever possible.
6. DO go to at least one real party and stay all night.
By a “real” party, I mean a dirty, sleazy gear party with a play space — a backroom, European-style sex maze, dungeon, or raunchy play tent out back. Go all out. Take substances if you want. Stay till closing time. Uber home through the city’s roller-coaster streets as the sky just begins to lighten. The parties, rather than the fair itself, are where the real debauchery of Folsom happens.
7. DO plan two or three solid outfits in advance.
You need two or three solid looks that definitely work so that you don’t spend all your time shopping for gear. Many guys shop at Mr. S Leather and in the city’s various leather retailers in the days before the fair, but the crowds are thick and the prices are high. If you are going with the intention of taking your leather closet to the next level or stocking up on top-grade play gear, beat the crowds and arrive a day or two early.
8. DO be open-minded.
You might see something that shocks you. People come from all over the world, bringing a global hodgepodge of kinks and fetishes with them. Keep an open mind.
9. DON’T judge.
Folsom is a judgment-free zone. Many people come for the sole reason that they can be themselves and express their interests for a weekend without judgment. That is beautiful and you will ruin Folsom for them if you mutter some comment under your breath and they hear it. If you feel you might do so, consider traveling elsewhere.
10. DO remember that, even in San Francisco, outside the confines of the fair and the parties/clubs, others might not accept or welcome seeing you in full gear.
San Franciscans are primed for Folsom; they know it’s coming, so even outside the fair and the South of Market district, few people will bat an eye at seeing you in leather or fetish gear. But there is always the off chance that you will wander into a business or meet someone who responds strongly or disapprovingly. Simply walk away.
11. DO let yourself feel the excitement of everyone there.
Folsom is a sexy and empowering community event. You are part of something beautiful. Feel the energy. Talk to people. Be your adventurous self. That’s what Folsom is for.
12. DO get tested afterward for STIs.
Folsom is a sex fest. If you want to pig out, you can have an absurd amount of hot, anonymous sex with people you may never see again — or never see at all (visibility gets limited with blindfolds, darkrooms, etc.). I always get a full-range STI check after I get back.
13. DO avoid mixing G and alcohol. You will lose consciousness.
Every year that I’ve gone to Folsom, I have seen someone overdose by combining G/GHB (gamma hydroxybutyrate), a popular dance-floor drug, with alcohol. Pairing the two can land you in the hospital and even be fatal.
14. DO keep an eye on your friends. Harm reduction is key!
This is why you should go in groups! The experience is more memorable with others — and safer. If you see someone who might be having problems, particularly at a party, go up to them and make sure they’re okay. Being at Folsom means you are part of the kink community. These people are your brothers, sisters, and sister-brothers. Look out for them.
15. DO try new things.
Folsom is prime time to experiment. You’re in a city with thousands of kinksters of various skill levels. There is no better time to find someone who enjoys doing what you want to try.
16. DON’T buy gear from vendors at the fair. The internet is generally cheaper.
If this is your first time at Folsom, you should make a pilgrimage to Mr. S Leather, a long-standing leather and kink supplier and landmark of both the international kink community and the city of San Francisco. Mr. S is a short walk from the fair and will be very busy. Be patient, wait your turn, and be prepared to drop some money. Gear at Mr. S Leather is high-quality, but high-quality leather/fetish/rubber/BDSM products aren’t cheap. Gear sold at the fair itself is even more expensive. If you’ve been before or if you are trying to do Folsom on a budget, remember that with an internet connection and a tailor’s measuring tape, you can get most everything you see online for lower prices.
17. DO stay hydrated.
San Francisco is a walking city. At its peaks, the city is breathtaking — but you probably did a hefty uphill workout to get to them. Stay hydrated, especially in full gear.
18. DO expect to be bumped into and have your feet stepped on.
The fair gets dense. This is fun for those of us who like innocuous gropings but misery for people with open-toe shoes (not recommended).
19. DON’T be overly sensitive to flirting or overt sexual comments.
Folsom is a sexually charged atmosphere. People are going to flirt, poke, prod, and comment on your body. People will stare. That’s kind of the whole point. If you are uncomfortable with someone talking about how much they love getting fisted, you’re probably not going to enjoy the live flogging demonstrations or guys walking around in piss-soaked lycra.
20. DO refresh your memory regarding code colors.
If you’re a gay man, you are probably somewhat familiar with the hanky code — at least the basics. Right back pocket means you’re a bottom, left back pocket means you’re a top. Yellow for piss play, red for fisting, navy for top fuckers (left pocket) and bottom fuckers (right pocket). At Folsom, you’re bound to see some colors you may not be familiar with. Kinksters at Folsom take code colors seriously — don’t wear a red wristband on your right wrist if you don’t want everyone to think you’re a fisting bottom. Here, here, and here are all good sites to visit to brush up on code colors.
