Is Super-Chic, James Franco-Approved Bondage Site Kink.com Just Another Shady Porn Company?S

A cocaine bust doesn't typically cause much of a stir in the porn industry. But when news broke last week that Peter Acworth, CEO of upscale San Francisco fetish porn giant Kink.com, had been arrested for cocaine possession, it came as a surprise to many. Though it produces some of the more extreme hardcore porn on the internet, Kink.com has built a reputation as a kinder, gentler porn company. Now former employees and models are speaking out to Gawker about drugs, guns, and mistreatment at Kink, suggesting that the operation that ostentatiously bills itself as a progressive sexual shangri-la is in fact just another shady porn company.

Peter Acworth, 42, was arrested on February 1st and charged with one count of cocaine possession. More than the drugs, the backstory of the arrest has raised eyebrows: Police were sent to investigate Kink's castle-like headquarters in the old San Francisco Armory after a short video was posted to Facebook that apparently showed a bunch of guys firing a handgun in a decommissioned firing range in the basement.

The scandal threatens to derail the remarkable mainstream respectability Kink and Acworth have achieved through hardcore BDSM porn. San Franciscans who in 2007 protested Kink's purchase of the old San Francisco Armory in the heart of the Mission District for $14.5 million now more often say it boosted the area, thanks to Acworth's generous donations to local charities and general neighborliness. There's even been talk of converting the Armory's massive "drill court" into a youth center, where kids could play basketball just feet from the shooting of Kink's next extreme device bondage scene.

Kink's progressive sexual politics and intellectualism—Peter Acworth founded the company while a graduate student at Columbia—has also been seized on by those in the mainstream as an antidote to the piggishness that undergirds much of the porn industry. If the "vanilla" porn churned out by mainstream porn companies is Starbucks, Kink is the ethically-sourced indie coffee shop. A 2007 New York Times article shows Acworth driven by a "social mission" to increase the acceptance of BDSM in the mainstream. Kink.com, Acworth told the Times, would help those with alternative sexual proclivities "realize they're not alone and, in fact, that there's a big world of people that are into this stuff and that it can be done in a safe and respectful way." Kink has most recently been embraced by countercultural-courting actor James Franco, who produced Kink, a fawning documentary about Kink.com that premiered last month at Sundance.

In the wake of Acworth's arrest, BDSM model, activist, and former Kink performer Maggie Mayhem has been telling a different tale: She wrote a much-discussed and lengthy blog post (NSFW) detailing what she says is a historically exploitative and unsafe workplace.

"Kink.Com negotiates in bad faith and does not treat its staff ethically or fairly," Mayhem, who worked at Kink from 2009 to 2011 wrote. "It's time they're held accountable and make change beyond press releases and promotional copy." The blog post has been shared widely among the tight-knit BDSM community online, and Mayhem's points were echoed by a number of former employees and performers I spoke to.

"I think there's a lot of mythology about Kink being 'better' than most [porn companies] because of the studio and its San Francisco chicness," Mayhem told me in an email. "The working folks behind the scenes are awesome and they're great to hang with." But, she added, "just because it's better than another kind of bad situation doesn't make it a good situation."

Other porn performers have spoken out about their positive experiences working with Kink since Acworth's arrest. The porn star Aiden Starr has been working with Kink since 2006 and only had good things to say when I called her in Los Angeles. She said she'd never experienced a more "sex-positive" shooting environment than at Kink, where orgasms aren't faked and models fill out forms before shoots that list in detail exactly the sorts of stunts they're agreeing to, from bondage, to whippings, to being shocked in the genitals.

"I have never experienced an unsafe environment there," said Starr. "I have never been exploited there. It's safe, fun, everything's negotiated."

But Acworth's arrest has resurfaced criticisms that Kink's progressive image obscures a business with a very old-fashioned tendency to exploit its workers. Last year, Kink sparked controversy and the threat of a class-action lawsuit when it eliminated minimum payments for webcam performers, which some criticized as an effort to pressure models into stretching past their limits, then allegedly fired webcam performer Maxine Holloway when she complained. The company also took flak in 2011 when it advertised the "deflowering" of virgin performer Nicki Blue using sexist tropes. (Acworth quickly apologized.)

"There were...sketchy things that they did," one former performer told me. "Like misrepresent employees as independent contractors (which I got screwed over by), unsafe sanitation, wild parties, poor maintenance of equipment (that somewhat hilariously once ended with a fucking machine exploding and catching fire during a live show)."

Acworth told me in an email that there had never been a serious injury in Kink's 15 years. But Maggie Mayhem claimed in her blog post that "people have most certainly been hurt inside the Armory." Injuries, she says, have been hushed-up. She told me in an email about how chained-up webcam performers were forced to pee in a bucket because "unlocking you on your 3-6 hour graveyard shift would be inconvenient."

For Mayhem, the apparent gunplay is just another example of Kink higher-ups treating workers with disrespect. "You don't get the right to decide for the employees in your workplace that it's OK for people to just bring guns to work because it would be fun to shoot them in a decommissioned armory," she wrote in her post. "It's still a place of work and it employs more than directors and models."

Former Kink workers told us this was not the first time guns had been fired in the Armory. "They did fire guns down there and I was actually down there when they did," said Aaliyah Avatari, the new stage name of Nicki Blue, who lost her virginity on camera for Kink in 2011. "It was fine because I'm a weirdo and I'm also from the south and I'm OK with guns."

Acworth dismissed concerned about firearms, and said Avatari's recollection was "untrue."

"This talk of guns is a red herring meant to cause alarm," he wrote in an email. "Please be assured that employees do not use that shooting range for shooting guns, and we don't maintain any guns here on the premises."

Acworth defended Kink's safety record and treatment of employees: "We work closely with our attorneys and other safety professionals to keep our facility safe, complying with all appropriate safety regulations, and we take the safety and well-being of our models seriously," he wrote. "Models are covered by our workers' comp insurance policy, and there has never been a serious injury in 15 years and literally thousands of productions. While there may be a few former models who were not completely happy with their performance experience at Kink, we stand by our history of fair treatment of all models."

This is not likely to be the end of the controversy. On Twitter Maggie Mayhem is now accusing Acworth of asking her to carry his baby while she was a contractor at Kink. Acworth, meanwhile, defended himself in a post on the BDSM social network FetLife suggesting that Mayhem's dissatisfaction springs from his refusal to allow her and her partner to marry in the Armory, and the fact that Kink no longer books her. He promised that he will be releasing a detailed response to Mayhem which "delves into some of the challenge of running a live cam business as well as some other issues raised."

In the end, this scandal will not likely erase the years of goodwill Kink has built up. The progressive alt-weekly, The San Francisco Bay Guardian said this week they're still "fans... of the work Kink has done to bring alternative sexuality into the spotlight." Even though that spotlight has revealed some blemishes as well.

[Image by Jim Cooke]