As I wandered out of my hotel room on a blustery morning in downtown San Francisco, unsure of where to go for breakfast, I felt a rising in my gullet. Here it comes, I thought and immediately understood why “The City’s” legendary homeless population were unhappy with the design of the public trash cans. They’re lidded, cannot be opened without a key, and accept deposits only through four eight-inch slots around the rim that would’ve at least dented my skull if I’d tried to lean through. Could I make it into this Starbucks, order a coffee, and ask for the bathroom code before whatever it was that I felt rising up my esophagus came spluttering out or would I resort to the gutter? Should I be a complete scumbag and skip the coffee? Fuck it. When in San Francisco… The gutter it was. Last night must’ve been a tough one.
With nothing to do but walk before a looming appointment at the headquarters of the phenomenally successful Kink.com, purveyors of the finest hardcore BDSM porn in the world, I all but wore myself out. It had been quite a while since I’d had San Francisco’s hills to contend with. I was so tired I even started to wonder whether I could manage “audience participation” should the need arise for it during my upcoming tour through Kink’s facilities. Beaten, and before I’d even begun!
As my appointment time approached, I headed to the historic San Francisco Armory at Fourteenth and Mission and caught my first glimpse of the revamped moorish fort in all its glowing red glory. Although the building itself is an imposing presence in the area, there’s so little activity visible from the outside that you’d be forgiven for assuming the interior as empty now as it was in the preceding decades. After being abandoned, left to graffiti artists and vandals, the Armory was rescued by would-be porn magnate Peter Acworth in 2007, who handed over a whopping $14.5 million for the deed. This wasn’t Acworth’s first adult venture, however. He’d run a rope bondage website from his apartment for a few years, then from an office and studio (“Porn Palace”) not too far from where his company now dominates the hardcore fetish market in the Mission District. There’s never been anything like Kink.com though, not even close.
After proving my identity to the somewhat surly security attendant and gaining entry into the foyer, I signed away my right to sue the shit outta Kink should I trip on a cable or take a tumble down stairs, and was then given a lanyard emblazoned with the Kink logo. This decorative K would be seen throughout the tour, on directional signage and fucking machine alike, and the staff break room my fellow tourists and I were ushered into even held an elaborate wireframe sculpture that appeared to be some kind of K-logo-as-chair. Remembering my manners, I resisted the urge to touch it. My fellow tourists, however, had no such reservations and sat down in turn while someone took their photo.
The group taking this tour with me seemed in good humor – within five minutes of entering, some dude made a topical “binders full of women” joke to another tourist he’d just met; another man would periodically give his girlfriend’s ass a controlling pat; a third kept staring at the bondage-themed paintings hanging on the break room walls and giggling – and me, well, I was there to find out what Kink had kept secret from me as I wrote past reviews of their numerous sites.
The staff room and surrounding area looked quite like that you’d find in any other business. A kitchenette with well used and maintained espresso machine dominated one half of the large room, while a large white projector screen hung on the other side. Cabinets were filled with small sculptures celebrating BDSM, but no artist was given credit for their creation. A small library and both air hockey and ping-pong tables provided recreational opportunities, but I wagered they weren’t intended for use by tourists and left them well alone after sneaking a peak at the books. (Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Lee Child, Stephen King.) My fellows did not. In fact, I was genuinely surprised to find the others buying food and drink from the vending machines. Here we are about to enter rooms in which men and women are laid bare, torn open, and willingly destroyed physically, psychologically and emotionally before constantly-recording cameras and these folks were scarfing down Corn Nuts and swilling Pepsi. Mostly couples with one group of six eager young men arriving in a pack and uniformly wearing hoodies, the tourists gave a good indication of Kink’s demographic – sexually liberal couples and sexually frustrated young men.
After a brief introduction and history lesson from our guides Nic and Odile, (the former from marketing, the latter a model I recognized from her work on The Upper Floor) we were led through the stately halls of the Armory to our first studio set, a wrestling ring. Ultimate Surrender, on which Kink’s members watch women battle in a wrestling match that almost immediately turns sexual, has the distinction of being one of the few Kink endeavors that welcomes and facilitates audience participation. The often brutal wrestling matches are shot before a studio audience, the members of which are asked to call out holds and attacks when they see an opportunity. In the end, “the winner of the match fucks the loser,” Guide Nic said, “but the losers have a pretty good time, too!” High-Def screens surround the arena and broadcast the action to home viewers who also participate via chat. We are asked if we have any questions. A Phil Varone lookalike pipes up “Is there a bout tonight?” No, “Phil,” there isn’t. I consider telling “Phil” that a daytime tour would probably result in a more, uh, visceral experience. Even Kink performers and crew members want their Friday nights free, after all.
