Next to a double mirror surrounded by large round bulbs sit Tupperware boxes stacked two and three high, each with its contents marked on white stickers: eyelashes, hair accessories, brushes, empty enema bottles (of which there are two). This is the dressing room for the Kink.com building, also known as the Porn Palace, in downtown San Francisco. This is where people get ready to be filmed for the Web sites Men in Pain, Wired Pussy, Hogtied, Water Bondage, Ultimate Surrender, Fucking Machines, Sex and Submission, and Whipped Ass.
I'm spending the day on Wired Pussy. It's a Wednesday. I know the people who run Kink.com and I thought it would be an interesting thing to do.
I'm with Satine Phoenix, a model who flew in for the day from Los Angeles. The makeup woman called in sick, so Satine is doing her own makeup. She has skin the color of sand and long, thick black hair. She's exotic, extraordinarily beautiful. She's excited to be here, excited that I'm writing about her, excited about life and filled with manic energy.
We're on the second floor of the three-story building. There are 50 full-time employees at Kink, plus contractors and talent. A profile in 7x7 magazine said Kink.com made $18 million last year. The office is clean and well-lit with an air of efficiency. It if resembles anything it's a design studio with all the high-end Macs and LCD panels. Except on most screens there's some kind of porn being edited -- women with their legs forcibly spread, mouths held open with steel clamps. Nobody seems to notice.
But Kink will be leaving this building soon. The company recently purchased the Armory in San Francisco's Mission District. The Armory is a giant building that has sat empty for the past 35 years. Neighborhood activists have been trying to block the move. They say families live in the Mission. But, of course, families live everywhere. Others say the space should be used for affordable housing, but nobody has made a proposal on the space in years. Peter Acworth, the owner of Kink, points out that the Armory was originally a place where men were trained how to kill. What Kink plans to do there is far less obscene.
Today's shoot is in the warehouse, a smaller studio off Kink's main offices. The warehouse is intentionally weathered but the equipment is all first-rate, lights, rigs and scrims comparable with anything in Hollywood. There are 11 studios in the Porn Palace, including a barn, a dungeon, a jail cell, a bar (where they also have parties every Friday night) and a hot tub.
Satine works all the time, at least four shoots a week, which should translate to $200,000 annually, though I don't have the guts to ask. Mostly she does mainstream porn, guy on girl, girl on girl, but she really likes fetish. She also does performance art, body painting, a bondage burlesque and a weekly radio show on KSEXradio.com. I ask if she's saving for something. "I'm just paying off bills," she says. "I was an alcoholic. My skin was fucked up all the time because of alcohol and coke. I haven't had a drink in a year and a half."
Satine has been doing porn for a year now. Before that she was a stripper in San Francisco. She made her first film in San Jose and immediately moved to Los Angeles to work full time. Kink.com flies her back to the Bay Area once or twice a month.
In the dressing room with us is Princess Donna, the Web mistress for Wired Pussy. Donna is effortlessly beautiful. She has long legs and thick black hair and big eyes that soak in her surroundings. She runs the site and acts as a dominant in most of the shoots. There are four to six updates a month, and 6,000 subscribers pay an average of $30 each. A model from Water Bondage comes into the dressing room. She looks 15, though she's actually 23, and the wardrobe coordinator helps her into a two-piece latex outfit. Donna advises the Water Bondage model to wear color-stay lipstick and eyeliner that won't run when they dunk her.
"I can't wait for what you're going to do to me," Satine says to Donna.
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In Donna's office there's a large flat-panel monitor. On the screen is a still from a recent shoot -- Donna on a roof in New York, wearing leopard-print tights and heels. Her foot is on another woman's head. The woman's hands are tied behind her back and Donna's hand is in the woman's ass. I can see the straining tendons in the woman's leg, her knees bound, panties around her thighs, surrounded by Word documents and spreadsheet files.
Donna was just finishing undergraduate work at New York University when she interviewed for the position of Web mistress at Wired Pussy. She had already worked two years doing bondage porn and was a high-end stripper before that.
She remembers her first bondage porn shoot. She was tied in a box with another woman, the other woman's foot tied forcibly in Donna's mouth.
"I love this job," Donna says.
Donna asks, "Are you nervous, excited?"
Satine: "Yes. I'm excited."
Donna: "What have you done since your last shoot with us?"
Satine: "I've played a lot in my personal life. Flogging. Rope bondage."
Donna: "What do you like?"
Satine: "I like duct tape. I love hair pulling and I like being face-slapped."
Donna: "You do?"
There is one woman on the camera and another shooting stills. That makes four women and me. Donna sits offstage on a wooden crate. She's wearing a polka-dot dress, a red belt, black heels. Satine sits on a chair, fully clothed, addressing the camera. Every video begins like this, with the talent reassuring the viewers (and regulators) that this a consensual scene. At some point Donna enters, grabs Satine by her hair and pulls her to the floor.
I take my shoes off, sit near the equipment rack. The people are nice, creative, interesting. But I wonder what I am seeing here that I wouldn't see just watching the video. The food cart full of Luna bars and Odwalla, the camera girls scurrying around the action? Here is one of the obvious questions: Would you let someone do something to you that you enjoyed, for a fair amount of money, on camera? Why not?
