Peter Acworth's fetish porn empire takes over the San Francisco Armory to create a new kind of dot-com
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When it comes to BDSM porn peddlers Kink.com, apparently size does matter. At least, that's how it seems now that the steamy studio has purchased the 200,000-square-foot San Francisco Armory. Suddenly, everyone wants to know: What's the carnal concern going to do with all that space?
The answers are more diverse and ambitious than one might expect ranging from creating a racy reality show to starting a perfectly PG-13 public community center. And thanks to the lascivious and lucrative imagination of Kink.com founder Peter Acworth, it might all be possible.
Though Kink.com has been producing independent niche fetish sites like Hogtied.com, WiredPussy.com, and FuckingMachines.com for the Folsom Street Fair crowd for more than 10 years first from Acworth's rented Marina District apartment and then from the Porn Palace on Fifth and Mission streets it wasn't until Acworth purchased the historical landmark in the Mission District, and was met with opposition, that the provocative porn empire really made it onto the public's radar screen.
The armory, which was a training ground for the National Guard prior to its decommissioning 30 years ago, has been the center of controversy before. But that was mostly in-fighting between potential developers. Stringent zoning requirements and necessary but cost-prohibitive renovations discouraged buyers, leaving the Moorish behemoth on 14th and Mission streets vacant and outside public scrutiny.
But everything changed when Acworth got involved. His intended commercial use, for shooting scenes for all of Kink's Web sites, complied with planning codes. And he didn't need to do expensive renovations before he could start using, and profiting from, the building: what could be more perfect for bondage shoots or movies about women fucking machines than dungeons in disrepair? The only thing more ideal than the structure itself, according to Acworth, was its location in the heart of America's most fetish-friendly city. "You couldn't have dreamt up a more perfect place than a castle in the middle of San Francisco," says Acworth, who purchased the armory for $14.5 million in 2007 and started operations in January of this year. "It's like divine intervention."
Acworth had to contend with a different kind of intervention from a neighborhood group called the Mission Armory Community Collective, which opposed Kink.com as a potential neighbor. Though careful not to condemn porn per se, the group said it feared that the company's presence in an already troubled neighborhood would introduce more problems. Even the Mayor's Office, potentially bending to pressure, issued the following statement: "While not wanting to be prudish, the fact that kink.com will be located in the proximity to a number of schools give [sic] us pause."
But the sale quietly went through, and even as protesters stood outside, Kink was already filming new scenes for its subscription sites. Since then, the protests have largely died down. As the company removed graffiti from the brick facade of the armory, fixed windows, and generally improved the appearance of its stretch of Mission Street, neighbors began stopping by to congratulate Acworth or to ask for a tour. (Incidentally, the public is invited to tour the armory on second Fridays. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org  for an appointment.)
On a September afternoon, the building mostly nondescript from the sidewalk except for the castlelike rooftop seems quiet and innocuous. Three boys skateboard on the steps outside, stopping to talk to a woman walking her dog. The only people entering the doors, which are always locked and manned by a security guard, look as though they could've been going to the grocery store or the gym, wearing shorts, T-shirts, and sandals. In fact, on first glance inside, the place is almost disappointingly tame.
Acworth himself hardly looks like a porn kingpin. He's sweetly attractive in an unmenacing, mainstream way, with an easy smile and casual style. His office, a room near the entrance to the armory, is large and comfortable, but bears no hint of his livelihood save for one tasteful bondage statue. Next to his desk are water and food bowls for the armory's two live-in cats: Rudy and Lala. His assistant, a young girl in a minidress, leggings, and hoop earrings, looks like she could be working at American Apparel. Even the desktop pattern on Acworth's Dell computer screen is vanilla: rolling green hills beneath a blue, blue sky. This sense of normalcy seems to be Kink's main point.
Van Darkholme, Peter Acworth, and Princess Donna in the Armory boiler room. Photo by Pat Mazzera
Acworth remembers getting turned on as a child in England by scenes in movies where women were tied up and wondering if this signaled violent tendencies within himself. It wasn't until adolescence that he discovered the relief (and release) of bondage porn. At the same time, he was already a burgeoning entrepreneur, a child who grew vegetables behind his house and tried to sell them to his parents. By the time he read a magazine article about a man making millions from Internet porn, as a Wall Streetbound doctoral student in a Columbia University finance program, it seemed almost inevitable that Acworth would find a way to marry his two lifelong interests: bondage and business. When he founded Kink.com in 1997, the idea was not only to jump on the dot-com money train, but also to demystify and promote fetish porn as an acceptable form of sexual stimulation.
