Dirty Lola, a 39-year-old queer Black sex educator based in New York City, joined FetLife in 2012 in an effort to expand her network of kinky people in her personal and professional life. “When I first started out, that’s where I was. It’s an important resource for a lot of people,” she told me in an interview in late September. “For some people, this is the only place that they can go to talk about their kinks. I’ve talked to people from small towns, where there’s not a fetish club, and their only connection is talking to people on FetLife.”
Although she still maintains a FetLife profile, Lola visits the site less frequently now, due in part to the unmoderated racism she has experienced on the platform. “I’ve been called n-word bitch, ‘you’re going to suck my white cock’…just this tirade of a bunch of racist things,” she said. “I got a really long message that was someone basically telling me what was wrong with Black people and that me wanting to be part of the BDSM community was me wanting to be back in slave days, and that we should all get on board with that being what we really want.”
Lola is just one of a growing group of Black people, Indigenous people, and people of color who feel that FetLife has failed them as hate speech becomes more commonplace on the platform.
FetLife, a kink- and BDSM-focused social networking website, was founded in 2008 by a Canadian software engineer named John Kopanas. (Kopanas did not respond to repeated requests for comment.) Since then, it has grown to host over 9 million global subscribers, who can set up profiles based on their sexual interests, and join groups and discussion boards with topics like “Poly and Kinky,” “Rope Bondage,” and “Spank You Very Much.”
The site has always maintained an ethos of freedom of expression, to allow for conversations about sexually explicit matters which might get users banned elsewhere. The laissez-faire content policy has meant there has always been racist speech on the site, but users have experienced an uptick in the amount and severity of hate-based vitriol since the protests following the killing of George Floyd.
“Since the BLM movement and people discussing racism on FetLife more, there’s been a lot of racist people coming out of the woodworks. I’ve definitely come across Nazi supporters, clearly stating they believe in white supremacy,” said Max, a Canadian sex worker who has been using FetLife for five years. Lola told me that attempts to address the problem of racism on the site were met with disdain from white users: “If someone speaks up about something, you get, ugh, everything’s about race! This is a kink site, what does that have to do with anything? Which is racism lite. They’re not using the buzzwords, but they’re trying to cover it up.”
Despite FetLife’s terms of service, which state that users may not “Make or promote any type of racism or hate towards anyone in specific or a group of people, unless in the context of role-playing between consenting parties,” hate speech is easy to find on the site. Some profile images prominently feature “white power” symbols and hand gestures. Users post photos of SS officers with captions foretelling European uprisings, and forum posts call for the elimination of the Jewish people and the establishment of a white ethnostate. Memes blaming Jews and BLM for 9/11 sit side by side in galleries with photos of saline-engorged testicles.
A FetLife user who wished to remain anonymous shared a screenshot of a post of links that direct to a blog celebrating the death of Michael Reinoehl, an anti-fascist protester in Portland who was shot and killed by police, and commending Kyle Rittenhouse, who killed two protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin, for “cleaning up the streets.” “This kind of thing is relatively new,” she said. “This post isn't about dating or hooking up. It’s driving traffic to alt-right propaganda.”
“I’ve been called n-word bitch, ‘you’re going to suck my white cock’…just this tirade of a bunch of racist things.”
FetLife users have expressed continued frustration that Nazism and racist imagery has been permitted to exist on the site, now under the guise of “race play,” a category of fetish where participants play out negotiated scenes that explicitly address race and power. People engaging in race play may assume taboo roles in their sexual play, like a master and slave on a plantation, or a concentration camp prisoner and SS guard. But sex educators are quick to note the difference between race play and acts of racism. “I think people forget that one of the main BDSM tenets is consent. Until you have that permission to use that language, that’s not race play. That’s just you being racist. If people who are into impact play walked around hitting people because it felt good, that would be assault,” said Lola.
FetLife’s owners are seemingly unwilling to simply update their policies. Instead, proposed changes are up for public debate in a forum called “FetLife Announcements.” These forum discussions often result in threads that are several thousands of comments long. Sometimes John Kopanas engages with users in the comments section, asking questions, agreeing and disagreeing with user responses, and flirting.
