Why FetLife Is Not Good At Stopping Abusers

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 4.824% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

So there’s an Atlantic article going around entitled “How Kink’s Largest Networking Site Fails Its Users,” detailing how abuse, consent violation, and rape are prevalent in both BDSM and FetLife, and how FetLife’s crappy terms of service allows abusers to thrive.
This is absolutely true, but the reality’s a bit more complex.
First, my bona fides: I’ve been a member of Fet for about four years now, and I’m pretty well-connected there with about 2,500 friends and acquaintances. I blog on kinky topics there on a regular basis, and my essays routinely hit Kinky and Popular – a sort of “best of” leaderboard page, voted on by users.  Because I write on those topics, I get probably three or four emails a week from people in various forms of trouble asking me for advice.  As such, I see a lot of Fet’s flaws, and strengths, and know a lot of its core users.
And Fet encourages isolation.
This shocked me when I first got on FetLife, because I was used to an OKCupid-like experience.  I wanted to know what kinksters were in my town, so I searched in vain for a “look for people near you!” form, or in fact any friends recommendation algorithm like Facebook.  As it turns out, Fet makes it actively difficult to find people – you can look through the 800 people in your city, with the results arranged in no particular order, but that’s about it.  Everyone starts on Fet with a very small world.
That’s actually superb user design, as it turns out.  Because a lot of FetLife’s design is intended to protect the user from abuse.  Imagine if your  ex-spouse could search your town for people your age and gender in the hopes of finding dirt on you.  Or if a happy message popped up when you logged in suggesting that you friend your boss, with the sick realization that FetLife’s probably just outed you to her.  Or if your old stalker would be routinely alerted to your presence through casually unkind social networking.
Unfortunately, saying “Yeah, I’m really into fisting pretty boys’ asses” is grounds for losing child custody or a job in many places, as the outside world does not react well to many of the common things you’ll find on Fet – things like rape play, blood play, needleplay, trans identities, you name it.  FetLife understands that and does their best to make it so if you want to find friends, you have to work for it.
(And in addition to that UI issue, women routinely obfuscate their details further to avoid identification – the running gag on Fet is that Antarctica is a sexy refuge of 93-year-old women with astonishingly healthy bodies.)
That’s a good thing.  But the flip side to that is that it means that when you log into Fet, you are isolated.  It’s hard for people who might know better to find you.  FetLife suggests you join groups, which are places for people to gather, but the groups are little fiefdoms of varying quality.  Anyone can start a group.  If you join up with “Novices and Newbies,” there’s no real knowing who runs it or how creditable they are.
So when that starry-eyed 50 Shades housewife comes onto Fet, she might join a good group that encourages her, or she might join a group run by a predator who knows how to work that isolation.
Now, Fet’s taken some measures to prevent this with welcoming agents vetted by Fet, but the truth is that Fet is trying to balance one harm with another – how do you get people to know who the “good” folks are when even the “good” folks could lose their job for people in the outside world knowing their identity?
And that’s before we even get to the consent violation issue, which is complicated as heck.
Now, as I start this discussion, let’s set some clear limits: yes, a lot of abuse is easy to spot.  If you tie someone up and have sex with them against their will once they’re helpless, that’s rape.  And it happens more than anyone wants to admit.
Yet while there is jet-black abuse there is also, as they say, 50 shades of gray here.  “Negotiating a scene” is a complex skill in BDSM, because a lot of what you’re trying to do is use brutal physical sensation to induce catharsis or an altered head-state.  There’s a state called “subspace,” which is oddly druglike, where you’re floaty and find it hard to concentrate and agreeable to a lot of things that you might regret in the cold light of morning.  (Or, worse, you just drop so hard into subspace that you find it hard to vocalize objections when things start going wrong.)  There’s a lot of very person-specific markers that are hard to read – what does it mean if someone starts crying during a scene?  What does it mean if they start screaming “NO!” when the official safeword is “Red”?  For a lot of people, those violent protests and breaking down is part of their kink.
Admittedly, a good top knows to quietly ask, “Is that a real no or part of this?” and check in.  But a lot of people with very good intentions can learn that in fact, a boy who they were enjoyably mistreating was, in fact, so traumatized they weren’t able to call a “Red” when they needed to, and Bad Shit Happened.  And people with very good intentions can learn that their sub thought they wanted to be whipped until they cried, and now that they’ve actually done just what was requested it’s not good catharsis but in fact just trauma uncorked, and how the hell do you fix that?
Even people with good intentions can accidentally do bad things in a world with a really weird learning curve.
And in the cracks like these, predators thrive.  Because there are so many miscommunications and mistakes and oh shit man sorry it turns out that you didn’t want that that people who are actively trying to fuck people over in order to get their kinks in can shrug and go “Whoops, my bad!” when in fact it was a carefully targeted assault designed to get them what they needed.
Then add that to the complexity that predators are charming motherfuckers.  I tell people on Fet, “Don’t trust me. People who abuse you act and react just like me.  Yes, even down to talking about how bad predators are.”  And they go, “Aww, Ferrett, you’re one of the good guys,” and I scream, “Did you learn fucking nothing?”
