BDSM Community Reacts After Kink Website FetLife Goes Invite Only

Following accusations that it doesn't do enough to stop sexual harassment and abuse, BDSM, kink, and fetish site FetLife halted new sign-ups. As Fetlife works to straighten out its kinks, we asked users how the changes are impacting their online...

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Aug 18 2016, 5:51pm

Image via Flickr user breathtakingly

Since it first launched in 2008, kink-centric social networking site Fetlife has amassed more than 3.5 million users and established itself as the most prominent platform on the Internet for BDSM forums, dating, and local meet-ups. So, when the site closed its doors to new members without explanation on July 7, it sent a ripple through the online kink world.

Rumors flew about the reasoning behind the change, and many kinksters feared it would make the often-stigmatized community even more closed-off to people hoping to explore it. Some speculated the user cap was due to an influx of spam bots, while others believed the site was preparing to close for good.

Many also suggested Fetlife was perhaps finally responding to allegations it does not do enough to crack down on abuse. BDSM blogger Kitty Stryker first mentioned the site's failure to identify and ban users accused of assault and rape in 2011; her accusations set off a domino effect, with dozens complaining on the site's forums about sexual assault and repeated violations of preexisting safe words and boundaries by other users. The uproar exposed a huge problem in the BDSM community, which boasts an unofficial motto of "safe, sane, and consensual" and relies heavily on trust and communication.

Read more: How to Get the Kind of Rough Sex You Want

Weeks after the initial change to the rules, Fetlife founder John Baku sought to clear up some of the gossip, saying in a blog post that the decision to turn off sign-ups was meant "to prioritize the experience of current members over signing up new members." (Fetlife did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story). Baku noted that the support team previously did not have the capacity to respond to all complaints and that support cases had already dropped by 50 percent. He promised to take users' thoughts into consideration moving forward.

"Barriers to entry don't solve all problems... but they can drastically decrease them," he wrote. "All problems have solutions and all solutions have pros and cons. We are putting one foot in front of the other and we will iterate until we find the right balance that creates the best possible community."

Since then, the site eased up on its complete ban of new adds; It now allows users by invite only. Under the new system, paying members get one invite every two months they subscribe to the site. However, the impact of the new policy is already seeping into the site's user base. Longstanding frustration with the site's dated appearance and regulation issues have boiled over, and many users are taking their online activity elsewhere.

Chaele Davis, a New York kinkster who has had an account on FetLife for three years, says she began to seek out other options when she heard the site was closed to new members. She was frustrated she could no longer invite friends and play partners to the site and says she found Facebook groups and other closed forums that allow similar discussion to be a comparable substitute for FetLife. She used the site more for community and discussion than dating, and says she has found kinky partners just as easily on OKCupid. In fact, after several harassment experiences on FetLife, she found these mainstream forums to even be preferable.

Image via Flickr/Eduardo Santos

Davis isn't convinced the blocking of new users will fix the site's current issues with harassment and abuse. "There have been a lot of situations of harassment where there was no real response from the website," she said. "There doesn't seem to be a response that shows a lot of empathy, caring and concern, and users remember that."

Many "mainstream" dating apps offer ways to indicate interest in BDSM and other fetishes, and while users scatter from FetLife, some are flocking there instead. Feeld, formerly the threesome app known as 3nder, has seen the number of users who list BDSM as a desire grow 13.5 percent in the month since FetLife changed its policies. Founder Dimo Trifonov said the site's open-minded approach could be a draw to users new to the kink scene who were blocked out by FetLife's recent change.

"While some of our members are experienced in BDSM, we have many who are just beginning their exploration––in whatever form that may take," he said. "Our goal is to provide an open, positive space for all curiosities."

While Davis feels fine with using other sites for now, she is mourning the loss of a community she found integral to her entering the kink scene, and believes a site similar to FetLife will pop up in its place.

"I am really bummed out," she said. "I know they want to take care of the community that already exists, but don't think it serves the community well to do this—we were all new at some point. Someone is going to come up with something else, because it is needed."

Sara Ashley, another longtime FetLife user, also said the downsizing of the site is a great opportunity for another networking site to come to life. Even before the change, she says she took the majority of her kink-related online activity to Reddit and Facebook after being turned off by FetLife's outdated non-user friendly layout.

"There are many other places that have equal if not better resources," she said. "But at the same time, you cannot message people or see their profiles on Reddit the same way you could on FetLife. It is useful but certainly not a replacement."

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This may be especially true for people in rural and suburban communities. While people like Ashley and Davis are based in NYC and could easily find kink-related events without a dedicated forum for it, in places where the BDSM community is smaller and more obscured, being unable to access resources like FetLife where people can easily find like-minded individuals could make a major difference.

In recent weeks, FetLife announced it would take uninvited adds if people use a cell phone number to verify themselves upon registration. Some say the new measure will turn people hoping for complete anonymity and discretion off the site, with many people preferring not to have their identity connected to the site at all for fear of losing jobs or friends over their sexual preferences. In a post explaining that rule, Baku said it is meant to "strike the right balance between the community's overall health and a new member's privacy concern."

"We will continue to listen to your feedback while watching how these changes affect the health of the community," he wrote.