EDITORIAL NOTE: This piece is long, for which I apologize, but some things cannot be clearly stated without careful attention to detail. For those of you who haven’t the time or patience to read this in one sitting, you can use the following mini-Table Of Contents to jump to the subsections of this post:
- “Every great advance starts with an intuition”
- “Unreality” and the politics of experience
- How I got invited to the Kink, Inc. Armory after all
- The SF Armory Tour
- The After-After Party
- Reflections on my Interactions
“Every great advance starts with an intuition.”
—Ralph C. Merkle
It has long been my assertion that among their many other problems, both the mainstream culture and the BDSM Scene’s subculture is toxic towards the possibility of submissive men’s happiness. Within this scope, I have also long asserted that one of the strongest contributing factors to this unjust reality is the fundamentally sexist “cultural pollution” produced by most pornographers. Finally, within this grouping, the people I hold most responsible for the continuation and mainstreaming of this willful psychological-environmental destruction of submissive men’s happiness is Kink, Inc.1
These assertions came solely from years of introspective self-reflection coupled with intense observations—until the night of April 12, 2011. Before that night, the sum total of my knowledge about Kink, Inc. was necessarily filtered through hearsay, PR spin, or my own painstaking deconstructions of their product. After all, what polluter would have it any other way?
This bred within me a certain hesitancy because I knew that my intuition appeared to others as unfounded conviction—their mental model of Kink, Inc. informed their own feelings that contradicted mine. Yet despite this lack of access, the more I scrutinized pornography’s landscape and examined its ecosystem, the more I was able to describe the ideological toxins companies like Kink, Inc. were throwing into the rivers: endless torrents of sexist iconography repressing our sexual imaginations.
The stronger I articulated my opposition to this toxicity, the more a predictable pattern emerged among its vocal defenders. That pattern is an old, tired one we know all too well. Paraphrased, it goes something like this: “It’s not my responsibility to care how my privilege affects you, it’s your job to buy into the system I’m a part of so that you can struggle to influence it in ways I never had to bother to think about.” Those who most often make this argument are a predictable bunch, too: (usually) old, (usually) straight, dominant men. This is no coincidence.
For example, after I took Kink, Inc. to task over their disgusting “virginity” press release, I went to a night of Bawdy Storytelling, where a 24 year old woman introduced herself to me as a sometimes-model for Kink, Inc., and identified herself as a switch. Her partner, a 38 year old self-identified dominant man, wrote to me a few days later taking issue with what I had written about Kink, Inc.:
You can tell from my profile pics that I spend quite a bit of my playtime at the armory…good digs, free booze and snacks with no cover, professional photography of good memories…[sic.] and I know all the people who are involved fairly well […]. We have spoken privately about Nicky [sic.] not being the kind of with-it woman who might be a better representative of female submission, as well, but I don’t view the company as showing such a lack of corporate responsibility that they deserve so much vitriol, because even as you say they are selling a non-material fantasy, and that there is nothing wrong with said fantasy, you decry the fantasy in the release, which is actually accurate in that it is what people would be buying.
When I challenged him that his own experiences, such as ample “playtime at the armory,” might color his view, he explained where he’s coming from:
Certainly, I am blessed to live in an area that has so many opportunities for the expression of my sexual predilections, but it is not my nature that drew me to the area. Rather it was the area that drew out my nature. I was one of those ignorant people who got a take-away from kink sites long before I’d ever spoken to somebody about my darkest fantasies. I saw manifested what had always been going on in my own head, which I was ashamed and scared of, and I saw that it could be done in an ethical and consensual manner. I didn’t even recognize that I was dominant or sadistic until I saw James Mogul patterning a way to do that. Once I did, I could avail myself of the great educational opportunities that are all around us here, but without it, I would likely have remained someone who thought BDSM was for people who inexplicably needed props for sex. I never would have considered it the responsibility of that site to complete my kinky education any more than it is the responsibility of my kindergarten teacher to make sure I understood calculus, and this is a sentiment that I have heard expressed innumerable times by newbies to the scene. That is how I, and those others, came to understand that what we wanted could be what we have, and in true trickle-down fashion, that is why we champion it to others.
I’ll also address your real issue: When it comes down to it, you don’t like that you can’t get the porn you want, with what you would call a valid perspective on male submission, or with the aesthetic that you get off on. But, you assert that you have never paid for porn, which might give you some influence on the content’s survival in the marketplace […] and you’re not, as far as I’m aware, producing your own porn that might satisfy your requirements (although you’re aggregating that produced and/or paid for by others).
I would encourage you to put aside emotion and ulterior motives, and view your own biases before maligning others, but I’d say the same thing to Glenn Beck.
This is the kind of person I hate for their unabashed, unapologetic, uncritical one-sidedness. First of all, the whole point of porn is that you don’t need to make it yourself. But beyond that, he manages to downplay his privilege while acknowledging the very reason he has it in the first place: the industry almost exclusively produces depictions of what has already “always been going on” in his own head. The fact is and has always been that there is no equivalent for male submission represented by Kink, Inc. and this is why their consumers, like him, remain ignorant of the problems that are so painfully evident to me.
