Getting the Kink out

joe@sfbg.com

The spotlights shone down, the athletes tussled, and the crowd screamed.

The toned and tattooed female wrestler tackled the topless, tanned, blond wrestler from behind, pulling her down like a tumbling tower. The mat thumped. Cheers erupted. In a sudden reversal, the tanned wrestler gained leverage with her right arm and slammed the tattooed fighter’s shoulders onto the mat, giving the blond the win.

What happened next was definitely not standard wrestling fare.

The tanned wrestler, triumphant, digitally penetrated the tattooed fighter. Her moans silenced the crowd, who listened, rapt. The fight wasn’t sport, but porn, America’s real favorite pasttime. Ultimate Surrender is just one of San Francisco-based studio Kink.com’s 30 or so paid subscription porn websites, including Fucking Machines, Everything Butt, and Hogtied.

But a new series of proposed state laws threatens the state’s porn industry, and the freakiest city on the West Coast may soon say goodbye to its highest profile porn purveyor, Kink.com, which for years has operated out of the historic Armory building on 14th and Mission streets.

The situation raises a question: Is Kink.com breaking up with San Francisco? If legislation requiring condoms on-set in porn and stricter state safety requirements become law, Kink.com CEO Peter Acworth tells the Guardian he has no choice but to leave California entirely.

“We can’t do business under those circumstances,” Acworth told us. “We can’t make a product that can compete.”

The tussle between pornographers, porn actors, and state lawmakers is a crucible where worker safety — and the right to choose how that safety is implemented — may soon be decided. Caught in the crossfire, freaky and sex-positive San Francisco stands to get a whole lot less kinky.

 

ECHOES OF LOS ANGELES

California Assembly Bill 1576 would legally require condom use while shooting porn, mandatory STD testing, and pornographic studios required to hold health records of their talent. The bill cleared the Assembly’s Committee on Labor and Employment just last month, the first step on a short road to gaining the governor’s signature.

Assemblymember Isadore Hall (D-Los Angeles), sponsored the bill, and the day it cleared committee he was triumphant.

“For too long, the adult film industry has thrived on a business model that exploits its workers and puts profit over workplace safety,” Hall said in a press statement. “The fact is, adult film actors are employees, like any other employee for any other business in the state. A minimum level of safety in the workplace should not have to be negotiated.”

The concern is largely over HIV infection on the sets of porn studios, and two parallel statewide efforts are working towards safety on porn sets. The state bill is the first, and the second is the renewed vigor in enforcing longstanding California Division of Occupational Safety and Health regulations.

In the early 1990’s, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration adopted a bloodborne pathogens regulation, and DOSH adopted a similar regulation soon after. DOSH’s standard requires employers to take measures to prevent employees’ eyes, skin, and mucous membranes from coming in contact with blood and “other potentially infectious materials,” including semen and vaginal secretions.

To some industries, the standard mandates rubber gloves and goggles. For the porn industry, the DOSH regulations are a moratorium on porn stars ejaculating on each others’ faces, deeming facials a workplace hazard. That standard porn finale can have life-changing ramifications.

“In 2004, there was a big (HIV) outbreak in the industry,” Eugene Murphy, senior safety engineer at DOSH, told the Guardian. “It was demonstrated HIV was clearly contracted on set.”

These infections mostly occurred in Los Angeles, once the center of the porn universe until Measure B arguably changed that. Los Angeles voters mandated porn studio condom use in 2012, and two years later, LA newspapers reported many pornographers have relocated to Las Vegas to escape the regulatory requirements.

The statewide pushback on porn is largely driven by the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, whose President Michael Weinstein has smiled for the cameras alongside Hall and other lawmakers every step of the way.

DOSH began its part in the porn crackdown in Los Angeles, but Murphy was charged with looking into San Francisco’s Kink.com, where Acworth is chafing against the idea of mandatory condoms.

