When the old San Francisco Armory was sold to the Internet porn production company Kink.com in 2006, they paid $14.5 million. The long-abandoned property, which is said to resemble a “Moorish castle,” once housed the National Guard, stationed there to quash the city’s 1934 general strike. The armory stands at the corner of Mission and 14th Street, a few blocks from the lone fire hydrant that saved the neighborhood from the flames of the 1906 quake just six years before the armory was built, and also a few blocks from the salvaged-wood cafes and velvet-roped dive bars that herald, for many, a new form of siege. It’s Kink’s flags that fly now from the top of one of the armory’s brick turrets, with the company’s URL visible even on Google Street View.
In the years since, while Twitter was launching a short bike or BART ride away, while Facebook was opening up to the world outside the brick confines of the Ivies, Kink transformed the armory into its own platform, a fantasy-stocked retreat furnished by and for the pleasure and reward of CEO Peter Acworth. It’s a rare accomplishment: a porn production studio that aims to favorably represent a sexual subculture, that holds free sex parties and (paid) public tours, that positions itself as a San Francisco institution with unironic civic pride.
On the day I called Stefanos, producer of the live shows Kink puts on in the castle’s gothic penthouse called the Upper Floor, it was around lunchtime. He apologized to me for the background noise; employees were rushing around him to get to the catered meal Kink offers its staff four days each week. Kink employs directors, editors, IT staff, and a talent department. They employ production assistants who double as set photographers, and whom you can watch moving furniture and props on the Upper Floor live webcams when there are no performers around.
During Upper Floor parties, in addition to Kink’s staff, there are contract caterers and bartenders on set, along with the contract actors hired to perform sex and S&M scenes with one another. Like most adult industry performers, they are regarded as independent contractors, paid by the shoot. By contrast, Stefanos and Kink’s full-time off-camera staff are employees.
But Stefanos is also a performer. In addition to serving as the real-life host of the party, he told me, “I play a character who, I jokingly say, he’s a cross between Tony Stark and Hugh Hefner, a guy who just throws parties at this house owned by Mr. Acworth.”
The distinction isn’t immediately evident to the viewer, who can’t tell which role—house manager of the pornography production business called the Upper Floor, or house performer acting out a sexually dominant fantasy—Stefanos is playing as he introduces, inspects, and stimulates the performers for the party guests and for the cameras.
Like those performers, Stefanos has a profile page on the Upper Floor website, listing his gender, hair color, body type, and cock length, and an index of each video shoot he’s appeared in. Fans leave him comments like “World class again Maestro” and “Truly exceptional and very educational. A big thank you for everyone who took part.” He’s got skin in the game, but he’s also setting the rules.
This platform is Kink’s product—not only its live-streaming S&M sex shows and video archives, but the promise that the sex acts on the website and within the castle walls are authentic, even improvised, and portray the models’ genuine excitement. It’s most important to get a real performance from people, Stefanos told me. On the Upper Floor, he explained, “People tell me they feel much more at home, and it allows people to feel more relaxed. What happens is the guests themselves just begin to play with one another, just like a play party.”
But the work of producing a real performance is easy for Kink to obscure, especially within the physically dominating structure of the castle. Every Upper Floor video starts with a shot of the armory, dramatically lit, flags on its top waving, then fades to an image of the Kink logo. The leather, iron, and brick aesthetics may signal erotic torment, but there’s homey consistency to the Upper Floor shows, with regularly scheduled brunches and orgies. A rotating yet recurring cast of characters appear each time and on the same sets, like the “house slaves” in the Kink uniform of black stockings with a contrasting red weft, held up by black garters. A viewer can imagine she is looking in not on a porn set but on some ongoing, unfolding sexual moment.
The work that goes into producing real sexual performances for viewers is principally the work of performers, who Stefanos repeatedly told me have their boundaries treated with respect. Performers state their limits up front and producers agree, and it would be considered unethical for producers to alter that agreement with performers.
