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Kink.com Is Shuttering Its San Francisco Sex Dungeon

The world's largest fetish film company is moving out of the Armory, marking the end of an era for adult film and sex-positive culture in California.

Pornography is not a sentimental business. But I noticed that there was more than a little nostalgia on the set of the last porno ever filmed at the Armory, Kink.com's legendary headquarters in the techie heart of San Francisco. The final shoot was a gangbang. It happened last month in one of the famed fortress's soundproofed dungeons, with five muscular guys, jutting cocks in hand, clustered around a pale-skinned, retro beauty.

For the past decade, the Armory has been a brick-and-mortar incarnation of the Marquis de Sade's wet dream. It's a place where all manner of fetishes, from the grotesque to the glamorous, were explored in unrelenting detail. More than 8,000 pornographic films featuring everything from erotic waterboarding to "enema debutantes" were made here, in San Francisco's Mission neighborhood. This is where Kink hosted dozens of classes and workshops on topics such as electroplay and the art of rope restraint, along with sex-positive events and parties. The Armory wasn't just an illicit landmark—the 200,000-square-foot edifice was a bastion for some of San Francisco's edgy sex cultures.

Unfortunately, in January, Kink announced that it would stop using the 103-year-old building for making adult films. Since 2014, Kink's been quietly moving its production studios 550 miles east to Las Vegas, a move that is symptomatic of broader trends of the Silicon Valley–fueled gentrification pushing sex-positive spaces out of San Francisco and, more specifically, porn companies losing ground in California because of increased state regulations.

Maitresse Madeline Marlowe inside the Armory, on the set of Twin Peaks. All photos by Ulysses Ortega

True to Kink's penchant for the offbeat and subversive, the final shoot at the Armory was a parody of David Lynch's 90s-era cult TV show Twin Peaks. Lynch's dark psychosexual drama, with its twisted plot of American eros and violence, was a fitting way to close the drawbridge on the Kink.com castle. 

The shoot also showed why Kink had been such a powerhouse in adult entertainment while it was based at the Armory. The scenario was imagined by director/writer/dominatrix Maitresse Madeline Marlowe, whose recent Kink productions include a feature in which a blond woman draped in an American flag gets reamed by a group of men wearing Donald Trump masks. Marlowe and her kick-ass female crew filmed on three separate sets with elaborate costumes and props. 

For the main gangbang scene, they transformed one of the Armory's many rooms into the Twin Peaks bordello One Eyed Jack's, with wood plank walls and taxidermy deer heads propped around the crimson-lit chamber. There the Twin Peaks brunette minx Audrey Horne (played with aplomb by Amber Ivy) was ravished by five veteran Kink performers playing some of the show's male characters. Marlowe watched the scrum of lubed bodies on a monitor, calling out positions like a football coach on the sidelines: "Vaginal! Doggie style! Anal! Double penetration cowgirl style! Reverse cowgirl!" After about an hour and a half of strenuous activity, wads were blown, Amber delivered her last line, face dripping, and it was a wrap. Marlowe proclaimed, "We are so honored to have you here, at the last porn shoot EVER at the Armory!" Applause erupted, and champagne bottles popped.  

Amber Ivy on set at the Armory

It was a bittersweet moment, considering this is where the world's largest hardcore BDSM and fetish-film company had sparked a revolution in the adult industry. Before Kink's rise, commercial BDSM in America didn't typically feature extreme content like that. Instead, it was mostly of the Bettie Page variety, with bound-and-gagged models sporting fetish gear. Producers who shot bondage films tended to steer clear of explicit penetration altogether because they were afraid of inciting obscenity charges. But Kink's CEO and founder, Peter Acworth, was a boundary pusher. He started the company in his business school dorm room in 1997, and by 2005, he was posting bondage and fetish videos that showed actual sex.

The game-changing video was the 2005 test shoot for Kink's nascent Sex and Submission series, according to PR spokesman Mike Stabile. In the scene, Kurt Lockwood punishes Sydnee Capri with spanks and whips before finally having his way—several ways—with her. It was this willingness to embrace both ecstasy and brutality that helped carve out a significant niche for Kink, which has edged increasingly closer into the mainstream thanks to pop-culture phenomena like 50 Shades of Grey. These days, Kink reaches tens of thousands of users around the world with series like its notorious Fucking Machines—in which men and women's orifices are pummeled with gigantic, piston-powered devices—and Public Disgrace—where submissives are tormented by strangers in public.

Part of the reason Kink was able to get away with these extreme BDSM shoots was its extensive consent protocol: its stringent shooting rules, its interviews with performers before and after shoots, its safe word policies, and its model bill of rights. These assured viewers—as well as the credit card companies that can withhold service if they deem content to be obscene—that the performers agreed to participate. Since allegations of assault, abuse, and rape against porn superstar James Deen erupted in 2015, consent practices in adult filmmaking have been scrutinized. Having everyone under the same roof made it easier for Kink to establish and enforce its practices.

While Kink.com's audience skews male and the site's landing page features bound women with LA porn-style bodies, its sub-sites tell a less stereotypical and more diverse story. Kink's directors and performers reflect Kink's remarkably LGBTQ-friendly approach. Mickey Mod, Audrey's dad in the gangbang and vice president of the Adult Performer Advocacy Committee, pointed out to me that "Kink shot gay porn, trans porn, and all sorts of stuff in between. It shot people prior to and after they transitioned. How many other [places] have done that?"

