Of Pride and Prison Fantasies
A Pride weekend event held at the Armory has some people upset over the "inappropriate theme" of a jail-themed circuit party; but despite complaints, the event’s almost sold out.
Producers of Prison of Love expect nearly 3,000 people to attend. The event is co-produced by WE Party, Kink.com, Club Universe, Masterbeat and Fresh SF. But a small group of opponents has asked for a boycott of the event and San Francisco’s LGBT Pride, even though it’s not an official Pride event.
A local version of the Los Angeles-based Masterbeat and the European WE Party events, the website’s promotional text on www.prideatthearmory.com asks participants that "whether you’re Sub, Dom, a wearer of leather, or simply curious, come celebrate and demystify alternative sexualities with Kink at an evening of BDSM-inspired entertainment that will be sure to thrill all."
Featuring several DJs, multiple dancers (men, women and transgender performers at previous We Party events), along with gargantuan projection screens and lounge areas, the event will also include bondage and discipline demonstrations in the Victorian-themed Upper Room, as well as tours for VIP ticket holders.
For months, the event’s information was available. But the debate about the prison theme started in late May on Jezebel.com by LGBT-identified editor Kat Kallahan, via the blog ROYGBIV. Kallahan called the party’s theme, "...well, like a really, really bad idea. Insensitive you might even say. Perhaps my favorite word of all: problematic."
Kallahan added, "It seems to me that the organization has an obligation not to make light of the LGBT+ community’s issues with incarceration (and all of its attendant issues, such as prison rape)."
But does it? Which sexual fantasies are allowed and not allowed? How responsible is a circuit party whose other themes have included gambling and the Apocalypse for informing their patrons about social issues?
One fan of the We Party events, Kamil Brodt, wrote in response, " Yes, the promoters have taken to some innuendo with "prison," but it’s a fantasy theme - and it’s about love and fun. It’s a Dance party with DJs and shows. In no way does anyone with a half a brain see this is remotely close to demeaning to LGBT people, or people who are incarcerated. WE Party does themes called Casino, Airlines, Cosmetics, and they aren’t getting silly blog posts from gambling addicts, airline crashes, PETA or people against cosmetic testing on animals, which is a close analogy to the big deal you’re trying to make about this party. You’re not going to get an almost sold-out party to change its fun-spirited theme."
Opponents of the event seem to be small in numbers. The boycott organized by unnamed Tumblr members, has eleven followers on www.boycottsfpride.tumblr.com. On it, posts call for the event’s organizers to address a number of statistics on incarceration and prison rape.
Using the hashtag #NotProud, a smattering of Twitter posts aimed at the party’s sponsors - and SF Pride, Inc., count the ways in which their thoughtless "prison theme" is problematic.
Gay Shame has jumped onto the bandwagon after an absence. That group of dissenters is known mostly for charging into the Pride parade to attack then-Mayor Gavin Newsom. Despite the fact that the event has no official connection to Pride organizers or its board, opponents are aiming complainers that way. They’re also taking issue with event producers.
But why now, when many aspects of gay erotica and bar culture have decades-long association with fetishizing incarceration? Perhaps it’s because the event is so big, and the symbolic nature of the Armory itself represents a large easy target.
Or perhaps the timing is bad, what with the U.S. currently having a vastly higher jailed population than dozens of other countries combined. But practitioners of bondage and SM events and videos who are producing the party say it’s a problem of not understanding the ways of their sexuality.
Ten-year Entertainment Commission member Audrey Joseph, a co-producer of the event, replied online that it was "Too bad you can’t see the value in being a prisoner of love." The few negative replies on her Twitter feed are the same few people also posting on the protest tumblr blog.
There, opponents note that a representative of Kink.com, which is celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Armory building, tweeted under the event handle, @pridethearmory, that "I guess no one has ever been to Folsom, Black Party or Southern Decadence - too busy being politically correct."
And a representative posting on Twitter as @PrideSF wrote, "The good news is that sexual diversity doesn’t need to be understood to be celebrated."