But no, a predator doesn’t abuse everyone – in fact, there are often lots of people they do good for in the community, targeting only specific people they desire.  They’re often pillars of the community, a social hub.  And so when an accusation of abuse is made – on FetLife or in any local dungeon – it’s not as simple as “Bungie_boy is a predator!” and everyone going “Oh, that’s bad” and figuring out what to do.  No, what invariably happens is that there’s the usual flurry of “How dare you accuse Bungie?  She’s a wonderful person, look what she’s done for me!” and “I’ve dated her for years!” and “No, you don’t understand!”
Unbelievably, that happens even when the bad shit happened with witnesses.
And again, there is clear abuse and rape in the community.  Too goddamned much of it.  But there’s also the not-common-but-also-not-unheard-of missteps created by good intentions, as outlined above, which feel no less like abuse when you’re the one who suffered at the hands of an honest mistake.  And within all of that, there are the predators stirring the pot and confusing the issue, generating good PR to cover up their fucked-up deeds, casting doubt upon the people who speak out.
So while we should do more to “out” abusers, the problem in reality is that those threads degenerate into ugly firestorms every time, just as they do in real life.  I’m not sure how you fix that, because often the only way people can remove an abuser from a community is to cause so much drama that it effectively dissolves or splits the community, and then the predator just waltzes off to somewhere else and starts over with a new crowd of ignorant people.
It’s not a good solution, but I wish there was a better one.
(And then there’s the fact that newbies to kink routinely participate in a phenomenon so well-known that it’s called “sub-frenzy,” where someone new to kink decides they need a Master right fucking now, and no matter how many people tell them “Wait, you need to choose carefully,” they find the first bozo with a paddle who’ll collar them, and often they move in with them, and then discover wait, even if you’re a slave you need to still value yourself.  The results are routinely tragic, and I’ve yet to see a good way to stop them personally, let alone on an institutional level.)
And then there’s FetLife’s legal liability.  Their attitude is, “If you have an issue with an abuser, go to the cops.  This is not the place to do this.”  Which is a shitty answer because hey, remember why everyone’s anonymous on Fet?  Because the cops don’t have much sympathy for “So you went to his house, you negotiated a scene to get tied up and beaten, you got naked…and then he raped you?”  The law is almost worthless when it comes to date rape, let alone violating the limits of something kinky.
Yet I don’t know what I’d do if I was in charge of Fet.  They force people to remove the names of abusers, fearing defamation lawsuits.  And I don’t know Canadian law (they’re located in Vancouver), so maybe that’s a real concern, maybe it isn’t.  But what people routinely forget is that you do not have to lose a lawsuit to lose your shirt.  If McDonald’s decides to drop a $5 million defamation lawsuit on your doorstep for that two-star review you left on Urbanspoon, sure, they’re gonna lose in court.  But not before you shell out lots of money for a lawyer, and have to take time off of work to go to court, and by the time all is said and done you may be in bankruptcy.
I suspect the caretakers of FetLife have determined that they probably wouldn’t lose in court if they allowed names to be dropped, but they would have to spend so much money defending themselves from abusive doms that they’d go broke.  And that’s a reasonable concern: in my experience, the most abusive doms are the most arrogant and the most sensitive, and I think they’d be happy to file lawsuits just for the satisfaction of getting revenge on a big target.
What people get upset about at Fet is that there’s no good court for locking out abusers in the kink community, and they want Fet to be that police force.  And yes, Fet is almost certainly allowing abuse to thrive by refusing to allow abusers to be named on their site, but I’m not sure the community would be better served by having Fet slapped with a bunch of court cases and going under.  Fet’s already been in financial trouble a few times – PayPal infamously doesn’t allow you to pay for porn with it, and they’ve gone through several issues finding a bank who a) accepts credit cards, and b) will work with a porno place – and I suspect for all of their reach, they’re more of a shoestring operation than anyone would care to admit.
So the problems we’re seeing on Fet are real – but a lot of that is spillover from a culture that marginalizes kinky behavior to an extent where there is no effective help.  There’s no real government assistance if you get abused, no organizations that won’t be scorned by society, no friends or family you can turn to for support outside the community.  Kink is an inbred outpost, and Fet reflects that sad reality.
I want FetLife to be doing more to prevent abuse, I do.  They should be. I think they often don’t do enough, and the things that happen in the shadows are shameful. Painful. Unforgivable.
But then I think about the isolation when I first logged in – that immense difficulty of finding friends.  That was a purposeful design, it was a good thing that protected my anonymity until I chose to “go public” with my kink… and it had the unfortunately backfiring effect of leaving novices to stumble into predator’s lairs.
I try to imagine ways a social networking site could fix that, and still retain the critical mass of active, engaged, and satisfied customers that it would remain useful as a community. Because the size of FetLife is what makes people so critical of it – it’s huge, with hundreds of thousands of members, and the very reason people think it could be used for good is because it’s that successful.  If FetLife had 750 members total, well, it could be the best in the world at rooting out predators in its midst but then it wouldn’t actually catch that many of them.
And I don’t know how I’d fix that.  And I’m glad it’s not my full-time job to figure out how to try to engineer a social network that makes up for all the sad flaws for how we, as a society, marginalize kink.

