Whips With Friends

images by imp kerr

BDSM dating sites try to bring light where we enjoy darkness

Sexual perversity is for nerds. Bondage is for dorks. Our images today of dominance and submission, of master/slave sex, of whips and chains and leather and collars are of a sad, bookish housewife with her nose in a copy of Fifty Shades of Gray. Sexual deviance is basically uncool. And, like other uncool things, it has found a home on the Internet. Various resources, most prominently FetLife—a website founded in 2008 which now boasts over 250,000 users—offer to connect partners based on their nontraditional sexual desires. Sexual deviance as romantic algorithm.

This idea interested me because at its core it seemed a contradictory proposition. Dating is a ritual of denial and deniability—a trail leading toward sex in which sex is ignored or hushed at every turn. In some ways, a dating site based on particular sexual preferences might be a fantastic mercy. The brutal but undeniable efficiency of a dating site in which an identification with a certain sexual kink is a prerequisite may be a mode of partner-locating perfectly suited to the Internet where you can find anything, no matter how specific, anywhere and at any hour. The Internet has made us all much better at demanding efficiency, at speaking up for and insisting on all our weird and particular needs. Dating services that move beyond gay, straight, bisexual, and into a pull-down menu of exact events, occurrences, and accessories may be exactly how people accustomed to online shopping at three in the morning from the comfort of their living room naturally proceed in the realm of sex and love. Each generation gets the dating it deserves.

I should come right out and say that I’ve never used any of the tools I write about here. Not because they don’t cater to my particular sexual interests—they do. I’ve never used any online dating resources because I’m terrified of running into any of my exes on the Internet more than I already do. So instead of signing up myself, I spoke to a number of friends who use both these sites and also more conventional social media and dating websites. The response was in no way what I expected. By and large, I was informed that it was incorrect to think of these sites—specifically FetLife, by far the largest, most popular, most visible BDSM-centric social media website—as dating sites. All of them stressed that the corollary to FetLife was not OKCupid, but Facebook. It was not a dating site, but a social network. A place for community, not for conquest. Finding sexual partners was a happy accident and in fact an unlikely one. To use FetLife to find someone to have kinky sex with, one friend said, would be about as strategic as using Facebook solely to find someone to have vanilla sex with.

Another friend pointed out that OKCupid is far more a “kinky sex” dating site than FetLife. If you really commit to answering all of OKCupid’s compatibility questions, it becomes a functional sexual compatibility generator. He noted that most of the people OKCupid recommends for him are people who specifically match his sexual proclivities and with whom he’s in no other ways at all compatible.

OkCupid bills itself as a conventional dating site, a place to meet people for primarily social reasons. Its very name references the most hackneyed and therefore accepted ideas of romance. Dating as a social act and not a sexual one. OKCupid—like Grindr—is sanitized in the manner of the familiar Internet itself, but works to match fetish to fetish, desire to desire. FetLife, on the other hand, which presents itself in terms of sex, actually functions as a social tool. One friend said it was much more accurate to compare FetLife to a shared activity or shared interest network, a site where Steampunk enthusiasts or skydivers meet. The sexual strives to be social; the social strives to be sexual.

Readers should, of course, remember that nourishing and robust social communities exist around all manner of sexual identities and have for centuries. Sex is an intrinsic part of ourselves and a terrifying one. The things that make us feel alone are also the things that cause us to long for solace in the form of community. You are not isolated in your ineradicable weirdnesses; rather, that weirdness is what connects you to a large group of others. Nobody wants to be lonely. Sexual desire, a natural impulse against loneliness, is therefore devastating when it seems to in fact be the thing that isolates us. The desire to create communities around it is both logical and deeply human.

But, despite the need for community, there’s still something unworkable about a social network based on sex. An app like Grindr isn’t credibly pretending to be anything other than a pick-up site. A sex-based social network can never succeed at not being sleazy, and in trying not to be sleazy makes itself sleazier. Who we are among our friends, among our colleagues, even alone in our homes with our clothes on doing any number of activities unrelated to sex, is not who we have to be in bed. Perhaps compartmentalization is not always a bad idea. Some secrets serve us better and give us more joy by remaining secrets.

As anything is assimilated into the mainstream, it becomes necessarily sanded down, its sharp edges rubbed off to acceptability. The more people are watching you, the more you have to behave. In this way, the Internet itself has moved from the sexual to the social. Social realms are always spaces defined by manners. Social networks operate at all times through strictly enforced codes of politeness. Etiquette is the material by which social spaces are constructed. But sex isn’t wellmannered. Sex isn’t social, or reassuring, or accepting. Sex is anti-social, a place where we go to escape the tyranny of good manners.

