A BDSM blacklist

A Facebook-like site for kinksters stops users from naming alleged abusers, sparking debate over justice and safety

Published June 3, 2012 1:00AM (EDT)


The accusations range from "he told me I didn't need a safe word" to "[they] inserted a knife into my vagina without getting my permission." In recent months, allegations of sexual abuse in the BDSM community have popped up on Fetlife, which is basically Facebook for the kinky community. But site administrators have begun to remove message board posts that actually name names, igniting a debate over whether it's right to publicly reveal the identity of alleged abusers and about how to best deal with BDSM crimes that many survivors are resistant to take to police.

Earlier this year, I reported on recent attempts to raise awareness about what some say is widespread abuse within the BDSM community and a tendency to either ignore it or cover it up. As I said at the time, "We’re talking about real abuse here, not the 'consensual non-consent' that the scene is built around." That means safe words being maligned or ignored, and boundaries being crossed. In the months since, the conversation has only gotten louder; and following the social networking site's removal of posts that identify alleged abusers -- most often by their Fetlife moniker only -- a petition was started to remove a clause from the site's Terms of Use requiring users to pledge to not “make criminal accusations against another member in a public forum.” Currently, the proposal has 864 “spanks” (the site's equivalent of “yes” votes).

When I asked John Baku, the founder of Fetlife, for the reasoning behind deleting accusations, he let out a heavy sigh and said, “It’s definitely a tough situation. We see both sides.” Later, he adds, “There’s many reasons. We don’t really allow people to attack other people on the site.” Asked whether there are legal concerns behind it, as many in the community have speculated, he says, “There definitely probably is.” (In Canada, where Fetlife is based, laws are "much more friendly to plaintiffs" than in the U.S., where online publishers are protected from being held responsible for user posts, says Kurt Opsahl, senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.) Baku, who rarely gives interviews, continued, “but our focus really is on trying to get people to speak to the proper authorities so that the people who have committed these horrible crimes get put away.”

When I asked whether the company is trying to protect users against false accusations, Baku spins a yarn: “Let’s say you and I -- you do have a beautiful voice -- I come to San Francisco and we go on a date. Hypothetically, I’m submissive, you’re dominant, and I ask you to tie me up,” he says. “You think we have a wonderful night, I think we have a wonderful night, and all of a sudden tomorrow I go online and say, ‘You raped me,’ and email your editors at Salon and say you raped me and go onto Twitter and say you raped me.” Falling for his role-play scenario and flattery, I offered that I’d want to talk to him to figure out whether I had unknowingly violated his consent.

Sure, that’s all good and great, he said, but what about the potential consequences? “The community’s very small, right? So you might lose all your friends,” he says. “You might lose your job.” Baku adds, “We live in a society where you’re innocent until proven guilty. ‘Proven’ is very important.”

Kitty Stryker, an activist and dominant who is campaigning to raise awareness about abuse in BDSM, doesn’t buy the argument that people's lives might be ruined by being labeled as an abuser on Fetlife, particularly because real names are rarely used. “The debate is constantly about whether or not we should name screen names. It’s not like these are actually people’s legal names. Hell, on Fetlife you don’t even have to have a photo of your face. It’s really your own fault if you make yourself traceable.” So, in general, we’re not talking about a rape accusation that’s Google-able by a future employer. Within the BDSM community, though, these screen names are important: “It’s great for establishing some sort of accountability” -- and for helping people avoid dangerous encounters.

Stryker, who is a dominant, admits that even she has “had instances in my past and looked back and thought I didn’t cross a boundary, but maybe I did.” But she says, “I’d rather be held accountable or be falsely accused of something and have space for people to take that seriously than silence one victim.”

I asked Baku whether the risk of false accusations might be outweighed by the potential benefit of spreading the word about predatory community members. “That’s a good question,” he said, pausing. “But how is that solving any problems? It’s written in some group somewhere -- how are we really protecting people? You’re giving a false sense of security.” Baku’s main concern, he says, is that “we need to go after rapists and put them away. I know people have concerns about police and the way they handle rape. But the energy needs to be put into fixing that problem, into educating police, educating lawyers.” He adds, “It doesn’t need to be figured out in the court of popular opinion. Posting something on Fetlife, you’re not solving the problem,” he says. “We’re not set up to have judges and jury hear both sides.”

Thomas MacAulay Millar, a lawyer and kinkster who has written a seven-part series on the issue of consent in BDSM, says, “We have this well-entrenched narrative of the lying victim against a backdrop of people lying about things all the time,” he says. “It’s no more true about allegations of sexual assault than anything else.”

“People want to abdicate a certain amount of responsibility and have someone make the decision for them: ‘Did this happen or not?’” But, he says, “No such system is available to us. We’re not gonna elect a grand high judge of the community, we’re not gonna grant our own communities subpoena power, and the justice system won’t serve that function for our communities.”

As he explains in part four of his series, “[E]ven assuming that everyone in the system was perfectly professional, no matter who the victim is, in the U.S., the criminal justice system comes down ultimately to the jury trial, even though in the vast majority of cases, no such thing ever actually happens,” he continues. “If the police and prosecutors and the judge are all entirely fair to victims of abuse who might be queer and/or trans and/or kinky and/or people of color and/or undocumented and/or doing sex work, it doesn’t mean a jury would [be].  The jury is drawn from the general population, and we all know they’re always perfectly progressive, right?”

Stryker points out that sex workers rely on virtual blacklists of abusive johns, also known as “bad dates.” They will post a name, a few digits of a phone number, an email address or a physical description, along with the details of their experience with the client. “That keeps us from getting killed,” says Stryker, who is a sex worker herself. “We can’t go to the police, and I don’t see how that’s any different for BDSM.”

Some people in the kink community already maintain informal lists of “ethical practices and lack thereof,” says Stryker, but they aren’t widely distributed. “There’s very little discourse independent of Fetlife about BDSM issues,” says Thomas. On top of that, people don’t post these lists independently on personal blogs and the like because they’re worried about liability. Looking to the future, Stryker says, “The pressure is continually on Fetlife, and it will eventually have to take a stand and either say, ‘We don’t care,’ or ‘We do care, and here’s how we’re going to deal with this.’”

Fetlife’s position is “ever-evolving,” says Baku, who repeatedly asked what I thought they should do during our interview. “This is something that we question every day.”

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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