Surrounding the release of the movie that shall not be named, there was discussion about whether newbies to kink and BDSM (particularly Fifty Shades
readers with expectations built on fiction) were at risk of being taken advantage of. That’s an interesting conversation, but not one I engage in here. What I think is interesting, though, is the way that Whiplr, the kinky hookup app, draws on those concerns in what appears to be very strategic ways in order to market itself to novices.
What is Whiplr Selling?
As its predecessors Grindr and Tinder, Whiplr markets itself as a social media / messenger / dating / hook-up app. Grindr is for gay men, Tinder is for everyone, and Whiplr is for kinky people.
But what makes Whiplr different is that it targets not only “experienced kinksters,” but “kink-curious” novices, too. To “woo you into the world of kink and help you step out of your comfort zone,” Whiplr promises education and mentorship, selling itself to newbies as access to a safe, welcoming community.
In communications with Salon, Whiplr’s Chief Communications Officer, Daniel Sevitt, offers:
Whiplr is a great place for the kink-curious to be welcomed as they start their journey [. . .] It all begins with filling in your profile. Once you do that the community will reach out and help you learn more. Find someone experienced to mentor you or find someone just like you and arrange to meet up at a fetish event. [emphasis added]
screen caps from Whiplr app > help
Sevitt makes Whiplr sound more like a learning experience than a hookup app. While particular groups and individuals perform outreach and offer education, there is no Official BDSM Community™, nor any BDSM Community Guidelines™ that mandates such activities or codify their practice.
As part of a marketing strategy, the idea of “The BDSM Community” is misleading. In reality, a community is nothing more than a group of people who share an interest. Sevitt’s implication, however, is that a community — “The BDSM Community — also has a set of shared values (and practices) to which members subscribe.
It doesn’t. “We” don’t.
The only qualification needed for inclusion in “The BDSM Community” is an interest in BDSM. Any values that some members might share are secondary (perhaps ancillary) to their interest in kink. The values Whiplr draws on aren’t inherent to BDSM and aren’t necessary for “community membership” — collectively, kinky people don’t have a”welcoming committee, aren’t an educational outreach, nor are values consent or safety essential to community membership.
But still, Whiplr implies community and shared values because it helps to sell itself to novices as safe. It speaks to concerns, albeit misleadingly, people might have about exploring BDSM for the first time.
In an email to The Daily Dot, Sevitt says:
“Until now there has never been an app [. . .] that can help experienced kinksters connect as well as provide a safe and welcoming environment for the kink curious to begin their journey.” [emphasis added]
If by “safe,” Sevitt means “users cannot be physically assaulted in the app,” then sure. But unless he thinks people’s “kink journeys” will begin and end in the app’s electronic environment, promises of welcome and safety are disingenuous.
I’m surprised there hasn’t been more said about this. What little “coverage” Whiplr has received since it’s release on February 22 has been overwhelmingly promotional (read “vapid”) and optimistic.
Refinery29 suggests Whiplr will help people find a “supportive, educational group of like-minded people.” Elite Daily seems to think the app’s private digital notepad, where “you can record things you didn’t like” about a date, is “an interesting element to the app since the BDSM community prides itself on communication and honesty between partners” (huh? what logical leaps made that connection?) Nylon says Whiplr “helps beginners figure out what they’re interested in.”
Bustle seems to understand something about people’s (particularly kinky people’s) privacy concerns. But instead of doing the bare minimum of reading required before making claims, Bustle offers undeserved praise.
[Whiplr’s] privacy features are much more sophisticated than those of most dating apps — and with good reason. Because of the taboos that still exist with regards to kink and BDSM, being hacked or even simply tracked on this app could be potentially embarrassing or harmful for some users. As such, the app doesn’t record or save any of its users conversations; furthermore, users can delete all of the messages that they have sent on their device and on the other person’s device at any time.
Three things here.
- DELETE ALL THE THINGS isn’t a sophisticated privacy feature. It’s about as far from sophisticated as you can get.
- Giving users the ability to delete messages they’ve already sent to other users could cause a whole host of problems. Wouldn’t this make it easy to threaten someone and then remove the evidence from their phone?
We collect information that identifies an individual [. . .] including your name, password, email address, status, relationship interest, ethnicity, religion, social habits or preferences, height, weight, birthday, precise geo-location information [. . .] messages you sent to other users (including photos, location, audio or video files) or any other information you voluntarily submit to your profile or is generated by your use of Whiplr.
Whiplr also clearly states they share information with affiliated companies and service providers and the public: “You acknowledge and agree that information you share with other users or provided in your profile is available to the public.” And it is. While I still can’t seem to register a profile, after downloading the app, I can see profiles of users near me — their usernames, ages, photos, and a bunch of other identifying info. In other words, anyone can see users profiles — no registration required.
Is Whiplr Responsible for Educating Users?
What Whilpr’s marketing offers is a counterargument in response to potential, unstated objections of novice users. Whiplr invokes people’s reasonable and understandable concerns about BDSM, kinky “communities,” and hookup apps strategically in order to allay their concerns with promises of safety, community, and education — promises it has no right to make.
In a sense, it anticipates and speaks to the concerns of the audience without ever really offering any meaningful information or warnings to potential users.
Does Whiplr have a responsibility to educate users? No. Not legally, at least. I’m not even sure they have an ethical obligation — life is “at your own risk,” of course.
In a statement to Salon, a representative from Kink University agrees: “I don’t think apps like Whiplr have any responsibility to educate newbies, any more than Grindr and Tindr and other ‘am I hot or not’ flirt apps have a responsibility to educate users about meeting strangers and having safe sex.”
It’s worth mentioning that both Grindr and Tinder do offer prominent educational warnings about safety on their websites. Whiplr does not. (Whiplr does have the standard “hold harmless” clauses in their Terms of Service, so they’re not unaware of risks to users that risk lawsuits to the company.)
What is unethical is the way Sevitt markets Whiplr as access to a safe community where novices will be welcomed, educated, and mentored. Arguably, there is no “BDSM Community,” certainly not one organized around universally shared values or practices.
While an app isn’t necessarily responsible for warning people about dangers, it shouldn’t go out of its way to make unfounded claims about safety, either.