San Francisco’s Gay Porn Industry Is Dead

And with it, some of the citys liberal identity.

San Francisco’s Gay Porn Industry Is Dead

Josh O’Connor

And with it, some of the city’s liberal identity.

The model was dressed in leather bondage gear with an eggplant stuffed up his butt. As Rikki snapped pictures, the vegetable shot across the room with a loud POP. It was the first day of Rikki’s gay porn career.

The year was 2003, and Rikki had recently returned to America after living in Bangkok for over a decade. We met while working for a city listings magazine where Rikki eked out a living, barely able to afford food on his meager staff photographer salary. He had a keen eye. Once, he showed me a collection of photos he’d taken of the late-70s punk scene in New York. I was astonished to see punk icons Sid Vicious, Andy Warhol, Divine, The Clash and The Misfits peering out of these never-before-published photos. He told me that there were more pictures like these, stored in crates at his mother’s house.

Shortly after Rikki returned to San Francisco, he visited his mother in Philadelphia. While perusing Craigslist, he spotted an ad for a stills photographer at Falcon, one of the largest and oldest gay porn production companies. He submitted his resume and when he returned to San Francisco, he found an interview request waiting for him. Falcon loved his photos of Thailand’s masochistic vegetarian festival, where people spear their faces with hooks, and they brought Rikki on full-time.

Soon, Rikki found himself jetting off to the Caribbean to shoot box covers and image galleries for porn websites. Snapping crotch-shots of hunks dressed as firemen was easy and fun; the money was good and San Francisco rent was still affordable. Rikki tells dose, “It was just a job for me as I liked Asian guys and [the actors] were all mostly white men. I got horny only one time in those 5 years of work!”

Just another day at the office. | Rikki Ercoli

A day in the life of a porn photographer

Rikki’s introduction into the gay porn industry came at a fortuitous time; in the early aughts, gay porn was exploding in San Francisco. For decades, the business was centered in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley, but in the late 90s, Falcon’s directors set up their own studios in San Francisco’s Potrero Hill and South of Market (SoMa) neighborhoods.

Rikki’s day began at 8:30 am when he would edit glamour shots for whatever film he was working on. According to Rikki, “there would be ten models to a film. Each model would have about 350 glamour shots taken in 4 different poses: underwear, hard on in underwear, butt covered, and butt uncovered. So I would edit a ton of images down to about 20 for each model.”

twinkshard.com

Next, Rikki moved on to editing the film’s hard and soft-core sex shots, which he would submit to Falcon’s president for feedback (the edits usually involved enlarging a model’s penis or digitally removing their butthole). Rikki’s new job and connections allowed him to finally publish his cache of punk photos in the 2003 coffee-table book, “Legends of Punk” and critics swooned over the images of the beloved stars.

Gay porn crashes

According to journalist Mike Stabile, the gay porn industry peaked in 2006. In 2007, the GayVN awards — “the Oscars of gay porn” — moved from Los Angeles to San Fransisco. SFGate enthusiastically reported that gay porn was worth about $100 million to the city and The Advocate gushed, “In the gay porn wars, San Francisco beats Los Angeles.”

“SF was undisputed as the gay porn capital,” says Stabile, who in addition to his work as a journalist, also serves as a gay porn screenwriter and director of the documentary, “Seed Money.” The film focuses on Falcon founder Chuck Holmes, who used the money he earned through his business to further gay rights. San Francisco is the first US city to legalize porn and Stabile says gay porn became a vital part of queer culture in the city.

“I remember a friend telling me that he would see the city in porn videos when he was growing up closeted, and know of it as a place where he could be free, have sex and be gay.”

Rikki poses for Falcon, or as he calls it, ‘the best job of my life.’ | Rikki Ercoli

When the global financial crisis struck in 2008, everything changed. Gay porn was already struggling — affordable memberships to porn websites made DVDs redundant and piracy was proving to be a significant problem. Stabile says, “When the crash happened, it hurt people more than it would have if it had come a few years earlier.”

In 2008, Rikki was laid off out of the blue. Another production company, Hot House Video, hired him. After two months, the company let its entire staff go. Rikki says, “After that, there was no work to be found at all anywhere and I went on unemployment.”

The gay porn exodus

As tech startups began colonizing the Bay Area, studios were forced to band together or disappear entirely. “Naked Sword merged with Falcon, which then purchased Hot House and Raging Stallion, and moved offices to Berkeley, and most production to Vegas,” says Stabile. “This all came at a time of declining revenue (due to piracy and other free content), and attacks on the industry politically.”

These attacks came in the form of political bills requiring porn actors to wear condoms — something many fans don’t like. In November, voters rejected Prop 60, which would enable any California resident to sue a porn film’s producers if they saw an actor perform a scene without a condom. Opponents, including several gay-rights groups, called the bill “legal bounty hunting” by a “digital mob.” They argued that porn stars are among the most tested people on earth, and that no one had caught HIV on set in more than a decade.

Stabile says that for porn companies, the risk of doing business in California was too high, and many fled the state in favor of cheaper rents and less restrictive legislation. At this point, Stabile is unsure if any studios are still operating out of San Francisco: “I think only Titan and Treasure Island still have offices in the city. I’d say the new hub for gay porn is Las Vegas.”

The loss is personal for Rikki, who is struggling to make ends meet. He’s currently working in the kitchen at Whole Foods (“It’s HORRIBLE”) and considering moving back to Thailand.

So why should San Franciscans — especially straight ones — care?

“In the time that we lost SF as a gay porn capital,” Stabile says, “we’ve also lost a lot of the spaces that made us such a haven for alternative sexuality: the bars, the backrooms, the sex clubs, the performance spaces, the independent presses. And without those, radical queers or the just radically sexual have to go elsewhere.”

When they leave, Stabile says, the city loses its connection with radical politics.

“We lose a certain progressiveness that once defined us. For anyone who believes in these rights, and the positive power of sexuality, and the importance of conversations around sexuality and rights, that’s a tremendous loss.”

Porn is more than just porn. And in losing gay porn, San Francisco lost a key part of its cultural identity.