But the boundaries Stefanos referred to were on-camera boundaries: the kinds of sex they would and would not perform. In 2010, when Kink abruptly changed the pay structure for its webcam performers on its Kink Live site from an hourly rate to a commission-only system, several models appealed to Acworth. One of the performers was fired, apparently in retaliation for her organizing with other performers to reverse the pay cut. That performer, Maxine Holloway, and three other models pursued a lawsuit against Kink, which was settled out of court.
“As models we want to perform well, we want to push our boundaries, we want to look desirable on film, so we can get paid, propel our careers, and hopefully be hired again and again,” Holloway wrote on her blog. “As a director you have deadlines, product, budgets, employees and profits that you are responsible for. Each party has their own pressures. But it is important to recognize who has more power in the situation.”
When I ask Stefanos about how he understands his job, he told me:
I’ve had people ask me, “Don’t you think you’re taking away people’s work by doing what you’re doing?” And I’m not sure that I’m taking away people’s work. I feel like, if people look at what I do up here as “evil,” the reasoning that I have—and maybe not the smartest reasoning in the world—is that if what I do is evil, I feel like I’m the lesser of all those evils. And the reason that I’m here is that I can inform everyone of the risks before they take them. And I’m not sure that everyone else would do that. I sort of feel like this would happen without me.
He was right, in that the business model Kink has adopted existed before he was hired, and the decision to cut live webcam performers’ pay at the same time the Upper Floor expanded wasn’t his to make. It’s hard enough in a business that doesn’t involve the production of a stigmatized sexual performance to talk about power, control, and ethics. But just as when Google aspires not to “be evil,” “evil” redirects us to questions of our intent, and not our impact.
Kink has long touted itself as not just a porn company but an ethical reflection of real-life kinky sex. They advertise the Upper Floor as “erotic alternative lifestyle ‘wiki culture’ at its finest; in every way, it is a collaborative enterprise created by a worldwide network of participating members.” Producing the Upper Floor isn’t limited to the work of Kink’s paid performers, that is: it’s also the work of the community members.
Stefanos uses “community” to mean both the paying members and the extras who lend their performances to parties live-streamed to members for a fee; in exchange, these extras receive a “free” membership to the site. He pitches the experience to extras as a full-service sex party, with opulent sets, expensive BDSM furniture, sex toys, a bar, and initiation into the Kink community. But the extras—unlike the paid performers who also engage in sexual performance on camera at the parties—are not regarded by Kink as performers. They are considered “guests.”
“I think in the culture of San Francisco—a number of people who come to these parties go to other parties, and they’ll pay $25, $50 to get into the party just to use someone’s equipment and to play and socialize,” said Stefanos. “And in some people’s minds, I think, since they are already going to be playing in public—they’re already out in some way about their kinkiness on the Internet—in their mind, this is just another play space, and the exchange is instead of giving a business $25 or $50, we get to have their image.”
That is, for some of Kink.com’s community members, performing on the Upper Floor could feel more like a service Kink offered to them. There are probably more public sex play spaces in the San Francisco Bay Area than anywhere else in this hemisphere, but Kink’s are certainly more lavish and, for some, come with a certain prestige that just having kinky sex in a homegrown dungeon—without the cameras, without the “fame”—does not. After the parties, Stefanos told me, he sometimes sends the guests still photographs that he thinks they’d like as keepsakes. They can post them to their online profiles on sites like Fetlife, on pseudonymous personal blogs, or slightly blurred on Instagram.
“This is almost the ultimate form of ‘do what you love,’” said Georgina Voss, a researcher and writer who examines how technologies are designed, interpreted, and regulated, particularly in the creative and culture industries, including the adult industry. I rang her over Skype to ask her if the porn industry was going the way of all creative industries online: replacing the professionals with amateurs. With “do what you love,” Voss referred back to Miya Tokumitsu’s essay of the same name in Jacobin. It’s easier to direct porn performers to “do what you love,” perhaps, when even the producers who depend on it don’t readily regard the work of performing sex as work, but instead as sexual expression.
