New owners for Eros
by Kevin Davis
Three managers of a popular Castro sex club have seamlessly purchased the business from its founder and say they will passionately carry forward and expand the club's reputation as a torrid cruising space that advocates safe sex.
Buzz Bense, a longtime safe sex entrepreneur and advocate, has sold Eros to managers Hans Pfeifer, Ken Rowe, and Lou Fannon.
"We felt it was an important institution in San Francisco and wanted it to continue and hopefully, provide a unique space for sex-positive play, and an art gallery for entertainment, workshops, and education," said Rowe. "We didn't want to see it disappear."
Bense, managing owner for 12 years, and Eros co-founder Bob West, laid out personal goals and informed the Eros family of employees, friends, and informal advisers meeting around a big table at Yet Wah restaurant in August 2004, that they would not sign on to another five-year lease after the current one expires in April 2007. While West retired three years ago, Bense said they both made the decision not to sign another lease.
"We let everyone know that if the club would continue, someone else would have to spearhead the effort," said Bense. "It was time for some fresh energy, fresh blood, and new ideas."
"Pretty much at that point everyone looked to Hans to deal with the situation," said Rowe. Hans put together a team of people to basically buy out Eros, and we were able to do it. The papers are signed. We are the owners."
Terms of the sale were not disclosed.
Bense has a long history in helping to shape city policy for commercial sex establishments.
After the last bathhouse at 21st and Bartlett closed, underground sex clubs opened in residential buildings with no health department oversight, all-night beer on tap, and minimal plumbing.
"They were fire traps," said Bense. "They were unsafe both from a fire exit and not supporting safe sex point of view."
Several organizations then joined forces to form the Coalition for Healthy Sex. They included SF Jacks, 18th Street Services, Blow Buddies, 890 Folsom, the Stop AIDS Project, and the Mother Goose co-ed play party. The coalition drafted the city's voluntarily guidelines for commercial sex establishments, which are among the strongest standards in the nation.
Bense and West opened Eros, a two-story club at 2051 Market Street on April 24, 1992. Four years later they invested in capital improvements.
The new owners will continue the club's first floor lounge events such as The Ring, a hands-on leather workshop meeting every two weeks; Screw Up, a transgender BDSM workshop; Sherylyn Connelly's Re-Tool & Grind, an informal FTM open mike night every first Wednesday; and the Thursday night YM4YM, offering harder-edged music.
In addition, the second floor community classroom is available free to ad hoc groups.
The club's lounge walls serve as a revolving gallery, featuring such erotic artists as Hector Silva, John Gatto, and Jeff Larson.
There is a need for clubs such as Eros, even in the age of high-tech hookups.
"Men are desperate for authentic interaction," said author Kirk Read.
Might the focus on safety dissuade people by giving the club a medical feel or reputation?
"I think it's exactly the opposite," said Fannon.
The house safe sex rules are posted. Water-based lubricant, rubber gloves, and condoms are "anywhere you can reach," which puts people at ease, making negotiations easier, he noted.
"At Eros it's a given," said Fannon, who worked for a trauma foundation before coming to Eros.
Eros has been hosting various AIDS-related services for years.
"At that time no one was doing classes or workshops," said Bense. "We were an innovator in that regard."
"It's important to reach someone where they are," said Barbara Adler of the University of California, San Francisco's AIDS Health Project. AHP provides HIV and STD testing and outreach at Eros every second Wednesday of the month from 8 to 10 p.m.
Business at the club remains steady despite the popularity of Internet hookup sites, the new owners said. The risk of inviting someone home makes EROS a safe common place to rendezvous.
"In fact, the Internet provides another opportunity, as far as being a neutral base, to physically hook up," said Pfeifer.
The new owners take pride in skills development and sensitivity training for a diverse staff.
"We want to help people come in to their own," said Pfeifer, who called his development at the club a personal growth experience and a way out of an unsatisfying career track as a dietician. "To see that process is very rewarding."
In addition to possibly offering yoga classes, the new owners are collaborating with local porn producers.
Falcon Studios will shoot a locker room scene for Big Dick Club, starring Mike Roberts, this month.
"One of the main reasons we chose Eros is I liked the red lockers," said Falcon director Jan Milstead. "In San Francisco it's hard to find good-looking locker rooms. There's not a lot of gyms to shoot in."
On the week of Thanksgiving Eros will roll back the admission fee to the opening day price of $7 for members.
"We have a lot of regulars who are very loyal to this shared space," said Pfeifer. "It's so rewarding how people take care of each other. We want to continue that tradition and say thank you."