BDSM (Bondage and Discipline, Dominance and Submission, Sadism and Masochism) has officially left the cultural cellar and entered the bedroom of mainstream America. What with the viral spread of 50 Shades of Grey, Rihanna making it for the masses in S&M and kink student groups popping up on college campuses across the country—what were once considered anti-normative or even deviant forms of sexuality have now become ubiquitous.
And Franco wants in on the party. He’s produced a documentary (of course he has) that takes us on a tour through the labyrinthine halls of San Francisco’s historic Armory building, home to kink.com (NSFW), and deep into the recesses of the largest fetish pornography site in the world.
Just because we’re hogtied doesn’t mean we should be tongue-tied—and James Franco and director Christina Voros intend to use the film, kink to open the conversation and the windows, and shed a little light on a practice and an industry that have long been shrouded in the dark.
Voros says, “I want to start a dialogue. Whether you love porn or loathe it, consume or condemn it, it undeniably inhabits a powerful place in our culture. And it seems curious to me that such a thriving, billion-dollar industry should remain so widely unexamined. Pornography is powerful, and much of that power lies in the illusion that the content is real. But it is not. It’s a fantasy. But the people who make it are real. That counterpoint is worth examining. It’s only through a deeper understanding of the industry and the demand that it caters to that we can truly understand its impact on our world.” Kink explores the construction of the illusion and reveals the flesh behind the fantasy: the models, the directors and what happens when the cameras cut off.
The idea for the documentary was spurred when Franco was filming About Cherry, co-written and directed by Stephen Elliot (former sex worker and author of Happy Baby and The Adderall Diaries) and starring co-writer and kink.com model and director, Lorelei Lee, at the Armory. James was given a tour of the kink facilities and became enthralled with the world—on and off the screen.
He describes the experience in an interview in Paper: “They said I could watch them make a video. It was someone in a cage and someone being mean to them, so it was pretty intense. Then they’d cut and figure out what they were gonna do next, and the difference between how they were acting in front of the camera and how they were talking to each other when the cameras weren’t rolling was so different. Everybody was part of a team.”
And it’s this juxtaposition between the fantasies of submission/abuse, and the safe and supportive environment off-camera, that makes the documentary a conflicting experience—fascinating and disturbing at once. As a non-practitioner of kink, watching the filming of the pornographic scenes was difficult, at times harrowing, and also revelatory—it is an intense experience to witness the depictions of human (both female and male) endurance and (what is difficult to not describe as) torture, and to see that montaged against models and directors describing the consensual environment, the choice and desire, the pleasure, the euphoria.
But despite the almost constant reassurances within the film about consensuality and personal desire, the questions surrounding exploitation and abuse, particularly around women and LGBTQ performers, were left (perhaps out of necessity) unsatisfyingly answered. Director Princess Donna says, about females in the industry in particular, “I don’t understand what about exploring your sexuality around other people would be viewed as degrading. And I don’t understand why no one would ask that question of men—the only thing I can come up with is it’s assumed that sexuality is something that’s put onto women, or that they’re not in control somehow… That they’re not smart enough to make their own choices about what they do and don’t do in front of a camera.”
And her points are valid, and if we lived in a vacuum I’d be right with her. But any discussion of structural sexism, patriarchy and an industry built by and around men and male desire, was left entirely out of the footage. An exploration of the treatment of female sex workers is far too big for the scope of this article, and can and should be an entire essay itself, but it added to the sense of discomfort and unresolved emotions I was left with at the end of the film—despite the fact that it did a good job convincing me of the validity of a spectrum of sexual expression and personal choice within sexuality.
“If you’re looking at BDSM porn, and you’re getting freaked out about it,” says long-time kink director, Tomcat, “just say to yourself, ‘This isn’t for me, but it’s for somebody.’”
There remain, however, additional questions around the idea of normalizing taboo behaviors. For one: to what extent is the aberrant nature of an act part of the arousing factor—and if you de-deviant-ize it, will (some?) people require a new or more extreme form of anti-normal behavior in order to be stimulated?
David Foster Wallace writes, in his essay on the AVN (Adult Video News) Awards (mainstream pornography’s equivalent to the Oscars), “The Big Red Son”: “The thing to recognize is that the adult industry’s new respectability creates a paradox. The more acceptable in modern culture it becomes, the farther porn will have to go in order to preserve the sense of unacceptability that’s so essential to its appeal. The industry’s already gone pretty far; and with reenacted child abuse and barely disguised gang rapes now selling briskly, it’s not hard to see where porn is eventually going to have to go in order to retain its edge of disrepute.”
On the other hand, Cindy Gallop, founder of MakeLoveNotPorn.com, in a podcast with Sex Nerd Sandra says, “Because we don’t talk about sex, we don’t about porn–we’re all watching it but we don’t talk about it–porn therefore exists in this parallel universe, this shadowy otherworld. When you force something, anything into the shadows and underground, you make it a lot easier for bad things to happen and you make it much more difficult for good things to happen. The answer to what everyone is worried about with porn, is not to… clamp down, censor, block, repress; the answer is to open up.”
Kink unmasks the illusion, and reveals the wires behind the wizard. Voros explains, “The submissive is the person setting their limits and guidelines. They have a safe word even if their fantasy is that they’re a slave. But that information is intentionally withheld when you see the porn. If you knew that the submissive has the keys to get out of this, it sort of takes away from the fantasy.”
If we disrobe the fantasy, are we creating a vacuum for further extreme behavior—or are we creating a safe haven where all forms of consensual sexualities are tolerated, where perhaps the need for deviance is rendered unnecessary?
Kink doesn’t answer/address these questions, but it does create space and attention for such discussions to take place.
 BDSM model and author, Madison Young responds to similar word choices in an interview on The Rumpus, thusly: “I can’t speak for other individuals (regardless of gender), but I can speak for myself. What I’m engaging in, in any particular scene (either on-camera or off), is not ‘endurance of physical pain’ but the processing of and receipt of energy, sensation and pleasure. Every individual processes touch and sensation in a different way. I gravitated naturally to fisting, rough sex, spanking, slapping. Even when engaging in physical but non-sexual practices such as massage, I find/found a deeper, more intense touch to be more pleasing. A light touch, which some may describe as ‘sensual,’ feels noncommittal, passive, lacking in connection, often disconnected. Abuse and torture are real things. They are non-consenting and abusive emotionally and physically, and have nothing more to do with a cane than a hand or a cock or a mouth.”
 Of course the concept of consent is always complicated by capital—and the question of whether consent is diminished or altered by the fact that the models are being paid is one the film addresses but, as can be imagined, never really answers.
 I have yet to find a film depicting the gang rape of a straight man, for example.