Peter Acworth, the creator of fetish porn giant Kink.com, talks to Michael Whiteacre about AHF’s anti-porn crusade, condoms, Cameron Bay, the defeat of AB 1576, the City by the Bay, and testing the waters in Las Vegas
On August 14, AB 1576, a bill sponsored by AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF) which would have essentially criminalized porn production in California, was defeated by a broad coalition of adult performers and producers, anti-HIV organizations, LGBT and civil rights groups, and sex worker rights organizations.
A frequent AHF target, Kink.com owner Peter Acworth had emerged as one of the key figures to help organize the response to AB 1576, due not only to his personal stake in the outcome and his seat on the board of the Free Speech Coalition (FSC), but also Kink’s geographic proximity to Sacramento, and the large pool of Bay Area activists who despise AHF president Michael Weinstein’s sex-shaming and demagoguery.
Three days after AB 1576 went down in flames in the California senate, I had the pleasure of meeting Acworth over cocktails at his bar, The Armory Club, which stands across Mission Street from Acworth’s 2.2 acre studio and office complex, The Armory. And a TRPWL interview was born.
Acworth began creating adult websites in 1997, and quickly established himself not only as a major player in the business of porn, but also as an ambassador of the kink community whose company’s mission statement includes ‘demystifying and celebrating alternative sexualities.’
A fresh look at this focus recently led Acworth to discontinue two of his company’s lines, Public Disgrace and Bound in Public, which, despite their “negotiated and consensual nature” behind the scenes, could be misinterpreted merely as “extreme” material. Acworth says he came to feel that those lines “did not always convey the negotiated and consensual nature of BDSM as it is actually safely practiced in the real world. In some instances, the content could confuse the uninitiated viewer.”
And now, a few words with Peter Acworth…
You’ve said that the idea to leap into the world of internet porn came to you on summer holiday in 1997.
I was back in Europe on a summer break from my PhD program at Columbia. I came across a newspaper article about a fireman who was making money selling adult pictures over the Internet. I realized instantly this would change my life. I was essentially a geeky and kinky kid who was good at math and computing. The thought of running a fetish porn company was very appealing indeed.
My understanding of your history with fetish-themed content is that you produced the kind of product that appealed to you, personally, and the audience found you. Has that changed as you’ve developed more lines/sites, and where do the ideas for new site/lines come from?
In the early days, yes, the content was that which appealed to me personally. For instance, my first site was hogtied.com and it was basically a representation of what turns me on. When I directed for this site, I was filling a void I felt existed in the market. Fuckingmachines.com was also something I was into personally. As the years have gone by, I have hired numerous directors, each of whom have their own passions, and now only some of what we produce as a company has is appealing directly to me. New ideas for websites come from the directors and I tend to try to ensure that the idea is something that the director has a personal interest in.
As someone who has focused on internet-delivered content rather than traditional retail product, has the development of internet porn has proceeded as you had imagined back then — for better or worse?
It was obvious in the late 1990’s that the internet was going to dominate porn distribution – no more having to physically go into seedy shops, no more ‘plain packaged’ deliveries in the mail that the wife & kids might discover. However, the sudden availability of free content, and the extent to which it proliferated without legal challenge did take me by surprise.
I’ve read online an implication of some sort of major deal between you and another top porn company. Is Kink.com or any aspect of your business for sale, or do you plan to team up with any other adult production company?
No, there’s never been any kind of deal!
Tell me about KinkLive, how you’d like to see it develop, and your take on the role camming will play in your business model.
KinkLive is obviously quite a similar business model to that employed by far bigger cam sites such as streammate or live jasmine. However, where kink.com is different is that we envisage a continuous spectrum of products encompassing recorded content, live, and physical goods, and we aim to remain tightly focused on the BDSM genre and lifestyle. For instance, our recorded content and live offerings are served by a single performer database, and this enables us to cross sell and integrate very closely. We aim to integrate novelty goods across our platforms too – i.e. you’ll be able to buy those items used in a shoot or live show (rope, gags, cuffs, etc). Lastly, we aim to generalize how we sell content, and in the future it will be possible to ‘subscribe’ to a model – seeing all that performer has to offer.
You moved to San Francisco in 1998. How important, do you reckon, has the kinkster community in San Francisco been to the development of kink.com, and your other sites, as well as your own personal take on BDSM?
I think the San Francisco environment has definitely played a part. I always saw SF as a fetish capital, a place where its ok to express your differences. When I decided San Francisco would be the home for kink.com, I found the flamboyance of the San Francisco gay district –the Castro, the famous Drag Queens, Folsom St. Fair, Mr S Leather, all very alluring aspects of the city and its fundamental acceptance of diverse sexuality. Obviously that special quality of SF has been challenged recently by the various attacks on the adult video business, and I am afraid many of the gay studios that helped make the San Francisco Castro district the accepting and different place that it is, have been forced to shoot exclusively in Vegas. We aim to stay firmly planted here in San Francisco, and we view the upcoming battles as fundamental to keeping San Francisco that place where your kink, and your choice to perform your kink in video, is OK.
Where do critics of pornography get it wrong when they claim that bondage or hardcore porn “degrades women” or desensitizes people to violence or sexual assault, etc…?
They fail to see that preserving a woman’s right to choose what to do with her sexuality is a form of empowerment. If you take away that right and ‘protect’ women by passing laws that makes various forms of sex work illegal, you are basically criminalizing the livelihood of women who are perfectly capable of making their own decisions and managing their own health. It is a mistake to assume pornographic actresses are ‘damaged goods’ as is often assumed. It is, additionally, incorrect to suggest that the prevalence of hardcore pornography increases the likelihood of violence/sexual abuse in our society. If anything, I believe it has the opposite effect – that of opening the conversation and leading to a healthy environment of acceptance. Research on this subject supports this latter position: Example 1, Example 2. [links provided by Acworth — ed.]
