The Protest of Kink.com’s Prison Party

This week BDSM Porn Giant Kink.com hosted a party commemorating Pride Month at their headquarters in the Mission St. Armory in San Francisco.  As one might reasonably expect from a company known for producing BDSM porn, the party was prison themed.  Several trans groups and individuals took umbrage with this due to the high incarceration rates for trans individuals and their history of receiving poor treatment when incarcerated.  (They are frequently misgendered and held accordingly opening the door for violence, abuse, and rape.)  Gay Shame SF staged a protest outside of the Armory where six protesters were (allegedly) beaten and eventually arrested.  (Update: The arrested have since been released without charges filed.)

Update: Sources have suggested that the violence was started by the protesters.  It’s anonymous, so take it with a grain of salt.

I don’t know what actually happened.  History tells us that the police probably overstepped their bounds as they’re wont to do, and that they, in their bias, used undue force against a demographic (or demographics) that has historically been frequently victimized by bias and undue force.  Unfortunately, much of the story has become so focused on police conduct and the arrests that the underlying issues have become lost.

This is a tired story, but it’s not a tired story of police brutality.  Police brutality is no doubt a problem, and worthy of its own piece, but it’s the end result of the underlying issue.  This is a tired story of the marginalization of the Trans community.  There is a popular refrain among Trans groups, “the ‘T’ is not silent,” and it refers to them often being left out in discussions about LGBT issues.  Trans people are a very small demographic numbers-wise, 0.3%-ish depending on who you believe.  As such, they have had (until recently) no visibility in pop culture and no visibility in politics, aka the people who make the laws.  Because of this lack of visibility, there are many myths surrounding them, and with that ignorance, and with that, fear.

The Trans community has been frequently left out of LGBT discussions, most notably during the drafting of some non-discrimination laws, and pretty much everything the HRC has ever done.  The ire over Kink.com’s prison party to commemorate Pride was largely twofold: 1). the Trans community felt like it had been roundly ignored when the party theme was conceived, and 2). the Trans community felt like such a theme was inappropriate for Pride because of the ugly reality that is prison for many Trans individuals.

Kink.com founder and CEO Peter Acworth responded.  I think it’s a sincere response, but it’s also a response coming from a place of privilege which makes it difficult to gauge.  There are many things Acworth could have done, like ax the party regardless of how that might affect Kink’s relationship with affiliates.  Who knows if the good faith gesture to the Trans community outweighs the damage to Kink’com’s reputation (included in that, positive things it has done for LGBTQ individuals) or not.  (And who knows if such a gesture ultimately breeds resentment for the Trans community anyway.  Nothing is that simple.)

Here’s what he did do: he committed to his mistake, while at the same time trying to minimize the magnitude of that mistake.

We can, however, revamp the website and marketing materials to minimize the emphasis on prison language, to highlight the camp and fantasy aspects of this event and to raise awareness of the real life incarceration issues that we all find so troubling. As a 33% owner in the event, I am able to sway the course of the event to an extent, and I promise to do all I can so that Pride participants can both celebrate their sexual identities and make strides toward fighting the real life issues faced by LGBTQ people worldwide.

Ultimately the event is a single thing.  Axing the event and letting it continue aren’t of extreme importance because whichever happens, if Acworth doesn’t learn something, and if Kink.com doesn’t strive upwards as an organization, the whole point is moot.  To me, axing the event would have felt a whole lot like attempting to delete the whole thing and forget it ever happened, a tactic the HRC has taken with its ugly interactions with the Trans community.

At the end of it, I don’t think there’s a side that has to be chosen.  I think you can support Acworth’s right to host such an event and find value in it, while sympathizing with the plight of the Trans community.  I’m not Trans and will never truly know what it’s like to be Trans.  I can’t understand how something like this feels from a first hand perspective.  I am, however, a member of the BDSM community.  I think that, aside from groups that engage in active harassment (hello TERFs), all sexual minorities have a place at Pride, be they by birth or by choice.  I believe that a Prison Party is an appropriate event, especially when it’s hosted by a company that makes BDSM porn.