BDSM statue at the Armory sculpted by the mother of CEO Peter Acworth

As groundbreaking as Kink's content has been over the years, where its films were shot has been just as important to its legacy. "Peter knew there was a fetish desire to be fed and respected," doyenne of Bay Area pansexuality Carol Queen told me. "His savvy was to turn that into a club, almost a movement. The Armory [was a modern-day] Playboy mansion."

The Moorish-style stronghold was constructed in the early 1900s and was originally intended to store National Guard ammunitions and host boxing matches. But after 30 years of intermittent use, it had fallen into disrepair. It loomed over the Mission as a symbol of the neighborhood's urban decay. Thanks to the low property value in the Mission at the time and great dilapidation of the building, Acworth acquired the Armory in 2006 for a paltry $14.5 million.

With strategic renovations, Acworth transformed the building into a spectacular labyrinth of sets: The basement was a crumbling, cavernous space with water flowing through it; the top floor was decorated Edwardian-style with bondage furniture; in between, there was everything from a sterile doctor's office with all kinds of imposing medical devices to a slaughterhouse featuring large chunks of meat hanging on hooks, which allowed Kink to realize elaborate fantasy narratives. And with its security staff, in-house casting office, green room, and policy of serving employees a catered lunch every day, Kink.com was able to bring a level of professionalism to an industry not known for niceties. All of it was made possible by the grand space of the Armory.

But turning the Armory into a modern day Playboy mansion was not without its challenges. As soon as Kink moved in, local protesters picketed, complaining about such a salacious business being in close proximity to schools. Acworth responded by launching a campaign of transparency. He invited neighbors to visit the Armory, hosted tours, and made exterior renovations to the building, repairing broken windows, installing lights, and removing graffiti. He also contributed to local charities and supported plans for a neighborhood community center.

Rather than ruining the Mission with its wicked ways, Kink was a catalyst for gentrification of the beleaguered area, which was buoyed by the booming tech economy. Shortly after Kink moved in, Four Barrel Coffee brought its artisanal caffeine fetishism to the same block—"Sourcing, roasting, and brewing the best coffee in San Francisco in an honest, ethical, and sexy manner" is its motto. And then the luxury condos started going up.

As the tech boom in Silicon Valley jacked up rents in San Francisco, cultural shifts began displacing LGBTQ, sex-positive, and sex-radical institutions from the city that had once been at the forefront of progressive sexual politics. The Castro's famed LGBTQ bookstore A Different Light closed in 2011. The North Beach unionized worker strip club the Lusty Lady folded in 2013, which was the same year the sex club Mission Control lost its lease in San Francisco. In 2015, dyke bar the Lexington Club was shuttered. And last year, the Stud narrowly avoided the same fate.

Mickey Mod and Madeline Marlowe told me that over the years the Kink Armory had become a "safe space" in a city that was losing such realms. Although the idea of a "safe space" secured by elaborate bondage scenarios in a fortress with two-feet-thick walls might seem counterintuitive, many viewed it that way. Queer porn performer and writer Jiz Lee (also known as "Pony" on the Amazon series Transparent) told me, "There's been a lot of changes in San Francisco and the Bay Area over the years, resulting in fewer spaces that are sex-positive, queer-focused, kink-friendly, etc... the sets at the Armory were among them." 

Just as Hugh Hefner's Playboy mansion sold last year, the closing of the Kink.com Armory studios signals the seismic shifts happening in the adult entertainment industry. California has been America's adult entertainment epicenter for decades. But "porn cop" Michael Weinstein has been crusading for restrictions on the already highly self-regulated industry. Although his so-called condom bill (Proposition 60) was shot down, porn producers aren't certain what lies ahead. With uncertainty looming, applications for permits to make adult films in California have plunged drastically.

Right now, Las Vegas looks like the new frontier for porn. Marc Randazza, an entertainment lawyer who has studied the porn industry's migration to Nevada, sees Kink.com's move "in the larger context of adult entertainment companies looking just a few hours east, seeing much lower costs to doing business, and a much more business friendly environment, and more social tolerance than in California. They realize that it is a no brainer to tell California to go fuck itself." And Acworth has done just that.  

Once Kink got clearance in 2016 to use the Armory's 40,000-square-foot Drill Court to host concerts and other public events, it no longer made financial sense to dedicate the colossal citadel to porn. Liquor and nudity do not mix in the eyes of the law, and regulatory statutes demanded that Kink make hard choices—either it was a place where people could drink and party or a place where people fucked on film.

Since deciding to cease film production at the Armory, some of Kink's key directors, including Marlowe, have already set up their own studios in Vegas and will continue to make content for the Kink.com platform. Kink's editors, tech, marketing, and administrative teams will remain in the Armory, along with whatever non-naked entertainment ventures Acworth and his crew dream up. But no longer will moans from the sets of TS Pussy Hunters, Men in Pain, or Electrosluts echo through the marble halls of the Armory. San Francisco just won't be as kinky without it.

All photos by Ulysses Ortega. See more of his work.

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