Inside Kink.com's San Francisco Porn Palace

For $25, you too can take a tour of the porn studio, its creepy sex dungeons, and impressive dildo stock rooms.

|
Feb 20 2015, 5:00pm

Kink.com HQ. All photos courtesy of the author

The basement of the San Francisco Armory used to be where the National Guard kept its guns and ammo. If you go there now you'll see a chainsaw with all the sharp edges replaced with plastic tongues, a room full of dildos attached to drills, and two bright blue 55-gallon barrels of natural, water-based lube. One hundred and ten gallons is a hell of a lot of lube.

You see, shortly after the National Guard left the Armory in 1976, the former headquarters was registered as a historical landmark. This meant that whoever bought the two-acre, redbrick, Moorish revival castle would not be able to make any major architectural changes, so the building sat more or less empty for 30 years. The trouble was, they needed to find a millionaire buyer with a mountain of cash and a desire to own a network of dingy dungeons, and even in San Francisco that isn't an easy task.

That was, until Peter Acworth came along. Acworth grew up in Britain before moving to America in 1996 to study finance at Columbia. The following year, after reading a tabloid story about a fireman who made $250,000 dollars selling porn online, Acworth decided to start his own website dedicated to the porn he wanted to watch himself. It happened that he was into the kind of stuff that half the planet were in denial about until Fifty Shades of Grey came along.

The barrels of lube

Judging by the success of his site, Kink.com, plenty of people were already well aware of the pleasures of a well-aimed whip before EL James sold all those paperbacks. By 2006, Acworth was able to drop a cool $14.6 million to buy the San Francisco Armory and turn it into the world's biggest BDSM porn studio. Kink.com and its various subsidiary sites now produce hours upon hours of hardcore porn there every week. No wonder they get through so much lube.

In an era of free streaming porn, Kink.com's paid-for content and high production values mark it out as an anomaly and a rare success story, so I decided it would be a good idea to go to San Francisco to sign up for their daily $25 tour and see inside the studio for myself.

Dane, my guide

Which is how I found myself down on my knees in one of their dungeons. The first thing you notice when you're down there is that although the floors look like they're made from hard, cracked concrete, they're really covered in soft, springy rubber. Dane, who performs at Kink.com under the screen name "Bastian," is our tour guide for the day.

He's one of those conventionally good-looking all-American types who'd seem wholesome to the point of cheesiness if it wasn't for where we were. You wouldn't have him down as a sexual deviant. In another life he'd have made a great Jehovah's Witness.

"We don't like to hurt our models," he says, explaining the rubber flooring. Then his face breaks into a wicked grin. "Well, of course we do like to hurt our models... but only in the agreed ways."

Dane explains that, even though Kink.com make graphic, BDSM porn, the site still does its best to keep their models safe. "We're making porn for people like us, who can't enjoy a really sexy, really heavy dominant-submissive scene if we didn't know that everyone was actually being taken care of," he says. "We've created a space where someone is free to do that while still maintaining control of their agency throughout the process."

There's a whole world of different Kink.com sets down in the dungeons which serve their various websites—24 in all. First up is "Ultimate Surrender," an all-girl, college-style wrestling tournament. Part of the appeal of this site is that it's a real sporting event—unlike pro wrestling, there are no scripts. The competitors get a bonus if they win so they really do fight it out to pin their opponents down.

This being porn of course, they also get points for undressing, fingering or even motor-boating the opposition. Once a month, Kink.com invites a studio audience down who sit on the side lines, hold up signs to support their favorites and scream "Sit on her face" at the top of their lungs.

Round the corner from the "Ultimate Surrender" wrestling arena is "Naked Combat," the all-male alternative styled like an X-rated version of Fight Club. Further on are the cages and chain rooms used for Kink's long-running series "The Training of O." It's based on the French erotic classic Story of O, which was written in 1954 by Anne Desclos under the pen name Pauline Réage, and let's just say Fifty Shades pales in comparison.

In this studio, Kink puts their "slaves" through some of the most physically and mentally strenuous porn conceivable. The series' director, James Mogul, is notorious for putting his models through a gauntlet of "slave training exercises," so even experienced porn stars end up doing things for the first time. There's an air of improv to it all, which I guess makes him the BDSM game's Mike Leigh.

It's while walking around the "Training of O" set that I really start to appreciate just how good Kink's art department are. You couldn't really use dirty, dingy basements with stagnant water and rusty chains to shoot porn. Health and safety would have a field day. Instead, everything is scrupulously clean but designed to look like it's been rotting away in the dark for years.

As I leave the studio, I see a sign reminding staff of just how clean and careful they have to be "!!! You Must Wear Surgical Gloves Whenever Handling Anything That Has Been In Contact With Bodily Fluids !!!" it begins, before telling staff to always change gloves between "handling different toys." It's the hardcore world's version of those signs in the office toilets reminding you to wash your hands.

After the dungeons come yet more sets. These are used for videos like "Bound in Public" or "Bound and Disgraced," so they're designed to look like we're outside in the real world. There are houses, bars, doctor's offices, police cells, and school rooms all laid out in flawless detail in the basement of the Armory. Dane tells us that they have to pride themselves on that attention to detail. "If we make a mistake in the algebra on the blackboard behind some people fucking," he says, "then that's what people will write in about."

If you fancy yourself as the next James Deen, appearing as a background extra in a "public" scene is one way to get onto a porn set before you throw yourself in at the deep end. If you find yourself in San Francisco, you can apply online to appear as a member of the public. You can even go as a couple—it'd be a hell of a first date.

If you're looking to make a bigger commitment, Kink.com is always hiring. Their rates vary from $200 to $800 per shoot for men, or from $500 to $1,300 per shoot for women. When you sign up you'll be given a "Yes-No-Maybe" list so that you can say what you're into and what you're willing to try. Naturally, the highest rates are reserved for those rare specimens who are up for doing the stuff that the fewest people want to.

The author, pictured with Carol Acworth's statue

I tell Dane I'll get back to him about the "Yes-No-Maybe" list, but before I leave the Armory there's one more place he wants to show us. We head all the way up to the top floor of the building and enter what could be a stately home if it wasn't for the antique gynecological table and all the graphic, hardcore porn portrait paintings hanging on the walls. One of the most eyebrow-raising statues is a naked, large-breasted woman sculpted by Carol Acworth—that's the bosses' mum. After she finished, her son Peter completed the piece by trussing it up with bondage rope. A real family affair.

This is the "Upper Floor," Kink.com's private member's club. It's essentially Downton Abbey, but with ball gags and more leather than Kanye's wardrobe. On the Upper Floor, models act out master-servant fantasies at regular parties in front of a hand-picked crowd of BDSM fans. They have a strict guest list, so you can't just wander in if you've watched a couple of videos and now consider yourself a budding Christian Grey. You've got to earn an invitation by introducing yourself to a guy called Maestro Stefanos at one of San Francisco's BDSM nights, and I'm guessing guys who call themselves "Maestro Stefanos" know what they like.

What's really interesting about the Upper Floor is that they livestream their parties, and people log in from all over the world to watch and chat to participants and other fans. This means that BDSM fans in Smalltown, Nowheresville, who find it next to impossible to meet anyone who shares their tastes can tune into what Dane calls "transmissions from the kinky mothership." That seems to be what's made Kink.com such a success. The internet might be awash with free porn, but people still have a fetish for community.

Follow Kevin on Twitter.

More VICE
Vice Channels