A sign reading “No Nudity” is somehow shocking amid the mass of bare body parts in various forms of display-hanging out, propped up, tied up or ornamented with body paint.
“Within an hour here, nothing surprises you,” says 25-year-old Chris Perez, whose bare chest is ornamented with two tattoos of hearts-one reading “Mom,” the other reading “Dad.”
Indeed, little registers as shocking after dodging a man squirting clear liquid through a fake penis and then waiting in a tight line for drinks in front of a man with his real penis hanging out.
I’ve found myself in the middle of the 26th Annual Exotic Erotic Ball, at the San Francisco Cow Palace on Saturday, Oct. 22. The one-night Mecca for exhibitionists, voyeurs and fetishists is packed with thousands of revelers in various states of undress. There is a women dressed as an FBI agent wearing a pair of spandex shorts that go places usually reserved for thongs, and a graying man, wearing a puzzle of chains and leather that twist and pinch his various bare bits into view. In jeans, heels and a t-shirt, I am clearly the most over-dressed-or dressed-person here.
But this year organizers added to the usual draw of bare bottoms and breasts. With panels on First Amendment rights, the honoring of pornographer Larry Flynt with a lifetime achievement award for his continued defense of free speech, and a return to its original slogan of “Make Love, Not War,” this year’s ball had a strong political undercurrent. The ball’s co-founder Perry Mann, wearing a see-through leopard print shawl with fake-fur detailing over a black t-shirt and with white running shoes, says the original slogan, which he calls “the rallying cry of a generation,” has rightfully stuck over the decades.
“It’s as appropriate now as it was in the ’60s,” says Mann, balancing a top hat with a wild plume of feathers exploding from the top on his knee. “What we need is more love and less war.”
He has been celibate and sober for almost two years, but he doesn’t let that ruin his party. Mann seems this crowd’s Messiah as I follow him and his coterie of leather clad ladies, a cameraman and a bodyguard three times my size.
“Hey! It’s the man! Mann the man!” one passerby yells.
Immediately the surrounding groups of partiers converge on him and with the frenetic energy in the air and a cameraman at the ready, I’m anticipating this to turn into a typical Girls Gone Wild scene. But Mann points his microphone this way and that, interviewing people for a video he’ll later sell online, and is off again, making the rounds and smiling at the waves of people that recognize him as representing…something.
Mann knows all too well that it isn’t the Ball’s political undertones that reel in the thousands of exuberant partiers willing to pay $85 for general admission or $185 for V.I.P. access.
“I don’t know if people look at it as a political thing,” said Mann, running a hand through his tight black curls. He says that the real idea is just to “come out and let it all hang out…if it’s big enough.”
While the event’s main appeal seems to be circulating throughout the arena and stopping for photos with those wearing the best costume or least amount of clothing, some feel strongly about the political leanings of the slogan.
Wendi McCusker, 28, who flew out from Boston just for the Ball, is a medic in the Air Force and the threat of war hits home.
“I love [the slogan]. Making love is the best thing on earth,” says McCusker, tucking her pack of cigarettes between her lace stockings and white knee-high boots. “Trust me, I don’t wanna go to war.”
Dressed as Marv from Sin City-his face a collage of large white band-aides-Randy Dilka, 32, says that he related to the slogan’s sentiment.
“It’s awesome, I agree with it,” says the Sacramento resident who drove down for just the night. “I used to be in the army so I should know.”
But not all ball-goers are fond of the anti-war message. Jennifer Sisson, wearing a red slip and occasionally flashing a pair of large vampire fangs, says that both love and war are necessary.
“It’s sort of outdated for what I believe,” the 23-year-old lisps through her vampire fangs.
Some feel that it’s impossible to deny the political underpinnings of the Ball since the right to hold such an event is in need of protection.
Jason Smith, 22, who grows marijuana for a San Francisco cannabis club, is squatting just outside of the Ball, taking a drag from a hand-rolled blunt.
“If Bush had his way this kinda thing wouldn’t go,” Smith says. “We’re our own country. California’s its own country and San Francisco’s its own country.”
Still, no one denies the ball’s main attraction: flaunting and, often, some covert fondling.
Huddling outside next to her fiance, who’s wearing an ornate feathered headdress that spills over his shoulders onto his post-card sized loincloth, McCusker says that the real reason she came is for “the sex, the freakiness.” Minutes later inside I see her pulling the top of her white corset down for a photo op. For most, the Ball seems more an occasion to “wiggle it and jiggle it,” as Mann suggests, than as part of any political agenda.
But for many ball-goers, the freedom to express oneself sexually is political enough in its own right, and doesn’t have to be tied to a greater cause.