Bay Area porn star alleges studio fired her for contacting FBI

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Laura Waxmann's picture
Elise Graves (L) and Cyd Black (R)
Elise Graves (L) and Cyd Black (R) are suing their former studio, Intersec Interactive. This article refers to performers and directors by their stage names. We use real names for individuals who use their real names for their work.

By Laura Waxmann and John Shutt

A Bay Area adult film performer and director is suing her former studio, stating she was fired for reporting the company's co-owner to the FBI for having an alleged sexual relationship with a minor. Elise Graves, identified here by her stage name, claims she faced retaliation from Intersec Interactive for acting as a whistleblower, in violation of California labor law. Graves and another former Intersec star, whose stage name is Cyd Black, also allege that the BDSM porn production company further violated the law by misclassifying them as contractors, withholding wages and violating agreements on consent during porn shoots.

In a climate where BDSM is often marginalized, and practitioners frequently find themselves on the defense against bigotry and threats from hostile forces seeking to censor their artistic and sexual expression, this lawsuit turns a spotlight on the internal practices of an influential and controversial porn company credited with pioneering BDSM live shows online. Intersec Interactive operates a studio in Oakland, while a website it previously ran, Insex.com, regularly featured performers who are now affiliated with Kink.com, the Bay Area’s most recognizable producer of BDSM content.

The case also highlights the risks that whistleblowers take in approaching the authorities with claims of wrongdoing -- lost wages, and lost friends. Whether the authorities find merit in the claims made by Graves or not, her right to raise them and be protected in her actions is an important cornerstone to effective whistleblower protection.

 

Allegations, retributions, and labor abuses

A former producer and on-camera model for Intersec Interactive from 2009 to 2014, Graves says she was wrongfully terminated from Intersec after she reported the company’s co-owner Daniel Intraub to the FBI after, she claims, he admitted to a sexual relationship with a minor. Graves declined to comment to The Outsider, saying her lawyer had advised her not to discuss the case.

In the complaint, Graves states that during a dinner in late 2014, Intraub admitted to her that he was engaged in a relationship with a minor whom he met online, adding that he had chosen to continue the relationship despite the minor’s parents forbidding it once they became aware that it was happening.

Additionally, Graves claims that Intraub took nonconsensual photos of models’ privates on set and hid cameras and microphones throughout the studio, including in the bathroom. She claims that she repeatedly reported these violations to the company’s original founder, who uses the stage name PD, in the months leading up to the dinner and FBI report, and that PD did nothing in response.

Intraub confirmed in a phone interview that he joined the company in February 2006 as a jack-of-all-trades, with duties ranging web programming to helping around the set, and that he is now the co-owner and primary manager of the company, with the original founder PD retiring. Intraub declined to comment to us on the allegations, but testified in a court declaration responding to the lawsuit that his relationship with the minor was not physical or sexual.

Graves, along with another Intersec staff member referred to only as “Jack”, met with PD in October 2014 to inform him of Intraub’s conduct. In the complaint Graves claims she told PD that she'd reported Intraub to the FBI, to which PD responded: "This is definitely a problem.”

The FBI press offices in New York and Oakland have not responded to requests for comment, so it remains unclear how the FBI responded to Graves’ report or if the case is still open. Jack Hammer, a director and performer for Intersec, declined to comment on the case.

Shortly after the conversation with Graves about Intraub, PD sent an all-staff email terminating all contracts, and telling Intersec staff to contact Intraub for interviews. The Outsider obtained a copy of the email through BayLeaks.

From: PD

Subject: [staff] the Freak Show

I hope everyone watches this amazing production: episode 1 of season 4.

Soon after my arrival back to Oakland I had a surprise meeting with Elise and Jack regarding the future of the company.

They were very concerned that we have a “pedophile” in our midst in the name of Daniel. Elise related a story that Daniel shared with her about his own “Catfish” (a show on MTV) moment about a girl who misrepresented her age to him on the internet. She also suggested that he regularly trolls the internet for these encounters and thus presents a clear and present danger to us all. In the spirit of these concerns she further related that she has contacted the FBI.

I have contacted our attorney and have a meeting with her on Tuesday.

Needless to say I have not slept or eaten much. And certainly cannot concentrate on the art that was the love of my life. Indeed, an internecine miasma has permeated our affair for the past two years. This brings me to the next condition: my own responsibility in how we have come to this. I believe I have made exceedingly bad judgements in allowing people who have no experience, loyalty, veracity, conscientiousness, or time (un-vetted) to have my ear. I believe the ability to assess strangers and their character is an important requisite of leadership. I am naively trusting (an aspect of aging I have read), or there is no fool like an old fool. Regardless, I am now taking definitive steps to remedy this progressing condition.

One of my final acts in my current capacity: all contracts are terminated. Please contact Daniel for interviews.

Who will answer any questions? It is simple and beautiful — I cannot change the fact that Daniel has had my back for eight years and has helped guide this business forward. In my trembling state I turn to him.

See you tomorrow at the meeting.

Sincerely,

pd

ps. This correspondence is confidential.

Graves claims that she was effectively singled out for termination by this email, a move that may violate California labor codes and California’s unique whistleblower protection law, which forbids terminating staff members for reporting suspected criminal activity to law enforcement or workplace violations to management.

“To my knowledge, [PD] did nothing to address the pedophilia issue,” said Graves in the complaint.

In its motion to dismiss the lawsuit, Intersec claims that the e-mail was misconstrued, and that it was meant to “transfer the functions of several Independent Contractors” to Intraub, rather than to terminate anyone’s contracts. In a phone interview, Intraub confirmed for The Outsider that he is now running the studio in Oakland and that PD has recently retired. PD could not be reached for comment through Intraub or through Intersec’s lawyer, Karen Tynan.

