So I rage tweet, sometimes. I’ve been doing a lot of that over the recent scandal of Peter Acworth being arrested for drug possession charges.
But what’s interesting to me is how quickly people will act as though my tweets all pose a mortal threat to Cybernet Entertainment, also known as Kink.Com which is located at the San Francisco Armory. What a long strange relationship it’s been.
A long time ago before Mayhem was even thought of and I was a college freshmen chomping at the bit to indulge my long internet researched proclivities for getting creative with the integrated imagination of the sexual landscape, I went to a party at Kink.Com and didn’t even know it. I had purple hair and I was modeling someone’s leather creations with fairy wings, purple hair, and my trademark thick rimmed glasses. I was a teenager, I wasn’t yet 21. I was wide eyed and bushy tailed and as I wandered through the space I realized that it was…familiar. And my, there were drains everywhere…I realized in a flash that left me flushed that I was at The Porn Palace of Kink.Com. It wasn’t the armory then and although it was a profitable company is wasn’t the pledging to join a more mainstream entertainment sorority.
I never thought I could be a model, then. I had whiplash from the world I emerged from and the number one thought that ran through my head at all times “remain cool, calm, and collected.” I didn’t want to appear as anything but a natural addition to “Love’s Elysium.” I’m glad I welcomed the latex zebras who would kick and nip, the zipped up gimps, the strange men who crawled out from the shadows begging me to fuck their ass, the strange devices and contraptions like Fuck Saws, the grand theater of courtship rituals, the sense that I had crossed over to some other realm and I sat back with quiet humility that I didn’t know the rules of the sexual underworld and that I should watch often and I did for years.
Most people don’t walk into porn in their mid twenties and there’s a story I’ve been meaning to tell you all, one that I’ve been uncovering for myself as my relationship to porn evolves, about why I did. I look back now and say that I committed social suicide at age 24 when I walked into the Armory to exchange a short nude, bondage, orgasm, and masturbation video for a few hundred bucks and a lifetime of stigma. About a year ago, this author and co-writer&director of “About Cherry” (a film loosely based on and filmed at Kink.Com) emailed me to ask about the first time I did porn. I never answered him. It was more complicated and personal that he asked me.
My first day in Dar Es Salaam and my very first video porn shoot, the point of no return, the obvious line before the plausible deniability of weird art modeling in still shots that would ruin politics but not your reasonable job prospects are pretty much the same. I came into that shot after running an outreach shift from my job as an “HIV Senior Specialist.” Most people don’t come into porn like I do for many reasons. I wasn’t even wearing lingerie. I had been hanging out condoms, lube, crack smoking and safer injection drug shooting harm reduction kits, hygiene supplies. I had walked from the tenderloin to Dolores Park and then down to the Mission for my first porn shoot in what I had walked out of my apartment in Oakland wearing for just another day.
In the background of my job, I was doing everything on paper to be a professional nice white lady in the rockstar world of HIV prevention. Underfunded but full of some of best sex and drug educators you’ll never hear about in the cult of personality that is the sex positive world. I cut my teeth testing teenagers for HIV, disclosing results, and then often getting to know them in the long haul from my office in a shelter for HIV+ homeless youth. I did groups all over the city in shelters and drop-ins, I tested at clinics in the Haight Ashbury, Castro-Mission, Bayview Hunters Point, the Tenderloin. I pounded pavement for street outreach. I got to know people really well in what was the greatest job in the world.
But I was miserable. I loved the people I worked with and I’ll forever feel connected to people who do HIV testing. This job was my identity. It changed my world paradigm and plans. 7 years is a long, long time for an HIV tester. Thing is, I couldn’t un-see the way that the structure of the nonprofit world precluded what I really believed in doing with the work. I always wanted to change the status quo. I was moving up in social work as a nice educated white lady because the status quo privileged me in that way. My job required defending that which I found unjust. I hated basing everything around stats. (But that’s how the shelters stay open, never mind how they operate in practice on the ground.) I hated the corporate contracts where retail giants would dictate the best kind of harm reduction based on their needs for being philanthropists to non-controversial programs. I hated just how often there was straight up corruption and lies and bullshit and throwing people under the bus from atop petty tyrannies.
