Fetlife, photos and active consent

How Fetlife photo search is an example of bad consent, and how we can make it right

Hailey Heartless
Jan 8, 2018 · 4 min read

Over the weekend, I learned that fetlife introduced a photo search function. This allows members to search for photos based on their caption. The introduction of the new feature was announced mid December on a fetlife group with little fanfare or attention brought to it, except for the praise of a few members who were excited about the ability to access sexy photos easier.

Over the following weeks, many women members of the website noticed an influx of people perving their profiles, sending them unsolicited messages, follows and friend requests. As a fetish service provider, I enjoyed the influx of new pervs. Exposure for my brand and potential clients is always a positive. A few community and lifestyle kinksters did not, and soon discovered the reason for the influx of pervs.

As sex positive activists raised concerns in the announcement thread, some members fought back, claiming that if you didn't want your pictures searchable, you shouldn't have placed them on fetlife. As opposition grew to the search function, fetlife suspended it, and several paying members, who were excited about the alternative to the popular and pervy feature, voiced disapproval.

The paying members claimed that the search function was the best option the site ever had. That the paid, “popular” feature was difficult to navigate, it was difficult to find that right picture to bring you to orgasm. The search function made the website so much better, made it a treasure trove of waking material that people would be happy to pay for. The duality of Fetlife, it's dirty little secret, the thing that many of us knew but didn't talk about, was out in the open.

Fetlife is, in reality, two websites in one. It might not actively market itself as such, but members and organizers know. To members of the kink community, it's a social media platform. To outsiders, it's a porn website. This isn't so bad, as long as it's out in the open, but it's been a missing stair for years. We all knew it, but we didn't talk about it.

We uploaded our photos on the website, intended mostly for people in our circle, including people who were in the community but not directly connected to our page. We knew it could get wide exposure, it could be viewed by many people, but we also knew the limits of Fetlife. In mid December, those limits were renegotiated without our involvement.

If you've ever set up a fetish party at a large hall, you'll know that play spaces are sometimes separated by barriers or collapsible walls. When we negotiate a session, it's with the understanding that the session will take place with certain barriers and walls. The only witnesses to the session will be the people within these walls. While there is a door, and people can come and go, you probably won't be exposed to the entire party. What fetlife did mid December was the equivalent of negotiating a session under the terms, “only the people in this room will be your audience,” then as soon as you are tied and blindfolded, they collapsed the walls of the hall and invited the entire party in.

In this metaphorical situation, neither, “she never said no,” or, “she shouldn't have been at a play party,” would be acceptable excuses. Chances are, the top and the organizers would be publicly called out and asked to participate in a transformative justice process. It would be nice to see Fetlife organizers participate in some sort of process, even if it's just in the form of an apology, but I'm going to stop short of calling for that, because as a fetish service provider I don't feel violated by the changes.

Therein lies the problem. Sex workers, who often have a paid subscription to the site and use it partially for advertising, aren't likely to feel violated by the changes. People who access the site as a porn site, and pay to unlock the porn site functionality of the site, are also going to strongly advocate for the inclusion of the feature. The people most affected are community and lifestyle kinksters, who can often use the website as a social media site without a subscription. Therefore, as allies, it falls on those of us with paid accounts, mostly service providers and community organizers, to advocate for their right to consent on this issue.

If Fetlife wants to use the women of the kink community as unpaid adult models to bring paying members to the site, and offer the features of a porn site to those members at a premium, that's a business model they can pursue, however, Fetlife needs to be upfront that it's doing that. They need to own it and face the consequences that come with that business model. They need to release a statement that we need to agree to before the next time we log in, and allow us to opt out of image search. In a world of enthusiastic and affirmative consent, they'd make us all opted out by default, and have us choose to opt-in to be searchable. Anything less than that would be a violation of our informed and active consent, and a violation of the tenets on which the kink community is founded.

Hailey Heartless

Written by

Transsexual dominatrix & sex worker rights activist. BC Canada.

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