Now, each of Kink.com's Web sites is geared toward a particular fetish, run by a Webmaster who's not only an expert on that particular kink but also has an interest in it, just as Acworth started Hogtied.com, which features women tied up, and Fuckingmachines.com, which showcases women having sex with machinery, because that's what turned him on. These Webmasters act as director, producer, human resources manager, and often participant as well as Web developer.
"It's hard to guess what people want," he explains, pointing out that it's easier to make what you know.
Which means models aren't actors. Just as directors are expected to be interested in the fetish they're promoting, so are participants expected to enjoy the scenes they're in. This isn't about fake-breasted women pretending to like a face full of come. In fact, Acworth has had trouble in the past working with models from Los Angeles, trying to get them not to act. Kink's sites feature actual people enjoying a private play party that just happens to be taped. Videos are intimate, personal, and disarmingly real models talk to each other before, during, and after their sessions, just the way they would in their own bedrooms. They're encouraged to smile on camera. Whether it's shocking a woman with electric instruments or forcing a man to eat from a dog bowl, you get the sense that these people would be playing out these scenarios anyway Kink just provides a salary, benefits, and a really nice location.
As for the building itself, Kink has just begun to scratch the surface of its possibilities. The first floor, perhaps the most institutional-looking of the four, houses offices for Acworth, the marketing team, the production team, and the break room, which features a pool table, a disco ball, an espresso machine, a drum set, and a DJ booth (all for parties as well as employee use). Directly opposite the front doors is the Drill Court, a monstrous space that looks something like an airplane hangar crossed with a European train station. This is the space Acworth hopes will become the Mission Armory Community Center (which would unintentionally bear the same acronym as one of the groups that protested Kink.com's purchase of the armory), a public venue available for sporting events, educational seminars, film festivals, and someday maybe a Folsom Street Fair party. According to MACC coordinator David Klein, a developer who has no affiliation with Kink.com, that dream is a long way off with plenty of renovations, public meetings, and applications standing between here and there. In the meantime, the Drill Court serves as an occasional event site (such as for the Mission Bazaar craft fair earlier this year) and an employee parking lot. Currently, the most public location is the Ultimate Surrender room, where small numbers of members are invited to sit in bleachers and watch women wrestle each other to the ground on large mats the winner, of course, gets to fuck the loser.
The armory's basement is by far the most interesting area. "It's a wonderland of sets," says Acworth, and it's hard to argue with him. Some rooms seem perfect as is, such as a former gymnasium whose floor has long since been removed to reveal gothic-looking structural planks punctuated by intimidating bolts. All it took was adding a platform in the center of the expansive room and a pulley above it to make it a perfect bondage set. Next door is an army-style communal bathroom, another favorite as-is set. Other rooms on this floor are a completely furnished 1970s New York loft; a padded cell with an observation room connected by a one-way mirror; a former hermetically sealed gunpowder room that's been outfitted with all sorts of rings, hooks, and rope pulleys; an office connected by a cage to the "Gimp Room," where ceiling chains hang like some kind of Donkey Kong homage; a hallway storage room chock-full of expected (whips, chains, clamps) and unexpected (mops, long-handled brushes with hard bristles, small boxes with smaller holes in them) toys; the large prop room, where human-shaped cages, monstrous doghouses, and machines like the back breaker and water-torture wheel are kept; the laundry room, where shelves are lined with douches, enemas, latex gloves, and sanitized sex toys; and the former shooting range, which has a Pirates of the Caribbean feel, complete with a river running through it.
And that's just the start of it. Just when you think every nook and cranny has been used including an oddly shaped corner off the production gallery that looks like a 19th-century psychiatric ward you'll discover a hallway that's virtually untouched. Hardly any construction has been done on the third or fourth floors, including the officers' quarters, which occupy one turret. Even the roof, with its castle-y details and flags, seems like a perfect potential shooting location.
