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Mr. Acworth Goes to Vegas
Lauren Smiley | Photo: Ramin Rahimian | August 12, 2014
Where does San Francisco’s most notorious pornographer turn when the Condom Police come after him? Where else?
"You mean to say that we can rent a big-ass machine gun and have a naked girl in the desert shooting it?"
Peter Acworth—porn lord of Mission Street, corporate dom of the world’s premier BDSM smut site, Kink.com—is riding shotgun in a soccer-mom minivan across libertarian, unincorporated Clark County, Nevada. We’re on desolate, four-lane Industrial Road, passing by Battlefield Vegas, a bad news–looking firing range and gun dealership with camouflage Humvees parked out front. Inside, patrons pay $1,200 for a day’s rental of, say, a 7.62-caliber AK-47 machine gun and the pleasure of showing a target who’s boss at 600 rounds per minute. Acworth is more thrilled by the cinematic potential than by the firearms themselves: Gunplay has been less than appealing to him ever since a video was posted on Facebook last year showing a group of men firing pistols in a basement gun range in the Armory, Kink’s Inner Mission headquarters. The video prompted the SFPD to barge through the building’s front door and, ultimately, arrest Acworth for allegedly trying to stop officers from entering. It wasn’t the first time that Acworth had been handcuffed, but it was the first time that he didn’t like it.
If paramilitary optics and porn-set possibilities are what Acworth is after, he’s come to the right place. One giant block east, the major casinos control the dollar action on the Las Vegas Strip, still flaccid from the recession. Three miles to the north, Zappos is seeding a $350 million tech district, now known as Silicon Strip. But back here—behind the aging, big-top rump of Circus Circus, melting in the blinding glare of the gilded Trump tower—opulent gives way to ragged, and an abandoned construction site reeks of intentions derailed. On a stretch of Industrial Road zoned for “adult use,” the van approaches an ugly blue building housing the Lion’s Den Adult Superstore. Acworth perks up as if homing in on a beacon. “Niiiice,” he draws out in his British accent as we near a digital marquee advertising a pirouetting magenta Infinit dildo for $149.99. “I’m digging it already!”
Acworth says that he’s in Vegas for a “reconnaissance tour.” Earlier on this Tuesday afternoon in July, his first-class Virgin flight from SFO had circled above McCarran International Airport for 15 minutes to wait out a desert thunderstorm. The plane dipped and bobbed, lightning glinted out the window, and “there were moments when you lost your stomach,” Acworth says. It made an apt metaphor for his situation at home in San Francisco, where he has been queasily circling on standby while various forces of nature—cops, community agitators, shark-eyed developers, and, most recently, porn-industry regulators—wait menacingly outside his window. Now more than ever before in his two-decade career in porn, the King of Kink is in need of a contingency plan.
Acworth’s trip to Vegas comes a few weeks before a state senate committee is to vote on AB 1576, a law pushed by the AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF), the world’s biggest AIDS healthcare nonprofit, that would mandate condoms for porn shoots. This, Acworth believes, could have catastrophic consequences for his business—latex prophylactics are, to many in his industry, an erection killer. California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) is also getting into the porn regulation game: It fined Kink $78,000 in January for allegedly failing to protect its actors from blood-borne pathogens and sexually transmitted infections (STIs), and it has drafted rules that the industry argues will require nothing short of goggles and dental dams on set. (An AHF rep dismisses that claim as hyperbole: “They say that because they want you to envision people in space suits.”) Acworth is fighting the Cal/OSHA penalty in court and has joined a legion of porn actors and directors in campaigning against the mandatory-condom law, arguing that the current safety regimen—HIV and STI testing every two weeks, the results logged in an industry database—is sufficient. Still, he’s seen enough to be scared—in the two years since Los Angeles County voters passed a condom law in 2012, porn film permits there have gone down 95 percent.
Consequently, porn’s road to Sin City is becoming increasingly well lubed, and Vegas, in turn, seems mostly happy to welcome Acworth and his ilk. “There’s a big, shaggy, freshly vacuumed, velvet red carpet waiting to take the California adult industry into our open arms,” says Vegas attorney Marc Randazza, who represents an orgy’s worth of porn-industry clients. The Nevada Film Office has a less come-hither attitude, having specifically stricken porn from its tax credit program. “If someone calls us in regards to that,” assistant director Ed Harran tells me in a tone indicating that he wishes this conversation weren’t happening, “we don’t go near it. There is no comment.”
