By Erin Sherbert
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Talk about an economic stimulus. California taxpayers have paid $46,791 so that employees of the San Francisco pornographer Kink.com might produce more perfect web-based depictions of motorized dildo impalements on www.fuckingmachines.com; do a better job displaying women as they're bound, gagged, and repeatedly electrically shocked on www.wiredpussy.com; and more effectively transmit images of, well, people doing pretty much what you'd imagine they'd be doing on www.whippedass.com.
That's right: California's government has been subsidizing torture-based pornography. The subsidy has been routed through the California Employment Training Panel (ETP), an agency set up to make state businesses more competitive with foreign and out-of-state ones by paying contractors who train in-state workers. Kink.com, famous to San Franciscans as the pornographer that not long ago bought the massive former Armory building in the Mission District, received its training through the Bay Area Video Coalition, a Mission nonprofit that provides classes in video and multimedia technology.
Kink.com is "legally recognized by California," says Video Coalition executive director Ken Ikeda. "They employ 100 Bay Area residents, and they also pay into payroll taxes. They're a valued community neighbor of ours. In training their employees, we're in complete alignment with the ETP's vision of keeping employees competitive in the international marketplace."
Sadly, this story doesn't have a happy ending, at least from a porn industry perspective.
After I submitted a state public records request to find out how much money Californians had been paying to train workers of Cybernet Entertainment LLC — Kink.com's formally registered business name — I received a letter from ETP general counsel Maureen Reilly, who said the government had been unaware that Cybernet was in the business of narrowcasting videos depicting sexualized torture.
"By long-standing policy, ETP does not fund training in the adult entertainment industry," she wrote, suggesting that the Bay Area Video Coalition might have done more to make the government aware that Cybernet was in the porn business. "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."
Kink.com chief operating officer Daniel Riedel says the company had been using state-subsidized multimedia training for three years to educate staffers in video shooting and editing, Photoshop, and other multimedia skills. "The fact we got cut off abruptly right after you requested those documents is unfortunate, especially with the economy the way it is and everything else that's been going on," he said.
Kink.com hasn't been immune to the recession; it recently laid off several staff, according to news reports. "It's going to be very much more expensive to operate in San Francisco, or in California" without the government training subsidy, Riedel said.
The stripping of Kink.com's funding raises an intriguing question: Does the state's refusal to train porn-makers violate constitutional free-speech guarantees? I'm not joking. Some serious and credible people says it's worth considering whether it's legal to deny training to porn workers merely because they film naked, shackled women with live electrodes clipped to their genitals.
The California Employment Training Panel's policy of denying education subsidies to pornographers came about a few years ago, when an employee recognized a major video porn producer among employers on its list. In response, agency officials struggled to come up with a policy that would placate conservatives and porn haters and neutralize First Amendment advocates. Officials fretted "about pirating of products and victimization of workers in media services," according to the minutes of a June 2006 panel meeting.
Riedel denies the victimization charge. "Most of our models have been around longer than the down economy," he said. "We go through an extensive interview process to make sure they're okay with this. We don't like working with models that aren't into this. If it's not consensual, it doesn't work."
San Francisco clinical psychologist Melissa Farley doesn't buy that. In 2007, she posted on her antipornography Web site, Traffick Jamming, the famous photograph of a hooded Abu Ghraib prisoner alongside a photograph she says came from Kink.com of a shackled, blindfolded woman apparently being poked with a cattle prod. "In this economy, this is something women would rather not do, but they feel they have to," she said. "This is a form of economic coercion. But people would rather not think of it that way. People think of it as a matter of rights, rather than ask the question, 'Should people have a right not to do this?'"
The state training panel ultimately sided with the antiporn position, and its 2008 strategic plan trumpeted a "moratorium" on subsidizing training in the adult entertainment industry. In the end, it announced a vague policy that categorizes the adult entertainment industry as its "lowest funding priority."
Jackie Martin, spokeswoman for major pornographer Vivid Entertainment Group, says that's unfair. "How can they prioritize which businesses they provide training to, based on the content of their expression?" she said. "What if you kill animals for a living? If it's not porn, you get the training? This definitely smells."
More pressing than the animal-rights question is the problem of whether the ETP antiporn policy violates constitutional prohibitions against government interference with freedom of speech.
Peter Scheer, executive director of the California First Amendment Coalition, says the government might be straying into a legal gray area. "I think a fair reading of Supreme Court decisions in this area would support the view that government can't deny all funding to companies while allowing it to others, because the discrimination is based on the expressive content that the companies produce," he said.
Ashutosh Bhagwat, professor of constitutional law at UC Hastings College of the Law, was less certain. "The true answer is: The law in this area is a mess," he said. "The government has some discretion in choosing what speech it wants to fund, but not always. There's a potential constitutional issue there."
Calvin Massey, also a Hastings professor of constitutional law, says that's wrong: Constitutionally speaking, the government may refuse training for pornographers if it so pleases. "My reaction is that there's nothing unconstitutional about refusing to provide governmental subsidies in the pornography industry," he said. "They're still permitted to engage in that expression. They just don't get a governmental subsidy. The government is free to make choices about how it spends its money. Simply because it chooses not to subsidize expression, or training for expression, doesn't mean [government officials have] done anything that's not within their rights."
Indeed, in 1998's National Endowment for the Arts v. Finley, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Congress enjoys wide latitude when setting spending priorities that may affect certain forms of expression. And in 1990's Rust v. Sullivan, the Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment was not violated by a U.S. regulation that said family planning clinics could receive federal money as long as they didn't discuss abortion. "The court said, 'The government is free to subsidize speech it likes, and free to refuse to subsidize speech with which it disagrees,'" Massey said.
Kink.com's Daniel Riedel says the company will fight to keep its government subsidy. He plans to meet with BAVC managers to help them prepare a presentation for the next ETP meeting requesting a repeal of the decision to cut off its funding for training.
I can't say with certainty whether Riedel and Kink will prevail. But if California's economy is to recover, it will need skilled entrepreneurial talent — a quality Kink.com clearly possesses in spades. The company has passed itself off in articles in The New York Times Magazine, Salon, 7x7, and other publications as a hip, if esoteric, high-tech media startup. Yet its business plan is more medieval than modern, consisting, as it does, of giving people money if they'll agree to being on camera while being stripped, bound, impaled, beaten, and shocked.
With marketing mojo like that, I expect Kink.com to have its government subsidy back in no time.