 

RUBBERS REBUFFED

Acworth said he used to believe condoms should be mandatory for performers. After the porn set HIV infections in 2004, Kink.com buckled down.

“I attempted to run the business as condom mandatory for about a year,” Acworth told us. He even pronounced their necessity in an interview on CNN. But there were complications.

“There was pressure from the models themselves because of the chaffing issues,” he said. Porn performers have echoed those sentiments as well.

In an interview with entertainment site Nerve, popular porn star James Deen (see “Dick and smile,” 7/31/12) said he had no problem with personal condom use, but women he’s worked with often complained of chafing.

“I was talking to a girl about it and she was like, ‘Dude, I’m in pain everyday and constantly swollen,'” he told Nerve. “Condoms are intended to be used on an average-sized penis for average sex, and we have entertainment sex, for anywhere from 20 minutes to four hours.”

The condom effort tanked at Kink. Acworth said he withdrew the policy after listening to his performers’ wishes. The studio does adhere to 14-day HIV tests, and condoms are available in a “double-blind” agreement, by which actors can purportedly safely ask for condoms and not fear retaliation.

Despite those efforts, Kink was later awash in condom controversy. Earlier this year, DOSH fined Kink $78,000 in violations connected with the alleged on-stage HIV infections of two actors in 2013, one of whom alleged that a shoot continued despite one actor having a bleeding cut on his penis.

Acworth adamantly asserts the HIV transmission happened in these actors’ personal lives, and says the issue is used as a wedge by the AIDS Healthcare Foundation to push a political agenda. The Guardian attempted to contact the foundation but did not hear back by press time.

Regardless, Murphy said, DOSH is pursuing regulatory requirements around bloodborne pathogens at Kink, and the enforcement of those regulations is not tied to the whether the initial HIV infection case was verified or not.

“My concern,” Murphy said, “is whether there is a healthy and safe workplace.”

 

COMMUNITY TIES

Acworth came to San Francisco for the reasons many do: he wanted a place to be weird, or in his case, kinky.

He wanted a new home from which to shoot his leather porn site, Hogtied.com. New York City was big, but at the time (the ’90s), he felt San Francisco had a more established leather scene in the Folsom Street Fair and leather shops like Mr. S.

“San Francisco,” Acworth said, sitting across from us in a leather bondage chair, “appeared to be more geared up.”

Although not universally loved within the BDSM community, the studio is popular in San Francisco. Part of the credit may go to Kink’s recent revitalization of one of the largest spaces in its 200,000-square-foot historic brick fortress: the Drill Court.

The vast, arch-roofed space was outfitted with modern sound proofing for the benefits of performers and neighbors, but its life as a performance space is not new. In the 1920s, boxers traded blows under its lights, and history may repeat itself, Armor Community Center Sales Manager Quincy Krashna told us.

He’s in talks with Golden Boy Promotions (boxer Oscar De La Hoya’s company) to bring prize fighting back to this historic space. In recent months, the Drill Court played host to a massive New Year’s Eve party, a Game of Thrones-themed dance night and cancer fundraiser, and even an evangelical medical conference, where missionaries offered free dental and doctor checkups to the public.

“The Holy Spirit was truly present at this event,” a doctor from the program, Building Bridges, wrote on the program’s website.

Even bigger changes could be in store. Last month, Acworth filed an application with the city to convert most of the historic Armory into office space, what he called a “last ditch” plan in case the state condom ban passes and Kink decamps for Nevada.

“This move represents an insurance policy,” he told us.

In a public May 11 letter to Weinstein of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, Acworth asked the foundation for a truce: “I am reaching out to you and AHF, in the hopes of a day where we may sit across the table from one another and agree on common goals and strategy on protecting performers as opposed to continuing this battle.”

As he notes in his letter, if pornographers lose this battle, the companies may relocate. If Acworth finds himself uncomfortably bound and gagged by new regulations, his safe word may be: Nevada.