Nevertheless, as of early July, Vegas appeared to be porn’s manifest destiny, and Acworth, for one, seemed grateful to be entering less disputed turf. While he is joined in the condom-law fight by political heavies like the Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club and Senator Mark Leno, he knows that few career politicians in Sacramento have much incentive to vote against an AIDS organization in order to side with a ragtag group of porn stars staking their argument on the woes of condom chafing and the fuzzy promise of self-regulation. (After Assemblymember Mike Gatto was accused of blocking a vote on the measure last year, he was blasted by the bill’s sponsor as a “pornographer’s best friend.” This year, Gatto voted in favor.) “What we’re finding out is, I don’t know anyone up there,” Acworth says of Sacramento. “Nobody in the industry does. We have such an isolated existence.”
So Acworth is playing the best card he has been dealt, one that resonates particularly well in this era of tentative economic recovery: very publicly moving toward taking the filming portion of his tax-paying, 130-people-employing, $30-million-annually-grossing company out of state. For that reason, he’s eager to let a reporter shadow him on his recon mission to Nevada, deliberating for mere milliseconds when I ask if I can join him. “Sure!” he says over the phone. Twenty-four hours later, I’m tiptoeing off the set of Kink’s first-ever Vegas porn shoot just as one topless female performer starts licking the ball gag in the mouth of another woman, who’s tied up with rope—a scene for the very film that would soon bring Acworth trouble in Nevada, too. Outside, a barrel-chested former army ranger named Dave Collins, now Kink’s product management director, sits at the wheel of the rental van. Puffing on a green apple–flavored vape, he blazes down the freeway to the arrivals dock at McCarran Airport, where Acworth is leaning against a wall dressed like a San Jose tourist: navy polo shirt, khaki shorts, and flip-flops. A backpack fits snugly on his shoulders. He lopes over, and Collins points the van toward the Strip. He doesn't know that the condom police are close behind.
If you’re hoping that this story includes a scene of Peter Acworth tying up dozens of Vegas porn stars in a dungeon below the Strip and releasing some work stress on their backsides, you’re out of luck. At a doughy-looking 43, he seems more yuppified San Francisco tech mogul than oily professional deviant: The polo shirt and khakis are not some kind of normcore disguise. Acworth has a boyish enthusiasm and a tech CEO’s origin story: After seeing a news story on a British firefighter who got rich selling naked photos, he started filming—and starring in—his own porn in his dorm room while working toward a finance Ph.D. at Columbia in the mid-1990s. He founded Hogtied—a rope-bondage site that remains one of the most popular sectors of the Kink empire—while still working toward his doctorate, but soon abandoned academia for the greener pastures of pornography. In 1997, he moved to San Francisco, partly for its windsurfing but mostly for its “thriving fetish scene.” By 2006, Kink.com boasted tens of thousands of subscribers and was healthy enough for Acworth to buy the 200,000-square-foot Armory from a private investor for nearly $15 million. (Mission residents protested outside the building’s doors for days; the controversy eventually died down, but not until after a public forum and a letter of support for the protesters from then-mayor Gavin Newsom.)
But eventually, Acworth began to grow tired of participating in the videotaped floggings and all-night play parties. In 2011, he moved out of the velveted, Hefner-esque Armory suite where he’d tied up numerous “slaves” for live-streamed broadcast, relocating to a scene of more conventional domesticity: a nice house a few blocks away, shared with an Irish woman, Susan Clancy, who is now his wife, and their two-year-old daughter. He describes his marital sex life as “relatively normal…. Some people think you get into more and more and more extreme stuff as you get bored. I’ve come back to wanting a relationship.” He bikes to work every day, wearing a helmet. In the last few years, he’s traded much of the BDSM party circuit for weekend fly-fishing at the Russian River. (About the 0.98 grams of cocaine plucked from his back pocket by the cops after last year’s arrest, he says, “It wasn’t my coke. And nor did I do any of it. Nor have I done any of it.” He rephrases himself gingerly: “I’ve done very, very little.” Prosecutors later dropped the charges because the cops didn’t have a warrant to search the Armory.)
While Acworth says that he still fantasizes about and consumes fetish porn, he no longer stars in Kink’s movies. “It’s just too much work,” he says, “and it’s less interesting than building the business and focusing on the tech side.” Indeed, the day-to-day office life of a digital porn kingpin like Acworth might have more in common with that of the Larry Pages of the world than the Larry Flynts, packed as it is with meetings about server capacity and download speed. Beyond its sex dungeons and bondage paintings, the Armory is decked out with standard dot-com accoutrements (an in-house cook, live-in cats, bike racks, a gym), and the company has had little trouble attracting web programmers. “If you look at the people in BDSM, there’s definitely a tech subset, the sort that goes to Burning Man and likes to take things apart,” Acworth says. Acworth himself fits that bill: When he started Kink, he brought in web traffic through affiliate sites in exchange for a cut of the profits—a practice that was pioneered by the porn industry and is now used by the likes of Amazon.