I started MaleSubmissionArt.com to counter the systemic bias of over-representing dominant men’s gazes in porn and the net result has been amazing. In 2008, when the project began, if you searched Google for “submissive men,” you would be accosted with images of women tied up. Today, you’ll still find plenty of images of that sort when you do a Google search for “submissive men,” but now most pictures of men that appear on the first page have been, at one point or another, featured on MaleSubmissionArt.com. I literally changed the landscape of the Internet’s porn featuring men who are submissive, and I am angry because the relative ease with which I did so undeniably implicates companies like Kink, Inc. and their defenders in not only doing nothing to combat the sexist monopoly of male desire and female desirability, but in perpetuating it.
I’m sure that some “pro-porn” cultists will take issue with me again. I can almost hear their accusations already: “you’re being anti-porn!” Nonsense! I am pro-electricity and I readily campaign alongside environmentalists who decry air pollution and unsafe nuclear power plants. I am the furthest you can get from a militant vegan and I readily campaign alongside food justice advocates for more humane (and cleaner) farms. In much the same way, I am absolutely “pro-porn” and I want to foment justifiable anger from sex-positive advocates against the imposition of a narrowly-defined sexuality of submissive men that is neither representative of nor created by submissive men.
The dominant man who wrote me perfectly exemplifies the sexist defense of such an imposed, narrowly-defined status quo, and he highlights the fundamental willful ignorance in the BDSM community: the intersection of sexism and domism lies at the root of why BDSM’ers defend Kink, Inc’s pollution. Such defenders cannot imagine the relentless cognitive dissonance someone like me went through when I viewed possibly the very same images by the same producers but responded with sobs instead of orgasms. In my more cynical moments, I feel like even that description is too kind: in actuality, most of these men have not understood that an experience so different from theirs, as I had, is even possible.
“Unreality” and the politics of experience
Of course, I already knew denying others’ lived experiences—and their intuition—was, itself, predictable. In fact, I learned this lesson as I entered puberty. For me, a sexual interest in “whips and chains” was not a confusing thing; I had a pretty good visceral and even academic sense of what fantasies involving being controlled were about, thanks to the Internet. Instead, I mostly struggled with my sudden and strong sexual attraction to other boys.
I remained hesitant about my own interest in same-sex encounters for a number of years. I experienced a string of swift, fleeting crushes that could go nowhere experientially for a whole host of reasons, not least of which was my young age. At the time, my same-sex explorations were wholly conceptual, limited to the iconography of homosexual sex and relationships I was able to find (which was plentiful) and resonate with (which was far less plentiful).
Though I questioned my sexual orientation, and then I questioned my gender identity—largely due to my sexually submissive inclinations, no less—intuitively, I knew I was bisexual. Nevertheless, with no corporeal anchor, I couldn’t “really” be bisexual. Despite my intuition, my own standards for self-determination were just not going to be accepted by others, even though I knew I’m bi in much the same way I knew I liked getting tied up.
I mean, I fantasized about boys! About penises! About masculine things, traditionally depicted and otherwise! Yet despite this, and despite my undeniable familiarity with myself, others would not treat my intuition as anything other than unfounded convictions. To proclaim my bisexuality would be tantamount to proclaiming my insanity, since loudly proclaiming unproven convictions others do not share is interpreted as insanity regardless of reality. The socially valid standard for claiming sexual identity was then and is still too often having “an actual Relationship” with the appropriate person, or at least to have sex with them.
That is a shitty standard.
Then, at last and in an unexpected way, I started having “actual Relationship” feelings for a guy. The “metal boy” was a quiet revelation. I felt like it had confirmed something I’d always suspected, and although the experience changed little about reality, it gave me a form of validation no one should ever need: I “really” am bisexual.
That’s very much how I feel about Kink, Inc. and most BDSM iconography I hate so much. Whenever someone belittles me for “whining” about my sexual circumstance, they erase the enormous effort it takes for me to stay alive in a world apparently designed to devalue submissive men’s experiences. Whenever they argue paying for porn I hate will have “trickle-down” benefits for me, they are telling me my place in life is beneath theirs.
These offensive arguments discount my intuition. Intuition is simply unexplained knowledge. And even though before the night of April 12 the sum total of my knowledge about the effect mainstream BDSM porn had on many submissive men consisted of hearsay and PR spin, one thing’s for damn sure: those are valid experiences, sourcing real knowledge, informing a viewpoint that deserves to be heard just as much as many others. In other words, I won’t buy into the shitty standard that says my intuition isn’t a good-enough argument.
On the other hand, when I can make a point by using the standard of concrete experience and firsthand knowledge—when I can say my information comes directly from the horse’s mouth—I might as well.
That’s what happened on April 12: through a series of unexpected events, I got invited to the Kink, Inc. Armory. My interactions with the people there further convinced me that significant portions of their staff and their consumers believe sexist, awful, offensive things. Many of them are ignorant of sexual diversity but, more to the point and indeed in their own defense, the culture of the institution that is a mainstream BDSM/fetish porn studio is itself a problem.
It’s only a matter of time before I figure out how to explain all my unexplainable knowledge—my intuition. My unexpected time at the Armory is simply one more experience in a string of lifelong experiences that encourage me to raise people’s expectations so that the insiduous toxins in Kink, Inc.’s products won’t seem worthy of the praise I know they don’t deserve.
How I got invited to the Kink, Inc. Armory after all
The last time I thought much about Kink, Inc. was after I had been convinced I’d probably never again get the opportunity to talk to anyone there. But the world is small. And San Francisco is smaller. And small worlds often collide. And that’s interesting.