In addition to the wrongful termination allegations, Graves and Black claim that Intersec denied them their basic rights as employees—including overtime pay, health insurance, unemployment benefits, and lower taxes—by wrongfully misclassifying them as independent contractors.

Graves signed a contractor agreement with Intersec in 2013, but claims that after she was made the director of one of the company’s sites, her responsibilities far exceeded the agreement and qualified her to be treated as an employee according to California labor laws.

Cyd Black had worked on and off for Intersec and its predecessor companies for over a decade. He is suing for unpaid wages and misclassification for his work on Intersec’s current sites, and additionally accuses PD of ordering him to reclassify Insex.com employees as contractors back in 2005 in order to save money on unemployment insurance.

Intersec insists that they were correct in classifying Black and Graves as independent contractors, but their own press kit lists Black as an “employee,” along with several other performers. The press kit does not mention Intraub or the Oakland studio at any point, even though Intraub is the co-owner of the company and the Oakland studio produces a great deal of the company’s content.

The plaintiffs allege that this pattern of misclassification was a cost-cutting measure that went unchallenged for years in a company that set the standards in an uncharted market—standards that bypassed labor laws and have carried through to the modern version of the company.

 

History of Intersec, pioneering extreme BDSM online

Intersec Interactive was the parent company of Insex.com, which emerged in the late 1990s as one of the most influential and severe sadomasochistic porn websites. One of the first and few to depict the extremes of BDSM practices on the web, it opened a new market that specifically focused on female submissives and pioneered the use of ‘live feeds,’ allowing users to make direct requests from Intersec models. The site’s history and its eventual shutdown were the subject of the award-winning 2009 documentary Graphic Sexual Horror.

PD launched Insex.com in 1997 with an artistic approach to bondage that was viewed as unprecedented. The site generated a cult following, and served as the launching pad for the careers of many performers who stepped in front of its cameras. In Graphic Sexual Horror, PD claims that Insex.com was forced to shut down and sell its assets in 2005 when the Department of Homeland Security convinced Intersec’s merchant bank to shut off credit card payments to the site, telling the bank that pornography was used to fund terrorism—a tactic that sidestepped a legal battle over obscenity, which Intersec believed they would win.

“The U.S. government ... couldn’t make the case,” said Intraub in a phone interview. “So instead of attacking us in the courts, which would be costly and could take years, they would simply write to our banks, saying, ‘these people are funneling money to terrorists’—and the banks shut us down. We couldn’t process credit cards. There were several sites back in those days that were targeted, mostly the more violent, extreme, weird, or as [PD] would say, the ‘more eccentric’ sites were targeted.”

Intersec itself survived the shutdown of its subsidiary Insex.com and increased government pressure, and currently runs a collection of BDSM-themed sites, including Infernal Restraints, Sexually Broken, HardTied.com, and TopGrl.

While PD’s dark artistic vision and the novelty of Insex.com’s material catered to a niche in the adult video industry that would influence many bondage sites that followed, his company grew with few parameters and operated largely unchecked.

Graphic Sexual Horror depicts a culture at Insex.com where consent is blurred when money is involved, and performers were pressured to push or even exceed their boundaries in order to secure future shoots with the company.

Several Insex.com performers who were interviewed for the documentary said PD pressured models to perform bondage scenarios with him off-camera without pay.

“We didn't make the movie to indict anyone,” said Barbara Bell, the film’s co-director, in a discussion with The Outsider. “We made it as a way to show how power and consent get difficult to maneuver for both sides.”

The shutdown of Insex.com by extralegal tactics by the federal government created an opening in the market for other fetish sites like Kink.com, which now dwarfs Intersec and features many of its former performers.

 

Exit of Insex.com and the rise of responsible BDSM

As BDSM practices have become more mainstream in recent years, the adult entertainment industry has followed suit. Kink.com, which has an extensive list of shooting rules and explicitly defined rights for models, recently shuttered two of its more extreme sites and is ramping up production of educational videos and workshops.

Since their break with Intersec, Black and Graves appear to have teamed up on a new studio called Digital Dark. They've labeled it "an underground collective of revolutionary purists of bondage, BDSM and unburdened sexuality." The site features new material featuring the two of them and several other BDSM models and handlers, including other former Intersec staff. Nevertheless, both Graves and Black continue to be highlighted on Intersec's websites and promotional materials.

In a motion to dismiss, Intersec claims the Digital Dark cofounders are suing in an attempt to eliminate the competition.

Black and Graves’ new studio emphasizes education and artistry in their promotional materials, writing that they are aiming to “change the way BDSM and educational rope bondage is seen in today's adult industry landscape.”

Even Intersec’s corporate homepage now states that the studio made famous by its horror movie-style BDSM productions “has embarked upon a new image and goal for its company.”

Ultimately, the legal battle between Intersec and its former stars may be decided on a technicality. Intersec is seeking to move the case to a court in New York, where the company was originally founded. New York has different labor protection laws than California, and it isn’t clear whether New York courts would enforce California’s unique whistleblower protection law.

In an industry working to change its image and making real strides towards practicing and portraying consensual, responsible BDSM, there is no room for whistleblower retribution, pushed boundaries or bent labor laws.

“One of my biggest concerns about your story is that most people are already tremendously opposed to BDSM,” said Bell. “Given the amount of misunderstanding and bigotry, pursuing a story that focuses primarily on this form of pornography and this website in particular, which has such inflammatory material, and adding the context of the lawsuit will create a horrible image and will appear to justify the laws banning this kind of human sexuality.”

This article was produced in partnership with BayLeaks, which uses an encrypted, anonymized submission system to protect the privacy of sources. If you have newsworthy information you need to share securely with journalists, visit BayLeaks.com for instructions.

 

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