We walk down another one of the Armory’s endless hallways. This one, too, is adorned with paintings. (A painting showing Isis Love pinning another woman to the floor and grinding her pelvis against the other’s mouth was particularly evocative, but that’s Isis for ya.) We end up in a room that functions as the set for Hogtied, the site upon which Acworth built his porn empire. Unable to continue running his fledgling rope bondage site from his apartment, then outgrowing a studio space, Acworth couldn’t have landed in a more appropriate place than the Armory. After all, the Hogtied set once held endless rounds of ammunition for the United States National Guard. Now, however, it stands as a replica of the first professional set Kink ever had back in that SOMA studio. Like most Kink sets, the Hogtied room is largely soundproof, has foamcore floors and walls, and didn’t require any significant alterations to the Armory’s structure or design, as per Kink’s deal with the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. Hogtied now gets plenty of use out of the numerous D-rings around the dungeon, to which the ropes and ties are attached, and the performers often suspended.
The next set was “a wet set”; it had been equipped with a drainage system so that water torture activities wouldn’t flood the floor or the neighboring sets and rooms. Although Kink’s Water Bondage site has fallen into inactivity, Guide Nic mentioned that it might be coming back and the water, temperature controlled for the performers’ comfort, could soon be filling the abattoir-styled set once more. Foam slabs of animal carcass were dotted about the room and a large, heavy freezer door (sold at the owner’s suggestion to Kink) gave the set a fairly authentic feel. The rust was not natural or real, but the work of production designers. We’d later see the basement wood-shop and metal-shop where these craftspeople create the majority of the environments you see through Kink’s A/V content. It’s a deeper operation than many would assume.
I’ve been in dungeons before – Disneyland, Australia’s Wonderland, my first apartment – but none had such thick, rusted chains as these. An otherwise unremarkable dark shooting set, this, one of a handful of dungeons in Kink HQ, nevertheless was impressive. Hanging from the ceiling and blocking passage to another smaller room, the chains were as thick as your forearm with links close to a foot long, and had one tourist remarking “Sweet chains, bro!” Next we visited the most “normal” of all of Kink’s studios: the loft apartment. That’s right, folks, even the abusive perverts of Kink thought it’d be a good idea to have a set where performers could cuddle and (speaking of torture) watch Two Broke Girls. Acworth allegedly took some persuading, but eventually relented and The Loft, complete with (presumably nonfunctional) bathroom, furniture, Seals & Crofts records, and militaria redolent of the much feared German SS. It was in this loft that one of the aforementioned secrets I sought was first unveiled to me: Kink’s employees aren’t just Seals & Crofts fans, they’re Maroon5 fans. Humiliation!
Many Kink tourists were just that: tourists. Tickled by the idea of seeing something a bit more risqué than their own occasional dalliances with restraints or roleplay, they came to the Armory, in a sense, to prove their sexual open-mindedness. The idea of ever requiring a safeword – Kink prefers “mercy” and “yellow” for relief, “red” for an immediate halt – seemed completely out of the realm of consideration. Still, that one guy kept up the intermittent palming of his girlfriend’s ass and the Phil Varone lookalike kept throwing suggestive winks and raised eyebrows at his partner whenever possible. So, clearly they must be enjoying themselves.
Two areas of the Armory seldom used for regular shooting are the firing range, one of the only places in San Francisco you can still see, hear, and touch Mission Creek, and the aircraft hangar-like drill court. As well as its training ground functions during the Armory’s era of peak productivity, the drill court once housed a boxing arena that saw twice-weekly prize fights through much of the ‘20s in “The Madison Square Garden of the West”. George Lucas even managed to have the Armory re-zoned as an arts venue in the 70s so he could shoot some of The Empire Strikes Back’s special effects sequences there. This re-zoning also helped Kink take over the Armory as their new HQ; this kind of porn is much easier to sell on artistic merit than your average Vivid or Zero Tolerance production. Now, with bike racks, production vehicles, and crates and boxes of equipment, the drill court looks more like an obscenely spacious garage. When asked if the court was ever used for shooting, one of the guides regaled us with the story of Asphyxia Noir, who attempted to conquer her intense fear of heights by being suspended 40 ft above floor level while shooting The Training of O. After she hung there long enough to bring about tears and trembling from fear and her self-administered orgasm treatment, she was brought down to ground a stronger woman. “That’s what people come to Kink for”, one of the guides told us, “to overcome their fears.”