I recently attended an invite-only event which bills itself as “an experiment in viral media,” called “Swagapalooza.” Quoting from its front page:
On April 12th, the world’s most-followed bloggers, tweeters, and digital influencers will gather in San Francisco to judge five-minute auditions from the creators of the latest, greatest, and most unexpected new products… And to connect with each other.
I’m skeptical of being among “the world’s most-followed bloggers, tweeters, and digital influencers,” and judging from how most of the other people I was there “to connect with” told me they felt similarly, I’m confident the invite-only nature of the event was actually San Francisco’s code for “we have limited space and want it filled.”
Nevertheless, I was happy to be invited and get the opportunity to mingle. Which I did, I’ll freely admit, to the exclusion of paying even the slightest attention to anything on the stage—people who aren’t on stage are usually way more interesting than those who are, anyway.2
Anyway, I had a good time at Swagapalooza, but things didn’t get personally interesting until a woman I was speaking with told me the “after party” was going to be held at Kink, Inc.’s Armory. My ears perked up. “Oh, really?” I asked. “Are we all just walking over there or what?”
“That guy over there,” she said, pointing into the distance, “is going to walk us over.”
I looked around the dark nightclub but couldn’t see who she was pointing out. “Are you gonna come?” I asked her.
“Yeah!” she said excitedly.
“Great! Me too. Walk me over to this guy?”
She did, and introduced me to Terry, a tall African-American man with tightly curled hair, whose hand I shook as he stamped a red “San Francisco Armory Tour” emblem under my wrist. Terry, I learned, is Kink, Inc.’s Affiliate Program Manager and had been working for the company for several years. He asked me what I do and I told him that “I’m a BDSM blogger.” I asked if he knew Chris K., and he said he did.
“Chris and I had arranged to meet a little while back,” I told him, “but we never did. I was disappointed and, honestly, I felt a little lead around by the nose.”
Terry looked a little surprised. “Oh, I’m sorry. That sucks,” he said in a perfectly genuine tone.
“It does,” I agreed. “But it’s really nice to meet you.”
“Yeah, you too. And we should talk sometime about blogging,” he offered.
“Absolutely. I’ll follow you to The Armory?” I asked. Terry nodded quickly, getting pulled aside to go stamp some more wrists.
I picked up some more swag and found myself in a conversation with several out-of-towners who had also been invited. I’d lost track of Terry at this point, but everyone there wanted to head to the Armory. “It’s 14th and…something?” they asked.
“Don’t worry,” I told them, “I know where it is.” They thanked me as I lead the way, talking business while we walked.
We arrived at The Armory only a few minutes after Terry’s group, who were still signing into the building at the security desk. After offering our respective John Hancocks, Terry led us up a staircase to The Upper Floor. Yes, that Upper Floor.
The SF Armory Tour
Numerous people were milling about The Upper Floor’s large, Edwardian-style lounge. The room was decorated with deep reds and lavish furniture, and it was so large that only the half we occupied was lit. Bondage frames and other amenities whose use was obvious lined the pillars, and in the fireplace along one wall was a statue of a naked woman sitting cross-legged, bound in hemp rope. The bound statue added that obligatory whiff of maledom/femsub atmosphere I’ve learned to expect and dread at eroticized venues like this—they all have it.
Next to the fireplace, enormous double doors lead to another, smaller room in which a cadre of other visitors for the evening sat amongst themselves. The familiar sound of sonic booms echoed through the chamber, sporadically interrupting conversations and injecting a nervous, giddy energy into visitors’ speech. Someone’s cracking singletails, I thought. I found myself near a dresser filled with alcohol and a young, blond woman pouring drinks in a bit of a rush.
“What’ll you have?” she asked me.
“Is that 1800?” I asked, pointing at the distinctive, trapezoid-shaped bottle. She nodded. “That, please.”
“On the rocks?”
“Sure. Thanks. What’s your name?” I asked as she reached for the tequila.
“Nicki Blue,” she said.
“Oh, you’re Nicki. I’m maymay. It’s good to meet you.” Nicki just nodded again, struggling with the bottle. She had to remove the plastic wrap—it hadn’t been opened before—and then she started twisting the top, but it wasn’t opening.
Suddenly a loud yet sweet-tempered voice boomed from the entryway. “Ladies and gentlemen! My name is Leo, and I’ll be your tour guide this evening. In a minute we’ll begin the Armory Tour, so if you’ll please gather in the hallway and follow me,” the voice announced.
Nicki grunted in frustration at the bottle of tequila. “Can you help me?” she asked a nondescript man standing next to us, waiting for his drink. He plucked the cork out of the top of the bottle and handed it back to Nicki, who hurriedly poured several shots worth into a green-tinged plastic cup and handed it to me. I took the cup, thanked her again, and bid her farewell.
As I was heading towards the hallway to join the other tourists, I bumped into Terry again. “Maymay,” he said, “this is John, our Vice President.” An even taller man with white skin and dark hair was standing next to Terry. His blue glasses were thick-rimmed but stylish, and he was wearing a slick, business casual jacket, button-down shirt and jeans. His face had a boyish look, with a slightly pudgy, button-nose and a rounded, clean-shaven jawline. Those features were the only things about him that signalled anything remotely diminutive.