The most replies critiquing the event are from a Jacki Shine, whose link to the boycott plans have received scant attention. But the bullet points are worth noting:
"It’s well-known that mass incarceration disproportionately affects low-income people, people of color, and LGBT people. It’s well-known that for many decades, LGBT people have been and still are criminalized on the basis of their sexual and gender identities," wrote Shine. "This is a real issue in our community."
Shine’s list includes these points:
LGBT teens comprise as much as 15% of the general population in juvenile justice facilities; among girls alone, 27% are lesbian or bisexual.
LGBT young people and adults face harsher penalties from the justice system. LGB people face higher rates of abuse and assault in prison.
The two two leading risk factors for prisoner rape are previous sexual abuse and being LGBT.
Incarcerated homosexual and bisexual men are sexually assaulted at rates ten times higher than their heterosexual counterparts.
The federal definition of "rape" didn’t even include men or non-vaginal penetration until 2010. Men assaulted in prison were not considered rape victims by the U.S. Department of Justice until 2010.
Incarcerated trans women in men’s prisons report rates of sexual assault nearly thirteen times greater than among groups of other people.
In the promo trailer for Prison of Love, Sebastian Keys dances under a disco ball
in a jail cell.
In response, Kink.com founder and CEO Peter Ackworth’s public letter, posted on the event’s Facebook page, addressed the complaints.
Ackworth wrote, "I feel empathy for those who are offended. I have enor mous respect for the battles that are being fought against incarceration," and as "someone who has long-since been deeply troubled by the minimum-sentencing rules and the war on drugs that were started under the Reagan Administration."
Ackworth mentioned the diversity of his staff, and defended the event as a celebration. "I believe that if a group wants to organize a particular kind of party, they should be free to do so without shame," he wrote.
"It was certainly never intended to ’trivialize incarceration’ nor ’normalize oppression,’ and I do not believe that a fantasy party could ever trivialize or normalize events in the larger world. I ask you to also consider the fact that sexual fantasy and BDSM have long been a tool used by those who have experienced real life trauma and oppression - including many members of the LGBTQ community - to reclaim the imagery and language of their experiences and alter the actual meanings of those words and images."
Ackworth explained the extensive preparations for the type of BDSM sexuality depicted in the thousands of gay, straight, bisexual and transgender scenes taped under the more than 30 sub-genres at Kink.com.
On the specific police and prison content, he wrote, "Though players may wear a uniform or use language that is traditionally representative of cultural authority, they do so with the understanding that this play queers that representation and alters its meaning. The wearing of uniforms and the use of the tools of authority as sexual props has long been a means through which some members of the queer community have protested and reclaimed the symbols of oppression. I ask you to consider the idea that the use of the prison industrial complex as a party theme does not trivialize the experiences of the oppressed, but trivializes the assumed authority of the oppressor."
But Ackworth also wrote that he understands the complaints, saying that, "Pride is both a celebration of LGBTQ identities and historically a time when serious issues that affect queer communities are highlighted. Had I thought that a prison fantasy party would detract from the very serious issue of the prison industrial complex in this country, I would have insisted on another theme."
As a one-third investor in the event, Ackworth finished by offering to make some promotional phrasing changes where possible, although by now most of the planning is complete.
But that’s not enough for Anthony Julius Williams, a San Francisco queer performance artist who creates shows about social justice and sustainable communities. Williams mentors young Black men in an educational program, which, he wrote, "is designed to ensure they wind up in college, not prison."
"Few people who have ever experienced prison rape fantasize about it, and those who do generally need treatment for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder," said Williams. "The political tone-deafness of this party confirms stereotypes of white gay men as mindless sex addicts. A lot of people don’t think there’s anything hot about the facts that our country imprisons more of its own citizens than any other country in the world, that 70 percent of those prisoners are people of color, and that some 65,000 men get raped in prisons every year."
Williams said that he doesn’t know "which scenario is more upsetting: that the promoters are cravenly exploiting the controversy for personal profit, or that they are so politically clueless that they didn’t think it would be controversial."
He alleged that the event promoters aren’t doing any political education about the realities of mass incarceration and aren’t donating any of the profits to groups who do political education on the prison industrial complex, such as Critical Resistance and the TGI Justice Project.
"First, rich white people push us out of our neighborhoods, then they arrest us for the resulting homelessness, mental illness, drug abuse and violence, and then they jack off to it at a sex party," wrote Williams. "Welcome to white supremacy, San Francisco-style!"
