By ANGELA KILDUFF
Mike Powers gets it—the neighborhood’s reaction to his sex club’s relocation was unequivocal. But as he cleaned up the 12,000 square feet of space at 44 Gough St. where he’d planned to open in early April, the owner of the Power Exchange made it clear he is looking for new space.
“I can’t let [the city] win now. I have to reopen … because now it’s become a battle where they’re saying Power Exchange isn’t acceptable,” Powers said.
Mission Loc@l’s coverage of the neighborhood’s quick and effective campaign against the club triggered a heated discussion of the sex club and the role it played in many lives. Just as the neighbors cried out in response to the prospect of the club opening, its patrons vented their frustrations when it didn’t.
The names you’ll read below are abbreviated or adopted monikers. Because of concern over careers, families or harassment, the Power Exchange patrons included here shared their perspectives on the condition of protecting their identities.
Even in a city like San Francisco, they are reticent. Powers, on the other hand, is not.
The 43-year-old ran for mayor of San Francisco in 2007 and now operates a Power Exchange location in Las Vegas. On a recent Wednesday, he wore a purple tank top that read “America’s Naughtiest” and purple, black and white camouflage pants. His hair was dyed blonde and black, his nose piercing glittered under the fluorescent lights, and his manicured black and white nails accentuated his gestures.
“They can’t be outed, that’s the tragedy of it,” said Powers.
Posts on an online forum wanted answers about what happened, and sought alternative destinations. While sex was definitely a topic of discussion, many craved the social atmosphere that Power Exchange provided.
“To say that the sex is all that goes on is like saying that imbibing is the only thing that happens in a bar,” wrote Samantha Barsalona, adding, “People make business connections, they find housing, they find referrals to counseling and therapy—all sorts of things can happen.”
In Barsalona’s profile, she identifies as transgender, one of the groups that patronized the Power Exchange.
Besides the transgender community, Powers said his customers included swingers, heterosexuals and people interested in BDSM (Bondage, Discipline, Sadism and Masochism).
“Everybody was welcome there,” said Laura. She’s a single mom who lives in the East Bay, and she’s straight. At her request, her name has been changed.
“There’s a lot more people like me, like you, that do go and that want to go,” she said, adding, “These are professional people, these are people that have jobs, lives and families.”
At Power Exchange, Laura said she could be herself. She could watch or participate, and she made friends there. She misses it.
So does Jerry. He was there the night Power Exchange opened on Otis Street, as well as the night it closed. On average, he would go at least once a week.
“If you have the impression that I was out getting laid every time I went there, that isn’t how it happened,” he said.
At the same time, the S&M practitioner said, “People went to this club to do the most outrageous and unbelievable things—and they did them a lot.”
Some of the noise and other activity at the Otis location, however, spilled out into the street, and when neighbors heard that Powers would reopen nearby, they mobilized. They made calls to the city and put pressure on the landlord, Tom Hovorka.
Powers’ plans ground to a halt when Christine Haw from the Planning Department and Joe Duffy from the Department of Building Inspection paid him a visit on April 2.
The building code designated the space as a business and office. According to building permits, the Power Exchange’s occupancy code at its previous location was A-3, and it was zoned for use as a club.
Powers said he didn’t think getting the occupancy change would be difficult until “the stink arose” from the neighbors.
When the club was open, Powers hired a private patrol officer to monitor the situation outside during peak hours. The officer would respond quickly, but Powers said the police presence wasn’t quite visible enough.
“I don’t want these a**holes dropping condoms out the windows out there in the parking lots. I don’t even want them in the parking lots,” Powers said.
At his new location he said he had planned to minimize noise by blocking off Stevenson Alley and shuttling guests from the Metreon parking lot at Fourth and Mission streets.
In the 13 years the Power Exchange operated in San Francisco, “This is the greatest uproar people have made, ever,” Powers said.
In no time, it led to the termination of his lease as well as the loss of a lot of time and money.
With his landlord, Powers said, “It got very distasteful very fast.”
Still, Powers envisions a club in San Francisco not unlike the one at 74 Otis. It had three floors, and no alcohol was permitted. Powers said the club provided condoms, gloves and water-based lubricant.
“It’s one of the few places in the world where het[erosexual] folks can go and play,” said Chris English. Couples could have sex or just watch other people. He said people could play just with the person they brought or do more with others.
He’s a sex educator who also teaches S&M and tantric sex. English emphasized the distinction between a public and private sex club. The Power Exchange was a public club. There was a sign over the door, and it was open to anyone.
According to English, the Citadel, at Ninth and Mission, is a private sex club. To enter, you have to be a member, but you can purchase your membership at the door for the nominal cost of $10. On its website, the Citadel says it’s “the centerpiece of the San Francisco BDSM community.”
While the Citadel is a social and sexual option for some of the Power Exchange’s customers, it’s not for everyone. Other alternatives in San Francisco include Eros, Sinfusion, Divas and Kinky Salon at Mission Control, as well as private parties around the Bay Area.
“Unfortunately, I am unaware of any venue like PE serving the needs of so many communities under one roof and the synergy that created,” Robin wrote online, adding, “Nor have I found any place for TGs [transgenders] like PE.”
Robin is a male-to-female transvestite and transgendered, and she said the transgender umbrella includes “part-time cross-dressers through post-op transsexuals.”
At the Power Exchange, she could be herself “without the risk of being verbally abused, beaten or worse—killed—because of who I am.”
She moderates the message board and recently put up a call for help, asking Power Exchange supporters to help paint the 44 Gough space.
Powers had to be out by May 1, and there was a lot left do. Walking through the brightly painted hallways and rooms, he talked about the themes planned for them—from Hollywood to cartoons, and Rome to the moon. His mother had done much of the painting and was helping now to cover it all up with white. (Last year, The Huffington Post wrote about the family-run business and featured a video about it.)
Powers’ son Joshua was also there with friends, as well as two former managers, day laborers they had hired, and three volunteers from the website. Robin was one of the latter, and she said more were on their way after work.
In the meantime, Powers is working with an architect and a real estate agent to find a new location.
The bottom line will be the question of permit and zoning. His architect is researching it, and Powers says it boils down to whether a sex club is more like a strip club or a gym, and therefore considered entertainment or personal services. Unlike a strip club, his employees don’t provide the entertainment, other patrons do. He just provides the pole.
Or, to put it another way, at a gym you’re paying to use a treadmill or a stair climber.
“At my place you pay to use the spanking horse or the St. Andrew’s Cross,” Powers said.