Her scream pierces the lazy, hot afternoon and my head turns towards the sound. Across the campground, I see several men and one woman take hold of a struggling woman and put a pillowcase over her head. They hoist her up between them and carry her off into the woods. With a sigh, I return to my book. That just seems like a lot of work, and it’s hot, but it’s camp and that sort of thing is to be expected.
What I’ve witnessed is not a crime but a meticulously planned BDSM scene. Negotiation has taken place, consent and limits have been discussed, and the go-ahead given by the ‘victim’. What happens in the woods depends on what those discussions have yielded and what the kidnapee wants. Will there be interrogation with hitting and slapping, or perhaps rape-play, or even some water-boarding (yep, I’ve seen it done). That’s all up to those participating. Everyone involved has signed off to do this consensually, safely, and with safeguards in place to stop at any time should anyone feel consent and safety are being compromised. Being abducted is something I am mildly interested in, but camp is usually busy for me and I don’t have the schedule to spontaneously drop everything and be carried off.
Sexual fantasies run the gamut from light spanking to intense scenes that include…well, abduction. Certainly on that end of the spectrum we are talking about edge play and not everyone plays that way, but it does exist and that’s why we’re going to stop here and talk about a concept in BDSM called “Your kink is not my kink, but your kink is OK”. It’s this concept that my likes and wants are different, and yours might even make me uncomfortable, but I am committed to sexual freedom, and therefore “Your kink is not my kink, but your kink is OK” Another example of this is needles. I love sticking poke-y thing in people, but many people hate the thought of it and that is OK. In BDSM, we are all in this weird thing together and we support each other, even when it’s not “our thing”. It’s important that you get this concept, because abduction, knife-play, needles, rape-play and other forms of kink might make you queasy and uncomfortable – but adults get a say in how they conduct their sex life and that has to be OK. Sexual freedom depends on everyone getting that concept.
The next part that’s important to understand is that in many BDSM scenes, the participant known as the ‘bottom’ (or the person who is getting something inflicted on them) wants fear and pain as part of their experience. Frankly, it gets them off and makes them happy. The top is someone who is alright with inciting that pain, making bruises, doing the tying. Each person involved has to have a robust understanding of consent, what techniques in scenes are safe, and put in place some safe words so action can stop in an instant if anything gets out of hand.
To that end there is a lot of talking about sex. When we are together we talk about our fantasies, wants, desires, and people to fulfill those fantasies. But because consent is the cornerstone of BDSM we do not do this in public. We do this for non-kinksters who haven’t consented to hear about my sexual exploits. One of those places we congregate to talk, meet other people, and plan is FetLife.
Now inject into this delicate balance of consent, pain, sex, and trust someone who wants to take advantage. Let’s not kid ourselves, they are out there, and they permeate every aspect of our lives. Even in BDSM. Notice I said ‘even’; not ‘especially’. In light of recent events, I am more comfortable with introducing my adult daughter to sexual freedom and BDSM than a priest. Sit with that for a moment. It is important that you realize predators are out there, and they take advantage. In the BDSM scene it can be hard to spot the criminal deviants from the deviants who understand consent and limits. And both have access to FetLife.
Fetlife bills itself as the Facebook for kinksters and that seems an apt description. You can friend people, RSVP for events, write stories or fantasies, put a list together of your likes and dislikes, and join groups that may interest you. Groups that I belong to include: Male Submissions, Baltimore Kinksters, Femmes, Leather Girls, Latex Lovers, BiSexual Women, Dommes in Maryland, and on and on. From that list, you can get an idea of what I like and where I spend most of my time and what some of my kinks are. FetLife allows me to explore these things safely before moving into the real-world experience.
Did I just call FetLife safe? Yep. And I stand by it.