“Oh, you’re maymay,” John said with surprising gusto. He placed one of his hands at the back of my neck and began walking with me towards the hallway, where the Armory Tour was assembling. There was something immediately recognizable, yet uncomfortable, about the way he held me by the neck, something unmistakably domineering. This is just like how (Sara) Eileen used to hold on to me possessively when we walked down Broadway in New York, I remember thinking to myself. In another context, this could be hot. But not like this. I looked down at the cup of alcohol filled way past the halfway point in my hand, then craned my neck looking back at John. There would be no way I’d drink much more liqueur while I was in the Armory, I told myself, but I was definitely going to hold onto that cup and smile about it.
John’s practiced welcome was almost lubriciously warm. We exchanged a few words and he wished me a good time on the Tour before he made a quick about-face back into the Upper Floor’s large bedchamber. In hindsight, I kind of wonder what was going through his mind. Maybe something like, “I thought maymay would be taller.” Who knows?
Leo, a conventionally attractive Latin man and our tour guide, was dressed in leathers from head to toe. His jacket was open in the front, offering a peek at a studded leather chest harness. His head was shaved, but I could see his black hair beginning to grow at their roots again, just like his beard. Leo stood at around my height, and proudly. He moved quickly, taking long strides, often turning swiftly at their ends as if he were performing a well-rehearsed ballet. Two coiled whips swung loosely in his hands, and I could tell they were a high quality leather (I’m guessing 9 plait or higher) even though I never got that close a look at either.
Leo began the tour with a joke of one sort or another, and I wish I could remember it with precision because it caused me to (half-)joke back. What I do remember is a woman standing across from me joining the exchange with her own remark to the effect of, “Careful! Bet you don’t want to get hit with those things,” and a gesture at Leo’s singletails.
“Now you’re making assumptions about me that may not be accurate,” I quipped back.
Soon, Leo lead us up and down The Armory’s stairwells, through one room and then another. At first I listened to his descriptions of the sets and the shoots, but then I flitted about the crowd trying to overhear tourists’ conversations. They were ribbing one another in both predictable and interesting ways, and I found this meta-people-watching far more fascinating than the probably-scripted tour lines.
Leo walked a tightrope of handing them sensational tidbits (“we had 40 women in here!”) while getting the crowd of tourists to behave. (“Follow me! Please don’t play with the lights!”) His exasperation at misbehavior may have indicated he’d lead this tour often. He talked about the “slave quarters,” the “24/7″ nature of The Upper Floor. Although he didn’t call it out explicitly, all of the references he made to “the slaves” used female language and women as examples.
I asked the obvious: “Why no men?”
“It’s hard to find male submissives that meet our standards,” Leo said.
“I’ll tell you later.” He was focused on leading the tour, so I let it go.
At one point, straggling behind most of the group, I set my drink down and stopped to examine what looked like a key-card door lock. It was a slender black box with curved edges and a glowing red rectangle in the middle. “I wouldn’t touch that if I were you,” a fellow tourist said, stopping to watch me.
“I touch a lot of things I shouldn’t touch,” I shot back, looking up at him from an angle. I met his gaze after I’d already answered, and a moment later he quickened his pace and rejoined the group. I grabbed my cup—it was still full, but I had let it slosh around and spill some here and there—and rejoined the tour group myself.
“This is so interesting,” I heard a man I’d met earlier, over a slice of pizza at Swagapalooza, say to himself. When we first met, he asked what I did and I told him “I blog about sex and technology,” eliciting a grin. “How do the girls react when you tell them that?” he wanted to know, so I put on my best I’m-not-actually-tired-of-this-fucked-up-gender-dynamic-face and responded, “That’s a long conversation that I could have with you some other time.” On the tour, I quickened my pace and caught up with him.
“What’s interesting to you?” I asked.
“It’s like a big movie studio,” he said, looking in every direction except at me. Stepping through a doorway, we stood on a wooden ramp overlooking a massive cellar. The brightest lights were in the distance, beyond multiple sets of pillars.
Leo raised his hand to signal for silence. “Who here is a fan of DeviceBondage.com?” The man I was just speaking to gave a supportive shout, unknowingly offering me slightly more justification for rolling my eyes at him. The tour was making me feel like I was in one of those stereotypical BDSM chat rooms, only it wasn’t in cyber-space, it was physical. As the rest of our group filed out of the room, the vocal Device Bondage fan and I took mutual snapshots of one another with our cameras.
When we headed back to the upper floors, I found myself standing near Leo. “What I meant to tell you earlier,” he said, “is we try to book pretty people, but they don’t like to get hit.”
“You get plenty of women,” I said.
“Well, doms are a dime a dozen,” he told me, motioning for others to keep moving. “It’s harder to find men who’ll bottom.”
“Why do you think that is?” I asked.
He shrugged and said something I couldn’t quite parse because it didn’t make any sense to me. Momentarily pensive, I let myself fall back to the rear of the group. Earlier in the evening, Leo had said that “they like to use me mostly as a bottom.”
As I returned to the ground floor, some people were saying their goodbyes and heading out the door. Others were standing in groups, so I approached one and introduced myself.
The After-After Party
I’d just met Yan, who works in marketing for Kink, Inc. and is from New York. He was balding with a bit of a scruffy beard, a bit whiter but otherwise not unlike my own beard, and wore somewhat slovenly clothes; a gray sweatshirt and jeans that seemed a size too big, with a belt keeping them in place. Yan was a soft-spoken guy, clearly amiable. He told me about his employment history through one company, then another, and then finally “at Kink.”
