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“BDSM Community Reacts After Kink Website FetLife Goes Invite Only”

Broadly

by Kari Paul

Snce 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.

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.” …