The whole point of BDSM is to fetishize and explore taboo things in a safe and consensual space.  When you attack one aspect of BDSM for fetishizing and glamorizing something like the prison industrial complex (And for some this was all about the theme of the party itself, not it’s relation to the Trans community), you’re either attacking the entirety of BDSM, or you’ve drawn an incredibly arbitrary line for yourself.  Pain is fetishizing abuse.  Domination/submission play is fetishizing slavery.  Rape play is fetishizing…well…you get the idea.  Each of these things has a real-world non-consensual counterpart that is among the grossest invasions of a person’s autonomy.  And members of the Kink community have certainly been demonized for their sexuality.  No, not to the extent of the Trans community, but this isn’t a video game high score of awfulness.

I take both sides, whether that’s perceived as possible or not.  I think Acworth, while acting from a place of privilege, acted with the best of intentions with the knowledge and experiences he has at his disposal.  I also think that there is likely a lack of trans input at Kink.com and I think the company and Acworth can improve on this.  (Author’s Note: This was a crappy assumption for me to make.  It should read as an acknowledgement of the sequence of events.  There was a protest, ergo there was a disconnect between Kink and the Trans protesters.  The situation ended poorly, ergo there is room for improvement.  It does not read that way, and that’s on me.)  Also, not being Trans, I defer to the Trans community’s feelings on an event like this one.  They, with their voices and their first hand experiences, are inevitably and irrevocably right in their response.

(Author’s Note: Some good criticism can be found in the comments and I would suggest that they be read alongside and judged to be a part of this piece.  I prefer to keep my mistakes visible so that I may better learn from them, and deleting anything I’ve written feels like dishonesty and attempting to hide so nothing will be removed.  Suffice it to say, my choice of words was poor in places, and at times outright in error.)

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About Alex

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2 comments

  1. Tom Cat

    Hi Alex –

    My name is Tomcat and I am the Director of Content and Social Media at Kink.com. I am also a member of the BDSM community and a transgender male. Thank you for your open air opinions of this complicated issue. I would like to shed some light on your statement that Kink likely doesn’t have a Transgender presence or input in the company’s beliefs or policies. I’m not sure why you would assume there is no transgender presence here at Kink. I have worked here for a decade – along side many other members of the LGBTQ community and we tip the scales here in the company demographic. This is an unparalleled work environment championed by Peter. To say that Peter is just a privileged white guy making money is to completely ignore his resilience to stand up for the BDSM and LGBTQ community, and his tireless defense both personally and professionally of his own sexuality. I support Kink’s stance regarding the Prison of Love Party – to reiterate Peter’s comments – I support a world that can openly express its sexual desires among consenting adults and I agree that a fantasy party does not trivialize real world events.

    I hope we can continue the dialogue and make everyone feel their opinions are heard and respected.

    • Tomcat,

      Thanks for taking the time to comment and provide some background info on Kink.com. My trans male partner and I are actually pretty big fans of yours and I’m not sure how that slipped my mind while writing the piece. I wanted to articulate that I think that both Kink.com in their desire to host such an event and the protesters in the umbrage they took with said event can be both in opposition and yet at the same time individually correct based on their own perceptions and accept that I may have failed to outline that adequately.

      “Lack of trans input” was as much an acknowledgement that there was a disconnect (and perhaps an unavoidable one) that led to the protests to begin with as much as a direct (and I now think unfair on my part) criticism of Acworth and Kink. The privilege comments are coming from the same place, again not a direct criticism, which is why I said Acworth was “coming from a place of privilege” and not privileged outright.

      Unavoidably Acworth (and almost everyone) occupies one or more majority classes (be they gender identity, orientation, race, ethnicity, etc.) and may or may not enjoy advantages associated with existing in those classes. “Privilege” was not an epithet, but an acknowledgement that Peter is not trans and thus an acknowledgement that his response may be difficult for the trans protesters to take at face value because his life is absent their first hand experiences. It was, in spite of that, (in my opinion), a tremendous response full the the intelligence, understanding, and empathy that I’ve observed in Acworth by being a fan of Kink.

      I agree with you and with Kink; with your entire second to last paragraph really. To me, Pride is a time to celebrate all aspects of gender and sexuality that have been marginalized and a prison themed party makes perfect sense for a company like Kink. However, I also agree with the protesters because I’m sure they have perceptions and life experiences and personal histories that they felt justified their actions. And (without having a great account of what actually happened), I have to imagine that there are a number of way the situation could have gone better, as there often are. Maybe it can’t be had both ways, but I’m going to try and I stand by it.

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