This reluctance, along with the various poor working conditions we’re supposed to absorb in exchange for “doing what we love,” Voss said, is in a way “almost the perfect storm of what’s going on in culture industries. Because what is more fun than sex—with someone you love in a really nice place?”
On the Upper Floor website, there’s a map showing the location of each webcam, and I choose one to watch. Dining Room 1, Slave Quarters, the Parlor, the Lounge. It’s a little like a text-based online chat world of the 1990s—a LambaMOO with real people in it. In the Lounge there’s a fire lit in the hearth, or an image of a fire—it’s so far across the room, it’s hard to see. Four Oriental carpets lie at the edges of the cam’s view, and a burgundy velvet sofa is set against one wall. A black leather spanking bench—telltale and waist-high—is just about centered in the shot. I imagine watching these cams before arriving at a shoot or a party, hanging out in these empty rooms, planning my best angles.
F. and C. are a couple from the East Coast who attended an event at the Upper Floor (and who requested anonymity in order to preserve their privacy—their names, C. explained, meaning more in a search engine than their faces). I asked them if it is obvious where the cameras are and where the room is mic’d. “No, no, no. Not at all,” C. said.
“It’s obvious they were up in the walls, and we didn’t have any sense of what was going on,” F. added. “And I was being live-streamed. I kind of got a kick out of the idea that people were masturbating to us.”
“It’s actually really wild, because—we were told about the cameras, and we thought, that’s . . . that’s . . . weird,” C. continued. “But also—kind of fun. And then making it further interesting was that you didn’t know where the cameras were, and you would kind of forget about them. Except—that . . .”
“I forgot about them,” F. said.
“Well, I can’t say I forgot about them,” C. said, “because I think the fact that you couldn’t see them made it almost all the more like, at any minute you could be on camera.”
“I mostly paid attention to the other people in the room,” F. said. “I probably thought, oh, there’s some guy in Rotterdam beating off to us now, but I’m much more interested in that guy over there who is watching.”
“We were providing a fair amount of spectacle,” C. said. The form of the production itself, she said—the not knowing what was being seen—made their labor invisible to them.
To those walking or riding by Kink’s castle in the Mission, the productions inside are also invisible. Their neighbors have no way of knowing what’s going on from the outside, but they could always watch the webcams if they’re curious. This was one of Kink’s big selling points when neighborhood activists protested their arrival: their business was discreet, and now that they’d be taking over the armory, there’d be someone with a vested interest in tending to the litter and broken windows. Kink employed and reversed the rationale commonly used by city planners and police to evict sex businesses. They’d be the good cop, keeping the streets clean and the sex out of view.
In San Francisco, as in many cities, sex—particularly anything marked as sexual deviance—is what gets gentrified out. Walk toward the Bay from Kink’s front door and in a few blocks you’ll pass through SoMa, once home to independent leather shops, leather bars, and bathhouses. Anthropologist Gayle Rubin has documented the community there, “one of the most extensively and densely occupied leather neighborhoods in the world,” a community dispersed through waves of gentrification and devastated by the plague years of AIDS.
“When leather bars and sex clubs were closed in the mid-1980s,” Rubin noted, “new ones did not replace them. Most were succeeded by restaurants, bars, dance clubs, and music halls catering to a primarily heterosexual clientele.” The leather community itself became “privatized,” and the sex scene moved “underground, out of sight, and out of the headlines.”
I would go to SoMa for two reasons when I lived in San Francisco. In the quiet years before the second Internet boom, I worked as an apprentice to an experienced dominatrix, and everything I would need or need to learn could be found there. In the chaotic years ramping up to mass social media adoption, though, it was startup parties that took me to SoMa—still working, only now collecting stories as a writer for a tech website. One of the last I made it to was a launch for a now-shuttered Yahoo product, held at a former bathhouse. Scores of skinny engineer boys in hoodies flocked around with drinks in hand where men once cruised. Superficially, maybe, Kink.com is in the position to combine San Francisco’s best known exports, but only once the sex has been straightened up—submissive women far outnumber anyone that resembles SoMa’s leathermen on Kink.com—and taken entirely off the streets.
