Yesterday was KinkForAll Providence 2 (“KFAPVD2″), the eighth of these (now national) free and open-to-the-public unconferences about the intersection of sexuality with the rest of life. This one was put on as a fitting climax to Brown University’s Sex Week 2011, “unorganized” largely by xMech and SHEEC chairperson Aida Manduley. There were talks, presentations, and discussions about a range of different things, many of which were recorded by the live video stream I put up in the main room. You’ll be able to follow up with most of them at the KinkForAll Providence 2 schedule archive page as participants flesh it out in the coming days.
In my usual style, I gave a prepared talk and presented an accompanying slideshow. My talk was called “FetLife Considered Harmful: The Risks of Sex Ghettoization,” and I discussed what I see as a deeply dangerous, insular, growing monoculture within sexuality communities, epitomized by FetLife.com. This monoculture whitewashes the effects of privilege hierarchies while simultaneously reifying them in a way so ignorant and so terrifyingly undiscussed as to cause a lot of harm to individuals and “the community” en masse.
This was a challenging talk to research, it was even more challenging to write, but it was most challenging to actually present. This is not a nice talk. I am, ultimately, not interested in making nice with the community, with its leaders, or with its sex-negative attackers. Instead, I am interested in making change.
In part, this is because I have lost any and all significant investment I once had in “the community” and this, in turn, is because the community—unknowingly obsessed as it is with its narrow-minded, exclusionary ideals—is a place that is currently incapable of offering sanctuary or refuge from the hateful mainstream overculture for me and for countless others. In other words, I’m not an ambassador, publicist, or other form of PR-minded spokesperson for sex communities, and I am tired of their frequent, yet understandable spin doctoring. However, rather than discuss any pain this “community” inflicts from a personal perspective, since this talk was ultimately directed at wide swaths of the community itself, I approach the issue from the intersection of sociological and (elementary) technological analysis.
Below is a video of my presentation. As usual, my presentation is “open source” and Creative Commons licensed. Feel free to download it, use it yourself (including, since I can only be at one place at one time, literally re-presenting it wherever you wish and are able), or share it with anyone you think might find it valuable. If you do any of these things, I would greatly appreciate a link back to this page.
- FetLife Considered Harmful: The Risks of Sex Ghettoization keynote presentation as a ZIP archive.
- FetLife Considered Harmful: The Risks of Sex Ghettoization keynote presentation as a PDF document.
- FetLife Considered Harmful: The Risks of Sex Ghettoization keynote presentation as a text transcript.
I purposefully kept this presentation as short as I felt was possible because, due to the 20 minute time limit on sessions at KinkForAll, and due to the fact that I was convinced the material in this presentation would spur heated discussion, I wanted to leave some room for a short Q&A after the talk. This meant I had to leave out a lot of depth, as well as many additional examples I could have cited. I may, at some point, present follow ups to this material that includes those in-depth details but, for now, I’m hopeful that there is enough here to get this long-overdue conversation started.
As expected, after I gave my talk, there were numerous questions and points raised from the in-person audience that I addressed, and are audible on the video embedded above. They were as follows:
- One person asked if FetLife could serve as a place of congregation and coordination for sexual minorities because the mainstream offers no such space. This was a great question. My (short) answer was that it can—in fact, every ghetto is by definition a place of congregation, and can potentially be a site of coordination as well—but the question is not whether these things are happening at all (they are) but how effective the result is. Currently, for many reasons, including current technical limitations that were sometimes chosen deliberately, harmful social norms deeply rooted within FetLife’s written rules (its “policies”) as well as its unspoken rules (its “practices”), and the active resistance of the sexuality minorities community as a whole for improving their ability to cooperate with one another, FetLife serves neither as a place of safe congregation nor a site of effective coordination.
In fact, the greater problem is that in the current anti-sex climate at large any sexuality-specific website will become a ghetto and thus the solution is not to create sexuality-centric spaces as silos in the first place. Instead, we need to create decentralized networks that disperse our memberships and information into spaces that are (ostensibly) subject-matter agnostic. The Internet was designed for this, and sites like FetLife.com actively hinder attempts to safely diversify in this way.
- Several people asked whether or not I had spoken with John Baku before I presented my talk. The answer is “yes and no” because while I made John aware of my concerns, I did so over Twitter and thus did not go into much detail. On the one hand, I simply didn’t have the time to do so (and I doubt John did either, as we’re both pretty busy people). On the other, however, I preferred to get the attention of people at FetLife.com in this way because it is, frankly, more disruptive and I feel that the complacency with which the sexuality communities handle “internal” issues like this needs to be publicly disrupted. It should also be noted that while I think John Baku sometimes presents as a bumbling fool, I like him personally very much.
