When Jason Fortuny baited BSDM fetishists on Craigslist, he exposed their personal information -- and our society's rampant sexual hypocrisy.
You may have heard of Seattle web developer Jason Fortuny's September 2006 "Craigslist experiment" in which he posed as a submissive woman and solicited responses from kinky, dominant men. Citing safety, he requested real names, phone numbers, pictures, and other contact information -- and then took all the personal information these men gave him and posted it on a website. Some responded to this with a shrug: Too bad about the privacy violation, but that's what happens when you're a disgusting pervert. Presumably as a kinky person, you just don't have the same rights as anyone else.
But what Jason Fortuny did was extremely unethical, not because he was a man posing as a woman -- as vice squad detectives can tell you, 17-year-old virgin Jennifer in your chat room may likely be 40-year-old PTA member Steve -- but because he took advantage of people who were taking care to be ethical themselves. As sex columnist Dan Savage has pointed out, those responding to Fortuny's ad were trying to provide a nervous woman attracted to a murky subculture with the security that their personal information could afford, assuring her that if she did end up getting hurt, she'd know how to find them.
Instead, they got blamed for being kinky, "outed" to their families and communities, and had their professional and private lives compromised; one couple in an open marriage begged that their information be removed from Fortuny’s website, as their religious friends and family were unaware of their lifestyle. Someone else recognized a coworker from a Microsoft-based email address; another email came from a usar.army.mil address, not an organization famous for tolerance of alternative sexualities. Fortuny’s considerate response to the experiment’s "subjects" who asked him to remove their information from his website? "Sorry. Try not to freak out. Take deep breaths. Recognize that your friends will laugh at you for a little bit, and you'll get some prank phone calls. Maybe a feminist will write you a nastygram. If this is making you cry then grow the fuck up. Be the real man you claimed you were on your response, faggot. You should be able to take a hit in the solar plexus without flinching."
Why the hostility? Our culture is happy to grapple with sex-fetish imagery in the mainstream, where an ad for Altoids features a corset-clad honey bun and the tagline "Pleasure in Pain", and Justin Timberlake moans suggestively about shackles and slaves at the Victoria’s Secret fashion show. It's a vocabulary we all recognize: chains, whips, ropes, Chinese nurses, rubber. We have some generic cultural connotations for kink: It can suggest, for example, that folks are more adventurous, more interesting, possibly even cooler than nonkinksters. How often does Cosmopolitan tell couples to spice up their relationship with some light bondage, handcuffs or a silk scarf blindfold? So how do we get from thinking kink is a fun and exciting way to add a little zest to your sex life to finding it disgusting on the Internet and persecuting those who sought to practice it privately and safely?
Kinsey's sex studies in 1948 and 1953 revealed that we're all a lot weirder than we think. Gay, straight, kinky, or vanilla, we're all blips on a continuum that is wider than we typically imagine. While Kinsey didn't specifically study kinky behavior, his studies did reveal that approximately 12 percent of females and 22 percent of males had an aroused response to a sadomasochistic story and more than half of both sexes responded erotically to being bitten. And the prominence of kinky images in the media -- such as TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s cavalier inclusion of handcuffs, collars, and safe words, the recurring dominatrix character in CSI, fashion designer Jean Paul Gaultier’s use of stilettos, rubber, and leather straps and even the video game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, which has players disguise themselves in bondage gear to gain access to a casino, suggest a vast population with at least some interest in kink. So the scorn leveled at the men who answered Jason Fortuny's ad is hypocritical, to say the least. Chances are that some of those folks who sat down at their keyboards to write an e-mail blasting those poor guys had a pair of handcuffs under the bed or reach orgasm only while humping a high-heeled shoe.
The point is that it is a part of us. Just as we all have hair, and all have parents, so, too, do we all have kink. Calling people names or attempting to boot them out of society for something so fundamental is just about as silly as trying to drop-kick them for having two legs. Kinky behavior is the stuff of fantasy, the stuff you dream about, that you can't imagine anyone actually wanting to do with you. When we see people give credence to those fantasies and make them reality, it threatens the separation society promotes between the two categories in order to maintain its mores. Therefore, images of a horny schoolgirl dominatrix are okay, but an actual dominatrix is socially unacceptable. Fortuny and the kink-slanderers he inspired denigrate those who reject that boundary between sexual fantasy and reality and enforcing their otherness while reassuring themselves of their socially prescribed normalcy.
But the funny thing is that the Internet has traditionally been a haven for fetishists of all flavors. Back in the old days before BBSs and chat rooms, before anything but pen on paper, toe fetishists and panty lovers were locked in tiny miserable worlds of their own, not knowing if there was anyone else in the world who felt the same way as they did. But with the Internet, the kinky community blossomed. Many fetishists reported experiencing relief at finding out they weren't alone. As a man-on-the-street interview in HBO's erotic series Real Sex points out, now if you like to hump doorknobs, you can go online and find a club with 50 other doorknob-humpers.
These new opportunities for fetishists to normalize their behavior is precisely what threatens Fortuny and his ilk, who seek to shame kinky people back into hiding, preserving the marketing power of kinky fantasy while denying it any place to flourish in reality. Mainstream culture forbids kinkiness to save its shock-value potency for nonsexual purposes. Internet-fueled actualization of fetishism threatens the status quo, and as a result, our feelings of belonging in our community. When society dictates that kink is wrong, and we see people actually engaging in said kink, it flouts society’s agreed-upon rules directly. There is no legitimate physical threat from kinksters -- a common motto of the kinky community is "Safe, Sane, and Consensual" -- but there is a socially induced psychological threat. If the mass media tells us that engaging in kinky behavior is naughty and someone actually engages in it anyway, what other social conventions might they reject? Rejecting social rules, we're trained to believe, leads to chaos, confusion and the breakdown of society. Fortuny and his online pals became unwitting minions of our repressive culture, because he has internalized society’s dictates and rules and feels threats to them as threats to himself, despite all logical evidence to the contrary.
Fortuny was able to create scandal because privacy laws imply that only shame provokes us to choose to keep certain things to ourselves. But if our supposedly taboo activities are increasingly being revealed with the help of the Internet as more and more commonplace, they will not remain potently taboo for long. How can you shame someone for being "other" when there is more and more proof that this otherness is in fact the norm?
As Francis Bacon said, "Knowledge is power." The more information we gather about the world in general and our place within it, the easier it will be to make decisions that benefit not just individuals, but society as a whole. Since the only permissible images of kink in mainstream culture stylize and distort what actually happens when people engage in kinky activities, it is important and necessary to allow safe social space where real information about this subculture can be exchanged. While some kinky behavior rightfully remains in the realm of fantasy, we should be able to distinguish between harmful and non-harmful fetishes, and we can’t do that without safe, sane and consensual access to information. Fortuny’s prudish actions were more nonconsensual and harmful than the fetishes he denigrated.
As long as we exist in social groups, there will be struggles for balance between group members and the terrible, fearful "other". It is up to us to ensure that we do not needlessly alienate valid and productive members of society through lack of knowledge. Fortuny may have preferred to remain in ignorance, but the best gift we can offer each other from the depths of our little monkey brains is information and acceptance.