21. DO make new friends.
Folsom is where you make friends with kinksters from all over the world. Many guys go back every year to see their buds.
22. DO go early.
It’s the calm before the storm. Walk the Castro before it’s packed. Take a trip to Twin Peaks. This gives you time to get your bearings and solidify plans.
23. DO take cash — everywhere.
Most places will take cards or have Square, but if you go to a bar, don’t be a dick — bring cash. It’s easier on the bartenders. Clothing checks at bars and circuit parties will almost always be cash only.
24. DO beat the clothing check line by getting to the party EARLY.
I’m always one for arriving fashionably late, but if you’re fashionably late to Magnitude or Real Bad or any of the other big circuit parties, the clothing check line will be out the door (while the line to the bar, bless its heart, is minuscule). Get there early.
25. DO keep your cash in your shoe/sock if you’re naked or wearing only a jockstrap, etc.
I first learned the sock trick while wearing a jockstrap (and nothing else) at Powerhouse — a landmark, no-frills leather bar right on Folsom Street that you’ll undoubtedly dip into at some point.
26. DO bring a change of vanilla clothes.
As awesome as Folsom is, you’ll want to decompress, take a break, explore the city, and go out to dinner.
27. DO expect to be stuck in large crowds.
San Francisco is not a huge city, and the fair itself only encompasses a few city blocks. If you’re uncomfortable in large crowds, mentally and physically prepare yourself to be in them quite a bit.
28. DON’T expect Folsom to change your life.
If you’ve been to leather parties in other big cities — New York, Los Angeles, Berlin — Folsom might not blow you away. The fair is either tamed down from its dirty glory days or too much to handle, depending on who you ask. Go with as few expectations as possible and simply let yourself enjoy it.
29. DO expect Folsom to change your life.
I’ve heard it said that Folsom doesn’t change your life the first time you go. It changes your life ten years later, after you’ve gone back multiple times, made friends, and let the festival become part of your year. It is simply the biggest outdoor leather festival in the world, and kinksters stay devoted to it because it means a lot to us and because we have history with it. The secret is that Folsom does change your life: it becomes home.
30. DO keep in touch with new friends and plan for next year.
One of the best things about meeting new people is that you can establish contacts with whom you might schedule future Folsom trips. Need a friend to split hotel fare with? Message the friends you met last year at Folsom.
31. DO get your hotel room/AirBNB as early as possible.
Available hotel rooms across the city fill up quickly. Book your room as soon as possible.
32. DO see the rest of the city. (I recommend a ferry ride!)
Folsom is great, but you’re also visiting of the loveliest cities in the world. Take time to see it. Go to Pier 39, hike Golden Gate Park, or take a ferry ride to Sausalito. Get a burrito in the Mission!
33. DO walk to the top of Dolores Park and take in the view of the city.
When I lived in San Francisco, I became accustomed to the steep hikes and the city’s more obvious points of interest — Castro, SoMa, etc. But I never got tired of getting a cup of coffee and walking to the top of Dolores Park, which during Folsom will be crowded with kinky homos lounging in the grass. At the top of the park is a killer view of the whole city. Make sure you see it.
34. DO embrace all your kinks and experience them with others.
If there is one lesson you should get from Folsom, it’s this: accept yourself. Love what you’re into.
35. DO carefully consider who you let tie you up and play with you — and who you tie up and play with.
While most of the attendees are wonderful and magnanimous kinksters, there are inevitably a few who view Folsom as an opportunity to get away with things the international kink community at large would not condone. Remember to always be safe, sane, and consensual in whatever you do, and protect and enforce these requirements for others.
36. DO take vitamins before, during, and after partying (B-complex, C, D, zinc, and 5-HTP).
Regardless of whether or not you do drugs (alcohol included), you’re going to be beat afterward (no pun intended). Also, you will be in close quarters with thousands of people who might pass around colds. Take a double dose of good stuff after the fun — vitamins, high-nutrition superfoods, etc.
37. DO get a Clipper card.
Navigating the Bay Area is easy. Muni and BART, the city’s two public transportation services, are pretty cheap, and a Clipper card is an all-in-one reloadable card that you swipe to get on the trolley/into the station. The card withdraws your fare automatically so you don’t have to fumble with buying tickets or hunting your pockets for cash every time. New Clipper cards cost $3 and never expire — I still have mine. It’s been almost a year since I was in San Francisco, but there’s still money on my card, so I could visit tomorrow and still use it.
38. DO go back!
You can’t do everything — or everyone — on the first visit. In subsequent trips you’ll be able to focus on one activity over another. One year you might try to do all the parties. Another year you might focus on getting new gear. One year you might simply attend the fair from start to end in the most scintillating and absurd getup possible. Whatever you do, definitely go back and experience it again! Like a vicious tease, the Folsom Street Fair reveals itself slowly. Heaven knows why we love it so.