When I was 21 and dancing between films at a gay porn theater in Chicago called the Bijou, I was offered a part in a bisexual porn video. The money wasn't great, only $300. Men don't make nearly as much as women performers. I backed out at the last minute. I was afraid it would negatively affect me later on. Now I realize it wouldn't have. Now I realize nobody would have cared that much. I wish I had done it, just to have had the experience.
Donna ties Satine with thick rope, wraps her arms around her back, ties her hair to a hook hanging from the ceiling. Donna attaches a violet wand plate, electrifying Satine's body so that every time she touches Satine's nipples Satine receives a shock. Donna has forbidden Satine from speaking and her face contorts in quiet screams.
There will be four setups today with at least a 10-minute break between each. The studio is reserved for four hours and will yield a video roughly 50 minutes in length that can be downloaded by subscribers in segments or streamed in its entirety. Photographs will also be available for download. Subscribers have access to everything and can also leave comments on the shoot, for example, "more pussy licking," and "you are so fucking hot." Subscriptions to Kink sites automatically renew and the average subscriber stays for four months. Many subscribers switch between sites.
Between setups Satine and I talk about relationships. She recently broke up with her boyfriend, who didn't want her doing male-female porn. She wasn't willing to give up control over her career. "I'm an exhibitionist," Satine says. "I like it when people watch. And I like boy-girl scenes, I like fucking. This is who I am."
Much of the action in the second scene revolves around whether Donna is going to let Satine have an orgasm. "Do you want to come, you fucking whore?" Satine's hands are attached to her ankles, a vibrator between her legs. Occasionally Donna shocks Satine with a cattle prod.
Observation 1: This is not fake. Satine and Donna are truly in role. Satine is feeling submissive and Donna is definitely on top. Donna is hurting Satine; Satine is being hurt.
Observation 2: Everyone here seems to enjoy his or her work. At least today.
Between setups Satine puts on a blue robe that has "slave" embroidered on its chest. I'm on the floor and she's on the chair resting her feet on my knees. "I'm going to get a benefactor to pay for fake boobs," she says. "It's nice when someone will do that for you. I know people that have gotten $2,000 boobs, but it's not the kind of thing you want to save money on. A good boob job costs $10,000."
Satine has red marks along her belly where Donna yanked a string of clips she'd attached to Satine's stomach and nipples. Watching it, I actually felt empathy for Satine. Satine was blindfolded. I saw Donna twisting her fingers through the white string holding the clips. I knew she was going to pull the clips and I knew it was going to hurt. I almost covered my face in my hands.
In the third setup Satine is duct-taped to a rectangular wooden beam. A gas mask is placed over her head. During this scene an electric acrylic plug is slid into her vagina. Donna slaps at it continually, open-handed, occasionally moving to a counter to turn some knobs on the machine, increasing the juice.
For the climactic scene, Satine is gagged and tied with her legs held apart by a spreader bar, her head forward and her hair tied to the front of the trunk she's squatting on. Donna places voice-activated electrodes on Satine's ass so every time Satine moans she's electrified. Meanwhile Donna slaps her between her legs with a cane.
Halfway through the shoot they have to stop because Satine is crying.
No crying is allowed in Kink.com videos.
"I'm sorry," Satine says. "It just feels so good."
When the shoot is over Donna asks, "How you doing, baby?"
"My vagina," Satine jokes with a Russian accent. "She is broken." After that there is lots of talk, jokes. They talk about various sex toys, the Monkey Rocker. The Sybian. "Seriously," Donna says. "Every time I would cane you I would get a throb in my pussy."
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When I leave the Porn Palace half an hour later it's dark and I find that both wheels have been stolen from my bicycle. This has nothing to do with the article except to prove that it's possible to watch someone shove an electrified plug in someone's pussy while a thief casually takes an Allen wrench to your transportation on a downtown street. Though that's also wrong. The Porn Palace is half a block from the largest shopping center on the West Coast, the fashionable Westfield Mall. But a half-block in the other direction is Sixth Street, the last remnant of a downtown that wasn't always so prosperous. Filled with junkies, transient hotels, outreach centers and shooting galleries, Sixth Street is littered with the limping desperate and the drooling insane.
Which could be a metaphor for porn, an industry in an economic no man's land. But the porn industry is twice the size of the mainstream film industry, leaving open the question of what "mainstream" really means. You may or may not be into electrified bondage, but if you're male, chances are you've watched porn or bought a dirty magazine in the past year. If you didn't, look at your friends; they did. Chances are you didn't tell anybody about the porn you watched. Chances are you're surrounded by people whose desires you would consider strange if you knew what they were.
San Francisco, with its open sexuality, is the perfect place for a company like Kink.com. But many porn sites are shutting down because of new regulations by the Bush administration. Some that have been closed, like Insex.com, are seeking buyers in foreign countries.
I asked Satine what she wanted to do after this was over, when she was done making porn. She told me she was just gaining experience for a graphic novel she's writing about her life. She said she wants to move to Japan, open a sea farm. She also wants to live in India and study tantra. She wants to have a restaurant and she wants to document it all via her graphic novels and her Web site.
"Just whatever I decide to do at the time," she said. "I go in about three-year spans. I might completely change my mind."