Also, we as a community need to recognize that FetLife is a business. That does not mean it is inherently bad, but many people have begun treating FetLife as though it is their closest of friends as opposed to simply one of their business partners or service providers. As a business, FetLife’s agenda is different from mine, and likely different from yours. At a minimum, we should be aware of this difference in perspectives.
- Another person questioned whether FetLife was actually better than I presented and posited that the site is actually more like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) than a ghetto. This question betrays a profound ignorance regarding the various structures coordination may actually take, not to mention the structures of both Alcoholics Anonymous and FetLife as organizations. My answer was that, no, FetLife is not like Alcoholics Anonymous because AA is a fundamentally decentralized organization while FetLife is a fundamentally centralized one. For more on why this questioner is simply flat-out wrong, I recommend reading The Starfish and the Spider by Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom. See especially their second principle of decentralization: “it’s easy to mistake starfish for spiders.” (And, while we’re making analogies, you’ll actually see that KinkForAll is far more akin to Alcoholics Anonymous than FetLife is and will likely ever be.)
- This questioner also objected to my “conflation” of the LGBT community with the kink community. It is no surprise that this person self-identifies as a (top/dominant, cisgendered man and) member of the BDSM community, specifically. The strong tendency that BDSM community members have for reinforcing us/them (binary) thinking is a long-standing frustration I have with many of them and one that I view as inherently counterproductive (not to mention blatantly hypocritical) to their own stated mission statements. It was a derailing question and one I almost answered except for the fact that we really, really ran out of time at that point.
Notably, there was also a participant in the audience who offered a brief version of their own life story as a “data point” to support pretty much every point I made in this talk. That was quite unexpected and something I found very heartening. Thanks to you; you know who you are. ;)
Finally, here is a transcript of my talk in hypertext form. I encourage you to make use of the links herein; follow them, for they offer additional context and depth to the point with which they are associated.
August, 1966. “Cross-dressing” is illegal in San Francisco.
In the sixties, Gene Compton’s Cafeteria in the Tenderloin neighborhood was one of the few places in San Francisco where trans people could gather safely. They were unwelcome almost everywhere else they went. They were even often kicked out of gay bars.
Stonewall won’t happen for another three years. The LGBT community is currently known as the “homophile” community. America is experiencing a wave of mass student and youth protests against the war in Vietnam.
Three years before the Stonewall riots on Christopher Street, New York City, police entered Compton’s Cafeteria on Turk and Taylor Street in San Francisco. Fed up with the constant persecution, the transgender woman the officers were harassing threw her coffee cup in their faces, instigating a full-fledged riot that marked “the first known instance of collective, militant, queer resistance to police harassment in United States history“.
Many of the rioters were trans and homosexual members of “Vanguard, Incorporated,” an LGBT youth organization sponsored and funded by the Glide Memorial Methodist Church in San Francisco. Vanguard’s goal was to bring together factions of the San Francisco Tenderloin neighborhood—gay, trans, straight, police, businesspeople, and any other neighbors—to air differences peacefully and end discrimination. Later that year, the Vangaurd youth group changed its name to The Gay and Lesbian Center, becoming the first gay community center in the nation.
In 2002, I joined public sexuality communities; I began talking to people about their stories and started learning about the history of marginalized sexuality cultures. In 2009, the Internet turned me into a sexual freedom activist; I co-founded KinkForAll and I began traveling across America spreading the idea from city to city, coast to coast. But despite talking to thousands upon thousands of people, despite reading hundreds upon hundreds of news reports and blog posts and so on, it was not until 9 years later (2011)—this year—that I learned about Compton’s Cafeteria, or the central role trans people and young people played in fighting for sexual freedom from even before the start of the gay liberation movement in this country.
When people think of San Francisco they often think of Harvey Milk, or the Castro Theatre. “San Francisco,” they say, “sanctuary for the sexually open. San Francisco,” they say, “home for wayward queers. San Francisco,” they say, “epicenter of the sexual revolution.”