I did porn because I couldn’t come up with any reason not to do so that didn’t involve the stupid stigmas and bullshit that people project onto people who work in porn. I guess I wanted to cut the strings that kept me accountable to the standards of my society rather than the extent of my dreams. I came into the decision with privilege and I operate in the underworld with a great deal of it. That doesn’t make the claims about an ethical workplace and the rights of workers invalid. I am amazed at how quickly Ivory Tower feminists with tenure or vying for it will be so quick to point at my privilege that has meant living hand-to-mouth without being certain of a regular paycheck because I could be fired for off duty work at any time, has meant living without health insurance while relying on that uninsured body for my bread and rent, has meant that my path to tenure is a little less certain, we shall say.
What do you consent to when you make porn? If you ask most people, they seem to believe ANY AND ALL BAD THINGS THAT HUMANS CAN EVER DO, FOREVER, GO FUCK YOURSELF, WHAT DID YOU EXPECT WHORE. This is literal. Look at the comments on all articles about porn on the internet. They use a lot of caps and I’ve taken a great deal of liberty in spelling and grammar. Tautology, moving goal posts, and outright directed physical violence, stalking, and rape are par for the course. I am still amazed by the ways that people will rage against sex workers and do great harm of all kinds to them as the bastion of sin when we know about and read about actual horrific crimes taking place everyday. We take the rage of our disempowerment from politics and banks and hardship out on that which we can control. Still, it’s never made sense to me that “corporate whore” is somehow worse than “corporate.”
I showed up to the Armory and did my paperwork with sweaty palms. I have long since memorized my driver’s license number because of porn but it was still new to me then. That’s a quick tell of a newbie not to know your DL# ; not only do you have to look it up, it probably isn’t coming out of that plastic holder as easily as it does at the bar. Before I did the shoot itself, though, I was told that there was a writer who was interviewing people for a potential reality show about Kink.Com and it was a great opportunity to sit down with someone before they actually went through with it for the first time. There’s all kinds of energy around a first time, it seems.
I was led into a small and relatively dark office where “this writer guy, Stephen” was waiting for me. He was mild mannered, shook my hand, and introduced himself. It wasn’t until this moment that this “writer guy, Stephen” was the author of some books on my shelf. One was about BDSM and being a masochistic bottom. The other was about being a kid in and out of the system that often reflected the kind of stuff I was doing for a living. I never told him that. I played like I did the first time I was on Kink.Com property- cool, calm, and collected. What did I say about my motivation? I said I wanted to immortalize my youth. I should have said “I want to commit social suicide,” but people take that kind of stuff seriously. This misses the metaphorical qualities and the internal struggle and dissonance of doing all the right things and feeling out of place in them. I made it a concerted decision to maintain a calm smile to highlight the fierce autonomy and willingness to be there.
The hardest part of that day wasn’t the bondage or the awkwardness of a first porn shoot. It was interviewing with someone who reminded me of my ambivalence and conflicts with career job and my nicewhiteladiness but also the frustration of social mobility and the shifting line of when you’re a whore and when you’re an artist. Stephen is still an artist even though he’s totally written about being a whore. Intersectionality is confounding like that. My mind was racing with serious mind fuck after mind fuck, none of which was about porn even though that’s what we were talking about.
Right after that interview, I was asked to conduct yet another about my work as an HIV test counselor which you can see here from Behind Kink. That’s my love of the job, my dissonance about the cost of admission to work it, and my hope that any of it could make a difference. I was impressed that Kink would let me express my humanity so much before the shoot and there’s no place for the mutterings that it’s like the last time you’ll get to. I often saw a political play field in my personal decisions and my commitment to remaining cool, calm, and collected was a fallacy.
I used to look at the pride flags on top of the armory and see it as a grand victory. The armory had been a place of war training but now it was the biggest kinky film studio in the world. I thought that if the freaks could siege the armory, they could take anything. But what is it but a corporate model looking to make money and nothing more? It’s not a special conspiracy, it’s the nature of the beast of capitalism. It exists to make money.
