From gang bangs to glam: How is remaking itself as a lifestyle brand

The BDSM site halts its most extreme offshoots in hopes of pushing into the mainstream

Published October 21, 2014 11:00PM (EDT)

         (<a href=''>phbcz</a> via <a href=''>iStock</a>)
(phbcz via iStock)

In a surprising move, BDSM porn company has suddenly stopped production on two of its most “extreme” sub-sites. CEO Peter Acworth tells Salon the company is halting filming on the wildly popular Public Disgrace and Bound in Public. Both series were shot with a public, and often participatory, audience -- and as such, generated attention and criticism. (You can read about my experience witnessing a Public Disgrace shoot here.) The company is also rebranding HardCoreGangBangs as FantasyGangBangs, while putting a stronger emphasis throughout the series on consent.

At the same time, Kink is ramping up its educational efforts, in the form of video demonstrations of and sexuality workshops on everything from fellatio to dirty talk to rope restraint. Increasingly, Kink will be welcoming the public into The Armory, the company’s historic castle-like building in San Francisco, for events kinky and otherwise. Their massive drill court? Acworth is hoping the NSFW venue will become host to SFW conferences.

It’s hard to know what this story is really about. The proliferation of free online porn? (After all, with porn profits plummeting, alternative revenue streams are a smart move.) The success of activists in putting pressure on pornographers? Censorship through political pressure? The coming-of-age of a popular porn company? The mainstreaming of BDSM? Whatever it is, it certainly seems reflective of the time we’re living in.

This decision comes after a spot of bad press. Last summer, former porn performer Cameron Bay tested positive for HIV after filming a Public Disgrace shoot. The transmission did not happen on set, but the incident amounted to a lot of negative P.R. for Kink and the porn industry as a whole -- especially after Bay reported that her costar got a cut on his penis during filming but the shoot continued. Acworth says the decision to bring the series, along with Bound in Public, to a halt isn't driven by that, alone, though. Instead, he says it's an attempt to be more inclusive, and to better fulfill the company's aim of "demystifying alternative sexualities." It's also part of a new push to turn into a lifestyle brand à la Playboy.

I spoke with Acworth by phone about the future of the porn industry, condom activism and turning Kink's naughty logo into the contemporary equivalent of the Playboy bunny.

Tell me about this recent decision to shut down two of your sites.

We've essentially stopped shoots on both sites that would have a public audience. That is to say, Bound in Public and Public Disgrace, and we are changing Hardcore Gangbangs to be much more explicitly the fantasy of the female participant. It's a rebrand. Behind the scenes, these larger scenes with lots of people were quite frankly controlled, but nevertheless they look like they're not controlled. We've been attacked in that manner in the past. It's difficult to defend, as much as if you would actually speak to the people who were there, or speak to the crew, we could explain how the situation is controlled, but the outside view may be a little more difficult at first view. The mission of the company is to demystify alternative sexuality. Most people are just figuring out what their sexuality is, so we want to open the door to them. If the first thing they see is super-extreme, it doesn't fulfill our mission as well.

What kind of criticism were you facing, was it mostly in the condom debate?

Certainly. We know that the people concerned didn't actually contract HIV on set, nevertheless, the last shoot that the individuals last summer were in happened to be at Kink. We suffered a great deal of negative P.R. over that whole issue, and the fact that was one of the companies that signed up to fight that new legislation. It made us a scapegoat for a lot of negative publicity.

I wouldn't say that's necessarily the primary driver behind this. In general, we're wanting to become a lifestyle brand and that's been the vision for some time, even before these things last summer. We're in the process of rebuilding our backend infrastructure and the engine that powers the sites and it's entirely possible to sell products -- for instance, you can click on a movie and see what items we used on a movie and put them in the shopping cart and check out. We're wanting our logo to be sort of more of a lifestyle brand than just known for the movies we make.

How popular were the sites that you've shut down?

Public Disgrace was pretty popular. We had a certain amount of content for it in the can so we'll continue with it for the next couple months. Bound in Public is less so. They're also some of the most complicated types of shoots to produce. A lot of staff. You have to prove that everyone's over 18 so you have to have the ID of everybody. The production and post-production was a lot to deal with. It was a very popular site, but it cost a lot to produce.

BDSM has entered the mainstream in recent years, are you responding to that?

Yeah. "Fifty Shades of Grey," for instance. It's definitely become mainstream. I think what's perceived as the harder-core side of things, I think it's at odds with that mass market. It turns off more people than it turns on. The more fringe you become, you get a very focused customer, but that customer base becomes smaller and smaller. The more soft-core, entry-level porn has much wider appeal.

Why do you think BDSM has entered the mainstream?

I think it's become more acceptable, probably in part because of the Internet more than anything else. When I grew up, I fantasized constantly about being tied up or tying other people up. Nobody talked about it, you couldn't go online, you couldn't figure it out at all. It wasn't until I found magazines in London sex shops that I realized this is stuff that a whole community of people actually enjoys. It was from there that I stepped out into BDSM clubs in my late teens and early 20s. These days, you can look online and find a vast community almost immediately. It's become normalized, it's become OK. That's really been part of the mission of this company too. We want the company to be very visible. It's why we bought a very visible building, for instance, and have an open door policy for tours. The absolute mission of the company is to demystify alternative sexuality, and in some cases I think the very extreme material sort of works against that goal in some ways, and that's why we're rebranding.

It also sounds like with this new emphasis on education that you'll be bringing the general public into the Armory more for actual lessons and workshops.

Yeah, we do have classes here in the building, which has been going on for some time; we're just starting to make that more of a focus. We have the bar across the street, the Armory Club, local BDSM groups come and meet there. We're in the process of applying for alternative use with the planning department for our drill court. We're aiming to do much more regular events, we can do conferences and conventions. A lot of that is sort of co-branding mainstream events with, which is obviously kinky. That has a very mainstreaming effect, I think.

Is this shift into a lifestyle brand the future of how porn will be profitable?

I think it's certainly the right thing to do, being it's what the mission of the company is all about. I think it is another way to survive this onslaught of free content. The fact of the matter is that video by itself is becoming free. Using that as a platform for the whole lifestyle, where you can buy clothing, all the paraphernalia, and you can do a virtual tour of the building, you can come visit, you come to our events and so on.

The shift to a lifestyle brand, it makes me think of Playboy.

Yeah. They did a great job of that. The lifestyle was, as a man you don't necessarily need to get married and have a monogamous lifestyle. You could be this playboy if that's what you wanted. We would love for the "K" to be as well-known as the Playboy bunny.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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