On August 6, as criticism about the influx of white supremacist and racist posts mounted, Kopanas posted a message to FetLife users with the question: “Do you think we should add ‘Race Play’ to the ‘Official List’ of fetishes so that members can add ‘Race Play’ as a hard limit knowing that because it's on the official list it will also get more visibility?” Later, he clarified his position, writing, “FetLife stands strong behind allowing consenting adults to practice whatever kink that turns there [sic] crank as long as it is amongst consenting adults. Politics don't belong in the bedroom and not just when it suits us.” After a lengthy discussion, FetLife then added “race play” as a searchable keyword to its fetish list on August 10, allowing for users to flag it on their profiles as a hard limit (something they do not want to engage in for any reason). Still, users say this does little to protect them from the kinds of people who send unprompted racist messages to strangers.
Engagement from far-right users has driven some people off the platform entirely. Missouri-based burlesque performer Stella Blue told me she left the site after posting photos of a performance routine that ended with a raised fist and a sign that said “Stop killing us.” “I got several hate messages from white men who said I had no business bringing politics into a burlesque performance. A simple message of equality and calling out police brutality was enough to make a lot of people mad. It made me leave the platform.”
“I was looking to meet women for play partners,” said another former user named Alice. “I put up a profile around a year ago with some pics, and all I got were far-right dudes from England and Australia who wanted to dom me and I was not feeling it at all. They mentioned my blonde hair and blue eyes off the bat and said they were happy to meet ‘a like-minded person,’ which I’m fucking not. I was skeeved and discouraged, and I took the profile down. It felt unsafe somehow.”
Those who have stuck around to try to change FetLife for the better are finding it hard to do so. The channels for reporting individual users aren’t always clear, and many people find their concerns unanswered by staff. “They leave [content moderation] to the people, but there needs to be a leader,” said Lola. “It’s their site. If you want it to be a safe space for all people, you can do that. And if there are people who don’t want it to be safe for everyone, maybe those are people you don’t want on your site.” Why, then, are FetLife’s moderators failing to do more to protect its users?
FetLife’s resistance to censorship and moderation does not exist in a vacuum. Digital spaces have been particularly hostile to sexual speech in recent years, from the financially disastrous de-pornification of Tumblr to the 2015 Rentboy.com raids and Instagram’s long-disavowed shadowbanning of certain users. In 2018, a piece of antitrafficking legislation known as FOSTA-SESTA passed with sweeping bipartisan support, making internet platforms legally liable for user content that “promotes prostitution” (the bill did not differentiate between trafficking and people choosing to do sex work). This bill created an exception to Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, a pivotal piece of internet legislation stating that “no provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” The passage of FOSTA-SESTA resulted in the shuttering of online personals sites that were being used by sex workers to advertise services, including Backpage.com and Craigslist Personals. Many websites chose to ban all sexually explicit speech, rather than attempt to moderate it. Subreddits where sex workers gathered and shared information and safety practices were banned, Skype changed its nudity policies, and Google deleted adult content directly off the Drive accounts of some of its users.
None“Just because some white people get hard-ons thinking bad things about Black people, that doesn’t make it kink. The KKK isn’t doing race play.”
Sex workers and digital sexual spaces have long been the “canaries in the coal mine,” a test case for broader regressive free speech policies. On October 6, Donald Trump tweeted "REPEAL SECTION 230!!!" after Facebook and Twitter flagged a post he made with unsubstantiated claims about COVID-19, and he called for its repeal again on October 14. This is not the first time the president has targeted social media sites with calls for more censorship, and Democratic nominee for president Joe Biden has also indicated his intent to revoke Section 230 if he wins the election, though for different reasons. If this were to happen, the provisions that allow websites to host third-party material without being subject to penalties or legislation would no longer exist, and neither would the internet as we know it. Sex-related sites are so often the targets of moral panic that results in censorship, which may underlie FetLife’s hands-off practices. Given what’s at stake for the future of the internet, FetLife’s desire to be a bastion for all kinds of free speech may be at all costs, even if that position harms its marginalized users.
FetLife has indicated that certain kinds of speech are not allowed on its site, but has chosen not to include racist speech in those provisions. “I’m not against free speech,” said Lola. “I think the line has to be drawn when you are specifically harming people or that you are putting down a group of people based on race. If someone put up something about children, how long would that last? Freedom of speech doesn’t cover pedophilia in these spaces, and it wouldn’t be allowed! We do know that there are things where we are drawing the line, where we’re not speaking freely — this is about doing harm.”