Kink isn’t using the Armory solely as a BDSM studio and office space, there are plans to open the drill court to the public as the Armory Community Center. With a projected opening in December, the area will welcome farmer’s markets, concerts, and other community gatherings in a family friendly environment sufficiently removed from the live animal coffin and holed fuck table I spotted earlier in the props department, and from the well organized rows of whips, fetters, cuffs, and gags in the basement bondage dungeons. Before December, though, there needs to be a new floor installed and soundproofing enough to accommodate a loud rock band. If iconic Bay Area deviants Metallica and Faith No More are’t already planning a show at the drill court, they certainly should be!
The Upper Floor was kept till last and after nearly ninety minutes spent wandering the halls, alleys, dungeons, and chambers of Kink’s vast studio and warehouse space, a spacious dining room fit for royalty offered calm and relaxation. Although again asked to refrain from touching anything, my fellow tourists again ignored the request and immediately fondled the metal rings attached at various points to the numerous dining tables. These D-rings, we were told, are used to restrain subs during meal time. A few of the larger tables also had in-built stocks to imprison a slave with his or her head either above or below the surface, depending on what their masters demand. All of this can, of course, be seen on Kink’s The Upper Floor site, which gives viewers a window into a social circle historically reserved for the rich and the hedonists. Home viewers can participate in the training of a slave through webcam feeds and live chats, while a majestic portrait of Acworth presides over the whole sordid affair. After Odile told us of her many hours of servitude as an Upper Floor slave, an obvious and uncomfortable silence was finally broken when Odile noticed me snapping a photo of a sculpture sitting in a corner of the dining hall. The sculpture, it turns out, was built by Carol Acworth, Peter’s mother, and her son had augmented it with precision rope tying, turning it into a magnificent piece that made far above the smaller, more intimate sculptures seen on the bottom floor. Who would’ve known it was Acworth’s mother who was behind such powerfully suggestive sculpted works but those lucky enough to snag a spot in one of Kink’s tour groups? The only embellishment allowed the artist was to increase the size of the model’s bust to suit Peter’s taste.
Downstairs and almost finished, we were given a brief questionnaire that we could complete and exchange for the privilege of ordering drinks at Happy Hour prices over the road at the Armory Lounge. While I can’t exactly say that my tour of the Armory was the profoundly enlightening experience it seemed to be to some of my fellows, I do this kind of thing for a living, man. Surely I would know more about the Kink operation than anyone else in the group. The guides were friendly, always ready with an intriguing tale, and eager to answer all questions and queries, making for a calmly educational tour. I was a little disappointed that we had to hand in our lanyards before leaving, but at least I had my drink at the Armory Lounge to look forward to.
The Lounge is a more extravagant version of the bar set I had seen a half-hour earlier, but this room was filled with people, all of them apparently very pleased with themselves for patronizing a barely controversial establishment. Couples and small groups chatted amongst themselves and, to my chagrin, no single women appeared present. As I sat alone at the Mission St end of the elegant bar and nursed my Whiskey Sour, a gentleman near me found himself abandoned by his date, off on a nose-powdering mission, no doubt. I nodded a salutation in his direction and attempted to instigate conversation. “Nice place, this, isn’t it? Draws quite a crowd, too.” He ignored me. I drank my drink then left to catch a bus to meet some Bay Area-resident friends at a bar where the drinks are more modestly priced and where for $4 the jukebox will let you play Here Come the Warm Jets in its entirety.
The next morning, as I stood on Market St. holding back the torrent rising in my throat, glancing to and fro in search of a receptacle, I agreed that although the Armory tour wasn’t as thrilling as I’d hoped nor my company as stimulating, that it’d be worth another look. Kink is, after all, a genuinely original and remarkable company, and an increasingly vital component of San Francisco City’s city culture. I’ll be back to Kink. Next time maybe “Phil Varone” can leave his girlfriend’s ass at home, and he and I can take the 2pm tour, trade bon mots, and hopefully see more action.