Erotic City: Sexual Revolutions and the Making of Modern San Francisco by Josh Sides

erotic cityTurns out, I spent my youth in San Francisco while it was in the midst of a sexual revolution and didn’t even know it.

Josh Sides opens the epilogue of Erotic City with a quote from Joan Didion, whom I have also been reading a lot of lately.

“Going back to California is not like going back to Vermont, or Chicago,” Joan Didion wrote in 1965.  “Vermont and Chicago are relative constants, against which one measures one’s own change.  All that is constant about the California of my childhood is the rate at which it disappears. ” Longtime San Franciscans may be even more inclined than Californians generally to view their home in this way, as a place whose finest hour has passed, where roiling economic forces have crushed the easy eclecticism, Bohemianism, and joyful sexual experimentation of the 1960s and 1970s. But nostalgia can be deceptive: the revolution is not over.

While Mr. Sides deals briefly with Barbary Coast era San Francisco, the bulk of his book is about the twentieth century, most of it post World War II.  I learned quite a bit in the first half of the book.  For example, brothels operated openly in San Francisco until the years following the second world war.  They were so successful that many people considered them the reason why burlesque never made much of a splash in the city.  Sally Stanford, the most famous, or infamous, brothel owner of the 20th century said “It’s easier to get a woman in San Francisco than it is to get a rash in a leper colony.”  So no need for burlesque.

Many historians credit World War II with starting the gay and lesbian rights movement in America because it brought so many men from a wide range of backgrounds together and planted them, for a time, in the cities.  Tens of thousands of men and women who thought they were the only one, discovered they were not alone.  Just about everyone on their way to fight in the Pacific passed through San Francisco.  Those who were later kicked out of the military for being gay were dumped in the City.  Many stayed, making San Francisco an early nexus for the gay rights movement in America years before the Stonewall riots in New York City.

The final third of Erotic City covers history I lived through.  I went to San Francisco State University in 1982, came out three years later in 1985 and spent the next 12 years living in one shared flat after another.  By the end of the 80’s I knew just under 30 people who had dies from AIDS.  I stopped counting because I simple had to.    So there’s not much you can tell me about how AIDS affected San Francisco that I don’t already know.  I did learn that Surgeon General C. Everett Koop was not allowed to deal with AIDS for his first six years on the job.  Over 21,o00 Americans died from the disease during this time.  He should have brought it up sooner, even if it cost him his job and his friendship with Ronald Reagan.

All of Erotic City is interesting reading, even if you lived in San Francisco at the time.  Mr. Sides’s book is detailed enough to satisfy people who are serious about their history, but breezy enough to keep most non-history readers turning the pages, too.

In case you are wondering, Erotic City is interesting but not titillating.   It’s frank about sex when it needs to be, but it’s not sexy at all.  The city was definitely erotic, but the book is not.

 

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4 Comments

  1. This book does sound quite interesting. I was living in southern Florida during the 80’s and when people were discovered there with AIDS they had their houses burned to the ground by vigilante locals. It was truly horrendous. I think the history of the gay soldiers being dumped on the west coast is quite interesting. Although it was supposed to be a liberating time it seems underneath it all it wasn’t so liberating. Interesting post.

    1. Florida makes a strong appearance in the book. Anita Bryant’s anti-gay crusade of the late 70’s and early 80’s had a powerful affect on San Francisco and California.

  2. tracybham says:

    There is lots of information just in this post that I did not know. Sounds like an interesting book. I will look for a copy.

    1. My local library had it. Josh Sides has a book on Los Angeles’s black community which I think I’ll be reading soon.

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