Tension about free speech in online sexual communities is nothing new, and neither is a legacy of racism in BDSM. So it’s not surprising that FetLife (or any white-run sexuality space) has a racism problem. The internet has become a driving force in promoting violence and extremism, although finding FetLife profiles with caches of Nazi memes still packed a punch. Sex and the internet are both commonly conceived as being somehow outside of us or our creation, powerful forces governed by their own norms and expectations. But rather than being able to transcend the limitations of our society, these spaces often replicate them.
Margot Weiss, an anthropologist and author of Techniques of Pleasure, a book chronicling San Francisco’s kink community, noted that in the course of her research, “The people of color I talked to felt marginalized by the scene’s normative whiteness. It wasn't so much that white people doing SM were overtly racist or didn't want to play with people of color, it was that the scene itself had a normative, assumptive whiteness at its center, so that people of color doing SM experience themselves as marginal to that community.” Yet, in the course of her interviews with white kink enthusiasts, very few respondents felt that racism within their scene “might be the reason that there were so few nonwhite practitioners.” This dynamic of normative whiteness is echoed in FetLife’s community, where BIPOC users found that their needs for safety on the site were seen as “fringe” and not prioritized. Weiss wrote that because “nonwhite practitioners [are] excluded from the scene in both mundane and more fundamental ways … people of color rarely experience their SM practice—or politics—as disconnected from embodied racialization.” BIPOC FetLife users, therefore, are finding it difficult to “just be” on the platform because of the way their bodies are politicized and othered by a majority white user base and white staff.
“I think people forget that one of the main BDSM tenets is consent. Until you have that permission to use that language, that’s not race play.”
“Where alt sex communities aren't allowed to say ‘no coloreds,’ they instead make white individuals their leaders with communities comprised of people who look and think like them,” said BlakSyn Brown, a 32-year-old BDSM educator and professional dominant based in Philadelphia, who is a former FetLife user. “To truly understand discrimination, you must also look at what isn't being said or explicitly shown.”
Despite the difficulty of contending with structural racism on the platform, some BIPOC kinksters on FetLife are explicitly seeking encounters with white partners to play out race-based scenes.
Some Black scholars of race play identify it as a form of transformation or catharsis for historical trauma. Mollena Williams-Haas is a BDSM educator and writer who has written and lectured extensively on the praxis of race play. “It is not blasphemy to want to touch that wound,” she said in a 2015 interview with Andrea Plaid, former editor of the blog Racialicious. “You can’t heal something in your soul by letting it remain in its original state of pain.”
In the 2016 book The Color of Kink, Ariane Cruz wrote that “A dialectic exists between the fantasy world of BDSM, as it is typically imagined by those who practice it, and the ‘real’ world. For some, there is the perception that what one does while she is playing is somehow removed from her everyday existence … Race play reveals the profound paradox of this enduring fantasy/reality dialectic: even as these practices recite, indeed require ‘real, shared world’ historical and political references, such play can be imagined, enacted and narrated as pure fantasy. This is a profound tension at the heart of race play.”
“I’m not against free speech,” said Lola. “I think the line has to be drawn when you are specifically harming people or that you are putting down a group of people based on race.”
Other Black sex educators are more critical of the fantasy/reality paradox of race play. “Race play exists as a direct response to racism itself,” said Brown. “Race play, fetishization and racism are all intertwined. The fetishization of Black people in America began on the auction blocks of slavery. We were ogled and othered as a result of our physical characteristics as was the case with Saartjie Baartman otherwise known as ‘Hottentot Venus.’ We are still fetishized to this day. We are reduced to body parts: ‘BBC.’ We are reduced to our skin: ‘ebony.’ You want to ‘play’ with race in a world where I am reduced to less than a person, where that same race can get me shot and killed by law enforcement, disenfranchised, or increase my risk for socioeconomic disparities?”