Yet in the age of pirated and free porn, Kink has struggled to hold on to its $14-a-month niche subscriber base and has been forced to seek out new ways to make a buck: by auctioning off the right to direct a Sadistic Rope segment; by selling top-shelf cocktails at the Armory Club bar across the street; by hosting $25 daily tours (regularly plugged on Groupon); and by producing parties, like the “Prison of Love” bacchanal during this year’s Pride festival, which sparked protests about the unseemliness of its penitentiary theme. These days, Acworth rents out space in the Armory for HBO shoots, A.C.T. plays, and electronic dance music shows several days a month. Eventually, he wants to leverage Kink into a “lifestyle brand”: Within the next year, viewers should be able to right-click on the whip or gag in a given scene and be whisked to a checkout cart for Kink-branded toys.
But the center of the Kink kingdom is still its 30 themed subsites—Foot Worship, Naked Kombat, Divine Bitches—about 75 percent of whose scenes are filmed, by Kink’s estimate, sans condoms. (Gay scenes involving anal penetration are, however, condom-mandatory.) So with the condom police swiftly approaching San Francisco, Acworth is exploring his options in a city where regulation is as rare as desert rain. Ultimately, he tells me, Kink will likely end up “straddling” Vegas and San Francisco. He himself has no plans to move his family here: “I tend to find I can only stand it for a couple days at a time.”
As the soccer-mom van inches past Caesars Palace during Tuesday-night rush hour, Acworth hangs out the window into a wall of 96-degree heat, filming the sights with his Sony Handycam for a video that will later set the San Francisco blogosphere atwitter about his Vegas expansion (and may be what tips AHF off about Acworth’s out-of-state shoot). An hour into his trip, he’s already pitching ideas: a partnership with a hotel for Kink-branded rooms, “the top suites being veritable dungeons”; a club with “Kink-themed entertainment, nipples covered, bondage.” He wonders aloud whether Vegas’s already robust labor sector of strippers and escorts—Collins refers to a prostitute sashaying down the sidewalk as “street talent”—might be recruited into porn.
Circling back to Industrial Road, we pull into the Lion’s Den parking lot, pile out of the van, and stroll over to the store’s neighbor, an unmarked studio that L.A. refugee and WoodenRocket.com producer and director Lee Roy Myers opened earlier this year. Myers—a rotund, jolly, bald man who specializes in parody porn—bounds out of his office in high-tops and nerd glasses to show us around. Past the office set and the schoolroom set, past a rack holding the Adidas tracksuit and fur coat used in The Royal Tenendongs, we enter an expansive soundstage area where a green screen has been set up for the ocean scenes in SpongeKnob SquareNuts 2. Between an Egyptian sarcophagus and a life-size rhino sits a medieval throne shellacked with dozens of dildos for Game of Bones: Winter is Cumming.
In the center of the soundstage is the set for Kink’s inaugural Vegas shoot, a rope-bondage scene for Hogtied. On a table, the four-man Kink crew from San Francisco has laid out the props, straight from the Armory: whips, gags, wooden poles, an entire Tupperware container of black cock dildos. Skin Diamond, a performer who has flown in from L.A. that day, saunters topless onto the set to continue filming, and Acworth, unfazed, decides to head out for a drink.
Back in the mom van, we drive back down Industrial to a stucco complex called Sapphire, billed as the world’s largest strip club. “Oh wait, this is a gentleman’s club!” Acworth says with alarm, guessing that it will have a $40 cover and little room for a quiet drink. “I don’t want to go to a titty bar!” Collins changes course, heading to the Wynn hotel on the Strip, and Myers gives the lowdown on shooting porn in Vegas. “Totally leeegal! They know exactly what you’re doing, everything is aboveboard.” Several big-name porn companies have already hung a shingle in Vegas, and the adult talent agency L.A. Direct Models opened a Vegas office last year.
Still, the fear that regulation will follow him across state lines nags at Acworth. He brings up Michael Weinstein, the president of AHF, which sponsored both L.A.’s law and the current state legislation, in addition to filing Cal/OSHA complaints against more than 20 California porn companies, Kink included. “Everyone is scared Weinstein is going to follow them here and start making whatever it is, Nevada OSHA complaints, baseless complaints like he did in California,” Acworth says.
