Booboo Fet

Sasha weighs in on FetLife, the controversial online BDSM and fetish community.

Dear Sasha,

Do you still endorse now that they have been accused of covering up abuse allegations within their community? What do you think of the allegation that FetLife is an unsafe place for women to find safe dom partners?

—Questioning FetLife

Dear Questioning,

When I suggest FetLife in my column as a kinky social networking site, I do so with the understanding that there is an infinite and unmanageable array of possible connections to be had on every social networking site. I continue to suggest Craigslist to people wanting to hook up, knowing this.

I also tell people to go to clubs where I know for certain there has been questionable activity, and I direct them to neighbourhoods where people looking for the same thing they’re looking for have been assaulted. I also offer advice to people doing sex work, despite its precarious legal status. Fundamentally, I support people in their desire to pursue sex that is not sanctioned by the folks making the laws and wearing the badges and that will, simply because the world is teeming with all types, put them in contact with people who are unscrupulous and opportunistic.

Andrea Zanin is a BDSM workshop facilitator and a scholar of kink. She is also active on FetLife. As she says, “FetLife mirrors the problems we see in meat world socializing. Stalkers will stalk, flamers will flame, abusers will abuse — whether online or in person. No social networking website can guarantee a danger-free experience to anyone, and if anyone expects it to, to me that speaks of a spectacular degree of naiveté. On that count, I hold FetLife completely blameless. On its own, it is an empty container. Real people with real personalities come along and fill that container, with very predictable results — some wonderful, some horrific, most somewhere in the area in between, which we call “everyday life.” Perverts are no better than anyone else when it comes to behaviour, and by simply designing a website, John Baku was not signing up to stand behind each of us with a shotgun to ward off the creeps.”

Though both of us understand the spectrum of possible exchanges to be had online or otherwise, neither of us agrees with Baku’s decision to categorically remove explicit complaints.

As Zanin says, “The container does have some influence on what happens inside it. I think that the site is taking the wrong approach by trying to shut down discussion that names names when it comes to abuse allegations. It is no picnic to be falsely accused of abuse online, and that does absolutely happen, but I don’t think that’s sufficient reason to essentially gag people who have real concerns about real dangers and want to share them.

“The justice system is no friend to rape and abuse survivors in the first place, never mind anyone who’s in any way sexually alternative, especially submissive- or bottom-identified women. The fine details of consent that we talk about so earnestly in BDSM circles are way beyond the level we can expect from the mainstream social systems that are supposed to protect us from harm.”

Back in 2008, when Zanin interviewed Baku about FetLife for the Mirror, Baku stated that he wanted to create a site that’s friendly for women. “If Baku is serious about that,” says Zanin, “then he absolutely needs to change his tune on this and put his energy into figuring out how best to deal with the possible consequences of allowing names to be named rather than into stopping that from happening. I hope FetLife’s policies change. If they don’t, well, it’ll be interesting to see how the community responds over time. Will this issue dry up and disappear? Unlikely. More likely, someone will create another sort of online response, and we’ll be talking about that five or 10 years from now.”

I think there should be some way of expressing these experiences, in the same way that sex workers share information about bad clients. As Zanin notes, we are not friends with the law and those who enforce it, we sluts and whores. Our own ad hoc safety systems are flawed, but they are in place and exist for good reason. Still, to expect Baku to deal with this perfectly in this framework of a very public website means that he should have access to a better justice system than we all have.

“We need to reform the justice system, yes,” says Zanin. “But that’s a bit of a lofty goal, and a very long-term one at best. We also need to talk about dangerous practices and people among ourselves. When we’re prevented from doing so, that cuts us off from the safety systems we create as a community — which are informal and wildly imperfect, but still, they’re all we’ve got outside the strictly one-on-one strategies we’re all taught in our BDSM 101 workshops.”

Complicating all of this is the fact that Baku himself has been accused of non-consensual activity. “Mr. Baku issued an apology for his behavior on FetLife,” writes Rachel. R. White, “stating that he was drunk the night in question, though he didn’t specifically admit to abuse.”

That’s something else fetish and open-sex community members need to have a good hard look at: drug and alcohol consumption while playing. People need to stop getting so wasted that they do ugly shit. If alcohol shifts your boundaries and personality radically, it’s not an excuse — it’s a fucking wake-up call. Baku needs to take more responsibility for that, at least to the woman in question.

“Beyond the naming-names policy, FetLife is not perfect in plenty of other ways,” says Zanin. “The lack of privacy settings within the site is a real problem, for instance, and makes it a bad place to organize any kind of exclusive event or post pictures you only want to share with some friends. The site’s copy also leads users to believe they’re a lot safer from the outside world, privacy-wise, than they really are. The site creates a couple of extra hurdles for people to jump if they want to find your naked bondage pictures, but if someone really wants to do that, it’s not terribly hard. With all this in mind, I use FetLife, but I don’t ‘endorse’ it anymore than I ‘endorse’ my landlord by renting an apartment from him, or Facebook by maintaining a profile there.”

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