Before FetLife, older kinksters tell of trying to get into the BDSM scene by looking at the back page of local and underground papers searching for the keywords that indicate there was a scene/party/kinkster on the other side of the ad. Midori likes to tell the story of ads for “Very Strict Piano Teachers” and the deeper meaning behind the ads. Can you imagine? Following the instructions of an ad, and not knowing what lay on the other side – danger or fellow kinkster who respects your boundaries. I mean, this is a person you want to tie up, and you want to tie you up – probably have sex, and do other things and your only way to vet this person if you are not the BDSM scene is a backpage ad.
Enter FetLife. By creating a place for us to communicate, gatherings are easy to find. But also easy to find are other people who have been to that gathering, people who know the organizer, and any problems that organizer/ venue/ event has had in the past. Want to meet a new sub, domme, play partner? You can friend them, message them, and vet them before meeting them in person. No one on FetLife is forced to be there, and, in fact, signing up for an account isn’t as easy as it used to be (it now requires an invite or a working phone number).
FetLife helps us keep our anonymity if our circumstances in our personal life dictate it. I am lucky that I can be mostly ‘out’, but there are many people (ESPECIALLY in the DC area) who need to keep their sex life far away from every aspect of their life. Most everything on Fetlife is about respect for consent and boundaries. But not everything, and we are always reminded of that when FetLife is dragged into a heinous crime.
Yingying Zhangefore, a student at the University of Illinois, was allegedly abducted and likely killed by Brendt Christensen. And Mr Christensen appears to have visited FetLife, and one of its groups called “Abduction 101”. The (now-deleted) group had threads called “Perfect abduction fantasy” and “planning a kidnapping.” In the hands of someone who understands consent and the difference between fun and fantasy, it’s niche group. In the hands of a criminal, it’s a planning tool.
Our hearts go out to Yingying Zhangefore’s family, and we cannot imagine the grief they are feeling at this time.
But I need to say something important – FetLife did not cause the death of Yingying Zhangefore.
The BDSM scene works hard to keep perpetrators out of our sphere, but we cannot stop them from creating profiles and invading our digital sphere. At the heart of this is whether or not Mr. Christensen would have abducted and killed if it weren’t for FetLife. That is a philosophical question that we can ponder for ages, but I can say for sure that FetLife is not the reason this woman is dead.
There are two issues at play here; whether or not you should be held responsible for what you put on your digital footprint (yes), or you should be prosecuted for your fantasies (no). Just as many, many people have rape fantasies, other people have abduction fantasies. We need to recognize that fantasies are normal and DO NOT MAKE YOU A BAD PERSON. But when you move from the world of make-believe to real world, you can become the bad person – and you should be prosecuted for that.
Judge Barrington Parker, of the cannibal cop case, wrote in support of clearing the cannibal fantasy writing cop Valle. “Fantasizing about committing a crime, even a crime of violence against a real person whom you know, is not a crime.” We can’t prosecute what’s in people’s heads, we just can’t. Even if it’s horrible, and gross, and illegal in real life. Where we should be concerned is when a criminal adds intent. For instance, someone wrote that “Abduction 101” post – either as a fantasy or with intent to do it someone who is willing and gives consent. Mr Christensen may have used that post in his intent to abduct a unwilling person. One is not a crime, and the other is. It’s essential that we understand that.
If Mr Christensen commented or wrote posts on those sites, because of his intent, he should be held responsible for what he wrote. Not FetLife, not the other people in the group, not other people that participate in that fantasy, but Mr Christensen alone. When kinksters go on FetLife, they have no intent to inflict other people to see, participate, or condone their sexual mores, fetishes, kinks, likes, and habits. Mr Christensen did. And that doesn’t make him kinky, that makes him criminal.
Fetlife is invaluable tool for sexual freedom. One not without some issues, issues the team behind the site work diligently to resolve while keeping users, advertisers, and hosting sites happy. It’s a delicate balance that seems maddening. But a balance that works. And the next time I’m at the BDSM camp that I attend and watch an abduction scene, I will not be alarmed because I know FetLife had allowed the people involved to set safe parameters for their scene. And be thankful it exists.