5 Comments

  1. Eve
    Mar 5, 2015

    I can speak to the Canadian libel/slander issue. It actually is much easier to win a suit in Canada, because the burden of proof is reversed. In the US, the burden of proof is on the person suing to show that the statements were false. In Canada, the burden of proof is on the defendant to show that the statements were true.
    But I don’t actually think this is why Fet has their rule. I recently had a long conversation at a party with one of their “community managers” about just this topic. Their reasoning, according to her, is that accusations made using descriptions of people, times, locations, events, etc., can be easily recognized by members of the local community, where (in their opinion) it actually matters, because people are going to actually encounter this person. Accusations made using a name will bring the entire internet into the fray, because people from halfway around the world who in theory will never be personally affected by the accused will want to weigh in on the matter, and basically, the community managers at Fet don’t feel equipped to deal with that. They want the local communities, not the Fetlife mods, to be the ones to handle any issues.
    Make of that what you will, but that was her take on it.

  2. Mr. Michael
    Mar 5, 2015

    Finally someone who understands the problems Fetlife would face if they changed their policy rather than just calling them out for facilitating abuse.
    I like the idea of a voucher system. Just a basic and anonymous thumbs up or thumbs down for a profile, weighted by the scores of those who are doing the rating (to possibly minimize gaming of the system with countless puppet profiles voting for themselves).
    Fetlife then doesn’t have to take responsibility for downvotes, and there are no specifics about vote, which insulates them from libel and defamation a certain amount.

    • RivetHead
      Mar 8, 2015

      Mr. Michael – I don’t think that solution would work. At least some of the abusers are people that are extremely popular within their local communities, and most people are going to trust them. If I have 2000 “friends” on FetLife, and rape 20 of them, I’m going to have a 99% thumbs-up from the 1980 friends that I don’t rape.

  3. CCR
    Mar 5, 2015

    I have no dog in this hunt, but maybe a multi-factor, multi-star rating system like on eBay could help. People could give scores to others on their interactions for helpfulness, competence, experience, sensitivity, etc. It would still be possible for jewels to game the rating system, but probably not easy. Especially if people aren’t allowed to have sock puppets.

  4. Tordeck
    Mar 6, 2015

    @CCR – Not allowing alt accounts would be a great way to ensure a rating system worked. But as someone who is and has been a forum administrator for various gamin forums over the last ten years I can say that is a lot harder to execute than it seems on paper. There are two main issues that stop the ability to limit the number of accounts a user has. Both are based on how a forum system enforces bans. One is email, and with the number of sites where a person can create a free email out there it is kinda mind boggling when you actually spend time researching it, it is incredibly easy to make so many alternate accounts the admins cannot catch them all. The second is IP address and this is where its really difficult to control banning. For example, I went to a college where every public computer had the same IP. Ban it and the one person you were looking to get rid of goes away but potentially so does a dozen more that were not breaking any rules. That’s why I have to agree with the OP, it might not be the best system but the Fetlife admins are doing the best they can with the resources available and I for one am glad I am not in charge of figuring out a better way as the work involved to do so would probably require a self aware super computer a few decades.

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