“Have you always wanted to work here? I mean, do you have a personal interest in BDSM?” I asked.
“Well, yeah,” he said, between some stops and starts.
“And what role do you see yourself in?” I pressed.
“Well, top,” he said, becoming a little quieter.
“So, why do you think there are so many more women bottoms here?” I asked pointedly.
“Oh, well, it’s genetics,” he said, growing louder. I sensed a sudden confidence in his tone.
“How do you mean?”
“Well, that’s just the way most people are,” he told me, and went on to recite a familiar, predictably offensive, practically brainwashed set of assertions to make the point. But thankfully not too many, because before long Terry joined us and I turned away from Yan to greet him with a smile and another handshake.
“Want another drink?” Terry asked Yan and I.
I lifted the cup I was holding to eye-level, showing that it was still half full. “Working on one, but I’ll join you for another.” The three of us started up the stairs. “So what about you?” I asked Terry. “Is this just a job or do you have a personal interest in this stuff?”
“I’ve been interested in this kind of lifestyle for a long time,” Terry told me as we approach the landing to the second floor.
“Is this the first place you started learning about BDSM? I mean, did you meet people by going to community or educational groups or did you mostly meet people through working here?”
“No, yeah, mostly work,” he answered. It took a minute for that to sink in. By then, we were back at The Upper Floor.
This time, the room was emptier. A half-dozen or so chairs surrounded a low, circular table on which an extravagant centerpiece rested. I took a seat facing the dresser in the back corner where Terry headed to get more to drink. Several Swagapalooza organizers and sponsors were sitting to my right. To my left were a couple of women I didn’t recognize, each draped across the laps of men I didn’t immediately recognize.
Everyone had a glass in their hand. Conversation was easy, and smooth. I turned to the Swagapalooza guys next to me, and asked an Asian man named Allan Young, “So how did the Swagapalooza after party end up here at The Armory?” I got a (predictably non-committal) answer along the lines of, “They knew a guy who knew a guy,” and my conversation with them got even more boring from there, nice as I’m sure these folks were. (Although they did recommend I read Tribes, by Seth Godin, which may be a good recommendation.)
As they left, I turned my attention to the group across the table from me. A woman with dark hair wearing a black two-piece had just mentioned something about contraception, questioning whether taking them may, in some circumstances, make a woman “half-pregnant.” I decided to butt in.
“You can’t be half-pregnant,” I asserted. “Pregnancy’s like water. Being half-pregnant is like being half-wet. You can’t be half-wet; you’re either wet, or you’re dry. Similarly, you can’t be half-pregnant; you’re either pregnant, or you’re not.” I got some laughter, some wry smiles. The tall woman raised an eyebrow at me.
“What if you take emergency contraception?” she asked. She was standing next to an equally tall man wearing the closest thing to a beige suit that still somehow managed to not look like a formal suit I’ve ever seen. In stark contrast to the woman’s concentrated gaze, he was grinning.
“Still. You’re pregnant until the EC takes effect. Then you’re not,” I said plainly.
At this, the man walked around the backs of the chairs in the little circle around the table and sat down in the empty one next to me. The woman followed, taking the seat immediately next to him. Introducing myself, I learned that I was speaking to James Deen (homepage) and Princess Donna, well-known performers on numerous Kink, Inc. websites. Donna also directs.
“What about you? What do you do?” James asked me.
“I’m a sexual freedom activist,” I said.
“A…?” James asked, leaning forward.
“A sexual freedom activist. It means I do a lot of writing and public speaking and political organizing advocating for the rights of people like, well, like you. LGBT people or people who do BDSM. That sort of thing.”
James leaned back in his chair, smiling wider. “I am so glad you exist,” he said. He intoned the words slowly, as if emphasizing each one independently.
“Well, thank you,” I said, suddenly feeling a little uncomfortable. I did not expect to be so directly valued. “I used to be a full-time web developer. Activism doesn’t pay,” I lifted my feet to waist level to show off the multiple, massive holes in my Converse sneakers. James wore the exact same kind, high-top and all.
“Aw, man, I’ll buy you new chucks,” James offered.
“Well, thank you again!”
“What size shoe are you?”
“I’m an 11.”
James, Donna and I talked for hours—two, to be precise. We were occasionally joined by a few interlopers, notably a skinny man who identified himself as one of Swagapalooza’s consultants, and whose shit-eating grin was probably visible a mile away. He was, put bluntly, the awkward guy whose excitement at being here—a porn studio!—could not be missed. This was perhaps most blatantly illustrated when James started talking about “Blow-J’s” and “G-Bangs,” apparently his own colloquialism for “blowjobs” and “gangbangs” that he found incredibly funny.
“C’mon, say it,” James goaded me.
“What?” I asked.
“Blow-J!” he said again, this time with a drawl. “Just say it. You know you want to.”
“Okay,” I said, “I’ll say it to you.”
James laughed. “All right. Go ahead.”
I shot James my best, if faked, ‘come hither,’ look and said, “Wanna give me a blow-J?” This elicited the laughs I knew it would. I took the opportunity to press the question. “No, seriously, do you do boy-boy scenes?” I asked James.
