Illustration by Lia Kantrowitz
KinkD is an app promising to help users "fulfill their golden shower fantasies." Essentially Tinder for kinky folk, the app's developers see their creation as an innovative platform for people looking to find niche sexual co-conspirators, or to easily explore their erotic desires. But KinkD isn't quite as novel as it might seem.The last two years have seen the launch of a number of kinky Tinder parallels—like Kinkstr, KNKI, and Whiplr, which Gawker called "Tinder in leather chaps." Whiplr hit a million downloads earlier this year, but spokespeople from KNKI and KinkD tell me they have tens of thousands of regular users and are logging thousands more every month. Openly riding on kink's pop exposure in the post-Fifty Shades era, these apps all seem to believe they're doing something good for the kinky community—and humanity—by facilitating some casual S&M exploration.
"Everyone has the potential to be kinky, and most people have a reserved desire to be," said KinkD co-founder Jeffrey Cheung, who found domination via porn relatively recently and used it to rekindle his married sex life. "Dating apps will help the kink community expand quickly."But to some in kink society, these apps aren't such a simple good. For many, kink is more than just a set of acts. It involves community and education, helping kinksters and the curious alike explore their boundaries, meet others, and learn and adopt the norms of safe and consensual best kinky practice. "Fundamentally, what makes [it] a subculture is that it is social," said Michal Daveed of The Eulenspiegel Society (TES), America's oldest fetish education and community group. "It's always been part of how we grow as individuals and a community, share skills, strengthen our values of communication, and care for one another. There's a degree of safety to this, as well as an established behavioral etiquette." Such social spaces are major venues for kinksters to meet one another, but also for newbies to learn vital ropes—sometimes literally.These new apps paint kink as an identity or regular practice, similar to how people in the scene depict themselves, and they try to match people on anything from simple acts (like pegging) to fairly intense fetishes (like breath play). Yet while some apps nod to community and education, they cannot ensure it, or police norms, as effectively as old-school kink spaces. Still, no one's out to kill these apps. "It's great to have increased opportunities for kink practitioners, or the curious, to meet each other," said Daveed. But he and others believe apps ought to do a little more soul searching about how to encourage safe, sane, and consensual kink rather than just provide a new meat market on which anyone, even non-initiates, can wander blindly into any sort of kinkiness.
Traditional kink spaces take on diverse forms, ideally making them welcoming to any level of fetish knowledge or mode of social being. Sure, many people think of kink events or spaces in terms of sex dungeons or play parties, in which people enact or watch fetish tableaus. But there are also formal or informal educational events, and "munches," meetings in public spaces to socialize—an especially welcoming environment for newcomers. These venues aren't perfect; abusers can still infiltrate them, and novices can still wind up in some odd situations. However, they are welcoming and well-crafted spaces made to connect and educate all sorts of folks.Kinky dating apps aren't looking to replace these spaces. Nor do they claim to be the only digital space for kinksters to find partners; Daveed and others in the scene attest to the fact that many just use OKCupid or Tinder and either find other kinksters in the lusty scrum or get involved with vanilla folks who they gradually introduce to their kinks. Instead, kinky apps claim they're responding to desires voiced by those in the community for a new kind of venue. Daveed acknowledges that apps can cut down on some of the frustration of going to munches or cruising general dating apps and taking ages to find someone with similar desires you can also connect to. They could be an entry point to kink communities for shy people, those who for legal or job reasons might not want to risk being seen at a kink space, or people in areas without a big scene.
But there are already digital spaces for these sorts of people, like CollarSpace and FetLife, which connect people to one another and to groups, spaces, and events near them, but can also be used as dating pools. FetLife, founded in 2008, has grown rapidly in recent years. It now boasts millions of members. But even with its strong sense of community and ties to physical events and spaces, FetLife has come under fire over the past for its digital anonymity, which seems to both allow outsiders and novices to dive deep and quickly without much norm-building or oversight, and also to abet its own infiltration by predators and abusers shirking kink norms.Most apps have some ID verification tactic, unlike FetLife, which in theory allows for better abuse policing. However, that policing will almost inevitably still pale against what can be done within a dedicated space or a stable in-person community. And they explicitly market not to established scenesters who know how to navigate kink, or have access to community and resources to help with new encounters, but to novices—especially those drawn in by Fifty Shades of Grey, a notoriously poor depiction of kinky sex that actually glorifies abuse and outright rape.
Given how dangerously bad popular knowledge of consent and safety are, and the damage Fifty Shades has already done (see the spike in sex toy-related injuries, often tied to poorly executed kink, in its wake), and you've got a potentially nasty recipe brewing on these apps: Novices told apps are an easy entry into a new world seeking kinky trysts with other novices, or stepping into a hook-up with someone more experienced but unprepared to navigate the complexities of kink. It can't help that apps often flatten out kink's complexity and the idiosyncrasies negotiated in every kinky relationship or encounter by boiling kinks down into a few blocky search categories.
No one can expect an app to provide the same experience as a traditional, physical kink space, says Daveed. And their developers are right: some people, even novices, just aren't in a good place, socially, mentally, or physically, to access those spaces. Nor should kinky sex be limited to those willing to regularly engage in and define themselves as part of the kinkster community. But it'd be almost irresponsible not to make sure that these apps provide users with access to some sort of safety, knowledge base, and entry point to wider community, as traditional kink spaces developed to do, for the pleasure and wellbeing of all exploring kink in its pop bubble."Kink organizations would certainly benefit from partnering with these apps," said Daveed, "so that newbies using them can understand that having kinky interests doesn't mean you need to go for the option that means instant gratification and anonymity. It can be frustrating having kinky desires and not being able to act on them… But it's absolutely worth taking the time to explore exactly what it is you want and getting to know other kinksters as multifaceted human beings."Most of the kinky app developers I've been in touch with accept this responsibility in theory. Kinkd, Kinkstr, and KNKI all describe themselves as communities and talk about tools for education or linking users to groups and events in-app. They note that they're consulting with people in the scene and trying to incorporate the lessons of old-school spaces and communities. However the efficacy of these efforts and the long-term effects of the apps on pop engagement and experiences with kink will probably take a few experimental years to reveal themselves."It's never going to be the ideal [format] for, say, education on how to engage in certain BDSM activities," said Daveed of the kinky app space. But these apps have a market. They're here to stay, a new space for kink exploration and connection. So the least they can do is make sure they do their utmost to integrate with and learn from existing kink space models, for their users' sake. Which is to say, they need to be kink apps, and not risqué Tinders for people trying to live a basic-ass Fifty Shades fantasy with a length of rope and no fucking idea what they're doing.Follow Mark Hay on Twitter.