SF Armory

On Wednesday, SF Weekly’s Matt Smith took his torture porn fantasies beyond the realm of safe, sane and consensual to gloat over how his actions caused Kink.com to get screwed out of legitimately earmarked BAVC job training funds, threatening a community training program that Smith, himself, has benefited from to the tune of 184 hours.

Here’s the situation: Smith recently submitted an inquiry about Kink.com to the California Entertainment Training Program (ETP). He received a response from the ETP’s general counsel, which said, in part:

“Since learning about Kink.com through your Public Records Act request, ETP has informed BAVC that it will no longer reimburse the cost of training the employees of Cybernet.”

and then removed Kink from the list of subsidized applicants, kicking Kink out of the nonprofit Bay Area Video Coalition (BAVC).

As tempting as it is to immediately scapegoat Smith for this, you can’t — after all, all he did is submit a public records request. It’s not as though he attempted to incite a harmful scandal simply for the purpose of writing about it.

It’s Smith’s actions following his request that are deserving of scrutiny. The resulting article, “Whipped and Gagged,” is infused with (unrepentant) and sensational anti-porn bias, with accusations that Kink is soaking up taxpayer dollars to create “torture based pornography” and “depicting sexualized torture”. Despite the one-sided commentary and airtime Smith devoted to local anti-porn feminist Melissa Farley’s two-year-old comments repulsively comparing Kink’s product to Abu Ghraib, he certainly knew his way around Kink’s websites and content enough to frill up the Fox News-style hit piece.

According to BAVC’s Director of Training and resources, Mindy Aronoff, Smith more than nonconsensually screwed the pooch with his biased reporting. Aronoff stated, “Mr. Smith’s lazy attempt to jump on the “bad government spending” bandwagon is dangerous in its disregard for this bigger picture and the economic realities of our state. His questions of government spending and censorship are an unfortunate case of reactionary sensationalism that could threaten the ETP program at BAVC.”

What Smith has to say about Kink’s product doesn’t surprise me — a man is entitled to his own opinion. What is harder to swallow is to see opinion conflated with media coverage in a weekly whose holdings are out of state, with actual harm inflicted on local businesses (and nonprofits) under the guise of journalistic reporting.

We expect our local reporters to have opinions; that’s what makes them flavorful. And to see Smith write another yawn-worthy anti-Kink, anti-porn, anti-BDSM article about Kink just lumps him in with the rest of the unremarkable lot of mainstream media’s lie of unbiased reporting when it comes to porn, and sex for that matter. Within that, it’s not a shocker that Smith couldn’t be bothered to get comments* from both sides of the unchallenged “women as victims” accusations, such as the articulate Kink performers (and writers, speakers and activists) Madison Young, Lorelei Lee or Princess Donna. That would be presenting a balanced picture of Kink’s product, and we know that’s really too much to ask of most mainstream media, and now disappointingly, the SF Weekly.

For instance, Lorelei Lee responded to Smith’s accusations saying, “Mr. Smith’s repeated use of the terms “torture” and “impalement” to describe BDSM and dildo play demonstrates a total lack of understanding for the respectful, consensual, pre-negotiated, intimate, and often-joyful interaction that is BDSM. Every staff member at Kink.com, from the talent department to the directors to the production assistants has been trained by the company to make the health and safety of their models a top priority. This policy of prioritizing worker health and safety is in obvious contrast to many other big employers in California. Further, I find Mr. Smith’s implication that I, as a model and porn performer, have been coerced, victimized, or exploited by my job to be profoundly degrading and insulting. To imply that I have not exercised the same autonomous judgment as anyone else has in choosing a career, is to completely dismiss my will, intelligence and rational capability.”

It’s not Smith’s obvious personal hangups that make this Weekly piece so harmful. What’s most interesting are the facts Smith left out of his “news” piece. The seriously legally problematic issue here is where one could challenge whether the government should be discriminating this way.

Yes, the ETP does have rules about who it funds, and what priority they get: however, so-called “adult” businesses (like gambling and porn — which is legal in CA and the US) have a “low” priority. Meanwhile other industries are expressly prohibited, such as truck drivers and security guards. (Not to say that films about truck drivers and security guards are not their own kind of “torture porn.”)

The thing is, ETP and BAVC aren’t paying for the films themselves, but to train people in skills that are applicable to any type of media work. The people making films at Kink also make all kinds of media, for Kink, other places and even themselves. Peter Acworth tells me that at Kink and The Armory, “We offer a menu of services: set rentals, lighting support, post production support, etc. We have already had some success in this regard; for instance, the horror movie “All About Evil” recently shot here.”