I’ve long since been ashamed of myself for what I haven’t spoken up about inside those walls. I remember back in the earliest days of Kink Live, they would attach a locking collar that needed an allen wrench to unlock it from the back to 200-300 feet of chain to depict how we were “slaves” of the castle. We were handed off camera buckets to pee in because it was a nuisance to unlock us. I was asked for 6 hour shifts with nothing more than a quick smoke break and maybe one off camera piss I saved up. There was a time when an executive came into one of my shows under his own official login at 4AM asking me to describe a fantasy and perform for him, for free, and describe a fantasy about a threesome with his wife. There are at least two occasions in which the larger caliber equipment on the cams alone exploded in flames. Some of the staff had to be reminded that it wasn’t OK to wash the company buttplugs in the same exact sinks they filled the work water bottles up with for while we were performing.
Everyone acts and tells you that it’s normal and you know you’re being disrespected. Moreover, I did have a meeting with the executive producer with two other models at my side listing complaints. I articulated my problems to people at multiple levels. All it ever got me was less work. This producer was later fired. The chains did go away and the form and structure of Kink Live has changed. There were still major problems, though. I never sued anyone, I never threatened anything. I only spoke on my defense and moved myself out when it was apparent that no one respected me or my body or labor. Maybe I should have, but then I would have signed a contract aggreeing to be silent. Them’s the terms of the games.
When I would mention blatant and inarguable problems, safety, and ethics concerns to people with the power and ability to speak up, I got the same response: yeah, you’re right that was really bad but it’s better now, it won’t happen again, don’t worry.
The Nikki Blue thing did not have a happy ending the way even I depicted after my ‘hymen gate‘ callout I struggled to find words for because it was a complicated issue and I didn’t want to disrespect the performer herself. I’ve had multiple people who were present at that event tell me that when the initial penetration didn’t work well because she had the kind of hymen and vagina that called for medical intervention and they injected her vagina with a numbing agent to complete the shoot. There was a medical professional hired to do it and the crowd agreed not to talk about it.
Legal contracts designed to protect companies from industrial espionage and trade secrets are utilized a lot to bully people into being silent about their experiences out of fears that they’ll be sued and unable to afford the ability to fight back even if the legal threats were bullshit. I have never signed any of these. Still, it’s hard to speak freely and this is still the surface of my persistent ethical problems with the great porn castle in San Francisco.
I’ve never asked to be treated like a diva but I do ask that porn directors not ask me to fuck them off hours so they can fuck me again on camera as though it were some kind of gift to do my job and make them money.
It just came out that Peter Acworth was arrested for cocaine possession and that officers of the law entered the facility because of images of people firing weapons in a makeshift shooting range inside a decommissioned military space. It’s amazing how so many people bought into the great Burning Man and Gonzo myth that THIS IS THE LIFE. Life wild! Fuck hard! Do a line! Do another line! Get your dick sucked and shoot a gun and feel like a god in your Mt. Olympus made of brownstone! What this forgets is the fact it’s a workplace and porn is a job. Of course it’s the white man’s prerogative to fire a gun anywhere and any place he wants because it’s fun for him. It’s just a quick fine of $5-15K for your average hush agreement when a boo-boo happens but no accountability beyond that.
Tell me, San Francisco, why we’re so happy that a porn company has created the great unpaid internship of smut called “The Upper Floor,” where people give them free content that they sell because it’s their ‘sexual expression?’ Are we really fucking to make sure that the millionaire in the castle is a bigger millionaire? That’s community. Explain that to me again on paper. I thought community was supporting people through bad times and celebrating the good. Literally donating sexual labor to the profit margin of a porn website is a demonstration of leather loyalty?
Show me another porn company that has someone running a website based around non-compensated people who get drunk and fuck for free, where the leadership and primary active recruiter also helps run private youth focused parties at community venues. You get a check if a model they shoot for the first time lists you as a referral but since The Upper Floor doesn’t pay ‘extras’, those checks probably weren’t as frequent as recruiters for other sites, but may have been pretty close in size to some of the checks cut to local models for the paid work they did. There’s a job for someone willing to coax people into having sex on camera for free so that Kink.Com can make more money.
