An earlier version of this story incorrectly attributed a quote to writer Violet Blue. The words should have been attributed to a performer Blue quoted in her column. SF Weekly regrets the error.
America's invincible army of omnipotent Gordon Gekkos has been supplanted by corporate-excuse-making Timothy Geithners. Once-triumphant U.S. generals muddle through wars they'd supposedly long since won. Even one-time dark site overlord Dick Cheney has morphed into a whiny, skim-latte–sipping semanticist endlessly mewling his favored wimpish term: "enhanced interrogation techniques."
When pondering such signs of American weakness, I used to say to myself: "Thank goodness for sadomasochism porn enthusiasts." These brave heroes are willing to be blindfolded, tied up, choked, hung by their pierced nipples, smacked, pinched on their genitals with live battery clamps, bludgeoned with chains and clubs, half-drowned, impaled with motorized nightsticks — and come back begging for more. As long as America had these hard-bitten souls among our ranks, I imagined, we'd dominate a submissive world.
At least that's what I believed until April 21, day one of the Great San Francisco S&M Whine-Fest, when seemingly tough-as-nails bondage and discipline specialists became a squawking gaggle of unwilling victims. Their supposed tyrant was a newspaper column that used the apparently verboten term "torture porn" to describe performances such as videotaped waterboarding.
"You are the one doing victimization here," the first of hundreds of outraged Web commenters wrote. "We who live in San Francisco are proud of our diversity, which includes [the] BDSM lifestyle."
The reaction splattered from Internet comments to angry columns on several local blogs, a local TV news segment documenting the pornographers' outrage, posters announcing an SF Weekly boycott, at least two T-shirts on sale condemning SF Weekly, plus dozens of articles, essays, blog posts, and other infuriated Internet flotsam demanding "accountability" for supposedly "irresponsible journalism."
Popular indignation is a columnist's price of doing business. But this particular ruckus was unique not just for its intensity and reach, but also because I never personally cast judgment on torture porn.
The column in question ["Whipped and Gagged," April 21] noted that local S&M pornographer Kink.com had finagled nearly $50,000 in employee training subsidies from the state government. After my inquiry, the state Employee Training Panel halted the funding — which Kink.com employees had used to learn to better produce and edit porn videos — because the agency didn't previously know the nature of the company's business, and its rules expressly discourage sponsoring training for pornographers. My column parsed the question: Was it right for the government to halt the porn subsidy? I quoted three pro-porn-subsidy people, one anti-porn-subsidy person, and three law professors who discussed whether the government was permitted to discriminate against pornographers.
Ubiquitous sex columnist Violet Blue devoted three different online essays, totaling 3,900 words, each complaining about a 1,320-word SF Weekly column. Blue quoted Kink performer Lorelei Lee on SFGate as saying, "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. But I didn't imply that Lee or any other porn actor, for that matter was coerced. In fact, I quoted Kink.com's chief operating officer Daniel Riedel as saying its porn was all consensual. "If it's not consensual, it doesn't work," he said.
What Blue and others were objecting to wasn't my own opinion, but the opinion expressed by someone they disagree with, feminist antiporn activist Melissa Farley. I quoted Farley to illustrate the fact that state-subsidized pornographer training might be controversial. Apparently, her point of view, which says porn is exploitative of women, is so loathsome that it's "irresponsible" to quote her.
Even more perplexing, Ms. Blue stated in a column published on SFGate that the "much larger problem emerging out of all this" was the question of whether the government's decision to cut Kink.com's subsidy merely because the company makes porn is constitutional.
Ms. Blue claimed to be refuting and denouncing me, while actually repeating my own point. I wonder: Is that properly called tortuous logic, or BDSM logic?
It was bizarre reading Ms. Blue's multiple essays denouncing an imaginary version of my column. But it was out-of-body surreal to see similar acts of fantasy role-playing repeated ad infinitum across the Internet, in the streets, and in my e-mail inbox. A recurring theme said I had a "prudish" take on S&M porn, and my sensibilities therefore didn't belong in San Francisco.
The funny thing is, I don't really care if people do this kind of porn. I have no aversion to pornography in general, and that's why I didn't condemn it in the column.
But it was a legitimate — and funny — news story that a state agency was paying to train S&M pornographers. I used the word "torture" in that story because it's a realistic way to describe people being strapped to a table and shocked on their genitals.
Judging from the response, a lot of people with the guts to withstand clubs and electrode punishment have thin skin when it comes to tolerating anything but the PC jargon term "BDSM." Even wimpier was a line of critique that said I should not have revealed Kink.com's state subsidy because agency officials' decision to rescind it "harmed the community." It was as if any act that didn't adhere to an alternative lifestyle community's party line was somehow an attack.
Could it be that San Francisco's once-tough S&M performers had become — like so many other once-mighty American icons — sniveling wimps?
Baffled as to what, precisely, the S&M subculture had gotten itself so worked up about, I contacted SF Weekly consulting expert Mz. Berlin, a self-described model for Kink.com and TwistedFactory.com. She's one of the few S&M performers to undergo authentic, on-camera waterboarding, as reputedly practiced under the U.S. military's Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape training program.
"I read a Vanity Fair article about it and I thought, 'Is that as horrible as they say?'" says Mz. Berlin. "Yes, it was."
She lives in Hollywood — it would have been impossible to receive a fair hearing in San Francisco — after spending her younger years in Shreveport, Louisiana, fantasizing "about being bound and struggling, as well as wearing a corset," as she explains on her S&M-themed personal Web site.
As I should have anticipated, my interview with the strong-minded S&M performer quickly descended into a shouting match, in which she expressed her wish to talk mostly about how much she hates Farley, and how she doesn't like the word "torture" to be used discussing S&M. (In my column, I'd used the term "torture-based pornography" and said Kink.com was "in the business of narrowcasting videos depicting sexualized torture.")
"Was I waterboarded? I was really waterboarded, yes," Mz. Berlin said. "It was very real. Was it torture? No. Was it a calculated risk? Yes. But it's not torture. I can't say that enough. That's why people are hot and bothered."
As for the act of being tilted downward and having water poured on a cloth draped over her face for a self-made movie, she says, "I didn't like it. But torture wasn't part of what I did, because it was consensual. You're missing the consensual part."
I asked her if the outcry from S&M buffs suggests they're losing their toughness.
"Just because someone can withstand pain, you can throw words at them? I don't even know how to process that. I think that's like saying a fat person can withstand pain just because they have padding. I don't think that works," Mz. Berlin explained. "I think that is a ludicrous opinion."
As with so many calamities befalling the news business, I believe this crisis is journalism's own fault. News hacks have allowed sadomasochists to go soft by writing scores of softball stories about their business. It's time to toughen them back up — for America's sake.
Just as government subsidies helped Kink.com make better filmed and edited porn, new subsidies are needed to wean supposedly thick-skinned S&M fetishists off their pablum diet of uninterrupted praise. A mere $100,000 of federal stimulus money could put Melissa Farley on annual retainer to shout at bound and gagged performers, "You're being exploited. You hear me, bitch? Exploited!" Another $2 million could hire off-hours Amnesty International lawyers to form a Wiccan maypole circle around performers for one of Kink's Web sites, WiredPussy.com, and chant, "Torture, torture, torture. Nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah."
At first, the performers will become so anguished they'll use their safe words. But over time, and with the expenditure of millions of dollars in government subsidies, their soft, unused powers of resistance will gradually grow firm. Through tears and smeared mascara, they'll eventually say, "Please — tell me again how I'm being exploited. Yeah, please say 'torture.' Oh, yeah: 'Tooooortuuuuure!'"
And America will again be a dom.