How Kink's Largest Social-Networking Site Fails Its Users

By protecting the identities of people with a history of abusive behavior, leaves members of the BDSM community vulnerable to harm.

The Fifty Shades of Grey books have unleashed a wave of mainstream interest in kinky sex since their arrival in 2011. The film version, which hit theaters on February 14, will probably trigger a second surge. But the kink community is less than enthusiastic about that.

“I’m not looking forward to it,” says Autumn Lokerson, a BDSM blogger and self-identified submissive.

That’s because Lokerson has seen many Fifty Shades converts dive headfirst into BDSM, without taking much time to educate themselves about the elaborate rules, rituals, and culture that have developed over decades. Her main concern is that newbies can put themselves in danger. All those rules—summed up by the oft-repeated community mantra "Safe, Sane, Consensual"—are vital to making risky practices like bondage and the infliction of pain safer.

Also worrisome is that many dipping a toe in the waters of BDSM will start exploring through FetLife, which, with more than 3.5 million members, is the most popular social networking site for kinksters. FetLife lets members discuss issues, explore their desires, and arrange offline events and dates. But Lokerson and others have long contended that FetLife does an inadequate job of safeguarding its users, and even creates a false sense of safety in the community—primarily, by preventing identification of abusive members.

Just as the rest of society has more openly confronted the ugly reality of rape, the BDSM scene has had to acknowledge that "Safe, Sane, Consensual" is often more of an ideal than reality. In 2011, Kitty Stryker, a blogger and longtime member of the BDSM community, spoke out about having her negotiated boundaries repeatedly violated by people she trusted. This triggered a flood of similar accounts across blogs, message boards, and discussion threads.

In 2013, these anecdotes were backed up by a survey by the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom, a group that works for the legal protection of alternative sexual practices. The survey found that 30 percent of people who participated in BDSM had had their pre-negotiated boundaries violated by a partner.

Revelations of abuse also frequently surface on FetLife. But these discussions are seriously limited—Fetlife doesn’t allow users to name their abusers. In a 2012 forum thread titled “Confessions: TRIGGER WARNING,” dozens of members accused others of violating their consent, using their FetLife screen names. However, FetLife administrators quickly emailed the user who started the thread, requesting that all usernames be removed. The thread can still be viewed in its anonymized version by registered Fetlife users.

Many of the stories shared on FetLife are horrific. One user shared this message from a FetLife admin regarding accusations against a high-ranking community member, whose username is here replaced with [Tribe Leader]:

Hi [Poster],

My name is Maureen, and I’m writing to let you know that we’ve removed a post you made in your status referring to [Tribe Leader] that said: “[Tribe Leader] has anally raped a person who was bound and gagged and unable to resist” I’m very sorry, but I’m afraid we don’t allow criminal accusations to be made anywhere on Fetlife against another member : (

The frowny face is a nice touch.

The policy is clearly laid out in Fetlife’s Terms of Use, which prohibit making “criminal accusations against another member in a public forum.” Whatever the rationale for the policy (FetLife founder John Baku and his staff did not respond to repeated requests for comment), its implications are profound.

Written abuse plagues much of the Internet, and attempts to deal with it are still inadequate. On February 4, Twitter CEO Dick Costolo admitted in a memo that “we suck at dealing with abuse.” Facebook’s sometimes-controversial “real names” policy is in part an attempt to curb abuse on the site, and the social-media behemoth employs legions of low-paid screeners to filter offensive posts.

It’s not surprising that FetLife, a much smaller company than Twitter and Facebook, lacks the manpower and innovation to confront and deal with the even more complicated reality of offline abuse suffered by its members. An additional challenge is that FetLife users rarely use their real names, or even show their faces in profile photos, due to the risk to their day-to-day lives if their still-marginalized sexual practices were exposed.

But before any of their more expensive efforts, Twitter and Facebook allowed users to call out others for bullying, slurs and death threats. That has resulted in prosecutions that are themselves complicated, but which may help make online life more civil. The inability to name abusers on FetLife, even pseudonymously, deepens the faceless distance that breeds online abuse. It also robs FetLife, and the online BDSM community more generally, of the self-policing and communication that are crucial to safety. Exploring BDSM through a screen is attractive to less-savvy acolytes—but anonymity is also like oxygen for the bad actors likely to prey on them.

“If I were a psychopath and looking for victims,” Lokerson says, “that’s a great place to start.”

Fifty Shades of Grey may also make its converts even more vulnerable because, as Emma Green recently wrote in The Atlantic, its depiction is overwhelmingly nonconsensual. The website “50 Shades of Abuse” dives deep into the books’ many instances of coercion and force, including four separate times main character Ana is raped by her boyfriend Christian Grey. The campaign “50 Dollars Not 50 Shades” has called for a boycott of the film on the grounds that it glamorizes abuse, encouraging people to instead donate $50 to a women’s shelter.

Christian Grey is far from the first dangerous fictional character who people also find attractive. The more important question is how those sort of fantasies get channeled into real-world behavior. Lokerson herself is an arresting example of the difference between the two. She refers to her husband as “Master,” and her website features a long list of the rules she follows in their relationship, including the requirement that, when they’re alone, she serve him food and drink on her knees.

But she’s also a bright, outspoken woman, and clearly nobody’s slave. Her main priority in life, she says, is getting her teenage daughters off to college. As we talk, her husband occasionally chimes in benignly from the background, not much differently than any half-interested spouse. That kind of subtle balance between fantasy and reality is hard to establish in the context of a hookup between two strangers who met online.

Community members have attempted to compensate for FetLife’s failings, launching an add-on tool called the Fetlife Alleged Abusers Database Engine, or FAADE, which both maintains a database of allegations and scans user’s profile pictures against the United States Sex Offender Registry. Users also launched a petition urging Fetlife to let users name abusers, though so far, the petition has had no effect on the site’s policy.

But the idea that a site facilitating risky sex doesn’t allow its members to police themselves is unnerving. Fetlife’s policy of silence has helped online BDSM seem more happy and safe than it really is. Autumn Lokerson advises people to connect with the BDSM community in person, where it’s easier to both identify and be warned about potential dangers. She says experienced participants can tell “from a two minute conversation” whether someone is an obvious threat.

“If you’re going to be involved in an online community because there’s nothing [offline] close to you, that’s fine,” she says. “But you need to be more aware of the risks there. I don’t think Fetlife is the greatest community for learning about this kind of thing.”

“There are so many people who are lost and wandering around in the dark.”