There is a key point continually getting glossed over in this whole FetLife disaster that I feel needs to be stated. It is the direct line that connects the dots between FetLife’s silencing of abuse survivors and FetLife’s dishonest communication about security and privacy. The following is cross-posted from Facebook, emphasis added:
There are a lot of issues embedded in this, John, but the one that matters most to me personally is the fact that failing to offer inter-user privacy controls creates a situation where individuals are subject to harassment from other individuals. These situations are worse (and, sadly, common) in cases where the harasser already has personal knowledge of the person they want to intimidate/threaten/bully/etc. and that due to the nature of FetLife.com, most of these situations are similar to or exactly mirror acquaintance rape, the single most common form of sexual coercion and assault and BY FAR the most prevalent in the BDSM community proper.
In other words, the most urgent issue here is not simply that “privacy controls are lacking,” but that there are real people (some of whom have contacted me privately) who are currently being harassed/bullied/threatened/etc. by people who they have already been assaulted by (some of whom have literal scars from hospitalizations they have suffered at the treatment of these assaulters, some of them on numerous occasions), and it is these same people who were totally unaware of how trivially easy it was for their harassers to stalk, spy on, and in some cases even out them simply because they had a FetLife account they thought was “safe.” And that is why I am so insistent on inter-user privacy controls being a priority for the FetLife dev team: offering such user-centric privacy options keeps individuals physically safer, not just “theoretically” safer. But no one seems to want to talk about that, much to my dismay.
That FetLife does nothing to address this speaks volumes about their priorities. Namely, that they are more interested in maintaining the site as-is for the reasons Anaiis outlines: there is a commercial investment in their users having a deliberately falsified sense of privacy so that their 1.5+ million users won’t think twice about posting amateur porn that FetLife charges other users to see.
Meanwhile, otherwise disadvantaged/marginalized individuals who have a clear and present need to protect themselves and the fundamental human right to sexual self-expression both online and in person are being told they should just shut up and deal. What kind of entity does that? I’ll give you a hint. It starts with “cor” and ends with “poration.”
Building a better FetLife won’t solve this particular problem. Screaming about what a “dick move” writing a 50-line PHP proxy was won’t solve this problem. Telling people who were abused to go the cops won’t solve this problem.
Every time I hear people say “privacy is dead,” or “you are a fucking moron and deserve whatever approbation, embarrassment or other difficulties caused by your revealing sensitive details on a fucking public site,” or when FetLife calls these “privacy concerns…unfounded”…
…I am reminded of the person who wrote to me terrified that the ex-lover who sent them to the emergency room with broken bones is able to read their posts—and that there’s very little they could do to prevent that. I am reminded of the person who suddenly realized all of the photos they uploaded are being collected by their stalker for who-knows-what purposes. I am reminded of the person who wrote me in urgent tones asking for any advice I could offer for maintaining their privacy online.
These are not exaggerations. These things happen. If you’re not aware of these people and their stories, perhaps it’s because your silence, dismissal, or victim-blaming attitude is sending survivors the message that you won’t believe them if they told you what their online experience was like and how it made them feel.
Yet I can’t find anyone to blame. After all, the BDSM community role models are the worst perpetrators. Its institutions and constituents are the enablers. That “community” is filled with rapists, abusers, apologists, and commercial interests actively invested in the exploitation of its own members.1
Having received permission to share one exchange, and as it contains practical tips, here’s an excerpt in which I responded to a request for advice in maintaining personal safety on FetLife when you are being individually targeted. It began like this:
I need help. I am being stalked and threatened by an ex-boyfriend, a “rock star” in certain communities, who wants to be sure that I shut up. He is threatening to send posts, pictures, whatever he wants to my employer.He garotted me and broke a bone in my neck and I ended up having major surgery removing a mass, bone and part of the back of my tongue as a result of the assault.
Can you please “friend” me and advise me on this ?
Later, as part of our correspondence, I wrote:
First, again, I sympathize. Sadly, you find yourself in a situation that I’m familiar with and that I know others have, in the past, found themselves in, too. Far, far too many people, in fact.
This is one of the reasons I am so personally angered by FetLife’s evident disregard of its users privacy—that is, YOUR privacy. The fact of the matter is that FetLife.com is an extremely dangerous service to use, and I’m sorry to say that you’re finding out why first-hand.
I’ve written on this topic at my own website for several years. I have also been lobbying FetLife (again, for *years*) to offer users like you better controls to control and protect your own data. To date, they have been resolute in their stance to ignore these issues and sweep them under the rug. (Much to my frustration, I hasten to add!)
When it comes to what you can do to protect yourself while using FetLife, sadly, the answer is not much, because FetLife offers very few tools for you to do so.
However, at a minimum, you could take the following steps:
- Remove other users you do not trust from your list of FetLife friends.
- Set your photos and writings to “Friends only.”
- Delete any photograph or other personally identifiable information from your profile, such as photos that include pictures of your face, any tattoos, piercings, or other body modifications you may have, or pictures that show identifiable backgrounds such as public venues, street signs, well-known landmarks, and so on. Also be certain to delete any photo that you may have also uploaded to a different website so that the only photos you have on your FetLife profile are photos you use ONLY on FetLife.