The Upper Floor, with its regal affectations and exclusive invite list, classes up commercial sex, and, to a certain extent, makes it acceptable. Stefanos estimates that 90 percent of the guests at the party shoots have zero aspirations of working in porn: riffing on what he says guests have told him, he added, “It’s like, if I was getting paid for it, I’d have to think too hard about it.”
Guests, like all of us accustomed to converting our offline lives into online content, have no reason to feel they are working while on the Upper Floor. Rather, they are something like users, perfecting and performing an ideal version of their sexual selves. What’s described as a time of great innovation and disruption in online porn—user-generated content, live updates, all feeding your own platform and brand—is the same game that is playing out on Facebook.
Before attending a party, Stefanos tells me, each guest on his list will be sent an email containing rules and requirements for the event:
. . . simple things like, “You have to be over 21,” “Hey, you have to have a valid ID,” “Here’s the dress code.” And then there are other rules like, “Hey, if you choose to play, here are the things you can and cannot do there in the play space.” And then I talk about consensuality, and I talk about very specific things like what fluids you can and cannot exchange, what toys you can and cannot play with. I explain we’ll be shooting video, and we’re gonna be using your image, you’re not required to play—obviously—but we’re not going to stop you.
In some cases, guests arrive at the Upper Floor with their own guests (like C. and F.) who have not seen the rules beforehand. Still, Stefanos said, before entering the live set, all guests are met by a staff member from the talent department who asks them to sign a release giving Kink the rights to their images and to complete what’s known in the business as 2257 paperwork—after a section of the law requiring that producers collect from adult performers their full legal names, home addresses, all aliases under which they have performed, and a copy of their photo identifications, information that must be made available for inspection by the government upon request. “We explain to them that the information we collect has to be kept for at least seven years,” Stefanos said.
“There may have been stuff in the papers we signed, saying we would take all precautions,” C. recalls. “But I don’t think I really would have read that.”
“I just signed them!” F. said. “It’s like the iTunes agreement.”
“Exactly! How can we just press ‘continue’?”
For a porn performer, this paperwork is just part of the job. For someone attending an Upper Floor party for the first time, this is also likely their first exposure to this system—even if they don’t think of themselves as a porn performer. The process might mirror what guests have encountered at any number of parties where by entering they waived their rights not to be photographed—or at a sex party where they signed an agreement not to take photographs—and so it might even feel familiar.
Those sex parties, however, are community affairs, held in rented spaces and produced by volunteers. Aside from the kink itself, there is little resemblance to Kink. “You are in this very controlled space,” Georgina Voss said, “which is ironically setting itself up as very liberalized. It’s not like a sex party, where you are going in and you’re having to say, ‘I will not take photos of anyone’—because that would be a dick thing to do. That’s a private space, where we have a social contract with each other. But the social contract we have at Kink.com is a corporate contract.”
Blurring and obscuring that contract is embedded in the Upper Floor’s business model, which treats what should be understood as its talent like participants in a sexual documentary. The performers may be acting out S&M sex they also enjoy at home, but on set, they are performing work that once commanded a fee.
To an extent, audiences don’t want to know—or at least want to pretend—that what they are seeing isn’t work, either. “I have members of our website,” said Stefanos, “who tell me that seeing me and other real people on that porn site—not paid models, right, not professional porn stars . . . gives them comfort. People have thanked me for it.” Stefanos is both a paid performer and a real person, of course. So are all porn performers.
With their “guests,” however, Kink can offer those idealized “real” people, paid only in their exposure. If you aren’t being paid, as Stefanos describes his audience’s understanding, then you must be doing what you love. That holds true on the Upper Floor just the same as on Facebook. We’re all skimming just as fast through our user agreements, unsure where the cameras will find us.
Melissa Gira Grant is the author of Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work (Verso).
Join Melissa Gira Grant and fellow Dissent authors Sarah Jaffe, Sydette Harry, and Moshe Marvit this Saturday, May 31, at Left Forum in New York City for a panel discussion on labor in the digital economy.