Just a short walk northeast from the Hall of Justice in SoMa lies an internationally renowned palace of forbidden pleasure.
The nondescript four-story stone building is the headquarters for Kink, an online enterprise specializing in the production of short, sexy, streaming BDSM videos, available for a monthly subscription fee. Started by British bondage aficionado Peter Ackworth about a decade ago, Kink is home to such fetish favorites as Hogtied, Fucking Machines, and Ultimate Surrender (in which the winner of a female wrestling competition in a Greco-Roman setting gets to fuck the loser). It’s also perhaps surprisingly a great place to work, according to the people who work there. And that’s not just those strapped down in front of the cameras talking.
Granted, when you were young and dreaming of a fabulous career in film, porn might not have been your chosen niche. But if you’re looking for a job in media and are unenthused by the paltry postings on Craigslist offering the opportunity to work in the lackluster world of industrial video production, you might want to broaden your options. There used to be a steadier stream of work shooting commercials and Hollywood films on location here, but the high costs have caused that flow to taper off. Still, the Bay Area harbors a vibrant industry creating DVD and Internet adult content.
Crack all the jokes you want about the sleaziness of the porn business, but there’s some real dedication behind it. I used to have a job where I regularly interviewed people about their jobs: dot-com jobs, to be specific. Most of the time, the Web guru, marketing guru, or whatever guru I was interrogating would stare at me with a Stepford wife’s eyes and tell me what a blast it was to work at blobbity-blah.com. All the while I could hear the voice in his or her head blaring, "If my stock options end up amounting to nothing more than toilet paper, I’m gonna be pissed!"
Many local erotica production studios, on the other hand, offer a positive and creative work environment, upward mobility, and good pay with full benefits for everyone from customer service representatives to IT workers and video editors.
ONE HECK OF A DAY JOB
As I’m guided through the maze of sets at Kink a jail cell, a dirty bathroom, a dungeon with vaulted ceilings reminiscent of the Doom video game, even a sci-fi room I pass workers who are going about the business of making naughty fantasies come to life. Production assistants in black jumpsuits prepare sets for shoots. Set builders in flannels construct a booth in the back lot for the imminent Adult Video News Awards in Las Vegas. A model naps in the green room before his close-up.
In the office space where the postproduction editors work with the directors to piece together videos on large, brilliant flat-panel monitors, everyone I see looks like someone who could be working at an indie rock record label. They’re hip, young, hard at work, and having a good time.
I get to interview some of them on the canopied roof deck, replete with a bar, heat lamps, and a hot tub. Kelly Schaefer, a young woman with jagged layers of blond locks jutting to her chin, tells me she’s worked at Kink for about a year. Now the lead production assistant, in charge of scheduling and training all the other PAs for shoots and making sure everything runs smoothly, she started out as a model, performing in Kink’s Ultimate Surrender. The former Good Vibrations sales associate still models, because she really enjoys the wrestling. But she’s also working toward becoming a full-fledged producer.
Schaefer has a rep around Kink for being motivated, which is partly why she was able to move into a different role with greater responsibility. Since she didn’t have a background in production, being a model helped her get a foot in the door. For those interested, Schaefer says, "It’s a great company if you’re just getting started in BDSM." Kink follows the BDSM credo of safe, consensual, and respectful play and trains its PAs to make sure that all models are treated well, taking care to stop the shoot when limbs fall asleep during difficult poses involving mouth gags and rope.
Her coworker Guillermo Garcia, a videographer and PA, got his start by taking a number of production and editing classes in Final Cut Pro at City College. In addition to gaining more experience in lighting a soundstage on the job, the dreadlocked musician from Medellín, Colombia, says he enjoyed scoring the theme to Ultimate Surrender. He also has to make sure all the gadgets for the Fucking Machines series are in proper working order and, truth be told, clean the sex toys.
PERKS AND PACKAGES
Over at Colt Studios, which is in a converted warehouse near Potrero Hill that also houses an accounting firm, a team of 19 people works hard to produce slick and beautiful photos, calendars, and videos of handsome, masculine guys.
President John Rutherford, who got his degree in broadcasting at San Francisco State, realized that making internal videos at Hewlett-Packard with straight guys wasn’t in his future. He started working at San Francisco’s famed hardcore gay porn company Falcon Studios just as he was coming out. Rutherford said he aims to run a team of creative and self-directed people who are serious about attaining company goals. He likens working with porn to a nurse working with blood. "I can’t even watch Nip/Tuck, but here I think, ‘Hey, that’s a great picture; that’s a big dick.’ " It’s all in a day’s work.
His business partner, Tom Settle, says, "Our customer service agents get the question at least once a day: ‘Well, what’s it like to work there?’ People have a fantasy that models walk around servicing our customer service agents all day…. We’ve had people come to work here looking for the forbidden fruit. When they find out it’s not what they expect, they think, ‘Well, I could never tell anyone I work here.’ "
Not that it’s dull working at Colt, a company with a 40-year history of male erotica production, mind you. The elegant offices are filled with fine art. Georgia, Rutherford’s beagle, roams freely. The staff is urbane and witty.