“Nah,” he said. I shot him my best, if faked, ‘I’m disappointed,’ look. “I’m just not into that,” he continued. “I mean, I’ve got no problem with anyone else doing that. If there’s a guy sucking another guy’s dick in the room, I’m like, ‘that’s cool, it’s just not for me.’”
“That’s fair,” I said.
That’s when the interloper jumped in. “Okay, so, now that the discussion is on this topic, it’s been my dream ever since I was a teenager to be in porn,” he started, and I struggled not to tune him out. “How does one become a porn actor?” he asked, eliciting a (predictably non-committal) answer I can’t even remember from James.
Such was the tone of most of the evening. Me, trying to guide the conversation towards as many revealing data-points as possible, he, trying to guide the conversation towards as much explicit sexuality as possible. I suppose we were both equally self-serving in our attendance.
As so happens in long, enthusiastic conversations, certain bits and pieces stand out in my mind more than others. In one exchange, I asked about James’ and Donna’s personal sexual proclivities, distinct from their employment. “And if it’s too personal a question,” I added, as I usually do, “just tell me so.” When they both shrugged the suggestion off, I pressed. “So?”
“I mean, yeah, I usually top,” James said simply. “It’s more or less the same.”
“And you, Donna?”
“I’m usually topping.”
“And in your personal encounters?”
“Well, it switches.”
“What do you mean?” I pressed some more, getting a few more vague answers.
Eventually, Donna said, “I mean, I’m dominant in the sense that if I don’t like an edit, I’ll have it done again.”
“You’re dominant about editing?” I asked, unable to hide the bit of incredulity in my tone.
“Yeah, well, when I want something done a certain way at work, that’s how it’s going to be. But I don’t want to choose what to eat. I mean, I don’t want to have to pick it out, I just want it brought to me,” Princess Donna said. When I gave her another quizzical look, she seemed to clarify, “I’m usually dominant on camera, but I’m usually submissive in my personal life.”
I nodded, unsurprised.
In another exchange, interestingly, I did hit on something she deemed TMI. “So unless it’s a faux pas, how old are you?”
“25,” James said, answering first. As before, I turned to Donna next.
“I don’t talk about my age on camera,” she said. I gave her another quizzical look, so she elaborated, “There’s a camera in the corner there. We’re on The Upper Floor. I don’t know if they’ve got the sound turned on, but there’s always a camera on.”
“Oh,” I said, suddenly noticing the camera above the dresser full of liqueur in the corner. The little green-yellow light was unmistakable, once you knew where to look. I waved, “Hi, livestream.” (And, purely as an aside, if this is a 24/7 free cam that sometimes includes live porn sets, is it legal for it not to require an age verification like the rest of Kink, Inc.’s sites?)
Near the end of the evening, Donna turned the questioning on me. “So what do you like?” she asked.
She nodded. I waited a while. James took a sip of his drink. I waited some more, thinking about what to say.
“I run a website called MaleSubmissionArt.com,” I started. “Have you seen it?” Everyone listening shook their heads. “I’ll give you a card,” I said. Then I continued, “It’s a photo blog where I feature images of male or other male-identified people in submissive circumstances.” I spoke slowly and, to my mind, deliberately. I wanted to pay as much attention to the reactions I was getting as to the words I was choosing to use. “I identify as a submissive man, and the blog showcases masculine submission, that is, pictures of men or, again, people who identify as men, which challenge the stereotypical and prevalent iconography of submissive men as weak.”
For a moment, everyone was quiet. “Are you in any of the pictures?” James finally asked.
“Some.” I explained, “It’s crowd-sourced, and some readers did suggest images of me, and, frankly, there just isn’t much imagery that’s actually of submissive men on the Internet. Even ‘fem-dom’ imagery mostly shows the dominant woman, not the submissive man—certainly not the submissive man as someone sexy.”
“But is that how you like to play?” Donna asked again and, again, I took a few moments to respond.
“So imagine,” James prompted in the interim, “you have the whole Armory to yourself and anyone you wanted to play with. What would you do?”
“I like….” I started, then stopped. “I’d probably….” I again stopped short, unsure how I wanted to answer. “I’d like to play in a way that challenges these rigid gender roles, that subverts people’s ideas of what or how I have to do something, or wear something, just because I’m a guy, or because you’re a girl, or whatever preconceived idea they can’t get away from.” I was no longer watching the room, I was watching my own mind. But I quickly snapped myself out of my unintentional reverie and refocused on the conversation. “That’s what I’d do here. That’d turn me on.”
I surveyed the group. Donna had pursed her lips, possibly in thought, and nodded once, slowly. James looked into his diminishing drink. Our interloper stared blankly at me. I got the feeling he didn’t understand half the words I used, far less the meaning of the message.
I pulled out my business cards, yanked my pen out from behind my ear, and wrote “MaleSubmissionArt.com” on one side, then “maybemaimed.com/cv” on the other. I handed one to James and repeated the process for Donna and the interloper. “I’d love to hear what you think. Feel free to contact me anytime,” I said.
Looking around, I noticed this conversation had apparently drawn the attention of the remainder of The Upper Floor’s guests. It was late, and there were only a few people left: besides our hosts Terry and John, there was a shorter man wearing glasses and a suit who had a drink in one hand and his arm around a woman’s waist across from me, and another woman in a white top with blond hair to my left. As the young interloper took the mention of my “photo blog” to discuss “porn shoots” and how he can get in one, I avoided rolling my eyes by turning to the woman at my left.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“Shannon,” she said.3
“Mine’s May,” I said. “So what do you do?”
