Godfathers of Porn: #05: Alison Boden, Kink.com

Alison Boden

Alison Boden has been at the top of the fetish studio Kink.com for some time. In an interview with Vice, she talks about her company’s business model, data security and the influence of payment processors on the products of porn studios.

The founder of the legendary porn studio Kink.com, Peter Acworth, resigned as CEO of the company in May. His successor is Alison Boden, who previously worked for Kink.com in the technical department for many years.

A company representative commented on the succession plan: “Kink has always been shaped by strong directors. In his opinion, Boden’s technical background will have a greater influence on the future of the company than their gender.

Even before the change, the company was already in the midst of a restructuring process that had been underway for several years. The former headquarters, the Armory in San Francisco, was sold and production was largely transferred to Nevada. In addition a new platform was created for the contents of the site. Boden is regarded as the architect of the new strategy of also relying on external content. The company’s website now offers 30 channels on which content from other studios is also distributed. Acworth, who will focus on real estate in the future, supports the direction his successor is taking: “If there’s anyone who can reinvent Kink.com for the new Internet that’s crawling with free content, it’s her.”

The 34-year-old Boden has never acted in front of the camera, but she was already active in various functions in the industry when she joined Kink.com in 2010. In an interview with Vice, she talks about her future strategy for the fetish specialist and her own roots in the industry.

VICE: You had a sex toy business early on, how did that begin?
Alison Boden: The 30th anniversary of Roe v. Wade was when we happened to start—January of 2003. I grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and we didn’t have a Good Vibrations or a Babeland at all. A really good friend of mine in college and I just wished and hoped that Pittsburgh could have a sex-positive, women-friendly toy shop and finally when I was a senior in college, we were like, Well, why don’t we just try it ourselves? And while we tried, unsuccessfully, to go through the zoning process of finding a place where we could have a store, we did home parties.

So what went down at the parties?
We started out with a presentation around women’s sexual health. So it was geared toward anybody from the, let’s say, seasoned masturbator, to someone who doesn’t know where her clit is. People were able to kind of guide us where they wanted to go. Then we would go through a set of toys that we would bring in a suitcase and say, OK, well if you like this, then this might work, and then answer a lot of questions about it. People just naturally have a ton of questions when you open a box of sex toys in front of them.

How were you equipped to answer all those questions?
I had been trained as a peer sexual health educator and volunteered a lot with Planned Parenthood. It was pretty much my only interest… For whatever reason, I was the kid who would, like, go sit in the library, find a window, and read sex books.

As the saying goes, if you’re getting something for free, you’re the product. Is there an advantage for people using a paid subscription-based site like yours because the company isn’t as beholden to advertisers?
I have serious thoughts about super targeted data mining… As the former technology department head and just a political person myself, I’m very much on the freedom and privacy bandwagon—I’m a member of the EFF [Electronic Frontier Foundation]. We really try to respect our users’ privacy as much as humanly possible. Even when you pay us, we don’t collect your first and last name or your address. There are real consequences in this world for people, unfortunately, based on other people finding out what kinds of adult entertainment they enjoy.

We certainly check IPs to reduce fraud. So if you have an account that’s logging in from 30 different IP’s, there’s probably some kind of fraudulent thing going on. We want to protect our members’ accounts, but no, we actually don’t care who they are in real life to the extent that we’re not trying to figure out their interests on Facebook.

And is this something that happens with other websites?
I don’t know for sure. I do know for sure that they collect more data than we do. Especially with the new GDPR regulations, we’ve really examined, OK, is there anything we’re keeping that we shouldn’t? And we did cut out some data and dumped it. We just deleted it. We don’t want it anymore. Because why put ourselves or our members in a position like that? Let’s say we were Ashley Madison and we got hacked. We don’t even put ourselves in the position to expose our users that way.

