Screams echo through the basement of the Armory in San Francisco’s Mission District but not a sound can be heard through its brick walls.
Below street level, in a place called “the dungeon,” a slender, dark-haired nude woman writhes and moans. Her hands are tied to a chain-link fence above her head.
Kneeling in front of her, a dominatrix wearing a black pantsuit and a pair of high-heels wields a large vibrator.
Matrix Madeline, the director, interrupts the scene.
“Hey ladies, we’re at the last two minutes. We need high energy — and then an orgasm.”
Filming resumes. The dominatrix whispers something in her captive’s ear. The naked woman screams.
Compared to most hardcore footage that comes out of this fetish fortress, this is tame. It’s all in a day’s work at Kink.com, a pornography film company that specializes in fetishism, BSDM and gay websites.
Just nine blocks north of City College’s Mission campus, the State Armory and Arsenal of San Francisco at 1800 Mission Street is the capital of Kink.
As many as 25 websites operate under the umbrella of Kink.com. Most of them feature BDSM: bondage and discipline; dominance and submission; sadism and masochism.
Unlike conventional porn, Kink.com focuses on pain, fear and slavery.
With four octagonal towers, the 200,000-square-foot Armory resembles a medieval castle. A large dome encloses a 39,000-square-foot drill court.
Getting inside is tricky. A security guard sits at his desk protecting the entrance. Upon entry, he makes everyone sign a release form, which warns guests of sexually explicit activities on the premises.
Scarlet Faux, an assistant marketing and communications representative, is scheduled to lead our press tour. Unfortunately, she’s busy.
“Scarlet filled in for a model and is on a shoot,” says Alison Voss, Kink’s marketing project manager. “She’s tied up, literally.”
Voss, a 27-year-old former computer programming student at City College, has just walked out of her office and will lead the tour.
She graduated from the University of Pittsburgh in 2004 with a bachelor’s degree in women’s studies and has worked at Kink.com since July 2010.
Downstairs, Faux’s yelps and squeals echo in the basement hallway. Something kinky is happening on the set of Hogtied.
Normally, Kink.com employees don’t moonlight as models. But Scarlet is an exception, Voss says. Models perform pornography but are not full-time employees. Sixty percent of Kink’s models are contracted from the Bay Area, the rest come from L.A. They get paid per scene.More than 100 full-time employees work in maintenance, information technology, marketing, art, production, editing, wardrobe and administration at Kink.com. They even have woodworking and metal shops to build sets and props.
Voss walks down a staircase into the basement where Kink.com films most of its porn. The old Armory’s subterranean horse stables have been transformed into horror movie sets.
Rusty chains hang from the ceiling in one room. Another looks like an insane asylum cell. Padded walls. A wheelchair in the corner. A bare mattress. Stains splatter the floor.
“It’s art grossness,” Voss says. “The stains aren’t real.”
At the far corner of the basement, a doorway leads deeper. Walking down a flight of wooden stairs, Voss looks back.
“There’s a tremendous stench,” she says. “It’s pretty moist down here.” She’s referring to the sub-basement, one of the few places where you can see Mission Creek.
Up on the second floor, which is off limits to the public, Voss points out the rooms where models are performing private webcasts.
City College student Maxine Holloway works here three hours a day, four days a week fulfilling the sexual desires of people from around the world. One of her clients, a guy from Denmark, has a turtleneck fetish.
“He has me take on and off these giant itchy turtlenecks,” says Holloway. Another client insists on being called a bitch and a sissy. “There isn’t one type of person who pays for sex services,” Holloway says. “They go to me so they don’t have to feel shame about it.”
The 28-year-old sex worker has been working at Kink since May but she’s not a rookie. She’s also directed, produced and performed for the Woman’s Point of View website, which is part of the Feminist Porn Network. Porn and feminism can go together, she says. It’s called “sex-positive pornography,” where performers explore their sexualities in a safe, healthy and enjoyable manner. Since last spring, Holloway has been working toward certificates in sexual health education and HIV/STI Prevention at City College.
“The classes I’m taking at CCSF and the porn I’m doing are overlapping,” Holloway says. Someday, she hopes to teach sex education. School and porn dominate her schedule. She loves being a sex worker but she says it’s just a job. The work can be emotionally and physically draining.
“You’re being instantly judged with how you look, act and fuck,” she says.
Dating outside the industry can also be challenging. Holloway says she has a difficult time explaining to partners that getting paid for sex isn’t cheating. With an adventurous sex life at work, she’s not dependent on a partner for sexual fulfillment.
After a hard day’s work, she says, “Lights off, missionary sex, sounds so appealing.”
Sex work is not without its rewards, Holloway points out.
“I like that people are getting off to me. I’m not going to lie, it’s pretty cool.”
On the third floor balcony overlooking the huge drill court, Voss continues the tour. She’s candid about her role in the sex industry. As a college student, she was president of the women’s studies department and founded an organization called Girls Night In, an in-house sex education company that taught women about their sexual anatomy.