There’s the problem of gentrification. Peter Acworth bought a building across the street from the armory that housed a beloved local bar and waited until the lease ran out to (legally) jack the rent to an impossible rate to open up the kind of bar “he would like to go to after work.” Mind you, there are elaborate bars inside the armory that are fully stocked. Was it necessary to pull a straight up act of gentrification on the neighborhood to make a bar that is suddenly way too expensive to the locals?
Peter Acworth has now been charged with cocaine possession after there was an investigation into guns being fired for target practice unrelated to a shoot. He happened to be doing a line at the wrong time. But that was a matter of time. Porn and coke have gone together like peanut butter and jelly. When you mix that with guns, bondage, and a workplace it’s a problem.
I’m not going to moralize guns or drugs. I have a fondness for both. Let’s be straight up honest that Peter should be thanking his lucky stars someone didn’t die. There is a systemic reckless disregard for workplace ethics and logic at the armory. It’s not justified to make those with the least power and resources pick up the tab for the good times of the rich white guys. Again.
You don’t get the right to decide for the employees in your workplace that it’s OK for people to just bring guns to work because it would be fun to shoot them in a decommissioned armory. It’s still a place of work and it employs more than directors and models. It has staff that includes cleaning staff, editors, code monkeys, set designers, production assistants, and more. When you work 40 hours a week or more, the people you work with will become your friends, your lovers, your confidants, and your veritable family. This means good times and bad. I’m not moralizing the fact that human nature means that people will hook up with each other, date, and hang out and that can be done in a respectful way. Thing is, bringing guns into the mix isn’t just bad because someone could be shot during the main event itself. It’s a gun in a place where emotions run hot due to no one’s fault and everyone’s fault.
It’s stressful to work in the sex business. You’re isolated. You’re often facing terribly disrespectful treatment from people you love. There’s no reason for guns brought to work purely to be used to fun after work. How are those guns stored? Who can access them? What do they mean to other people around the weapon who may have dated or argued with the person bringing it to work just for fun? I’m not a boyscout calling for everyone to be prepared when I say that accidents and bad decisions happen inside the armory all the fucking time. The knowledge that guns are there ups the ante.
It’s a chore to try to find the spheres of the venn diagram of what can be changed. It’s scary because of what it means to speak aloud about patently dangerous workplace situations.
I walked into the Armory to commit social suicide and get a better idea of who I was underneath all of my fears and anxieties about finding my place in this society. I love being a pornographer. I have fun learning how to make a film and with every year I get closer and closer to artist. The “porn” that I make is an explicit examination and interrogation of sexuality. Yes, you can respect the people with whom you make porn. Yes, you can. I know that it takes effort. It’s not convenient and it means fewer profits. It’s easy to forget that you owe that to everyone you hire, every single time. Workers are humans.
This is a long piece and it’s amazing that it could be easily 10 times as long with the stories and experiences I’ve had there.
I have had good times there. I fell in love with my partner Ned when we did go to those early Upper Floor parties and fucked and kissed. Peter Acworth would be there enjoying the fruits of his wealth. There’s money to buy fine goods on an impulse, the cultural capital to find someone to sell out their community one by one just to be part of a prestigious sex club to get all the free content you need to buy more things and more coke. And the decisions he made on the upper floor on the height of those days were often dark ones. There are a lot of lies that protect a clean image of a befuddled guy just inviting friends to play in his castle when it’s so much darker than that.
If you mix drugs, endless booze, a walled collective reality, and a huge sense of entitlement you might even get the kind of man who asks a handful of porn models if they would consider having a baby for you. Who knows? That would just be laughable compared to what happens in those settings when everyone is so committed to keeping the party going they don’t care who gets hurt and how.