Kink's porn palace, the San Francisco Armory. Photo by Pat Mazzera
Kink already has plans for several new sets: the military clean room, a stark '50s-era space, slated for FuckingMachines; an abandoned electrical equipment room for WiredPussy, where dead vintage electrical equipment will line the walls; an Alcatraz-esque prison gallery for BoundGods.com; and an expanded DeviceBondage.com room, which will be clad with cultured stone to look like the basement of an old castle.
Reps won't say just how much it costs to maintain the armory or to shoot a scene, but Acworth told 7x7 magazine last year that profits were upward of $16 million. And spokesperson Thomas Roche says that the cost of a shoot, including sets, makeup, wardrobe, video and still photo staff, and editing, would be prohibitive if Kink weren't doing lots of them. Luckily, the armory allows for a volume of shoots that makes it feasible sometimes four or five in a single day. And it's good variety for viewers too, who get used to seeing the same sets over and over in various porn films even ones by different companies.
Perhaps the most advantageous thing about moving into the armory, though, has been the increased possibilities for Kink's growth. With so much space, an almost infinite number of sets can be created without tearing any old ones down. Since multiple shoots can go on at once, multiple sites can be developed and maintained. And buying the building has started attracting directors, models, and Web developers on a scale Acworth hasn't seen before.
"It was initially difficult to find people," says Acworth, who conjectures that it's not just the publicity from the building but also the exciting prospect of working there that's turned the tide. "Now they've started to approach us."
One of those who approached Acworth was Van Darkholme, a Shibari rope bondage expert, a porn performer, and the proprietor of fetish film studio Muscle Bound Productions, who was living in LA. Darkholme saw an article about Acworth and the armory in a magazine and contacted him immediately, hoping to get involved. The Vietnam-born Darkholme, who seems almost starstruck by Acworth's genius, was shocked not only to hear back from Acworth himself, but to be offered a job at the helm of Kink's new gay bondage site: BoundGods.com.
"What Peter does is so avant-garde and so fresh, I just wanted to come in and mop the floor," says Darkholme, who moved to San Francisco in April and launched his new site Aug. 1.
Darkholme's BoundGods takes Kink's principles of intimate, conversational, playful, and mutually enjoyable interactions and applies them to his particular brand of gay sexuality: lean, muscled studs. In one video, a man is tied up in the army-style bathroom at the armory while another fucks him with a large black dildo. In a similar scene, anal beads are gradually pulled from the bound, naked man much to both participants' obvious pleasure (though interestingly, neither are hard). Darkholme makes appearances in many of the videos, often as the dominant character a striking contrast to the camo-shorts-and-T-shirt-wearing, somewhat shy individual I interview at the armory.
He's clearly proud of the product, not only because it's well produced but also because there's almost no competition in the gay market.
"I hate to generalize, but most of what I see out there falls into this trap of gay men putting on leather and grunting and groaning," says Darkholme. "It's visual, but doesn't have as much dialogue. What we do is very real and very intimate, with a realness in what they're saying."
The site marks Kink's first serious foray into the gay market a step the company couldn't quite take while limited by space and resources at the Porn Palace. But set builders are already hard at work constructing an Alcatraz-esque prison gallery for new Boundgods shoots. And the creation of a sub-brand, KinkMen.com, promises more gay-focused fetish sites to come. (Incidentally, Kink tried a gay site several years ago with Butt Machine Boys, which is still online at www.buttmachineboys.com  but not listed on the main Web site. Acworth said the site never took off, partly because of lack of budget and partly because, unlike Darkholme, the director wasn't speaking to his personal interests.)
For now, though, Darkholme has his hands full with BoundGods. His immediate goal is to find and train 12 new dommes for the Web site a tougher feat than might be expected. "Femme dommes can dish it out and can really take it," he says. "There's a small percentage of men that can do that." In fact, during some of his first shoots, filmed in Budapest, his bevy of gay models and porn stars were shocked when Darkholme finally opened up his bag of toys.
"They looked at me like the circus had come to town, or like I was going to make one of the Saw movies. Their hands were shaking," he says.