It’s hard to gauge the number of FetLife users who are into race play, because of the different language people use to define their kinks. Only 3,305 users list “race play” as a fetish, while “BBC” is listed as an interest by 17,206. One possible explanation for this discrepancy is people’s discomfort in acknowledging that racism may animate their sexual desires. “Real race play, you know it’s fucked up,” explained Lola, who said she feels protective of Black people who want to engage in consensual, negotiated race play scenes. “You’re taking joy out of it in a container, and then you close it back up. It’s not how you function in the world. Beating each other, biting each other, peeing on each other — we know it’s fucked up, but we like it, and we have boundaries around it, communication, consent, all these things to make it so that we don’t harm people. Just because some white people get hard-ons thinking bad things about Black people, that doesn’t make it kink. The KKK isn’t doing race play. By these standards, that’s what [FetLife] is saying. It’s not a race play play party. It’s just racism!”
FetLife has faced scrutiny for its content moderation policies in the past. After a prominent Australian FetLife user was arrested and charged with sexual assault in 2017 (a judge dismissed the case before it went to a jury because he felt the “jury would find that the behaviour and writings of the complainant after the incident complained of are inconsistent with someone who has actually withdrawn consent,” though inconsistencies in rape victims’ testimonies are a common response to trauma), FetLife removed keywords related to rape fantasies, but also censored and removed posts where users identified their own abusers within the community.
A stipulation was added to the user agreement that users are not permitted to “make criminal accusations against another member in a public forum.” In so doing, FetLife created equivalency of outcome in committing a crime and accusing someone of that crime. This policy of banning both perpetrators and alleged victims has created a culture of silence on the platform, wherein members are afraid to speak out against the harassment they have experienced for fear of being blocked. FetLife’s terms of service also prohibit users from sharing screenshots of their site elsewhere, ostensibly as a protection measure for users who fear repercussions from the nonconsensual circulation of sexual photos or videos. But it also means that users are fearful of sharing evidence of extremism on the site.
“You’re not allowed to name anyone publicly,” said Max, the Candian sex worker and FetLife user. “FetLife is trying to stay on the side of the law and avoid any harassment concerns since they don’t ‘know’ a situation. All you can do is report and hope they act in time. Mods on FetLife are quite useless.”
“When people are called out on their racist behaviors, they cry, ‘Don’t kink-shame me! This is supposed to be a safe space!’”
FetLife users also shared concerns that without intervention, the site will be used for further organizing and recruiting for racist extremists. “I’ve been watching certain activity on FetLife where covert keywords for white supremacist organizing and I’m seeing tremendous growth there with limited moderation. I have to assume deplatforming elsewhere and feeling emboldened by politics are driving it,” said a FetLife user who wished to remain anonymous.
“When people are called out on their racist behaviors, they cry, ‘Don’t kink-shame me! This is supposed to be a safe space!’” Max explained. “Of course, they’re not feeding into [the idea] that a community should be safe for Black people as well.”
Lola expressed concerns that FetLife’s acceptance of racist speech will contribute to further stigmatizing misinformation about the nature of the BDSM community, including stereotypes that kinky people are dangerous or that enjoying BDSM is a form of mental illness. “For people who are real kinksters, we are fighting so hard to not be demonized — why do you think this is something you should allow? This makes it worse for all of us. Just fix it. We’ve been saying it for years,” she said. I share Lola’s frustration. All people deserve a welcoming space where they can explore their sexuality without fear. Many turned to FetLife, hoping that could be that space for them. Now, many are turning away.
Some BIPOC kinksters have been so exasperated with FetLife and other majority-white kink spaces that they’ve already formed their own communities and organizations (which, members note, contend with “cries of ‘reverse racism’” when white people are not permitted full membership), while others still hope to reform white-predominant kink spaces into more inclusive communities. FetLife’s future remains uncertain. If there is no significant change in enforcing its stated policy about hate speech, more people of color will be driven from the site, making its user base even whiter. If white supremacist content isn’t deplatformed, on FetLife and elsewhere, it will continue to proliferate.
On October 1, John Kopanas wrote another forum post, this time proposing to migrate all political discussions to closed private groups and to share political memes to “friends only” lists. As with previous proposals, he solicited feedback from FetLife users. “People often look for us to pick sides, to suppress some people’s freedom of speech but not others… either it stays public and we all defend each persons [sic] right to express themselves or it stays private.” In the comments section, users debated the definition of ‘politics’, ‘censorship’, and ‘free speech’. One commenter posted, “I would think at least the Nazis should be fairly uncontroversial… If you can’t take a stance on Nazism being bad, I’m not sure what to say.” A few hours later, Kopanas closed the forum post and shelved the discussion. ●