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.”