What do you see as the future for porn production since piracy on tube sites like Pornhub or Redtube consumes so much of the potential customer base?
Piracy totally does suck. I think that if you had asked me ten years ago when the tube sites were totally lawless and just starting, the sky was falling a lot more back then. As an industry, the folks who’ve managed to make it to this point have found ways to work with them or around piracy.

What are some of those ways?
They have all the traffic, as it turns out… So when you advertise or when you see some of your content on Pornhub, it’s certainly not full-length content, but people can get a sense of, This is kind of great, I would like to see more of this, so where do you get content that’s actually this good? Click through to Kink. That’s how you work with them.

I think one of the main reasons Kink has been able to last and stay as strong as it has is because we cater to niches. If you’re just making blonde-in-a-hotel-room anal content, you have a lot of competition.

Now that the company has transitioned from a production to a distribution model and no longer shoots its own porn, how do you keep that Kink vibe going?
I think that we have the opportunity as Kink to be the place for fetish and BDSM content regardless of whether we shot it or not. We can definitely highlight new talent and I think in the future we’ll try to provide support to the folks who are making the content not just the folks who are in it. I think an obvious way would be to train folks in rigging, rope tying skills, and how to do it safely. It’s definitely a real skill that you have to learn and practice.

The folks who are directing for us are our absolute preferred providers. We’re like, Look, we’re going to continue to work with you and contract you as long as you’re producing great stuff. We have a staff of five full-time editors doing video editing… and getting that raw footage back really helps us control our quality and monitor what’s going on too.

What types of stuff are you looking for?
You just don’t want to see anything that we wouldn’t have wanted to see on a set. Or anything that you saw on that Leigh Raven set. If a model isn’t getting checked in with or she’s clearly in distress, we’re definitely going to make some phone calls and let that director know, Hey, this was wrong, this can’t happen again. And of course there’s always the usual you look for in porn. Like, you can’t have any kind of blood or anything—if someone got a bloody nose, we have to cut that out.

Is that a regulatory thing or just your own standards?
Mostly the regulations around content don’t come from the government, they end up coming from the credit card companies. Visa won’t process credit cards for you if they don’t like the content, so it makes it super arbitrary at times because they don’t publish a list of do’s and don’ts, it’s very subjective. We’ll get word like, Hey they don’t like this, you need to take it down. It’s much more common to get a complaint about a word in a description than a thing in a video. I have heard actual content complaints but it’s more rare. But yeah, who is this person that’s like… porn regulator?

Fetishes can get into territory that some people find problematic, like race play or age play. How do you square that with the goal of destigmatization?
It’s a tightrope. I think our approach is stepping back and going, OK, are we doing this because we are being thoughtlessly disrespectful or are we doing something to fulfill a fantasy? And in general it’s just about being really thoughtful ahead of time. If someone wants to do race play for example, great, that’s their fantasy. Let’s make it happen. My very good friend’s wife is white, he’s black. He’s mostly dated white girls and he’s like, when I look at porn, I want to be able to put myself in the fantasy, so I have to use “interracial” as a keyword because that’s the only way to find the content.

For some people, the sense that something is forbidden or subversive is at the core of their interest. By normalizing those offbeat desires, are you killing the driver for your market in a sense? Is it less compelling?
You’re basically asking all the questions that I’ve really had to think about in the last couple of months—does destigmatization mean it’s not sexy anymore? What I’ve realized is that what we don’t want to do is say X, Y, or Z is dirty or not dirty. That’s your decision. What we do want to say is that people should be free to enjoy whatever kink that they are into, with the caveats that of course it shouldn’t hurt anyone. People shouldn’t be punished for having interests that aren’t shared by their neighbors or their boss. But it’s not always a thing we can do. Having, let’s say, a diaper fetish—we don’t cater to it, because we can’t.

Visa would be calling you.
Yeah. I remember reading Dan Savage and reading letters from folks who had diaper fetishes and just being really heartwarmed by how much people really do want to connect and feel normal by seeing their interests reflected in society. And so in that way, I don’t think we have the power to make it unsexy, I think we mostly have the power to make people feel less alone.

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