I assure you, even in the absence of more words, that people have most certainly been hurt inside the armory. Some people stay quiet because they are afraid and don’t have power. Many others do have the power and choice to be silent because it would be inconvenient for them to speak up and do the right thing. There’s a line and it’s muddy but it exists in the world of intersectionality and privilege and labor politics. Just because it’s San Francisco doesn’t mean that there’s a job that doesn’t involve literally sucking dick because you’re trans* or gender queer so “sex positive” corporations get to talk the progressive talk by extending the courtesy of hiring someone ‘even though they’re trans*.’ You don’t win a gold star because you aren’t exclusionary in hiring practices for your behind the scenes workers. My rage is not for the front line workers who are trapped between rocks and hard places. My complaints are forged in and within constructing a world where all workers are fairly treated on the macro and micro levels of that struggle.
So to Stephen Elliot, a year late: I’ve often wondered why you asked why it was like before I shot porn because I’ve always considered you a better authority. You were watching me, you caught me off guard. You know that saying that everything is about sex except for sex itself which is about everything else? I never wondered whether or not sex on camera was ethical. All of the human story can and must be recorded in art forms both high and low. Censorship is not the answer, it never has been. It just creates a stagnating and oppressive silence and barrier to our self knowledge. I thought about what I wanted porn to be and I was idealistic. After 4 years of sex on video, I’m making the porn I want to see in the world. I’m networking slow and steady. I’m a part of some grubby ass queer weirdos and I love them and I love what we make.
I have no budget. I have no studio. I work with people who have weird hair, invented genders, and they’re obsessed with fisting and glitter. They want to make sure that the snacks are vegan. They want to know more about your projects and your art. We’re no angels but the nature of having nothing on our own forces us to work together in a different way because of the power you have over your own representation. We get told we’re not “real porn” a lot because we don’t have enough money to buy castles or neighborhood bars because we fuck just as hard.
Yes, my leftist politics have influenced my work in porn from day one. I joke that I’m an anarchist whore because I don’t agree that money means it’s fair or right to force people out of their bars or podcasts for that matter. I hate the idea that “hey, we white guys are trying to run a real business and we think you’re cute but you can’t really expect us to take you seriously,” is totally OK because it’s the status quo.
Having money doesn’t buy you the right to have all the fun without ever picking up the tab. It’s long since time for Kink.Com to have a reality check about the way they treat the humans that they throw into their profit soup and we all need to think about how we’re complicit in this.
My projects are in the process of stripping out all affiliate links to Kink.com. This will be a slow process as it’s only me and Ned taking care of our projects. We don’t have a staff and we have the rest of our lives to build and work. I refuse to cash those checks any more, even when they’re just for $50 in affiliate signup money.
Most of all, I’m ashamed of what I remain still silent about and I struggle to find what I can do about it. I don’t think the answer is cops. I don’t think the answer is a law. I wish I could sit with everyone and just talk until they remember that we’re all humans and operating in a world with less power and resources does change the terms of work negotiation. Just because you can take advantage doesn’t mean you should and the only people who make a habit are sociopaths. Porn can be made in good faith. Kink.Com should stop issuing press releases about how ethical they are and start to look at the series of actions make up what it mans to actually be an ethical employer.
Porn is complicated. Ethics aren’t easy. All the employees at Kink.Com deserve better than they’ve been getting and that starts with people speaking up. It’s a process I’ve been working on for years. Writing these 4700+ words are going to piss off a lot of people. It’s going to be another stretch of shitty emails because I can’t keep my mouth shut. I’ve utilized so many resources over the years. No one can say I didn’t go to the executive producer, that I didn’t inform leadership on shoots or sets, that I didn’t email. I rail against mainstream feminism because it puts me in immediate danger. I rail also at Kink.Com and the danger they put me in that was beyond what I agreed to take on as an independent contractor. Kink.Com negotiates in bad faith and does not treat its staff ethically or fairly. It’s time they’re held accountable and make change beyond press releases and promotional copy.
What does justice look like where there’s so much stacked against it and an entire culture that facilitates white dudes endlessly taking from their labor base? I don’t stand for any of it and I can only speak from what I’ve experienced. There is a severe labor problem at Kink.Com. It’s beyond not just working there. This is my community, my friends, and my lovers paying the price for people to have fun on their playground at the expense of those around it. I don’t care if it’s a common story.