When someone asks, “How do I meet more kinky people?” or, “How do I get involved in the scene?” my response is always the same: join Fetlife.
The college professor, working dad, busy mom, curious student, or retired business person, then proceeds to make an account. They set up a profile at Fetlife. They friend me. But not long after, they change their profile picture from their face to a body shot, then to nothing at all. Then they delete their account.
Did they not find what they were looking for?
FetLife is a bottomless resource. With just short of 3.5 million members, it is the largest fetish site in the world. On it one can socialize, join discussion groups, find events local to your area, and more. On it, you can also browse through sleazy porn ads, peruse sex toy promotions in your sidebar, and solicit cyber sex. And all on a red-on-black background reminiscent of a dirty chat room from 2001.
While much of the its content is designed for community building, intellectual stimulation, and sexual education, Fetlife's overall aesthetic is a combination of porn hub and sex forum; it is not a site to leave open with others in the room. And for many, this might make joining FetLife feel like a compromising decision.
FetLife is a secure site and one on which users can exist anonymously: the only personal information required to join is an email address, date of birth, gender, and country. Still, that doesn't mean you won't chance upon someone you know in a local forum, as happened to one college student I know, who ended up finding one of her professors in the community. Or the possibility of having your browser history seen by potentially kink-shaming friends or family. Chances are, if that snooping someone has any negative preconceptions about what kinky people do on the internet, FetLife would confirm them with its looks alone.
For kinksters, by kinksters.
As the world's leader in online social connection for the kink community, is it FetLife's responsibility to cater their on-site experience to both novices and experienced players?
I'd say it is. Still, Fetlife CEO and founder John Baku says new members are not their main focus.
“We don't focus on gaining new members,” Baku told me via email, “Our primary focus is on creating the best possible community for kinksters. And we believe if we successfully do that, naively or not, that everything else will just fall into place.”
Long term users and more experienced players have gotten used to this mix and to socializing alongside explicit promotions, but this proximity could potentially disorient newbies still learning to navigate the site and determine its intent, along with their own.
FetLife is a progressive site that combines what appeals to humans on a basic, primitive level with sexual concepts that are intellectually stimulating. It challenges us to be turned on with our brains and our junk–at the same time. Playing with social norms and our senses, it blurs the line between art and porn, exhibitionism and selfies, inquiry and flirtation.
But humans tend to compartmentalize. As a species, we tend to separate sexuality from intellectual stimuli, work from play, etc. On FetLife, all these stimuli overlap: Members can be aroused, creatively inspired, cerebrally intrigued, or repulsed simultaneously and at any given moment. Your in-depth chat on aftercare or navigating a full-time D/s relationship jockeys for space with a Kink.com ad featuring a bound woman being penetrated by a dildo.
Porn or not porn?
While only ten of the 109 mixed ads
run by Fetlife are actually for adult websites, nearly half are pornographic or explicit in nature. The majority of these NSFW ads are for fetish gear and sex toys. Only about a quarter of FetLife's advertising is for art, culture, and other educational or mixed professional services, such as kink-friendly counsellors and informational resources.
Still, explicit, image-based ads for sex toys and porn dominate FetLife's site real estate. In 7 out of 10* site views, porn and "Support FetLife" ads run in the main right sidebar.
FetLife has never been "thirsty" for ad sales, says Baku. "If we were, we would have had to implement pop-overs, full page ads, animated ads," he tells me via email, "pretty much all the types of ads that everyone hates."
(the team behind FetLife, led by Baku) may have an understanding of what types of ads users find annoying, but do they also consider the kinds of ads users would prefer to see in place of them?
And while FetLife's Suggestion Box
offers an infinite scroll of submitted improvements for the site (many of which are proposed by FetLife's CEO himself), none of them request porn streaming, chastity belt discounts, or cam girl interaction (perhaps because they are already supplied). But they do address issues regarding abusive users, the addition of non-conforming labels and roles, and the site's overall usability and aesthetic, including its red on black color scheme.
The Fetlife team's primary focus, Baku says, is on how to create the best community possible for kinksters. Yet according to the person who handle's Fetlife's advertising, the only information on that community that advertisers on Fetlife are interested in is geographical targeting.
FetLife has a trove of resources for ideas on what users might appreciate seeing advertised, such as their Kinky & Popular section: a tab containing top rated writing, videos, and multimedia posts by users. For example, lots of killer erotica makes its way to the top of that page. While readers are surely enticed by such writing, many of those same users are also authors themselves. In fact, FetLife hosts tons of groups dedicated to writers, the biggest one I've seen holding a total membership of 4,372. Sure, those members might be interested in "Adult Shopping with a Personal Touch," but they might be more susceptible to an ad for say, a writing workshop. Or a self-publishing warehouse. Or even a cool custom made journal.
Many sites (such as Facebook and Gmail) target advertising this way without compromising users' personal information.t
But I like the kinky photos and videos!
It's true that the most viewed and liked entries on Kinky & Popular are pornographic, that doesn't mean that their popularity is the immediate result of users searching for masturbation material. As a site user myself, my interest in such content extends well beyond my point of arousal; I want to learn how I can do what's happening in that video, which people I can do it with, and where I can meet them. While the end result of sexual exploration is sometimes orgasm, this does not mandate that all sexual exploration (online or not) is done for the purpose of getting off.
FetLife should know that kinksters are people–complex, often intelligent, and open-minded. People sign into the site to explore a side of themselves that's been repressed by family, friends, and society, to meet others with shared sexual interests who won't judge or condone our behavior, to read and write about controversial topics, and ultimately, to transcend all that inhibits these activities anywhere else on the internet.
It is offensive, if nothing else, that these activities are literally kept in the dark (black) aesthetic of FetLife's user interface, and framed by advertisements geared towards getting off, getting off now, and getting off fast.
All this makes me want to get off FetLife, and I've been exploring my kinky side for seven years. I am not turned off by the image of a lubed up woman getting fucked by a machine, or a shriveled penis ensnared by a chastity belt. Those just aren't the things I'm looking for when I sign onto FetLife; When I want to watch porn, I go to a porn site. When I want to explore something of substance, I turn to FetLife.
While it's true that FetLife has gained close to 100,000** members in the last month alone, it's conceivable that they could gain more if a little effort was implemented toward site image. But CEO John Baku says image management isn't a priority.
"I personally don’t put much effort into managing my image. It’s not something I enjoy doing and feel it can easily become a distraction," Baku explains, "And I think that translates to how we look at managing FetLife’s image."
Focusing on site usability is a practical goal of any growing website, but it's an improvement that is very much isolated to the online kink community as it exists on FetLife, and not beyond it. Between the impending release of the Fifty Shades of Grey film and the recent kinky porn ban in the UK
, the kink community should be prepared for lots of online attention–and not just from current site users. Kink–at least as far as BDSM is concerned–is creeping into the mainstream consciousness. Personally, I'd rather not leave it to E.L. James to paint my image for the general public. If my sexual interests are going to be represented at all, I would much rather have it done by a community that operates "for kinksters, by kinksters."
It's admirable that FL's team is always trying to do the right thing for the community, as Baku puts it. But at a time like this, focusing on image might be what is best for the kink community... at large.
*7 out of 10 reflects a recent isolated user tested click through.
**Calculated according to FetLife's member tracker (as seen on the home page prior to login).
Zoë Tersche is a NYC-based writer focusing on fetish sexuality and the freedom of sexual expression. Follow her on Twitter at @ZoeTersche or on her website.