Kink’s COO, Daniel Riedel explains further, “BAVC provides some of the best training in Production and Post Production skills in the San Francisco Bay Area, what Kink gets is the ability to offer up training to our employees, our employees get production skills that will last a lifetime.” Riedel continued, “We allow our employees to utilize the equipment for their own projects. Two of the BAVC trainees have actually completed a documentary utilizing Kink’s equipment for The International Documentary Challenge 2009 and are finalist and will be shown at Hot Docs in Toronto.”

So the types of training BAVC (via the ETP) provides to all eligible California employees also goes a long way to supporting the overall economy. For example, Smith has helped himself to 184 hours of classes at BAVC through the very same ETP program, despite the fact that his day job does not seem to involve multimedia production. One can only assume that similar to the doc-making Kink workers, he’ll be applying his taxpayer funded training to a career beyond the his current employer.

As for Smith’s twiceover assertion that Kink was soaking up taxpayer dollars to further the creation of “torture porn,” that’s an egregious exaggeration at best.

Riedel explained that “The ETP is specifically funded by an employee tax that only business pay for. The max tax that any business pays per employee is 7 dollars per employee. Any employee that enters the training program instantly takes up 185 years of that tax regardless of industry. So our ‘soaking up’ of that money is no different than any other legal business in California utilizing the program. We were not given any special treatment compared to any other company.”

BAVC’s Aronoff tells us, “The truth is that through the ETP program BAVC has provided training to a wide range of employees at various companies for the last 10 years. Companies that have trained through ETP include: Pixar, ILM, Safeway, Thrasher, Sierra Club, Wells Fargo, Exploratorium, San Francisco Ballet, Zeum and Ubisoft. And yes, employees of Cybernet Entertainment LLC (owners of Kink.com) have been part of that program.

Cybernet is legally recognized by the state of California, and they employ 100+ Bay Area residents including 40% women, a diverse mix of communities of color, and a strong representation from the LGBTQ communities. Those employees are well paid, are protected in a safe, sane and consensual environment, and they receive full benefits: health, dental, vision and employer matched 401K. As a corporate entity, Cybernet pays its fair share of payroll taxes (through which the ETP program is funded) and makes significant in-kind and cash contributions to the community every year. The Cybernet employees we train are videographers, editors, production assistants, graphic designers and motion graphic designers, many of whom will move on from Kink.com to work at advertising agencies, production companies, and various corporate offices around the state.”

Ironically, in Smith’s attempt to add a second thought of reflection to his actions and accusations, he mused about how the ETP came up “with a policy that would placate conservatives and porn haters and neutralize First Amendment advocates.” Trotting out the First Amendment arguments about speech seems immaterial in this context, but it’s worth drawing out Smith’s logic to see where it leads — and doesn’t. Free speech is primarily about keeping the government from censoring us, not forcing them to fund everyone’s speech. So if someone wants to make a snuff film, ETP/BAVC doesn’t have to train them to do it. But making a snuff film when murder is illegal is very different than making an adult film when consensual sex (even “torture” sex) is legal.

And I think one could argue that once you do fund it, taking it away explicitly because of the nature of the content raises even greater constitutional concerns.

You can’t blame Matt Smith for filing the request that put a 33-year-old local nonprofit on the firing line and pulled local employees out of job enhancement training programs. You can, however, point a finger at him for his disappointing journalistic response, in which he beats the dead horse of anti-porn and anti-BDSM tropes yet again and makes the SF Weekly appear less relevant and even more prudish, all for the “evils of pornography.”

Because as The Sword (NSFW) so aptly put it (See also the SFBG’s SF Weekly’s anti-porn prude and SFist’s SF Weekly Shows Its Prudish Side Toward Kink.com) “While we’re at it, we should probably also take away Kink employees’ rights to unemployment benefits and healthcare protection. Because it’s not like they are a legally recognized entity in California, and it’s not like they pay payroll taxes or anything. Oh, wait — they are and they do. But it doesn’t matter when you’re a second-rate city paper trying to sell pitchforks and torches.”

*Ed note: To that point, ordinarily, the Appeal would have reached out to Matt Smith for this article, but given how he’s choosing to respond to questions about his piece, we abstained.

the author

Violet Blue (tinynibbles.com) is an award-winning author, columnist blogger, journalist and is regarded as the foremost expert in the field of sex and technology. Blue features at global conferences on the topics of sex, technology and privacy, and her appearances range from Oprah to Google Tech Talks at Google, Inc.

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