Sure enough, AHF filed an OSHA complaint against Kink in late July for the Hogtied scene filmed during Acworth’s visit, sending a clear message to the porn industry that it can’t just run off to Vegas, which is still regulated by state and federal law. Before that, AHF had already made its presence felt in Nevada: In June, the organization met with local OSHA officials to warn them about the migrating herd of condomless smut peddlers, and last December, it opened two Vegas-area clinics. Whitney Engeran-Cordova, AHF’s senior director of public health, told me in no uncertain terms that no matter where Acworth and his ilk move, AHF won’t be far behind: “We’re going to make sure that wherever they go, officials know they’re there.”
We park in the Wynn’s underground garage and head up into the Allegro bar, a swank affair with low lights and red leather seats. Acworth orders a Manhattan, Myers talks about the low mortgage on his suburban tract home, and the condom chat continues. Kink operates under a policy of so-called condom neutrality, in which actors can request a condom after being booked—a system designed to minimize the perceived risk of missing out on a job because of safe-sex discrimination. (Most porn performers, Kink’s included, are not employees, but independent contractors hired by the shoot.) In such cases, Kink’s talent manager then tells the director that it’s a “condom shoot,” with no questions asked as to who requested it. As part of Kink’s much-touted “model rights” manifesto, actors can also ask to have condoms applied to “any item used on me,” ask to see the STI tests of performers with whom they will have contact, and request that other models or crew members use gloves when touching performers’ genitals. “If Michael Weinstein had come to us and said, ‘We’d like a disclaimer [at the beginning of films that says] you should use condoms,’ we would do it,” Acworth says. “I couldn’t run my business with integrity if I didn’t think people were safe.”
Nevertheless, AHF lobbed the Cal/OSHA complaint at Kink last summer, after porn star Cameron Bay complained that an on-screen partner had had unprotected vaginal sex with her despite having sustained a bloody nick on his penis. Bay tested positive for HIV last summer, but says that she can’t pinpoint when and where the infection occurred. The Free Speech Coalition (FSC), the adult-industry trade association that manages the database of STI test results, reports that all of Bay’s on-screen partners have tested negative. (Bay’s real-life partner, also a porn actor, has tested positive; he maintains that he’s been acting almost exclusively in gay porn for years and has always used condoms.) Acworth repeats the industry assertion that no porn actors have contracted HIV on set for a decade, arguing that AHF is misrepresenting the facts of the case. “It’s like saying Magic Johnson got HIV while playing basketball,” he says. Still, AHF used Bay’s claims as the basis for its OSHA complaint, while taking care never to specifically allege that she contracted HIV on Kink’s set. A public relations showdown between the Kink mogul and one of the world’s most powerful AIDS activists has ensued, with Acworth lobbing threats of libel charges in a cease-and-desist letter and AHF boss Weinstein crowing “Bring it on!” in a press release. The two haven’t met.
After Bay’s infection, the FSC imposed a monthlong moratorium on filming until all actors could be tested, and then ramped up mandatory testing from every 28 days to every two weeks. But AHF believes that only mandatory condom use can ensure worker safety. “No doctor or nurse in California has acquired HIV. Does that mean they don’t have to wear the gloves?” asks Engeran-Cordova. AHF has paid the travel costs for Bay to testify as a whistleblower before the state committees voting on the condom bill. While in Sacramento, she’s had to face off against a phalanx of Kink employees railing against the bill.
One of them, Lorelei Lee—who is also featured on Kink’s homepage holding an impressively lifelike dildo to her lips—argues that if the condom bill passes, it could have the opposite of its intended effect, as many porn companies will just flout it altogether. “To me,” she says, “the most important thing is how much less safe it makes performers [when we work illegally].” In this she sides with Acworth, though perhaps for different reasons. “His biggest concern is keeping his business in San Francisco,” Lee says. “Peter is gonna be fine at the end of the day.”
A week after our whirlwind tour of Vegas’s porn-paradise-to-be, Acworth is thwop-ing around the Armory in flips-flops with the manic energy of Oz behind the curtain. He snaps on all the lights of the hospital and spaceship sets and paces by the lush editing suites, one computer screen paused at a shot of a man venturing his tongue into an anus.
Unlike most film producers operating in the porn capital of the San Fernando Valley, where a haphazard network of contractors shoot in generic private McMansions and back-road studios, Kink.com takes after the old Hollywood system. The majority of its scenes are filmed in one giant complex, and only the actors are hired shoot-to-shoot. Acworth says that he has sunk $25 million into fixing up the Armory since he bought it as a decrepit national landmark on an Inner Mission block better known for its shambling homeless population. The homeless people are still around, but the area is now also home to luxury apartments and tech buses rumbling by, and Acworth claims that developers have approached him with offers of more than three times the $14.5 million that he paid for the Armory in the city’s fallow years. “If someone made an offer on the whole building, it may be an offer I can’t refuse,” he says. Last spring, he applied for permits to convert the Armory from its current light industrial designation to office use and event space, raising the specter that he might sell it to another tech company. Kink’s employees have, understandably, started worrying about their jobs.
