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.
Last summer, Maxine Holloway found herself at the center of a debate about fair wages when she tried to organize her fellow cam girls in protest of a sudden pay decrease. Cam girls perform in what's essentially a digital peep show — they appear in a public video chat room, where customers can request a private performance. Once the private chat starts, customers pay by the minute to keep the live video streaming. Kink abruptly switched its cam girls from earning a base rate to earning a 30 percent commission; when Holloway took action, she was promptly fired.
At that time, Acworth denied Holloway had been fired and claimed that she was put on temporary leave because her cam shows had become unprofitable. (Holloway alleges her supervisor told her she was one of the cam department's top 20 models just days before her dismissal.)
Now, Acworth describes the incident as "my biggest mistake of 2012." In explanation of the sudden pay cut, he says, "Due to the structure we had in place at that time, I think we did a very ineffective job of discussing this change with the models and getting their feedback prior to executing the change. The change was perceived as rushed and delivered without notice or respect. I am very sorry for how this ultimately went down." He also notes that commission systems are standard for cam sites across the industry; while this is true, Holloway observed that other cam sites she'd worked for typically offered a commission between 60 and 80 percent.
Holloway and three fellow models pursued a lawsuit against Kink, which was eventually settled out of court.
The experience caused Holloway to question the ethics on which Kink is formed when we talked last year, before the settlement required she no longer speak publicly about her experiences working for Kink. Before being fired, she said, she had had only had good experiences with the company. After the ordeal she felt less trusting. "There's a difference between being unethical or unfair and being illegal. I think a porn company is responsible for all those things, especially when you have your ethics, your mission statement, and your values right there on the front page of your website. You're not just responsible for being a legal company," she explained last year.
Another model involved in the lawsuit, Coral Aorta, continues to model for Kink. Initially she worried about retaliation after filing the lawsuit. "I kind of expected directors or people working at Kink to bring that up with me, to be like, 'Oh, Coral, you sued us. What the hell?' But no one ever has." In fact, she's enjoyed working in the Armory in the months since then. "Obviously it's going well because I keep coming back for more."
Not every cam girl has been happy since the lawsuit, though. Eden Alexander, a model who has performed for Kink's cam site as well as other porn sites and did not participate in the lawsuit, claims Holloway's firing created a culture of fear in the cam department. She says models became afraid that voicing concerns meant risking their jobs. "You're in a position where if you don't follow along, you're going to lose shoots," she explains.
Bottoms agrees that the fear of losing work is legitimate. "Blacklisting happens," she says. "It can be unsafe to be a whistleblower."
Aaliyah Avatari, who formerly performed under the name Nikki Blue and famously lost her virginity during a live Kink broadcast in January 2011, says she was blacklisted after the controversial performance. "They're very picky and choosy," she claims. "If a model whines too much, they won't work with her anymore."
Alexander also attributes the new commission system with creating a cutthroat environment in which earning a living wage meant pushing her boundaries, something she felt Kink's shooting rules should have protected her from doing. These rules state that models' limits must be respected at all times.
One limit Alexander typically set was not subjecting herself to electric shocks, one of the fetishes Kink portrays. However, she claims she used an electric zapper (a toy that delivers small shocks) at the request of a customer in order to generate more revenue. The zapper misfired, leaving her with a small burn on her inner thigh instead of the red dots typically left by the toy. She claims the toys aren't tested as often as they're supposed to be, because they only fire on skin contact, and most production assistants don't want to zap themselves every day.
When asked about the injury, Acworth points out, "The zapper in question takes two AA 1.5 volt batteries, so there is a limit to the charge it can deliver. However, there is no question this was an upsetting incident for Eden and we have since removed the zapper."
Upon mentioning the burn to her supervisors, Alexander says she was called into a meeting in which she was asked to admit to throwing the zapper against the wall and thereby causing the misfire. She denies throwing the zapper, but claims, "They told me that there was no actual workers' comp claim, that I am never, ever to even utter the words 'workers' comp,' that I'm never to tell anybody that there was a workers' comp meeting. However, since I'd been such a good model and an example employee, they are going to give me the difference back for all of my cam shows since the commission system started. It's not workers' comp; it's a reward. It's a bonus for being an excellent employee. And they made it very clear that I could go with their version and take the money, which was not very much money, or I could just go with no money — I could just leave."
Acworth vehemently denies her account of the meeting. "In case of injury," he says, "there is no way an employee would tell a model that she was not entitled to workers' comp, and there is no way our HR department would refuse workers' comp to anyone with an injury. That's just not how we operate."
In response, Alexander produced a bank statement with an image of the check she was given after the meeting. It is paid from the cam department's account, in the amount of $745.07. The memo line reads "residual for May 2012." The check is handwritten — not a typical payroll check.
Avatari says she was never offered workers' comp for injuries sustained during the virginity shoot. "It took me months to heal after I lost my virginity," she claims. "I had to have vaginal reconstructive surgery. There was no compensation for that. Honestly, I was lucky I had insurance at the time."