But why is this event in particular being singled out? Jezebel writer Callahan’s argument against the event is somewhat inconsistent, given the blogger’s enthusiasm for "Game of Thrones," a violent HBO series based on the bestselling books, where beheadings, murder, gruesome torture, and incest are among the storylines. Thousands attended a recent Thrones -themed party, which included real armored battle participants. And yet no one protested that benefit’s violent themes.
Callahan also raves for the new season of the Netflix series "Orange is the New Black." The web company’s CEO is a right-wing conservative, and the series brings a darkly comedic yet fictional aspect to life in women’s prisons. If the comparison seems off, consider the perspective of the events co-sponsor, Kink.com, where uniforms, bondage and sexuality in and around jail cells is a form of theatre.
To explore the issue more, I visited the Armory last week to talk with a few organizers, including Facilities Manager Andrew Harvill, and performer-director Sebastian Keys, who shared their perspectives. Harvill said that the event originated with producer Audrey Joseph and Janine Shiota of Fresh SF. Then Kink and Masterbeat joined the party.
Of the Masterbeat events, Harvill said, "They have fully developed theatre shows, and tour around the world, so when we bought the license, we got the WE party theme, which is an entire show."
Masterbeat and WE parties have been held since 1996 at Universal studios, Disney’s Epcot ShowPlace, Madrid, London, Paris, Bogota, Moscow, and many other cities. The company’s 2012 Los Angeles New Year’s night took on an Apocalypse theme. The company also has a record label and DJ management, but mostly focuses on its lavish parties.
"They’re known for very inclusive events, different from traditional gay men’s events," said Harvill. "There are lots of women and trans people, a diverse crowd, and lots of bling."
Muscled gogo dancers and vast TV screens for multiple projections round off the main floor entertainment. Equipment’s been rented locally, and such large events, while not anything of this kind, have been held in the building since its completion in 1914. The Armory hosted boxing for decades, as well as car and trade shows, and the touring production of the play Black Watch. Recent LGBT benefits include the County Fair events.
Harvill mentioned the roller derby nights and upcoming live concerts. He said the company hopes to sponsor more sports events like boxing, including the kind where the competitors keep their clothes on.
"We do a lot to keep the neighborhood safe," said Harvill of the years since the Armory became a successful porn palace. "Just because we do adult films doesn’t mean we don’t care about our community."
Night cop Connor Maguire (left) bound by Sebastian Keys in a Bound Gods video.
Depending on the visuals, costumes, projections and demonstrations, for sexual athlete Sebastian Keys, it’s all a form of performative erotica.
Keys said he understand the concerns. "Everyone has a sore spot, but we’re treating it like any BDSM practice. Yes, there are whips and chains, and people screaming at the top of their lungs. But it’s all consensual. Even if it’s derived from horrific events in the past, we’re taking our own spin on it, that the power goes to the one that’s receiving it. The submissive partner is really the one in power."
Keys was clear to separate the reality from his work.
"A lot of people that I have talked to who don’t like the theme are unfamiliar with the BD/SM perspective," he said. "There is no good that comes out of incarceration. But by doing the party, we’re trying to put a light on that, give that power back. All the years of being oppressed; we’re taking that back. And what better time to do it than Pride, which grew out of oppression."
Harvill offered his own perspective on understanding the issues. Fresh out of college, he worked with a Christian social work ministry in federal prisons with men on Death Row in Georgia. "Other people involved in our productions have been in prison," he said. "Actually, we do know what it’s like. I was pretty hurt when the protest started."
So, despite their understanding, was it wrong to give the party a prison theme?
"Politically we’re not far removed from people who are taking issue with the theme," Harvill said. "We recognize that the criminal justice system has issues and is not entirely fair. But we feel like, ’We’re your allies. This is not a battle.’ We understand the point of view. But when you put things in a BDSM context, there’s a lot of roleplay here."
Far from his missionary days, Harvill admitted that he’s "seen some stuff that’s pretty strange to the outside world" since he started working with Kink.com. "But it’s consensual. We hope this will be a party for everybody."
