There’s a dominatrix in rubber leading around her gagged, drooling sub — a grown man in a dog collar with exposed genitals hung with metal weights. He is wagging a puppy tail butt plug. There’s a leather drag queen with giant devil horns. There’s a crowd of naked men and women sitting in folding chairs on the sidewalk, smoking cigars. There’s a person dressed up as a pony in full-body fuchsia latex. Welcome to heaven.
Or the closest thing to it — the Folsom Street Fair, an unapologetic, clothing-optional outdoor celebration of leather, kink, and BDSM. It happens every year in September in San Francisco’s South of Market district.
Regardless if this is your first Folsom or your 50th, we all could use a primer on proper etiquette. Every time I go, I learn more. I learn my mistakes. My perspective shifts. I wrote a previous list of Folsom Street Fair Dos and Don'ts two years ago. Reading it now, my previous piece is both problematic and limited. Here’s a new one.
At the time, I had only been an attendee. Now I’m a vendor. At the time, I knew nothing about fisting. This year, my Folsom weekend will start with a fist party. That’s how it goes: The fair changes as you change. Here is an updated list of Dos and Don'ts of the Folsom Street Fair — the largest leather event in the world.
Thanks to Miguel Angel Reyes for most of the photos here, mostly from his gallery of 2016 Folsom Street Fair photos. And there may be one or two from Jamie Thrower's Dore Alley photos. And thanks, of course, to Folsom Street Events.
San Francisco will be filled with kinksters (kinky people) of all stripes — some novices, some skilled. Come with an open mind and ample patience.
If you’re a pro, expect newbies wearing their first harnesses. If you’re a beginner, respect the scene and ask those with years of experience questions. Be polite to everyone. We’re all here to have fun.
Around 400,000 people are coming. They will be crammed into 13 city blocks. Expect dense, standing-room only crowds, warm temperatures, and over-the-top getups. It gets cramped.
Walking a dog or pushing a stroller is impossible in parts of the fair. As much as we love dogs, this fair is for human ones as well as all other human pets (leather ponies, rubber kitties, and so on).
Many of us love kids. That said, we don’t want your kids at the fair. The Folsom Street Fair is a place of adult revelry — one of the few places where you can freely walk around in as much or as little clothing as possible, where you can show off your kinks, where you can go nude (only in the fair grounds, of course), and more.
While we all appreciate the parents who are open-minded and welcoming of human sexuality enough to bring their kids to the fair, fairgoers themselves don’t want them there.
The San Francisco city paper Sfist got it right:
Many have noted that Folsom Street Fair has gotten a little more tame in recent years, but only a little. You're still very likely to see some old man peen, and very likely to see some scrotums shot up with saline — that's why they're so extraordinarily swollen, everyone, it's not a disease. You may also see any or all of the following: men dressed as leather-bound puppies being led around on leashes with tails that are actually butt plugs; grown women on leashes acting subservient in non-feminist ways; bloodied backs covered in lash marks; men wearing police uniforms that are entirely leather; an actual San Francisco Supervisor shirtless in a leather vest; men wearing biker/cowboy chaps with no jeans or underwear on underneath; young twenty-something lesbians and gay men trying on leather harnesses for the first time and giggling a lot; pale people who typically spend a lot of time in sex dungeons getting sunburnt while showing off their junk. You also might see actual sex acts, but I'm making no promises. The easily faint or offended should probably steer clear.
Even in a sexually free space, consent applies and always will. Don’t touch without permission, even if what you want to touch is something you consider completely nonsexual — the feathers on someone’s boa or a drag queen’s headdress. Never touch without asking.
This is a hard rule we don’t compromise on. A good selfie is not worth ruining someone’s life or career. Always ask before taking pictures, as some people don’t want to be photographed. Some DL kinksters are only able to express themselves at Folsom. Don’t destroy it for them.
I bring a drawstring bag filled with essentials — cash, wallet, phone, douche, and one bottle of poppers. For some guys, this is too much. For others, not enough.
This year there will be bag checks at the three fair entrances on Howard and Ninth Street, Howard and 10th Street, and Howard and 11th Street. The organizers ask attendees not to bring glass bottles, cans, or any weapons — obviously. Since there will be a bag check, keep it light.