Avatari says the shoot was plagued with problems — she could not be fully penetrated at first, she claims, and the male model performing with her switched directly from anal to vaginal contact without taking proper measures to cleanse himself in between. She eventually stopped the shoot because "I was in a lot of pain," but took a break to collect herself and then completed the scene. Afterwards, she explains, "They had a doctor inspect me right after to make sure I didn't need stitches, but after that there was no more aftercare."
After she healed, Avatari claims she tried to work with Kink again, but says they wouldn't hire her. "My porn career has been shattered completely," she explains.
Alexander was able to return to Kink after her injury. Her goal, she says, was to be cast on The Upper Floor, another of Kink's websites, and thereby escape the toxic cam department. She claims to have often performed for free on The Upper Floor, and that when she was asked to represent Kink at the Folsom Street Fair last fall she thought her chance at a casting had finally arrived.
On stage at the fair, she estimates that she was caned and whipped for 35 minutes. "I've never received a beating like that before in my life," Alexander says. "I have permanent scars up and down the backs of my thighs. It was all things that I had consented to, but I didn't know quite the brutality of what was about to happen to me until I was in it."
Of this incident, Acworth says, "There was never any mention of work on The Upper Floor on this occasion," adding that "following the scene, Eden gave no feedback to the effect that she was upset by the markings."
But according to his own shooting rules, she shouldn't have to say anything. The rules read, "Models must be informed about the possibility of being marked prior to the shoot, and they must explicitly agree to being marked in a way that lasts more than a few hours. ... Heavier marking beneath the skin, including blue/purple bruising, should not be substantial, even if the model consents." If these rules had been followed, Alexander should never have sustained permanent scars on her body. Acworth says the shooting rules were not in effect at the fair, even though Alexander was filmed and footage was posted BehindKink.com, a Kink site devoted to promoting the company. "Since Folsom Street Fair is very much a BDSM practitioners event, and because no shoot was shot at the fair for the purposes of publication on our paid sites, the shooting rules were not in effect for it."
However, Alexander's experiences aren't representative of every model at the company. Sebastian Keys (who is Alexander's partner) and others say they've always received ethical treatment while performing. Coral Aorta holds that pushing boundaries isn't necessarily a bad thing. "I've always felt that my limits were tested, but not in a way that I didn't like," she says. "It's more been in a way that I've grown and learned what my body can take." Aorta also described an instance in which she had tried to push through bondage scenes while her hand was numb, but the director stepped in to stop the shoot.
Lorelei Lee, a model and a director at Kink as well as the co-writer of About Cherry, a film about the porn industry, says, "As a director, it is my biggest fear that a model will walk away having had a bad experience and not having communicated that to me." In an e-mail response to questions about on-set safety at the Armory, she explains, "From the minute a model walks in the door to the minute he or she leaves, every employee he or she comes in contact with ... knows that it is their responsibility to care for the model's emotional and physical safety above all else. That is absolutely unheard of for a porn company. This model of respect and conscientiousness becomes a part of everyone's interactions within the company, so that everyone there treats each other with more care. It is such an amazing place to work."
Princess Donna, a longtime performer and director at Kink, says that models are ultimately responsible for stopping a scene that breaches their limits. During her very first BDSM shoot with a New York company, she says, "I was crying and crying, which was not against their shooting rules. There was a male dominant and a male videographer and a female photographer. I kept looking to her to save me, you know? But then I realized, that's what safe words are for, and it's my responsibility to say what I can and can't handle."
What Alexander's and Avatari's experiences do show is that even at a company known for its high ethical standards, infractions can slip through the cracks.
Even if one of the leaders of ethical porn falters, the principles behind the production still exist. Princess Donna says of her work, "I consider myself an artist. I think what I make is much more than jerk-off material. It's for people to explore their fantasies and let go of shame. I think it's a huge public service." For critics, she offers, "Obviously we are going to be under scrutiny because people think it's torture or something. It's funny to me because Kink is probably one of the only places that asks you what you want to do or not do explicitly before the scene occurs."
Acworth agreed with her views on combating shame, writing, "I grew up with an intense desire to be tied up and was very confused. It was only when I found porn that I started to come to terms with my sexuality. In my opinion, it is a very good thing for there to be as much diverse pornography out there as possible."
"I worry that people will use a criticism of Kink.com as ammunition in the war on sex," says Siouxsie Q, a sex worker, activist, and producer of This American Whore, a podcast about sex work that has been asked to change its name by the radio program This American Life. "When I was young and coming out as kinky, I watched Kink.com and thought, 'Whoa, that's close to my desire.' It was very validating to see that kind of porn out there."
When she first moved to the Bay Area, Bottoms says, "I was super excited to see this kinky hardcore company with a mission statement. People love the company and they do really awesome stuff. Removal of them would be detrimental to the local adult industry." She adds, "My hope has always been that unionization would extend to the sex industry," and says unionization might help models obtain ethical treatment from all porn companies, at all times.
Siouxsie Q defines ethical porn as sexual imagery in which "everyone involved feels justly compensated for their time and energy, every action both on and off camera is consensual, and the porn that is being documented captures some semblance of authentic desire."
Holloway puts it more bluntly: "It's really easy to make ethical pornography. To make unethical porn, you have to actively do something fucked up."