“Like, for work?” she asked. I nodded. “I’m a model.” Then she quickly added, “But I don’t do video.”
“Oh? Why not?”
“It’s a bad deal.”
“You mean, for you, as the model?” I asked. She nodded. “Why? Because, like, you don’t get royalties or stuff?”
Shannon nodded again. “When I’m old and can no longer sell what nature gave me,” she explained, cupping her own breasts for a moment, “I’m not going to be making any money off my past modeling.” Then she talked about some of what’s common knowledge among industry performers: that a model typically signs away all their rights to an image when they are paid—there are no royalties or residuals. It’s part of the standard legal release, all in the fine print. Producers can re-title, re-caption, and resell a model’s image at their whim. As a result, distributors and producers make most of the money from shoots because the revenue is mostly passive income, and none of that goes to the model.
Back in 2005, about 40 Suicide Girls models quit in protest in a controversy over similar issues. For instance, one model’s angry note complains that Suicide Girls was “really just feeding content for other websites SG provides for” and, elsewhere, claims of royalty promises that never materialized were widely publicized.4 On Kink, Inc.’s model call page, these particulars seem to be hidden behind the unlinked phrase, “a standard model release.” Many who object to these practices get the predictable line: “it’s industry standard; it’s just business.”
Shannon and I spoke briefly about copyright, MaleSubmissionArt.com’s philosophy on the matter, and my own views on it more generally. I got the sense of her as a thoughtful, cautious, and refreshingly willful woman. She spoke of aspirations, or at least interests, in business and my impression was that she seemed frustrated by the corporatism plaguing the industry.
Before long, John, who I heard shortly before announce to the table that he was “the only exec left in the building,” leaned back in his chair and threw his ankle onto his knee. He stared at me, catching my eye, so I stared back. Eventually, he said, “Are you gonna take back all that awful shit you said about us?”
“No way,” I answered. I surprised even myself at the speed and certainty with which I said it, having to stop myself from adding “in hell” to the end of my remark. No way in hell indeed, I thought to myself, especially not after tonight. Before tonight, all I had was hearsay and my own intuition, but now I am a witness, having firsthand knowledge of the kinds of conversations and views this company’s employees and visitors hold. I hated Kink, Inc. by my own standards, everyone knows that, but now I have reason to hate this company by the outrageously restricting standards of my critics and your supporters. So no way in hell will I “take back” what I said.
There was an awkward pause.
“We’re not bad people,” John said, never dropping the oily smile only a powerful executive can hold for that long.
“I never said you were,” I told him. John finally dropped his smile, replacing it with an intimidating look. “Companies aren’t people, John,” I maintained.
“I think they are,” I heard him say. Part of me can’t believe he said that, doesn’t want to. I hope I misheard, but it is what I heard. It shocked me.
There was another awkward pause. I knew it was late—far later than I had thought I’d be allowed to stay. John stood, and so did I. I left my cup of tequila on the table, still largely untouched.
“Everything that happens at this company,” John said, “is on me.”
“I doubt that,” I replied, “but it’s good to know.”
“No, it’s on me,” he repeated. John had stepped around his chair and was clutching its back. I suddenly noticed the adrenaline coursing through my veins. My heartbeat was thumping in my ears and my eyes instinctively monitored John’s shoulders instead of his face. To say I felt physically threatened would be an overstatement, but to say I felt unsafe would not.
“You can be sure I’ll remember you said that,” I told him. “You’ve got business cards, right?” I asked as he started towards me.
“Absolutely.” He pulled one out and handed it to me.
“Thank you,” I said.
I turned to James and Princess Donna. “It was nice to meet y’all,” I said, “and—I gave you my card, right?—let me know if you’d like to do coffee or something.” They each gave me a (predictably non-committal) little nod.
“We’re not bad people here,” John repeated as I turned back towards him.
“I believe you.” I was flipping his business card over in my hands.
When I looked up again—and I had to literally look up—his oily smile was back. “We should do dinner sometime,” he said as he dropped a heavy hand on my shoulder.
“Totally,” I replied. Our eyes locked. If I wasn’t feeling so adversarial, I might have called it an intimate moment. “I can find my way out.”
John returned his hand to his side and I turned to leave. I pulled out my iPod touch and started typing notes to myself as fast as I could on the little keyboard. As I approached The Upper Floor’s exit, I looked over my shoulder and saw John looking back at me for as long as we were in one another’s line of sight. He was no longer smiling.
In the lobby, I made a final introduction to the new guard on duty at the front desk. “Sorry, this is a hi-bye moment,” I said to him. He smiled back at me and as I turned to leave I saw the creepy interloper near the doorway staring at the glowing rectangle of his smartphone.
I walked to his side and loudly proclaimed, “Well! That was interesting!”
“Yeah!” he agreed.
“What was the most interesting part for you?” I asked, seizing the opportunity to grill him one-on-one.
“Oh, just the whole thing,” he said.
“Oh, the business, the way the shoots are done….” He trailed off, no longer looking at me.
I think he was fantasizing, so I tried to recenter his attention, “Think women ever watch this stuff?” He shook his head. “Why not?” I asked.