So when Kink sets up its demonstration booth at Folsom Street Fair (Sept. 28, www.folsomstreetfair.com ), Darkholme will have two purposes: recruiting talent (both people he can train and experts who have something to teach him) and publicizing his new brand.
"I want to say, 'We're here, we're queer, we want to be part of your community!'" he laughs.
But Darkholme won't be alone at his booth. Among other popular Kink stars like Isis Love, new director Lochai, expert rigger Lew Rubens, and porn stars LaCherry Spice and Natassia Dream will be WiredPussy.com creator Princess Donna, who's launching her new pet product, PublicDisgrace.com, next month. The site will feature blatant public bondage, punishment, erotic humiliation, and explicit sex between models and, potentially, passersby.
The veteran domme is filming most scenes in Europe, where attitudes (and therefore laws) about sex are more lax. In fact, while shooting a scene on a public street in Berlin, the crew was stopped by a couple of motorcycle cops who said only, "If you cause an accident, you'll be liable," before going on their way. In the shoot, a half-naked girl is tied to a park bench, made to carry a dog bowl while on a leash, fondled by her female master, and fucked by a man.
"It's the adrenaline rush of potentially getting caught," says Acworth, explaining the site's appeal and recipe for success. The site will also feature a slew of new faces. Plus, it's the perfect time of year to launch a new fetish site. "Sales pick up when the kids go back to school," Acworth says.
There also plenty of developments in the works that don't follow the start-a-new-fetish-site model. For starters, Kink is moving to a Flash format, where the delay is only 2 seconds instead of 20. The new technology means that users can actively participate in scenes via chat rooms, where they can give instructions to dommes and watch their demands be carried out. Members of Kink.com can already do this on DeviceBondage.com, but Acworth hopes to switch to a per-minute billing system so even more viewers can participate. At the moment, the site is structured so you must be a member of a particular site in order to watch videos; Acworth would like to move to a single-sign-on system where you can join Kink.com and have access to any of its member sites.
Perhaps the most ambitious technological plan for Kink's future, though, is the development of an online Web community that will be called Kinky.com. Following the Web 2.0 trend of user-based content, Kinky.com will allow members and models to maintain user profiles, interact with one another on message boards, blog, and even date. Yes, it's a way to stay up-to-date with Internet trends and to provide an experience that pirated video sites can't, but Acworth says it's also a natural outgrowth of the kind of porn he creates.
"In contrast with straight porn, which people want to consume in private, this is a community people want to be a part of," he says.
Which leads us to the project closest to Acworth's heart: the reality show.
In the spirit of community and BDSM as a lifestyle, Acworth wants to transform the armory's top floor into a series of Victorian/Georgian-inspired rooms where couples will live and fuck on camera 24-7. Participants will be given hierarchical positions from maid to master of the house and live according to the rules of domination and submission. Acworth's already started designing the grand dining room, inspired by the sets in Remains of the Day, including candelabras, elaborate draperies, and, of course, a long, long table. "I consider it the pinnacle of where everything comes together," he says.
The dream is still at least a year off: he'll have to figure out payment and subscription details, renovate the nearly untouched top floor, and recruit couples who want to live their kinks on camera. But he's hoping he'll soon have more time to devote to the project. With more than 100 employees and a huge building to maintain, Acworth's role has shifted from almost entirely creative to almost entirely administrative. He misses the early days, when he found models on Craigslist, tied them up in his rented Marina apartment, interacted with them himself, and then posted the shoots. (You can still see these early shoots online.) Soon he'll promote an employee to chief operating officer, which will allow him to back off the business side and devote himself to the reality show.
So did he ever imagine his little project would get so big? Absolutely not, Acworth says. If he'd had any inkling, he adds, "I would've been terrified." But it only seems natural that the little English boy who used to try to sell his parents' own vegetables back to them would eventually have an eye for business and that his interest in fetish porn would lead his business instincts here.
As for how his parents feel about his chosen profession, Acworth says they're not exactly vocally supportive, but they don't condemn him either. His mom, a sculptor, has started creating pieces that feature couples in coital or bondage positions, and may start to sell them on the site. His dad, a former Jesuit preacher, says only, "As long as no one's getting hurt and there are no animals, I guess it's all right."