Although not as extreme as Kink’s more unusual videos, gay male and female SM erotica goes back decades, from images to films with prison settings, even before Tom of Finland and Betty Page. Gay bars and sex clubs called the Cell Block, The Brig, and other terms have been open (and closed) for decades.
"It’s so entrenched in gay male culture," said Harvill. "Many of us have been arrested for various reasons. We’re able to make something like this into erotica or a fantasy."
So, are opponents missing the context, the fictional nature of a created event? Prison of Love’s brief online trailer tries to visualize the dual-natured theme. Albeit a huge event, the trailer features just two men; Sebastian Keys strips out of an orange jumpsuit to lap-dance a stern Van Darkholme (Kink’s veteran director-producer and Dom performer) as a glitter ball illuminates a prison cell.
Keys noted a specific moment at the end where he and Darkholme ’break character,’ reminding the viewer that it’s not real.
"It’s something we do all the time with our scenes; show a moment and interview before and after when we’re out of character," said Keys of the oft-repeated ’consensual’ clarification. "We do that specifically to say, ’Don’t take this stuff too seriously. When playtime is over, it’s over."
Keys, married to Kink performer Eden Alexander, has appeared in hundreds of scenes in various categories. He’s conducted bondage orgies in warehouses, shops, toilets and even on the street at the Folsom Street Fair. Keys has also been poked and prodded by men, women, transgender performers and a few odd-looking machines. For Keys, at Kink, ’prison’ is just another scene.
"We do what I call ’extravagant bondage,’" said Keys of the complicated array of ropes used in Kink’s various bondage categories. "There is corporal stuff, all consensual, and all our models are well aware of what will be administered to them. We have a checklist that every person knows what’s okay and what’s not okay."
Separating bondage and abuse into a theatrical fiction isn’t the problem with opponents, it would seem. No one has started protests about the porn. It’s a party held on Pride weekend that’s getting the negative attention.
Complaints about the Armory event may seem single-minded when compared with BDSM-themed events at The Eagle and The Powerhouse, along with Folsom Street Fair, Up Your Alley, which regularly include bondage, uniform and other fetishes in their entertainment.
Anthony Julius Williams replied, "This is not about condemning the leather community or fetish sex in general; it’s anyone’s right to eroticize whatever they wish, really; what this is about is raising awareness about the prison industrial complex. There’s something really disturbing about eroticizing it when it is destroying communities of color as we speak. What’s next year’s party theme going to be? The Holocaust?"
Asked why this event and no other are getting such demands, Williams wrote, "Everyone and no one is ’responsible’ for doing outreach on these issues. But I would like to see the promoters help to educate people about the political realities of mass incarceration rather than merely exploit them for profit. The cavalier way the event is being promoted creates the impression that the promoters are contemptuous of people of color and their daily struggles with issues like police brutality."
So, is it cavalier to perform a bondage scene with police costumes, or a row of dancers stripping uniforms off, without worrying that people won’t see it for what it is, entertainment? For the event itself, most people will be on the dance floor. The only SM acts seen will be in the VIP rooms. And even then, there will be restrictions.
"We have dungeon masters who regulate the crowd," said Keys. "There could be some touching. But you don’t hand someone a paddle, because we don’t know that person. Our models’ safety is very important to us. It doesn’t put anybody at risk."
Downstairs on the main floor, a sort of sex-ploratorium will be on display for attendees to try out SM items. But as with the demos, it’s a no-penetration sex party, Keys explained. With ABC licenses, alcohol in the same room with sexuality are off-limits.
Commented Harvill, "But you don’t need that to enjoy it all." Although their idea of sexuality may be different than others, claiming it, especially on Pride, is important to practitioners.
"There was a point where we thought, ’Is this too dark?’" said Harvill. "And the conclusion was to bring out the love aspects to it, and give credence to what we do here, BD/SM. And we’re proud of it."
WE Party’s Prison of Love takes place Saturday, June 28, 9pm-4am at The Armory, 1800 Mission St. Tickets are $75 and up. The June 29 after-hours event (4am-10am) is called Beyond the Prison, to be held at City Nights, 715 Harrison St. tickets are $30. www.prideatthearmory.com www.masterbeat.com