Photograph by Gil Riego Jr. Model: Neon Lolita. Photo illustration by Audrey Fukuman.
When news broke last week that Peter Acworth, the founder and CEO of local porn company Kink.com, had been arrested for cocaine possession, many were surprised by the misstep from a man who's built his empire on a strict code of ethical behavior and transparency. He's been lauded in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times for revolutionizing the porn industry and improving the neighborhood around the Armory, his headquarters at Mission and 14th streets. Kink is also the subject of the eponymous James Franco-produced documentary that premiered at Sundance. So the details of Acworth's arrest — police discovered the drugs while investigating a complaint about a makeshift shooting range inside the Armory — seemed in stark contrast to his usually upstanding image.
This image has been essential to Kink's success. While the idea of any porn company in the neighborhood might raise a few eyebrows, Kink's BDSM content sparked protests when the company moved into the Armory in 2007. (If the recent Fifty Shades of Grey craze hasn't turned you on to the acronym yet, it stands for bondage and discipline, domination and submission, and sadism and masochism.) Whatever the fetish, Kink.com caters to it; the company hosts nearly 30 subscription sites, offering everything from foot worship to gangbangs to electric play to bondage.
Acworth responded to the opposition the way he often handles criticism — by pointing to his ethics and opening the Armory doors. Part pornographer, part activist, Acworth has devoted himself to demystifying BDSM for those outside the lifestyle and protecting those within it. Kink outlines its tough ethical standards in its lists of models' rights and shooting rules, both of which are posted on the site. These tenets protect models and go a long way in combating the critics who are quick to conflate BDSM with abuse.
However, even as Kink flourishes — it's nearly doubled the number of sites it operates since moving into the Armory — doubts about its ethical standards linger. The company attracted unwanted attention last summer when it abruptly switched its cam girls' pay rate and sparked a debate about its commitment to models' rights.
Now, two former models allege they were denied workers' compensation when injured on Kink sets, one of whom further states she was coerced into a performance that left her with long-lasting injuries and was offered money in exchange for keeping quiet about those injuries. Other workers claim to have been terminated or chose to resign when they questioned Kink's business practices, including the use of an erectile dysfunction drug called Trimix.
These allegations threaten the company's conscientious reputation, and conflict with the stories offered by current directors and models who say their experiences inside the Armory have always been ethical and enjoyable.
Some of Kink's current problems may stem from dangers inherent to the industry. Sebastian Keys, a performer and assistant director on Kink's gay sites, explained that the use of male enhancement drugs is common throughout the gay porn industry. "It's just kind of expected," he says, noting that sometimes companies provide the drugs, while other times performers are expected to provide their own. He says the use of these drugs in the industry is common because some straight male performers are "gay-for-pay" — meaning they pursue gay porn jobs for the higher pay rate — and need enhancement to help them perform their scenes. (Acworth says, "There may have been a time in the past where ED [erectile dysfunction] medication were more common in gay porn especially, but this is no longer the case.") Other models take the drugs to get through the long hours required for a porn shoot. Keys points out that some men who use the drugs have the appropriate prescriptions, while others do not.
Use of these prescription drugs has occurred throughout the industry, not just at Kink, though they come with significant risks for the models. Sandy Bottoms, a sex worker, activist, sometime SF Weekly contributor, and co-director of the Sex Workers Outreach Project, a nonprofit that works for harm reduction in the adult industry and the destigmatization of sex work, says, "Legally, non-prescribed use is not supposed to happen. But in all industries, people do things to enhance their work."
(Like many people in the adult industry, Bottoms uses a pseudonym to keep her work and personal life separate. She and the other performers quoted in this story are not identified by their legal names.)
Like Viagra, Trimix provides a long-lasting erection; however, unlike the popular pill, Trimix is injected directly into the penis and the results are immediate. In normal doses, the injections are safe, but higher doses can result in priapism, an erection that lasts for longer than four hours and requires medical attention in order to be reduced.
A former Kink employee who requested anonymity expressed concern over the dosages and reported that at least three models had experienced health complications, including priapism and fainting, as a result of Trimix use. Keys says that though he has used Trimix in the past, his experience was without incident. He also claims that Kink had stopped relying on the injections approximately four to six months ago because of the risks involved.
When asked whether Trimix injections had stopped, Acworth says, "We have a firm policy against giving prescription drugs to models or allowing models to share prescription drugs. I met with directors and all production crew last year to reiterate this policy and communicate that it would be considered a very serious offence for these things to happen." He adds, "I can tell you this: after the meetings I hosted last year, if I found that any employee had provided a prescription drug to a model, that person would be fired. We simply do not tolerate it."
The potential legal quandaries revealed by former Kink models challenge Acworth's ethical claims, and this isn't the first time he's been called out for going against his models' rights and shooting rules.