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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  • Jeffrey McManus

    “Scapegoat” does not mean what you think it means. It’s when you blame somebody for something they didn’t do. In this case, Smith is squarely to blame for his piece.

    “I’m just writing about public information” isn’t a valid defense because there’s a prissy, sensationalist agenda behind it.

    More importantly Smith is spectacularly misinformed about both the nature of porn (which is still legal the last time I checked) and the porn business (which has been a training ground for film production workers in California since the 1970s and contributes more than $20 billion-with-a-B to our economy).

  • Eve Batey

    Not so, Jeffrey! We use “scapegoat” in the context of the ETP’s decision not to reimburse future Cybernet trainings at BAVC. The only thing Matt did to “cause” that is to file a records request. He can’t, and shouldn’t, be dogged for filing a request — we’d got to the wall to support any journalist’s freedom to do so.

    And we’d never, in a million years, suggest that he shouldn’t have written a piece based on the intelligence he gathered. What Violet and the people she spoke to for her article are speaking to is how he chose to approach the information he received and the angle he took on the fallout from his request.

  • Matt Baume

    If the ETP is going to stiff Cybernet on professional development (so to speak), maybe it’s time for Kink.com to make paying their payroll taxes a “low priority.”

  • be_devine

    This is a great article. A perfect example of balanced and professional journalism.

  • Able Dart

    Oh Please. Grow the frack up. There is no obligation for government to subsidize porn, and that’s what you’re really upset about. Porn will always make money, there is no need to subsidize it. And if Smith thinks BDSM is gross, that’s his opinion, and you have yours. Stop acting like a brat.

  • Matt Baume

    Dart, the government was never subsidizing porn — they were subsidizing career development. The ETP exists to keep Californians employed, and so it provides training that keeps us productive, competitive with other states, and less likely to leave. So, for example, an accountant from Kink.com could take a subsidized class in JavaScript; or a PR person from Wells Fargo could take a class in documentary editing. These are skills that can not only help them in their current job, but help them in their entire career in California.

    You’re only eligible for ETP classes if you’re a California resident; if you’re making above a certain pay threshold; if you have been at your job for a certain amount of time; and if you pledge to remain at your job for a certain amount of time once the training is done. It’s a very good thing for the state, or at least it would be if it wasn’t arbitrarily restricting equal access.

    I don’t see why members of the adult entertainment industry are any less deserving of career services than the rest of us — especially if they’re forced to pay the taxes that subsidize them.

    (I’m not a representative of the ETP or any other affiliated group — I just happen to be very familiar with their policies, having taken quite a few classes through them myself.)

  • be_devine

    @Dart, you might rethink your premise that “Porn will always make money, there is no need to subsidize it.” First, you’re dead wrong. Many a porn company has gone bankrupt. Second, ya know, banks also will always make money (or at least as often as porn companies.) That fact sure didn’t stop the government from delivering money to them in cargo planes. If potential profitability was the standard to determine whether a person or business could receive government money, the world would look much, much different.

    And, really, calling on a newspaper to deliver responsible journalism is “acting like a brat”? You’re right that Smith is entitled to his opinion. But in a newspaper, even an alt-weekly, opinions should be labeled as “Commentaries.” His article was pawned off as news, not commentary. If he’s going to label his article as news, he owes a journalistic duty to make it fair, balanced and accurate. Calling him out on his failure to uphold his duty is not childish at all. Your comment, however, is.

  • Christopher

    It’s been two years since I wrote and published this article on AVNOnline.com about Kink’s acquisition of the SF Armory – seems timely based the substandard “Witch Hunt” article the SFWeekly regurgitated the other day. Enjoy – http://bit.ly/ATgoV

  • Able Dart

    Bah. Foo. If many a porn company went bankrupt maybe good porn wasn’t being made. My favorite porn flick is “Edward Penishands,” obviously made for a niche audience. Nevertheless the company that produced it made money.

    Government subsidies serve to keep afloat business and labor sectors that are manifestly threatened or where there is a significant public policy priority in keeping it alive. The notion that porn belongs in that category is manifestly ridiculous. People will always want to jerk off and porn will always be profitable. There is no need to subsidize any sector of such an industry. Yes, some subsidies are misdirected, and some – like the agro subsidies started by the Nixon administration – go on too long and have unexpected negative consequences. And banks, like them or not, are an important part of the economy. Comparing the economic worth of a porn videographer to a bank is simply delusional. Being a “sexual outlaw” does not make you special, it makes you a grandiose fool for doing things out in the open that others enjoy privately and don’t make a big deal about. If your identity is based wholly on how you get off then you may be afflicted with craniorectal impaction, so be careful.