There will be two clothing check stations (one on 10th Street, just north of Folsom Street, and one on 12th Street, just south of Folsom Street), which you should use instead of packing up your clothes into a bag and carrying them around with you (you don’t want to do that — I’ve done that). Make sure you pick up your items by 6 p.m., when the fair shuts down completely.
This isn’t the place for that. If you feel you might be tempted to giggle at naked men or women, stay home. Folsom exists as a nonjudgmental, no-shame space. Let it remain so for people who appreciate it — for those who may live in conservative, rural areas and only get to taste a shameless environment once a year here.
This is the time to do it! Compliment people on how they look (the easiest way to make an introduction). If they’re doing something in public that’s intentionally showy (parading someone around as a bound and gagged puppy) and you’re interested in public pup play and domination, knot techniques, safety techniques, and so on, then talk to them.
Don’t talk too long or dominate their time, and if they’re showing signals of wanting to keep moving, let them. But many people will be glad to talk about what they’re doing, what they’re wearing, and what they’re into.
You know what that means: You might get touched. Everyone (including and especially the event organizers) stresses the importance of consent — of asking first before you touch. But sadly, some folks still don’t respect this rule. Other aspects of close quarters exist: lack of personal space, sweat, long lines. Mentally prepare yourself.
San Francisco is a beautiful city. It’s worth hiking around (get ready for some cardio — the hills get pretty intense). There’s good food all across the city, so ask a local what places they recommend. Take a ferry to Sausalito or visit Fisherman’s Wharf.
There’s no admittance fee, but donations to Folsom Street Events, the organization that arranges the fair every year (along with Up Your Alley weekend) are welcome and appreciated. If you love Folsom, help it continue. Every dollar counts.
This is the time to try that kink or explore that fetish you’ve always had in the back of your head, but have never found playmates to enjoy it with. Bone up on the hanky code and talk to people who seem sexy and interesting. Folsom is a great time to try something for the first time.
There are a lot of awesome fetish events, dance parties, and nightlife happening throughout the city during Folsom weekend. Take advantage of them, and plan in advance! By the time you arrive, many parties may be sold out, so get your tickets now.
That said, don’t be discouraged if you can’t get a ticket to the sexy dance party of your dreams. People are playing all across the city. Go to bars in SoMa or the Castro — they’ll be busy. Meet guys online. Cruise. This is the time to do it.
I mentioned drugs a little little too much in my last piece on Folsom Street Fair Dos and Don’ts — and drew some criticism for it. I must stress that Folsom is far from a drug-ridden event; in fact you’ll find many, many people who stay sober the whole time. San Francisco’s sober community is large, tight-knit, thriving, and extremely kinky. They play hard without substances, so if you’re looking for playmates who will support your efforts to stay substance-free, look up local meeting times and group hangouts before going—I guarantee there will be lots of similar guys seeking sober, kinky fun this weekend.
That said, some people do drugs during the weekend. It’s necessary to acknowledge that some people will be getting drunk and high so that we can take collective efforts as a community to keep everyone safer.
Harm reduction saves lives. If you see someone who looks like they might be having a bad high or who may seem out of sorts, it’s always acceptable to ask if they’re OK. You’re allowed to help strangers — and you’ll find a kinky community in San Francisco who will. If anything, this warmth and this love is what I associate with the San Francisco leather community — a collective effort to protect each other.
Get numbers! You might find playmates who don’t live far from your home, or — even better — you might meet kinksters from the other side of the world, with totally different techniques and perspectives and a completely different kinky culture to speak from.
Sex is always a blessing, but knowledge and perspective is sometimes much more valuable, and there’s much to be learned in such a melting pot.
This is a sexual event. This is true any way you paint it: Folsom is a beautiful, unapologetic celebration of human sexuality, identity, and desire. I would be remiss if I didn’t suggest getting a full STD test before going and a full STD test 10 days after. Know your status. Keep partners knowledgeable. Keep yourself knowledgeable.
Face it: You won’t be able to do everything or everyone on one trip. Every time you go to Folsom, you enjoy it a different way and understand it a little bit more. It’s not an event that can be summarized and fully appreciated from one trip. You need to do it again. And again. And again. It becomes home. See you next year!