This is not a morality tale about pornography. Yes, Juan was disturbed by some of the S/M scenes that he edited, digitized and put onto CD-ROM. Yes, his personal life fell apart when he brought the S/M home to his girlfriend, who didn’t want to be tied up. And two years later, he still has nightmares about his boss — an elderly Austrian Sufi and gay S/M master who terrorized Juan and the rest of his young employees.
But Juan says the problem wasn’t porn; it was management beating up on labor. The teasing he got as the only straight guy fits the “hostile environment” definition of sexual harassment, and Juan also endured the needy contempt that suits everywhere heap on the math whizzes in tech support. When he tries to explain why he stayed so long in an abusive work situation in the late ’90s, when techno-nerds ruled the earth, Juan shrugs. “I don’t know, I guess I’m a submissive.”
Juan is a big, amiable fellow with a scraggly beard and an orange knit cap he seems to wear 24/7 in the winter. He grew up on welfare in the South Bronx, then got academic scholarships to Hampshire College, where he studied mathematical physics. After a one-year stint working for a certain monopoly near Seattle, he returned to New York, where he had trouble finding work. “There are still barriers for a Puerto Rican kid from the Bronx looking for a job at an Internet firm,” he says. “People thought I was lying about college.”
He got a job as a programmer in a bank on Wall Street, which soon made him miserable. He was 25 and “still actively skateboarding. I felt like a robot in a suit at work.” He quit and as he was planning his next move, Julie, a lesbian friend from college, invited him in on the ground floor of a new multimedia company in what she called “the biggest vertical market on the Web” — porn. Julie was also a programmer but not at Juan’s level, so she proposed to Juan that he “create the infrastructure, recommend the software and train the rest of us.” The other principals were Richard, a videographer who’d explored his emerging gay sexuality in a series of art videos, and an older European who’d put up half a million dollars in seed money.
Juan signed on, figuring he wasn’t working anyway and it might be fun. He had no qualms about pornography, having grown up with “huge stacks of it” at home. “My parents were very visibly loving, PDA all the way,” Juan remembers. “They would talk about having sex at the dinner table, and my sisters and I would be like, ‘Mommy, what’s back-door action?’” Porn tapes were mixed in with the Disney videos and when Juan was 9 he stumbled on a homemade tape of his parents going at it. He doesn’t remember this as particularly traumatic: “I watched it and thought, ‘Wow, I bet that’s them making my sister!’”
At Juan’s request, I’ve changed all the names and some identifying details in this story, but the weirdest stuff is true. The venture capitalist/mastermind behind the fledgling multimedia firm was a wealthy Austrian doctor and tax lawyer whom I’ll call Rolf. Rolf had met Richard in a gay chat room and the two discovered a shared interest in video. Juan thinks they had a brief fling before planning their business.
Rolf, who is somewhere in his 60s, owns homes in Vienna, Amsterdam, Papua New Guinea and Manhattan. During his frequent visits to New York’s gay S/M scene, Rolf saw more enthusiasm than competence, a huge target market of tentative tops and bumbling bottoms. Rolf and Richard decided to produce didactic CD-ROMs that would demonstrate knot tying, flogging, ball gagging and other forms of disciplinary caress. As it turned out, the videos were all of gay men. Juan says they were “going to progress to straight and lesbian and other arenas, but that never happened.”
Rolf created the firm as a limited liability corporation, so he would supply the money but supposedly wouldn’t be involved in creating, or responsible for, the content. He gave the company an innocuous name, which I’ll paraphrase as Rolf’s Media Plaything (RMP). Juan calls the initial financial arrangement “pro bono” — nobody would get any money until the company turned a profit. The three young workers eventually protested and Rolf began paying them small salaries in cash.
The company was run out of Rolf’s five-story home in Chelsea. “At first, it was a really loving environment; we all knew each other and cared about each other except for Rolf, but he came off as a nice guy,” Juan says. “Later I found out he had a very dark side, very scary, but at first I felt really, really comfortable.” The three young friends and Rolf did everything themselves for months, Juan says, “hiring the talent, videotaping them, digitally editing and compressing it, putting it on CD-ROM. When certain people would come over, we’d have to shut off our computers and stop production and hide all signs of sexuality so we looked like a travel CD-ROM company.”
RMP needed the travel front because of Rolf’s heavy involvement in Sufism, a 1,400-year-old mystical branch of Islam whose whirling dervishes undergo ecstatic trances. Though mainstream Muslims consider Sufis far too tolerant of alternate routes to Allah, Rolf feared that even Sufis would frown on ecstasy whipped up by a guy in leather chaps.
To make sure the coast was clear, Juan, Julie and Richard had to call before arriving at work every morning. The office environment was surreal, with the Aryan-looking Rolf wearing flowing robes and prayer beads and leading naked men on tours of the premises. A 6-foot-long iguana roamed freely. Rolf regaled his workers with tales of his frequent trips to Papua New Guinea, showing them pictures of naked tribal leaders, their penises tied up and adorned with feathers. “He was obsessed with it because it’s a homosexual-driven culture,” Juan says, rolling his eyes. “He talked about it all the time.”
The scenes for the CD-ROMs were usually shot outside the office, but sometimes videotaping was on the premises. Juan has many gay friends and, at first, the material he edited satisfied a curiosity about gay sex. “But then I wanted it to evolve. I wasn’t getting any, I was nerd-boy stuck in front of the computer and I was like, ‘I want to see some naked women!’ But it never came to be.”
About three months into the job, Juan had to edit a lengthy fisting scene, shot on a rooftop in Queens. For the first time, he felt uncomfortable with the content. “It was disturbing to see the guy get fisted out in the open air. The dominant or top was a big, burly lumberjack in a leather vest and the guy getting fisted was this frail, thin little guy in a cage, wearing a leather mask and a gag. He was moaning and screaming, having his cock pulled down and around. I had to watch it hundreds of times while I was editing it. I know the guy wasn’t being coerced because I knew him, but I didn’t know if he was into it or just doing it because he needed the money.”
Juan had never worried before about whether porn actors were doing it only for the money. He may have identified with the guy in the cage, because Rolf was becoming more and more abusive. Juan was working 12-hour days, essentially creating the product with the understanding he would share in any eventual profits. When he finally worked up his nerve to ask for a contract, Rolf screamed in his Teutonic accent, “Show me more products first! How dare you ask for money or contracts when you haven’t shown me all the products?”
After four months, Julie quit, disgusted with Rolf’s financial slipperiness and fits of rage. Two months later Richard left, too, and Rolf replaced them with two gay Serbs. Now Juan was not only the only heterosexual but the only American. “It was cool that people were from all over,” Juan says, “but I felt really isolated and I started to withdraw.”
Solace arrived in the form of Angelika, a Swedish illegal alien who turned up at a party at Juan’s house. The two began dating, and when she ran into financial trouble he took her in to live with him. On the face of it, Juan held the power in the relationship, but he says darkly, “She was very dominant.” Angelika often came to the Chelsea office to pick up Juan and she started nagging him about his situation. She kept asking why he couldn’t see that Rolf was crazy and ripping him off and why he didn’t quit. Juan felt besieged by all sides, and meanwhile was watching S/M videos 12 hours a day. It’s not so surprising that he decided to assert some control with leather and rope.
Next: Juan ties up Angelika, enjoys a flogging and foolishly confides in Rolf.