Walk the streets of my (new) hometown of San Francisco in 2011 and, if you take the time to look around carefully, you may notice a peculiar thing. Go to the Castro and, yes, you’ll find it teeming with hyper-masculinized musclemen, visit the Haight and you’ll run into YUPpies and hipsters with their designer boutiques as plentiful as Starbuck’s are in New York. But go to the Tenderloin and you’ll find every disadvantaged group you can imagine: immigrants (especially from Vietnam), Blacks, and—of course—trans youth.
After the Compton’s Cafeteria riots, police essentially cordoned off the Tenderloin as an area where trans people, most of whom were sex workers, could go without getting bullied. The Vanguard youth had won territory—they were granted a ghetto—where they have largely stayed, largely invisible to the up-and-coming GLB(“T”) mainstream, to this very day. Not two blocks from where I live, on the corner of Sutter and Larkin Street, is where many of the city’s trans street walkers call their office.
In contrast to the Tenderloin’s intersectionally underprivileged populace, the monoculture of other neighborhoods is stunning—the ghetto of San Francisco’s Tenderloin is and has long been segregation, not sanctuary. Monoculture is, by definition, the creation of a privileged class; it rejects the value inherent in diversity in order to favor a particular set of traits. Like all other institutions, monocultures are inherently exclusionary.
And as our generation’s organizing is moving away from physical city streets and into what Steven Johnson calls the cyber-cities that are websites on the Internet, I fear some of them, and one website in particular, is unwisely recreating sexuality monoculture online.
We live in an amazing moment in history. As I bet any sexually vocal person will tell you (if you don’t already know), the Internet has fundamentally transformed our ability to communicate with one another. For example, before the Internet, if you were a gay teenager in bum-fuck nowhere, you were the only gay person in the world. Now, though, after the Internet, if you’re a gay teenager in bum-fuck nowhere, you’re one of millions of gay teenagers communicating online.
This is big. This is not merely the evolution of telecommunication technologies. This is a revolution.
But for a while now, I’ve been growing increasingly concerned about the monopolizing—and whitewashing—effects FetLife is having over sexuality community discourse. Like a fetish all its own, sex community inhabitants are turning to FetLife instead of their own blogs or local mailing lists to write, debate, and promote their art and events. FetLife is sucking us up like a big black hole, and we risk getting crushed by its gravitational force.
On its homepage, FetLife says it’s “similar to Facebook and MySpace.” On his Twitter profile, FetLife’s creator, John Baku, describes himself as “David” to other social networks’ “Goliath”. No matter how noble his goal, however, in an ironic twist of fate John may have inadvertently created the greatest threat to online sex community and cyber-sex culture that has ever existed.
For those who don’t know, FetLife.com purports to be a safe space made “by kinksters, for kinksters.” Once inside, you’re ostensibly within the “community’s” walls. Here, limited individual privacy controls means that almost anything you post to FetLife is potentially visible to any other FetLife user. At the same time, anything you post to FetLife is restrained within FetLife’s walled garden; no entity, whether human or machine, peering at FetLife from its outside can see inside.
This is the primary dialectic claiming FetLife is “private” and thus “safe,” but it is deeply and dangerously flawed. It is flawed first and most simply from an individualistic perspective. Secondly, it is flawed from a group coordination (i.e., single community) perspective—and even more so from a global interactionist perspective.
For an individual, FetLife’s primary “privacy” offering is simply that nothing you post will be indexed by search engines like Google. Since there is no way to access FetLife from outside FetLife, it’s like Vegas: what you say on FetLife stays on FetLife. The implicit claim, then, is that the entire container is safe.
However, since all that is required to gain access to FetLife membership is a (free) email address, the claim is farcical on its face. Claiming FetLife is either private or safe for any given individual is like breaking open someone’s back door and then selling them a stronger lock for their front door.
I’m astounded by how many people fail to realize how exposed they are within FetLife. In a recent article published in The Eye about Columbia University’s BDSM education group, Conversio Virium (CV), this was highlighted quite clearly:
For Devon, the nature of his career forces him to keep his scene self under wraps, and though he’s a CV regular, few people know his real name. He describes one particular night he was going out with a bunch of his job friends at T.G.I. Friday’s when a co-worker whispered “Devon” under her breath. “I have a secret—I know you’re on FetLife,” she said.
Frankly, I’m shocked that some malicious idiot with a blog hasn’t logged onto FetLife and mined it for LULZ yet—but I assure you, it’s only a matter of time. When that happens, it’s not going to be FetLife’s fault per sé, but it is their responsibility as a social networking company to portray both the technical and social aspects of their service in an accurate way. In this sense, Facebook is actually a far, far safer place for a savvy kinky individual than FetLife is right now.