“It is very sad when a woman doesn’t know where her clit is,” Voss says.
Voss has always been interested in the role sex plays in society and how that role is often repressed. After college, she started working in sales in the pornography business — and liked it.
“It’s amazing how much freedom there is and how much thought goes in to the artistic creation,” she says about working at Kink.com. “It’s not about just churning out a product and it shows.”
Most models hired by Kink.com participate in the BDSM and gay communities outside the pornography industry. This makes for better porn, she says, because models actually enjoy what they are doing.
“Not every model can take it the way Kink wants to give it,” Voss admits.
On the fourth floor, Scarlet Faux appears, wearing nothing but a smile, a velour robe, flip-flops and a bow in her shoulder-length hair. The freckled 28-year-old is on break from filming and begins the tour of “The Upper Floor,” where Kink.com’s founder, Peter Ackworth, keeps a few “slaves.” A daily live webcast showcases leather-collared women wandering around doing mundane chores and occasionally getting whipped and poked. All the while, viewers can comment and chat with them. In the Edwardian-style drawing room across the hall, sunlight shines through tinted, lancet windows giving the room an amber glow.
It’s where extravagant parties and galas are held … and where the slaves are put to good use. Yet, the slaves aren’t the only performers. Before Holloway worked at Kink, she had sex in this room during a fundraiser for Femina Potens, a queer non-profit organization and art gallery.
Down in the basement on the set of Hogtied, Faux removes her robe. While sitting naked on a chair, three men in black jumpsuits grab her arms and legs and con- tort her into uncompromising positions. Until she’s fit to be tied.
Voss, Holloway and Faux are not only paid participants in the fantasies that Kink.com packages and sells — it’s their lifestyle. Some consider sex work degrading. For others, it’s empowering. At Kink.com, it’s a pain. They like it that way. And they’re not alone. An estimated 40 million people in this country regularly visit 4.2 million pornographic websites, spending $3 billion a year.
A Feminist’s Take: Liberation or exploitation?
Published in Etc Magazine as a sidebar to SLAVING AWAY at kink.com
BY BRIAN RINKER
Empowered by the sexual freedoms of working in the pornography industry, many of Kink.com’s employees consider themselves feminists. However, not all feminists agree that this kind of sex work is liberating. Many disapprove of Kink.com.
Nothing about Kink represents feminism, says Xandir Cook, a women’s studies major at City College. The 20-year-old sexual violence counselor for the college’s Project Survive says Kink’s values are straight-up sexist.
“Kink.com is heteronormative,” says Cook.
In queer theory, the term “heteronormativity” is used to describe cultures that promote heterosexual lifestyles as normal and dominant, therefore marginalizing other orientations.
Masquerading as a progressive, gay and BDSM company, says Cook, Kink.com is like most mainstream media, which upholds the heterosexual status quo as the normal, correct lifestyle. As an active member of San Francisco’s BDSM community, Cook says a small but growing portion of the kinky community is anti-Kink.com.
“I’m pro-porn and pro-BDSM,” admits Cook, who has worked in the porn industry. “Kink.com is not a good representation of the BDSM community as a whole.”
Cook, a transgender male, wears dark-rimmed glasses and has short, asymmetrical hair. In a shaky voice he recalls the time he attended a BDSM sex party on Kink’s Upper Floor and felt uncomfortable. Maybe it was the live sex, or the slaves. Whatever it was, Kink.com suddenly seemed sexist. The open bar didn’t help. Alcohol isn’t tolerated at most BDSM parties. It’s not considered safe.
Cook is not alone in his concerns. The negative impacts of heteronormativity are widely recognized in women’s studies and queer theory.
“I don’t think promoting BDSM is promoting violence,” says Leslie Simon, who served nine years as women’s studies department chair for City College. Yet, mainstream sexism creates a lot of inequalities.
“Promoting inequalities promotes real violence in people’s lives,” says Simon, the founder of Project Survive.
“Kink.com seems hypocritical,” says Simon. “It’s dishonest to masquerade as liberating.”Not every feminist believes pornography and feminism go together. Some think BDSM porn has a direct correlation to violence.
“Kink.com is a torture pornography production company,” writes Melissa Farley, Ph.D., executive director of the San Francisco based non-profit Prostitute Research and Education. “The sex industry is driven by pornography. Men learn how to use women by looking at and masturbating to pornography, developing a taste for prostitution. In the case of Kink.com, men are conditioned to sexual arousal by torture.”
Farley has done extensive clinical and field research on the sex industry. She has been published in the Yale Journal of Law and Feminism and recently co-wrote a report on prostitution published in Newsweek.She speculates why Kink.com doesn’t receive much criticism.
“Here in San Francisco, some embrace torture pornography as hip, sexy, liberal. Lots of folks are afraid to criticize pornography for fear of being labeled fundamentalist, antisex, or homophobic.”
Although feminists may have conflicting views, Simon says anyone who promotes inequalities is not promoting feminism.
BY BRIAN RINKER
Etc. magazine Fall 2011