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Turned on by ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’? Then stay far, far away from kink apps

BDSM apps are bad for newbies—and everyone else.

While feelings are mixed on the actual product, there’s no denying that Fifty Shades of Grey has piqued the kink curiosity of a whole new audience. Women who in the past may have giggled over furry handcuffs at bachelorette parties are now looking for a Mr. Grey to make their own Inner Goddess do back flips, and couples who want to “spice it up” are now as likely to pick up a riding crop as a vibrator; if there remains any doubt that kink is going mainstream, a bevy of smartphone apps have popped up to help folks navigate the world of kink, offering everything from BDSM “games” to kinky dating.

Whiplr is a new dating app that is akin what would have happened had Fetlife thought of Tinder first. Whiplr claims to take their inspiration from the kink community, but a look at their website copy reveals that they harbor no illusions about who this app was built for:  

Connect with people who share your fetishes and kinks (such as for fashion, accessories, sounds, etc.) discreetly and anonymously with Whiplr. Chat, send photos or video-chat securely – all in one user-friendly app. Download today and embark on your personal Fifty Shades of Grey journey!

While Whiplr has several similarities to Tinder—it’s location based and users swipe through potential matches—the app is different in one key way: Users aren’t required to connect to a Facebook account, allowing for much more anonymity. Profile creation does allow for a lot of detail though, with sexuality options offered on a sliding scale (I’m “85 percent into Men”) and a dizzying list of kink options (10 categories in all), as well as standard information like age, height and, of course, a photo. Once a profile is completed, users are matched with members with similar interests who are in their area. 

The free version of Whiplr allows users to browse up to 100 profiles, start up to 10 chat sessions, initiate three voice or video calls, send three “Sparks” and swipe through 25 profiles over the course of 24 hours. For unlimited access, users can purchase subscription plans. It’s a low stress way for newcomers to the BDSM scene who might have, in the past, not known where to find partners or been uncomfortable with attending something like a munch or seeking out their local dungeon.

For couples who want to explore BDSM but don’t know where to start, BDSM Master (as well as BDSM Master 2) and Fetmobile are apps designed to assist in BDSM play. They can generate suggested “punishments,” help map out scenes (including parameters and safewords), and even vibrate. They also both offer a bit of education—with items like a BDSM dictionary and an “About BDSM” section. For people who don’t have the good fortune to live somewhere where classes on these topics are readily available (or for those who may be too shy for group learning), apps like this could feel like the answer.

Finally, Kink Me does something a bit different, it tells users whether or not their kinks are compatible with that of the person next to them; this saves them the time of getting out the paddle and realizing there are two people who want to be spanked and no one who wants to spank them. The app catalogs user preferences starting with the heading “Kinks,” which includes things like “General Fetishes” and “Toys.” From there, users identify how into each of these activities they are, as well as stating a preference of being a dominant, submissive, or switch. Once all that information is stored, users can bump their phone against the phone of someone else who has the app, it will tell them whether they are a good match for each other’s desires.

While the smartphone world has covered quite a few bases, there are still some pretty big holes here left to fill, and if unaddressed, they could prove problematic.

How so?

While entering the world of BDSM from the comfort on one’s smartphone may be the most comfortable and least intimidating way to do it, it skips a vital step: connecting with people who actually know anything about safely engaging in BDSM. What happens when Anastasia99999 (it will be a popular name) hooks up with WhipDude69 and one (or both) of them are new to BDSM play, with no knowledge of what R.A.C.K. (Risk Aware Consensual Kink) means? How are they supposed to know how any of this works when their ideas of BDSM come from a Hollywood movie and some app instructions?

At the very least, there’s going to be some bad sex, but it’s also likely someone will get hurt, contributing to the sharp increase in sex-related injuries since 2011. Since the publication of Fifty Shades of Grey, there has been an uproar about its misrepresentation of abusive behaviors as BDSM, and for people who buy into the idea that controlling, angry, boundary-violating behaviors come with the kink package, jumping into BDSM play without any education is a disaster waiting to happen.

Taking the time to engage in some adult sex education, even when done from home, can provide some of the solid fundamentals a beginner needs to avoid hurting their partner. Munches and dungeons that require membership and feature monitors allow newbie kinksters to meet people who can help introduce them to BDSM, giving them a space cut their teeth safely in a structured environment where those who violate boundaries face being ostracized.

Virtual communities don’t tend to police themselves nearly as well as real ones do. In 2012, online community Fetlife drew fire for censoring the posts of abuse victims who named their abusers. Three years later, that controversy still has not died down; what is often referred to as “kinky Facebook” is also known as a place where users don’t feel like consent is valued—and that’s a virtual community where, unlike in an app, groups of people actually talk to each other.

App-based socializing takes the problem to a whole new level. The potential abuses are still there, the potential for them to go ignored is still there but now there’s no community to rally together. Someone who uses an app because they are too embarrassed to have people out in the real world know that they are kinky may also be too embarrassed to speak out when something goes wrong. While apps give users tremendous freedom, they can also create tremendous isolation.

As the world becomes more sexually open and technologically savvy, there’s no question that products like Whiplr, Fetmobile, and Kink Me are going to become more common. However, the question becomes how to balance that with accessible sex education for adults and an understanding that no app can replace experience and wisdom. While technology has the potential to bring a lot more people to the kink table, a lot must be done if those people are to find their seats safely. 

Photo via SabineMondestin/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)