Acworth had dashed off an email to the company when word of the Vegas trip the previous week had started circulating, assuring his staff that core functions would remain in San Francisco. “I am obviously in a difficult position,” he wrote me in an email after the trip, “of a) needing/wanting the press/legislators to know that this move is really happening and b) attempting to keep employees calm.” One had already quit.
Today is relatively free of workplace drama. Acworth strides into his office, where 16 staffers are gathered for the Tuesday-morning directors’ meeting. They sit on rolling chairs and couches, decked out in jeans, forearm tattoos, and one tank top that reveals a heaping amount of cleavage. A vanilla-looking guy in a striped polo shirt is politely narrating a slide show of graphs showing the Kink sites’ profits: “Electro Sluts is down about $1,500. Everything Butt is up about $5,000,” he says, eliciting oohs and aahs. Each graph is illustrated by a still frame of a porn scene. “Fucking Machines down $942, Hardcore Gangbangs down $700….”
Businesslike, Acworth presents new tweaks to the filming guidelines, based on his evolving personal preferences and the advice of the banks and credit card companies that handle Kink’s transactions. No vaginal penetration with alien tentacles because it veers into bestiality territory. Men cannot pee on women, though vice versa is fine. Students in school scenes have to be established as attending college, not high school. He then provides an update on the condom bill, scrolling through a document showing the latest lobbying efforts. He explains that industry lobbyists have been contacting the state senators on the Appropriations Committee, which will vote on the bill in August: Darrell Steinberg, Jerry Hill, Mimi Walters, and “this chair guy,” Kevin de León.
Acworth addresses the elephant in the room: Vegas. He talks about Industrial Road—“compared to here, it’s a little bit seedy”—and about how he has signed a lease on a new office near downtown, where Zappos has laid the foundation for Silicon Strip. He tells the team that he has hired a web developer, but hastens to describe the job’s applicants as “people who live in Vegas and want a big house with a swimming pool.” Translation: These people will not be taking your job. “Those are the type of people you’ll never get to move here.” Corporate nods all around. Acworth adjourns the meeting with a “thanks,” and the directors scatter about the building to film new episodes for Ultimate Surrender, Bound Gods, and Electro Sluts, in which Chanel Preston will be zapping Freya French with a copper pipe pulsing with nine volts of electricity.
Rolling around in the soccer-mom van in Vegas the previous week, Acworth dials numbers from the For Lease signs on the many empty office buildings. “Oh hi!” he chirps to every one, each time experimenting with another way to describe his company. Those early protests at the Armory—not to mention June’s prison-party outcry—are still not far from his mind, and when he talks to potential landlords, he sounds less like a hyper-liberated professional pervert than a spin-savvy CEO trying to massage the truth in pursuit of the best deal.
“We’re a software development company—”
“It’s essentially Java programmers—”
He expands on the description for one agent, adding “live-streaming and video-on-demand websites.” Once off the phone, Acworth relates the broker’s reaction, chuckling: “He said, ‘Ohhh…I understand perfectly.’”
One law office with spare space across Las Vegas Boulevard from Cupid’s Wedding Chapel invites Acworth to stop by. When we walk into the adobe lobby, a no-nonsense, middle-aged legal secretary with hair pulled into a French twist shows us the space: common kitchen, library–conference room, patio—$1,000 on a month-to-month lease.
Despite Acworth’s scruples about Las Vegas, he knows that it offers perks—the lack of income tax, the low cost of living, the laissez-faire politics—that make sense for him and for Kink. A businessman can’t merely bask in the cultural milieu—he has to consider the bottom line. Acworth knows that if the condom law fails this time, AHF will be back. If it passes, the industry will likely sue, and the whole issue will be tied up in the courts for a long time. As California’s regulatory gag gets tighter and San Francisco’s cost of doing business keeps ballooning, he says, “you start to think, ‘Fuck it.’”
In the law office’s lobby, Acworth is interested enough to float some version of the truth.
“To what extent do you mind what the mother company does?” he asks. “We’re essentially a company that does adult video. Do you care about any reputational risk to you?”
The woman stares at him, unblinking. “I don’t care what you do,” she says, her face registering a note of mirth. “This is Vegas.”
Originally published in the September issue of San Francisco