FetLife should either prioritize and implement granular privacy controls post-haste (instead of what they seem to be focusing on, which is creating a mobile version, chat rooms, and a spam filter) or change its public line to reflect that it has no meaningful ones. Since having a false sense of security is more dangerous than having an awareness of one’s very real vulnerabilities, prioritizing anything other than privacy at this stage in the game is irresponsible.
But FetLife is also hurting sexuality communities globally by encouraging people to join what amounts to a voluntary ghetto, and doing that is as stupid as it sounds.
When The Eye posted its article about Conversio Virium, I noticed within minutes of its publication and I spread the word to members of the group via the discussion list they (sort of) maintain. But ever since FetLife hit this subculture’s mainstream (yes, subcultures have a mainstream), I knew that to get any notice at all, I had to cross-post it to CV’s FetLife group. As you can see in the two threads here, the public Google group has no responses, while the FetLife group has quite a number.
This is not merely annoying on a personal level, it is problematic for the entire community in at least two ways. First, when someone in the FetLife thread offered valuable additional information about the article, that information was not visible to anyone outside of FetLife. (It was up to me to cross-post the followup.) Second, since the FetLife login screen effectively repels Google, everyone from archivists to casual observers are guaranteed not to stumble upon the additional information.
This isolationism is dangerous; like an anti-Vanguard, it discourages the peaceful airing of differences, separates factions of the community from one another, and nurtures an in-group/out-group mentality void of leadership. Where is our generation’s Vanguard? Sexuality on the Internet is a terribly persecuted topic. Why are we, as a community, making it easier for our words—our voice—to be muffled? Don’t get me wrong. Some private spaces are necessary and helpful. But when so much community evolution takes place within a single, closed environment, we are voluntarily ghettoizing our most important cultural valuables.
Take, as an example, Asher Bauer’s excellent essay, Field Guide to Creepy Dom. At the top of his post, Asher says, “This is something I wrote about two years ago which has been reposted every which way all over the internet. I don’t even know where it is at this point, I just know that I still get repost requests for it all the time.” I did some digging and found that it was originally posted (where else?) inside FetLife.
Again, two things are worthy of note about this:
- Despite being “reposted every which way all over the Internet,” Asher still received “repost requests for it all the time.” What this seems to suggest is that people were hearing about the article, but unable to find it on their own. Hence, the repost requests. Indeed, (at the time of this writing) Google’s cache only shows 6 hits on 3 different domains for a unique phrase within the essay. Of these, only one (1!) is a personal blog unaffiliated with one of John Baku’s “Goliaths.”
- Despite the obvious importance of this essay to the BDSM community, only the people who had heard about it already were able to extract value from it, because only they even knew to go looking for it. And despite getting posted to the Internet by others, it took nearly 2 years for the essay to even make it outside the FetLife wall and onto the public ‘net in the first place.
The Internet gave the sexual revolution—gave us—warp speed. I fear the growing FetLife monoculture is pulling us back to impulse.
In contrast to Asher’s essay, Patti’s equally thoughtful essay, Safewords are Dangerous, was first published at Alt.com. For all the problems of Alt.com (and they, themselves, could fill a whole talk, much less a short KinkForAll one) Patti’s essay was then, and is now, public for any newbie who’s googling for “safewords” to find. Even Patti, however, has now cross-posted the essay to her FetLife journal, perhaps a tribute to the all-mighty social network effect gods.
This should not be surprising. FetLife has become a cultural institution, and it carries with it all the side effects of such an organization. As Clay Shirky says, “an institution is inherently exclusionary.”1
The Internet has changed sexual culture. Is FetLife a peek into our future, or is it a reflection of our past? I fear it is the worst of both. Using FetLife, we’re unable to interact with the outside world while simultaneously being unable to interact to our full potential within its walls; promoting a “101″ class or doing outreach using FetLife is a waste of energy because those things should be geared for people who probably don’t spend time there.And what's the future, who will choose it Politics of love and music Underdogs who turn the tables Indie versus major labels There's so much to see through Like our parents do more drugs than we do […] I am calling, can you hear this? I was out here listening all the time….
Do you hear them calling? The masses of people, young and old, who don’t yet know where to look?
If you’re spending most of your time in FetLife’s walled garden, you’re not listening. But it’s worse than that, because as far as they know, you don’t exist. And that means they think they’re the only gay teenager in the world.
- Quote is 4 minutes and 10 seconds into his speech. [↩]