The sexual must be available as a rebellion against and escape from the social, a place to retreat from a stilted and often exhausting world of etiquette. In my darker, weirder, less small-talk-appropriate fantasies, I long to be not myself, to be the opposite of myself. One function of sexual deviance should be to turn down the sound and off the lights on our everyday lives, briefly distancing us from who we’re obligated to be in the sociality present in every other interaction.

Whenever I hear someone refer to websites like FetLife, CollarMe, and AdultFriendFinder, I’m reminded of the Internet of my early adolescence. The Internet on which my parents put parental controls because they’d been told over and over that any kind of social web was, essentially, just a giant stranger in a giant van with a giant box of candy. The Internet I subsequently discovered on a battered desktop monitor at my best friend’s house was a whole sordid, dangerous, futuristic world. And it was ours. Maybe these sites just call back such nostalgia because of their clunky, regrettable design: black backgrounds, red typeface, neon colors. But they also remind me that the Internet once felt like a secret. And, like most secrets, it was mostly about sex.

There was something very obviously to do with sex about the old Internet, even on sites that weren’t porn. At that time, the web hadn’t been sanitized by its very omnipresence. When we do something at every moment, we have to believe that what we’re doing is normal. Our relationship to the Internet is actually as weird, nerdy, and perverted as the plot of a sci-fi slash-fic. But, of course, we don’t want to know or admit that that’s the case. The Internet has to comfort us about its centrality in our lives.

But many of us who were pre-teens or teens in the late nineties or early aughts still recall the tail end of the culture of chat rooms and cybersex. Strangers on the Internet actually were strangers, not people who lived a few subway stops away from you in Brooklyn but who you hadn’t bothered to meet since you talk to them all the time on Twitter anyway. Just the fact that someone was on the Internet and was contacting you through the Internet made them a stranger. The Internet itself was a stranger and defined its users as strangers to one another.

Strangeness, the danger called up by it, almost always has something to do with sex. Any kind of sex is—arguably—by its nature private, dark, only partially understood, a secret. We don’t talk about it, sober, in daylight, with our polite acquaintances. We don’t post about it on Facebook. We are surprised by our own wants, and more often than not have a hard time speaking about them even after we act on them. Bodies are the place beyond words, and the things they want defy, exhaust, or run out ahead of language. Frank conversation about sex, the what-workedand-what-didn’t talkback session, often negates everything that was sexy. In a perfect and just world this would not be the case, but more often than not it is. To give it a name, to make it all safe and permitted, too often kills what worked about sex in the first place. This kind of dangerous privacy at the heart of sex is at once recalled and negated by BDSMbased social networks, and the inherent contradiction present in their very existence.

The way in which sites like FetLife made me nostalgic for my adolescent or pre-adolescent interactions with the Internet is, on the other hand, the best argument for them as a positive contribution. At an age of sexual inexperience, any frank discussion of sexuality is a lifeline, and any 12-year-old trying to understand why her emergent sexual desires don’t make her an unloveable freak is a desperately needy position. As a pre-teen with a dial-up Internet connection, discovering a community of people who wore their deviant sexuality as a social identity was a revelation. I only watched that community from the outside with my face pressed against the window. But sometimes the Internet as department store of personal identity is a huge and hopeful gift, particularly to young people trying to navigate the formation of identity and the development of sexual desire without massive shame.

Secrets always generate shame. Unfortunately, shame is often really, really hot. The difficult thing about the social Internet is that there seems to be little balance between extremes, between shameful secrets and exhausting personal branding. While social media based on sexual identity offers a model of greater acceptance, it also turns sexuality into a personal brand, another means of self-commodification, of offering oneself to the public world as a bright and shiny product. Outing oneself is desperately important as a model for younger generations. It offers a world less and less ashamed of itself, less and less scared of sex and therefore less likely to vilify others for their sexuality. One problem, however, is that all the verbs in that last sentence are also things that make deviant sex sexy. A world without shame is ideal, but is also a fallow ground for fantasies that center on humiliation or dispossession as much of BDSM does.

Finally, pretending we can predict what we will and won’t want sexually from each next person we encounter is as absurd as pretending we can control whether or not we fall in love with someone based on whether it would be convenient to do so. Sex is a huge deal and yet at the same time, it’s a very small part of life. Further, it’s indefineable and unpredictable. The best thing about sexual compatibility is that it will never successfully function in list of check-boxes or a pull-down menu on a website.

That someone is interested in certain activities may be important, but it’s equally important that someone smell right, and that’s not something around which anyone can build a website or social community. Sex forces us to be surprised by one another and to surprise ourselves, eluding even the most sophisticated social Internet.