- Remove yourself from any local-area groups you may have joined, or events you may have RSVP’ed to, and do not RSVP to events in the future.
- Change your location, age, and other profile details so that they do not reflect your physical-world address.
- Double-check that you are not using the same username on FetLife that you use on any other service. If you are re-using your username, change it to something unique.
Admittedly, doing many of the things in this list will make FetLife far less useful to you. This is an inherent tension in using FetLife as it exists today. (This is described in more detail in the articles I linked above.) Basically, FetLife staked its business investments on getting you to share as much information about yourself as possible *AND ALSO* in continuing to deny you the ability to control who, among its 1.5+ million other users, can see your information. They do this because you—and your sexual life—is their *product.* Until and unless FetLife.com prioritizes granular, easy-to-use and understand privacy controls for people like you, FetLife will continue to be an exceptionally dangerous website to use.
However, the likelihood of FetLife.com offering you an ability to more safely use their website is in direct opposition to their goals as a for-profit business. That’s why I feel it’s important to advocate for better privacy controls for users. This has been an ongoing issue for a long time now. See also:
Beyond your own personal situation, it would be helpful to all of us who are affected by FetLife’s lack of privacy options to pressure the company directly to provide them. You can do so by voting for one or more of the above “FetLife Improvement Suggestions,” or by sending an email to email@example.com and demanding that they prioritize user privacy in their current and future development efforts.
I’ve written a template you are free to use and/or modify, accessible by clicking on the “Send FetLife an email by clicking here” link, available on the following page:
Additionally, there is also information about these kinds of threatening online behaviors elsewhere on the Internet referenced under the term “cyber bullying.” A lot of this information is written for youth, but much of the advice and many of the Internet safety tips are relevant to adults as well. Some starting points for you to explore are as follows:
I hope the information herein is helpful to you. If there is more that you feel I can do to help, please don’t hesitate to ask. I can’t make any promises, but I do want to help make the Internet a safer place for sexual self-expression and I feel strongly that pressuring FetLife.com to provide privacy options for its large and growing user base is a fundamental part of that endeavor.
Thank you for reaching out to me and for giving me a heads up about this situation. My thoughts and best wishes are with you.
thank you for sending this.
I wish that they would just close [his] account for his almost daily violation of the farcical “FL Restraining Order.”
It seems he can write just about anything he wants, but I cannot.
I have a large physical scar on my neck and emotional scars that will be an even longer time healing from this.
I wrote back:
It does not seem to me that FetLife’s administrators actually take care to enforce their own TOU in a consistent way (they have banned me for pointing out the problems with their security and privacy model, but, as you note, apparently not at all concerned with blocking those who harass other users directly), and, moreover, it seems to me that it’s becoming ever more obvious that FetLife’s business interests are in direct opposition to the safety needs of its users. If you are willing, I would be interested in writing about this topic further and your messages to me are a very illustrative example of exactly this sort of thing. I would take care to anonymize your information if you are concerned about additional harassment[…].
And then Vicki bravely consented to let me share this exchange:
You don’t need to anonymize me.
He is posting my job, private sexual information […] and [is] essentially calling me a liar[…].
The “Caretakers” seem not to give a shit, as he is such a prolific author and brings in readers.
I was going to ask YOU if I had permission to post some of the things you were saying.
Yes, feel free to say what you want about my situation.
(For the record, yes, all of you not only have permission to repost/reblog/republish what I’m writing, but are actively encouraged to do so.)
I’ll leave you with one final thought:
As I type this, a weekend-long gathering of BDSM and fetish Scene’sters called FetFest is happening right now (just watch the #FetFest hashtag). Further, according to a press release by the National Coalition of Sexual Freedom (NCSF), FetLife founder John Baku will be participating in a series of face-to-face “Consent Counts” conversations with the participants there. If you’ll be participating, consider asking John why user privacy controls seem to be less important to his development team than features like instant chat.
And if you’re not participating, consider sharing this blog post with someone who is.
Other useful resources to share, many of which are recommended by people “on the front lines, as it were, working with both survivors and victims of sexual assault and intimate partner violence” are:
- National Coalition Against Domestic Violence
- RAINN: Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network
- A Long Walk Home: Non-profit that uses visual arts to end abuse against women and girls.
- The (National Domestic Violence) Hotline
- Without My Consent: Paths to justice for survivors of online harassment.
- The act of BDSM is not inherently abusive but the social structure of the BDSM Scene is abusive. As my friend Shelly wrote to me recently, “Obviously there is a massive distinction between the activities of BDSM and the institutionalized and excused abuse that takes place in the community. I may easily bristle at the idea that the (ie.) bruises on my body are signs of abuse, and yet I am enraged when we excuse regressive, misogynistic or psychologically abusive behavior in the name of a fetish or kink.
“As an example, I know more than one male dom who uses d/s as a way to basically enforce regressive gender roles and control and limit the lives of the women they are involved with. What a relief to stop making excuses for them (as the community encourages), and realize that they are just being assholes. You have to break through a lot of structure, and be willing to accept a lot of alienation though, just to be able to call an asshole an asshole in the BDSM community.” [↩]