“Oh, because, men have needs on a carnal and physical level, and women have needs on an emotional and social level,” he told me.
“Wow,” I said, dumbfounded. “Men have needs on a carnal and physical level…?” I repeated back to him. iPod in hand, I started typing his remarks verbatim, and I told him I was doing so. “That’s amazing. Hang on, let me write this down.”
“Don’t tell me this is news to you,” he said.
“Oh, it’s not news,” I responded. “I just haven’t ever heard someone…,” I paused for a moment, thinking how to phrase what I wanted to say in a way that wouldn’t be totally disingenuous and would keep him talking, “…articulate this so succinctly before. So, how’d you put it?”
He started over, and I typed up every word on the spot: “Men have needs on a carnal and physical level, and women have needs on an emotional and social level. This is true in every culture and every society of every country in the world. It’s only when we realize this that we’ll bridge the gender gap. If you look at it, porn films, whether gay or straight, have no emotional or social value other than to be outside the norm. You can’t take them to a film festival. Adult films don’t have that [value] for women. This is true whether it’s for gay or straight women.”
“Wow,” I said when he finished. “Just…wow. Thank you so much for saying it that way.”
“Of course,” he said, looking rather pleased with himself.
We were on the sidewalk outside The Armory. He was headed in the opposite direction from me, so I thanked him for his time and I gave him my card. He apologized for running out of his own, to which I told him not to worry. Then I waved to him, turned, and started walking home.
Reflections on my Interactions
I’ve been trying to make sense of my feelings from that evening for weeks now. Many of my reflections are still a jumbled mess of unmitigated anger.
As with my would-be capital-R Relationship with the “metal boy” that never “really” was, my time at the Armory was merely the tip of an iceberg I may never have direct access to again. But I feel strongly that my night there, like my short-circuited feelings for the “metal boy,” confirmed something I’d suspected for a long time: there is an unparalleled ignorance among key decision makers at the highest levels of Kink, Inc., and this ignorance is dumped like sewage on the inlets of the mainstream and of the BDSM community. The Upper Floor, with its “good digs, free booze, and snacks with no cover” is perhaps the most direct example of exploiting the community; the most privileged sex community members create their own parties, according to their own tastes, while selling that fantasy to the less privileged.
This is a familiar revolving door repeating a pattern modeled elsewhere. The “richest 2% of America” are continually pushing the lie that by not taxing the top, “trickle-down” benefits will be seen among the poor. This lie preys upon bigoted, lower-middle class people; it uses their ignorance to make them believe that, one day, if they vote against their own interests, they can also be rich. But it takes a special breed of ignoramus to look at the actions of billionaires and millionaires and conclude that their attempts to shift even more wealth to their own pockets will somehow expand the circle of privilege to include millions more middle-class workers rather than exclude them. So, too, are most of Kink, Inc.’s customers and fans fooled.
I walked home at a brisk pace, feeling energized and defiant. I wanted to punch walls. I didn’t even notice my balled fists until I had to reach for my apartment keys in my pocket.
I was simultaneously proud of how well I had remained civil, even friendly, and angry about the ease with which I was able to do so. My behavior was far too familiar to me. I had covered up my discontent for the sake of sociability before, but not at The Armory. Swallowing my frustrations at The Armory’s decor, with its statues of bound women, paintings of male dominance, and prosthetic female nudes, is basically the same thing I have to do every damn time I walk into a BDSM playspace.
Most people cannot fathom the relentless cognitive dissonance this causes. It undermines my integrity, makes me unable to live up to my own values of honesty, and imposes a tremendous personal, social, sexual, and emotional toll on me. There is no doubt in my mind that this insidiousness has a detrimental, deeply repressive effect on the sociosexual development of many people—men, women, and genderqueer individuals, too.
That is not to say porn is, itself, detrimental, and I’ve had a hard time articulating this nuance until I researched the Suicide Girls controversy from 2005. In his analysis of that issue, Hugo Schwyzer wrote:
[T]o be a feminist is about more than individual empowerment. Young women who defend certain niches of the porn industry as woman-friendly must be willing to ask hard questions about who really controls sites like the Suicide Girls. They also have to be willing to consider not just the impact on the individual models/performers, but on the broader culture. […] Authentic feminism asks us to consider how others might interpret our actions. Our good intentions are not enough. We have to be mindful of the broader context, of the repercussions, of everything we do.
I do not believe any employee of Kink, Inc. is, by virtue of their employment, “a bad person,” nor do I believe the stunning ignorance of their fans, consumers, and would-be talent condemns them to such censure. But I do believe most of these people have, at best, not bothered to consider the impact on at least one, and possibly more than one, segment of the broader culture: submissive men. And, frankly, just like any other corporation, I don’t think they care to.
- Technically, the company’s name is Cybernet Entertainment, LLC. Its California business entity number is 199821910013, retrievable from the Secretary of State’s Business Search page. [↩]
- A noteworthy exception was Barry Ptolemy, whose documentary film about Ray Kurzweil, Transcendent Man, was awesome. I got a free copy of the DVD, which was totally worth it. [↩]
- Note that this name has been changed. [↩]
- Here’s some legalese of a content sharing deal between Suicide Girls and Content Pinup that leaves models out in the cold. A long-abandoned Boycott Suicide Girls blog post on MySpace has literally dozens more links, as does Wikipedia. [↩]