Kim Ionesco, a Colt customer service rep who is starting to work more in marketing, jokes that she never thought her career would flourish in male porn. "I didn’t hit the glass ceiling," she exclaims, sipping a Red Bull. When she started working at Colt, all her lesbian friends began clamoring for DVDs starring Chris Wide, a hot property in Colt’s exclusive stable. She had no idea her girlfriends would know who he was. Then again, she quips, "I appreciate nice, polite, good-looking gay men." So why wouldn’t other dykes feel the same way?
Even straight IT professionals such as Aaron Golub find working in male, mostly gay porn surprisingly refreshing too. Previously, he worked as an IT director at a multinational company but quit because, as he explains, "I did not feel like what I was doing was noble. I feel more guilty about generating junk mail. I’ve never sat there and said, ‘Oh, I need some advertising,’ but I’ve definitely felt like I needed porn. I feel like what we’re doing is for people who really, truly want it. Where I worked before, I didn’t feel like that was truly the case."
Aside from working toward the common goal of providing customers with images of Colt’s much-admired, wood-chopping manly men, the twentysomething IT whiz gets to work with technology on the cutting edge. "We’re doing things you don’t do when you’re developing a site for IBM." He wouldn’t tip his hand, but basically he means that by making downloads and streams seamless and infallible, online porn is on the forefront of content delivery.
When I ask him if working in porn might cause some stigmatization with future employers, he says, "I’m in a different boat than actors or directors, because my skills are very transportable. I’m not in a situation where I’m going to have to present a reel." He also echoes what every other worker I interviewed told me.
"I wouldn’t want to work for someone who has a problem with what I do." *
TECHSPLOITATION In downtown San Francisco, if you wander off Fifth Street down a small, twisting alley nestled among the sky-high monuments to money, you’ll find a freshly installed steel door, the glowing numbers affixed to it bearing little relationship to the other addresses on the street. If you’re lucky enough to get past the security cameras and locks, you’ll find yourself at the edge of a huge warehouse space full of stages and sets.
Climb up the stairs that lead away from the "medieval castle" set, and you’re in a huge office space full of computers. People are on the phones, or swapping stories as they return from a trip to the Starbucks around the corner, or gathered in tight huddles around large, flat-screen monitors full of partial layouts. Only the bathrooms offer a hint about what’s really going on here. No ordinary office would stock its toilets with an enormous rack of baby wipes, paper towels, and every feminine hygiene product known to woman. This is Kink.com, home to half a dozen of the Web’s hottest porn sites.
Everyone always asks what porn has done for the Web, but they never ask what the Web has done for porn. A place like this, full of queer hipsters, geeks, and models, would never have existed before 1995. It certainly wouldn’t have looked quite so Ikea.
I’ve come here to visit the set of Fuckingmachines.com, a Web site devoted to images and movies of women having sex with machines. Usually the machine involves some sort of piston and at least one moving part to which a dildo can be attached. The sensibility is perfectly San Francisco: a cross between high-tech fetishism and sexual fetishism. Tomcat, the site’s understated Web master, wears a tie and jeans to the set. With a degree in film and digital media from a large public university, the self-consciously androgynous Tomcat is precisely the sort of hip young professional who is attracted to second-generation Web porn operations like Kink.
Tomcat makes sure the first machine (called "the chopper") is ready to go and picks out a pale blue dildo from a huge, tidy cart that contains — laid out with surgical precision — an array of silicone cocks in various sizes, a fanned display of condoms, towels, baby wipes, and several lube bottles. Next to it is a pine cabinet full of carefully labeled drawers containing "large dildos" and "small dildos." A tiny table holds some soft drinks packed in ice, as well as a handful of lemon Luna bars.
"Last week we did an alien abduction scene," Tomcat says. "It was great — I got to be the alien." Today’s model, a tall brunet with a lascivious smile, named Sateen Phoenix, arrives in a little dress and fuck-me shoes. Like Tomcat, she’s the sort of person who has the education and resources to choose from many careers and has chosen this one because she likes it. "I’m moving to LA to get more work," she says, sipping water. "But I just got into this about six months ago — I like having sex in public, so I thought, why not do it here?"
Settling onto the chopper, Sateen poses and reposes, replaying her naughty grin as many times as Tomcat asks. The scene behind the scenes here is all business. PAs discuss the merits of various lubes and dildos; everyone tries to figure out the ideal position for Sateen’s pussy so that everything fits together when the machine starts pumping. Tomcat manages to issue directions in the tone of a nice but task-masterish boss.
"I know it’s awkward with your knees and the handlebars, but go ahead and insert it so that it’s comfortable," the Web master says. "Now just wank a little until you get off."
"I don’t know if I can get off like this," Sateen suggests. "I’m too lubey."
"Get some baby wipes for her to take care of that lube," Tomcat directs the PA.
Eventually, using another machine called "the predator," Sateen starts screaming in a way that marks this whole scene, again, as something that could only happen in the world of Porn 2.0. She’s had a genuine orgasm, the kind of thing you’d almost never see a woman do in porn before the Web took over.
Ten minutes later, still shaking and sweaty, Sateen pulls on a robe and stumbles over to the snack table. She falls into a chair and lets out her breath in a whoosh.
"Hard work, eh?" she sighs, grinning at me. "Having orgasms all day?" SFBG
Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who’s never met a machine she didn’t like.