Queer Heroes Fight a Repressive Regime in the Dystopian Comic ‘SFSX (Safe Sex)’

Tina Horn's new comic series, 'SFSX (Safe Sex),' follows a group of queer and sex working heroes who fight an oppressive regime.  (Image Comics)

A cornucopia of sexual expression oozes from every corner of The Dirty Mind. The building looks strikingly similar to a famed kinky HQ on Mission and 14th Street and is a true haven for San Francisco’s sexual underground. The multi-story, community-run facility includes a dungeon, a dance floor, a bathhouse and an erotic library, with additional space for in-call sex work that’s overseen by a tough but revered and benevolent boss. It’s inclusive, high-tech and everyone is welcome—unless you don’t follow the rules, in which case you’ll be summarily bounced and banned.

San Francisco has been home to facilities resembling aspects of The Dirty Mind for years—but in the comic SFSX (Safe Sex) Vol. 1: Protection, The Dirty Mind is the nexus of a queer, kinky, sex-positive and sex worker-affirming world under attack. Written by Tina Horn in collaboration with a community of queer artists, and published through Image Comics, the seven-issue volume (the first in a trilogy) is an insightful, hilarious and often horrific look at the ways conservative politics, gentrification and fear threaten non-traditional communities—and the way those communities fight back.

“Sex has always been used by the powerful to control the masses through moralizing and much worse,” says Horn, a podcaster, journalist, educator and sex worker rights activist. Horn’s comic explores a not-too-distant future in which the government uses bureaucracy to make sex tedious, and satirizes the way that “a lot of systems that rule modern American life are really bad for people’s libidos.” 

“I kind of wanted to build a dystopia around people for whom sexuality is a part of how they express themselves, how they build community, how they make art, how they live their lives [being told that] that their sexuality is dangerous and a threat to the status quo,” Horn adds. “And how a theocratic regime could galvanize people to be like, ‘If you reject sex, we promise we will keep you safe.’”

Author Tina Horn. (Yana Toyber)

In SFSX, San Francisco is run by the Party—a savvy, conservative government operating under the guise of feminism. The Party only permits sex during marriage and gives all citizens a “purity score,” broadcasting over its Fox News-esque network that “base urges and drives are for savages, not those who seek to live closer to God while here on Earth.” The comic follows a cadre of unabashed, sex-positive rebels who are sex workers, identify as queer and nonbinary or work for the Party while taking part in the sexual underground at night. After The Dirty Mind is raided and rebranded as the Party’s Pleasure Center HQ, SFSXs heroes hatch a plan to infiltrate the organization, save their friends and lovers from reeducation programs and get to the bottom of what happens behind closed doors.

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The brilliance of SFSX is its use of sci-fi, terror and humor, often on the same page. It’s an R-rated queer action-horror, with a fair amount of hot sex that offers a utopian environment within a dystopian world. It fleshes out characters who often aren’t given space to grow in other stories while creating a fantastical version of the community they could exist in. Horn and company tell nuanced stories outside of a traditional feminist or queer paradigm through characters like Avory (aka Simona Salacious), a former pornographer who “went mainstream” after The Dirty Mind raid and has to earn her way back into the community’s good graces. The young, genderqueer Denis finds a safe haven among The Dirty Mind crew and is eager to be of service to the movement—despite having few sexual experiences of their own.

“Writing SFSX was definitely a project of combining this political subtext that I am very passionate about with all these really fun genre devices,” Horn says. “How would these people that are based on very real, modern archetypes deal with these kind of fucked up, scary situations?” 

It would only be a minor spoiler to say that the Party employs no soft tactics in their aim to realign subversives (including The Dirty Mind’s founder, Jones) with their religious dogma. People are tortured, forced to turn against each other and renounce their values in a visceral take on sexual violence. The Party’s one-dimensional, anti-glamorous, anti-trans view of feminism also contends that “sex was always an empty promise, a carrot on a stick…which led to toxic masculinity, domestic violence and assault weapon massacres.” By making the Party's philosophy so stringent, Horn makes a direct critique of monolithic, outdated views of feminism, which has a history of rebuking sex work.

A page from 'SFSX Vol. 1.' (Image comics)

SFSX, as a whole, combats these ideas in real life by showing varied sexuality, opening up nuanced discussions about feminism and tackling cultural erasure head-on. The comic shows queer couples making love, large kinky play parties and even hetero couples using sex toys—the latter of which was the subject of attempted censorship by early editors. 

“That different forms of pleasure are often not available in heteronormative conventions of sexuality is a problem of representation; it's a problem for how we learn about sex through storytelling,” Horn says, adding that she has had an immensely positive experience with Image Comics. “There's only so much that you can learn, even in good sexual education, about what sexuality can feel like, about the human element, about the experience of pleasure, about creativity… the relationship between sex and love and intimacy and commitment. That experience with the vibrator censorship taught me that you don't even actually have to do anything that seems that extreme for people to start to try to suppress it.” 

SFSX, then, is presented in colorful, kinky defiance of much of the gatekeeping Horn has encountered when writing about sex workers and sexuality. Eric Stephenson, Image Comics’ publisher and chief creative officer, says he was proud to publish SFSX. "It's vital for art to challenge our notions of what is acceptable, both in terms of content and cultural norms, and comics have tended to be at the forefront of those efforts,” he tells KQED. 

SFSX is far from the only comic tackling sexuality with humor and insight: Image also publishes the exploitation nod Bitch Planet, a supernatural comedy called Sex Criminals and the epic space opera Saga, which Horn feels “most emboldened and influenced by. It's about so much more than sex, but the characters have desire. Sexuality plays a role in their intimate relationships, in their trauma.”

Sexuality also plays a role in friendship, and the creation SFSX is a community effort. Queer artists and sex workers such as Alejandra Gutierrez were brought in as collaborators, while fellow San Francisco comic creator Justin Hall was interviewed for the “backmatter”—a zine-like section at the comic’s end that also features photos, a playlist and fan messages. “I wanted to give SFSX as much accurate specificity as possible,” Horn says. “Being able to work with people where you are talking about all of these fetishes, identities and frames of spaces and you don't have to code switch or translate is so valuable. So I feel really proud of the team that we've built.”

Some of that team (including editor Laurenn McCubbin) will return for the next installment of SFSX, which will likely be released in 2021 as a graphic novel rather than a series of issues. “The plot line is going to be Ex Machina meets The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. And it’s going to evolve sex robots and men's rights activists,” Horn says. The second edition of SFSX will launch with a Kickstarter campaign early next year. 

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Until SFSX Vol. 2 arrives, Horn hopes that the comic will change the media landscape to include more stories about queerness, kink and sex work. “This is not a niche culture or a niche community,” Horn says. “What does that even mean? I think niche is just code for like, not deserving of more resources.”