You purchased The Armory in 2006, and it is more than just a filming studio — as far back as 2008 you’ve hosted arts fairs, which were the first public events held in the Armory since the 1970s. Can you tell me about the kind of things you and your company provide for your community?
In addition to filming movies, we have also invested in a bar, a community center, and we host stage rentals to mainstream movies, tours and workshops. The community center is host to big events such as New Bohemia NYE. In the future, I would like the Armory to become a must-see SF tourist destination, complete with Museum of Sex, gift shops, cafeteria, and of course our public tours. This serves directly into our mission of demystifying alternative sexuality and part of why we see ourselves as part of the social fabric which makes San Francisco a unique place. We have about 130 full time employees plus about 1000 contractors each year. When a big production comes through, there can be hundreds of contractors working at any given time. For instance, currently we have Hell In the Armory contracted via a local theatrical group. It is a fully immersive scary Halloween experience.
You’ve become a major target — or perhaps I should say, a ‘high value target’ — for Michael Weinstein of AHF in his personal campaign against the adult business, and you’ve also stood up to the man’s demagoguery.
In truth, it has been upsetting to see numerous companies forced to leave California and shoot elsewhere without much of a fight. If we do not stand together against AHF, or really any other major challenge, we’ll be easily defeated. Production will essentially become illegal and have to be moved out of state or abroad. Here at kink.com, we are busy creating a war strategy to continue this battle we feel so strongly about. As outlined in this Q&A, there is more at stake for us than production alone. We will be looking to build a wider coalition with FSC and other production companies.
I’d like to talk about condoms for a moment. Your company uses condoms in all its gay shoots featuring fluid/skin-to-skin contact, and you also have a unique “double blind” policy vis-a-vis condom use in your condom-optional scenes to ensure that no performer is pressured into shooting without them. Can you summarize your company’s policy on condom use and how the condom optional policy is operationalized at Kink.com?
We listen carefully to performer feedback. As a result of listening to them, we instigated the ‘double blind’ policy. The idea is that, prior to going to set, every performer tell us in confidence on a written form whether they would like to use condoms. If any performer checks ‘yes’ to condoms, it becomes a condom shoot, and this – we believe – makes it easier for models to choose to use condoms if that is their preference. Additionally, we make sure performers know it is absolutely fine to ask for condoms later in a shoot for any reason. Suppose a model discovers his/her scene partner has been engaged in risky activities during a break in the shoot. It should be absolutely OK for that performer to change his/her mind about the use of condoms. Condoms are mandatory for anal sex on all our gay products and per the gay industry standard.
AHF has tried very hard to lay the blame for the 2013 HIV cases in adult at the feet of Kink.com, because two of the performers who contracted HIV had worked for Kink not long before their diagnosis. Yet those performers, Cameron Bay and Rod Daily, were on-again off-again lovers, Daily shot only with condoms, and none of the people they had sex with on camera at Kink have ever tested positive. Does it make you angry to have to face allegations, direct or implied, when they’re provably false?
Yes, Rod Daily only ever performed with condoms. If you listen carefully to his public testimony, he never alleges he contracted HIV on set. He simply says “condoms work”. Cameron Bay appears to imply in testimony she contracted HIV on a kink set. However, we know this could not have happened since all those she performed with continue to test negative. Cal/OSHA has never alleged a transmission happened on a Kink set. Never. I could not, in all honesty, advocate a testing-mandatory/condom optional approach to production if I did not believe that this protocol has prevented ALL on set transmission of HIV in over 10 years, nationwide.
While we know these infections did not happen as a result of on-set activities, the consequences are deeply regrettable. I do feel we as an industry owe it to our performers to educate ourselves about the risks of STIs, and about the range of possible preventative measures that are available. An on-set condom mandate will never prevent exposures in performer’s personal lives, but other solutions just might, such as PrEP. Performers themselves know their own personal health needs better than anyone, and I look forward to hearing more from APAC (the Adult Performer Advocacy Committee) as to what works best for them.
You were one of the leading figures involved with the #stopAB1576 campaign — can you tell me about what you did, and to what you attribute your ultimate success?
The challenge we faced was that it is very difficult for a legislators to side with the industry against AHF, even if they disagreed strongly with the proposal. It took many visits to Sacramento and a great deal of work behind the scenes to change the tide. We found that when we met face-to-face with legislators and when performers and production employees explained the true facts and how a scene happens, legislators were able to understand the issues. The fact that the performers were able to speak with their own voice was key. When legislators understood that AB 1576 had been drawn together without the backing of the performers it purported to protect, I think the wind was taken out of it. When, additionally, we made the case that there has not been an on-set transmission of HIV in over 10 years, and that the industry would be forced to leave the state or the country, I think this clinched it.
Recently, you’ve begun shooting in Nevada, where you’ve indicated you may move all your filming due to the current political/bureaucratic climate in California fostered by AHF’s multi-million dollar campaign. What are your plans for your future filming, and for The Armory?
We did some test shoots in Nevada, and we have opened a development office there. We will move substantial portions of productions to Vegas if we cannot turn around the current political climate, but on the heels of the recent success and the allies we have (AIDS/LGBT orgs, powerful senators, a growing number of medical experts, etc.) we are confident in our plight to keep production legal in CA, and – if we succeed – we very much hope to stay right where we are.
Many thanks to Peter Acworth, and our great friend Mr. Ernest Greene.