  • Iamcuriousblue

    “Being a “sexual outlaw” does not make you special, it makes you a grandiose fool for doing things out in the open that others enjoy privately and don’t make a big deal about. If your identity is based wholly on how you get off then you may be afflicted with craniorectal impaction, so be careful.”

    You know Abel, from where I’m sitting the kind of pinched, judgmental, smug tone you’re exhibiting here in spades is a symptom of craniorectal inversion, but I guess that’s a matter of perspective.

    As for the issue at hand, its clear to me, anyway, that the technical staff at Kink.com are perfectly legit multimedia employees, and if employers are going to charged a special payroll tax to fund training programs for their employees, and Kink.com has to pay those same taxes, I see no good reason why its employees shouldn’t be able to benefit just because they work for a porn company. That does not amount to “taxpayers subsidizing porn”. The program is in fact funding training in skills that are transferable, which is what it is intended to do.

    Either the ETP program is corporate welfare and needs to be eliminated across the board (you could just as well ask why funding should go to, say, KRON), or they have no business in turning away qualified workers just because the folks in charge happen to have their undies in a bunch over the kind of media those workers produce.

  • Iamcuriousblue
  • Matt Baume

    Dart, I’d be interested to know more about your background in economics, since I’m having trouble following your argument. What’s your threshold for “threatened” sectors? How threatened is threatened enough to receive training?

    The way I see it, EVERYONE can benefit from job training. Porn generates a lot of money for California — as does agriculture, movies, tourism, biotech, etc — so we have a vested interest in keeping the industry strong, and the workers competitive. Doesn’t matter whether it’s pornographers, farmers, florists, or realtors — a strong workforce equals a strong state.

  • generic

    There’s this idea floating around among SF journos who know Smith personally, that say he’s “reasonable” or “the sort voice this city needs.”

    I’ve never found him to be anything other than a complete and utter tool. And his values often seem more aligned with the city of Modesto than the city of San Francisco.

  • Able Dart

    Uh, no, people who think that their occupation is automatically eligible for economic assistance from government are overly enthused with themselves, whether they are aspiring porn directors or chicken sexers. You may think you are because you yourself think you are special, but that does not make it so.

    Now here’s something to think about: According to SF’s Human Services Agency, there are about 1400 families with kids between the ages of 1-3 that are at risk for being vectored into foster care. You’d think that if we decided to put some money into a pilot program for something like, say, bond investment accounts for each of these kids that mature upon secondary school graduation, that would be worth a hell of a lot more to our community than giving you a subsidy simply because you think your pseudo-artistic method of inciting masturbation is special.

    Please Grow Up.

  • Iamcuriousblue

    Perhaps the sheer snottiness and assholism of your rhetoric says something about you having some serious growing up to do, mister. And you can just can your pseudo-populist, “you just think your special”, “cultural elite”, blah blah blah rhetoric it adds absolutely nothing to the discussion.

    Look, if you want to argue that in general its wasteful to channel money into training relatively well-to-do multimedia workers when programs for the truly poor are underfunded, go right ahead. But I have I haven’t seen you argue against the Cal ETP in general, just its use for funding a few Kink.com employees. And that strikes me pretty selective outrage on your part.

    Instead, you’re simply making a classic “there are people with real problems over in Africa” red herring argument. The argument is a red herring because funds denied to Kink.com employees are not going to end up in Health and Human Services coffers anytime soon that’s not how they were earmarked.

  • Able Dart

    Actually, there is a range of areas where subsidies are warranted, and that includes programs like Cal ETP, which can help major state industries like film and television. But not every sector of the industry really needs it. That includes porn. Unless you’re going to call it an independent film and actually put in a relevant plot, porn is not art. It’s porn. Some porn may be artistic, but if it’s marketed as porn, that doesn’t make it art. Porn is a widget on a disc that helps people masturbate. It is nowhere near as important as art, or journalism, or for that matter any part of the banking industry, let alone the future of at-risk kids.

    Sorry, just because there is money out there, it doesn’t mean you automatically qualify for it. There is a line. There are like, priorities. And just because you are afflicted with overentitlement, it doesn’t mean that you can “get some.”

    Feel Better Now? Oh, Sorry…