Yingying Zhang, a 26-year-old visiting Chinese scholar at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne, went missing on June 9th. Now, a former PhD candidate at the university named Brendt Christensen has been arrested and charged with Zhang's abduction. (He pled not guilty at an arraignment on July 20th.) The student was last seen getting into a black Saturn Astra hatchback, which has been reportedly linked to Christensen.
CNN reports that police captured the suspect on audio recording talking about how he kidnapped Zhang and brought her back to his apartment. Zhang is still missing and presumed dead. However, much of the media has reported on one aspect of Christensen's actions in the months leading up to Zhang's disappearance: the fact that he visited a forum called "Abduction 101" on the website FetLife, which describes itself as "a social networking site for the BDSM, Fetish, and Kinky community." Users of the site can join groups based on interest, participate in discussions, or connect with BDSM practitioners local to them.
This is not the first time that FetLife – or social networking platforms in general – have faced heat and criticism after users of the site committed a violent crime. In 2016, a man murdered a woman he met on the dating website Plenty of Fish; later the same year, a man was shot and killed after a woman he met on POF set him up to be robbed. There was a Craigslist Killer. But what, if any, responsibility does FetLife have in a situation like this? And is it irresponsible for them to have forums that include threads like "Perfect abduction fantasy" and "planning a kidnapping" – or should adults be trusted to indulge their fantasies in a supportive environment?
In order to answer the first question, we must begin with the second. FetLife boasts over 3.7 million users, and exists as a networking site for self-described "kinksters" to meet other people with the same interests. (FetLife did not respond to repeated requests for comment.) The entire premise of BDSM play is that it is entirely consensual. "In the BDSM scene, the top priority of anyone who's not a criminal is consent for everything that happens, for everyone who's involved," writes Jannis Tenbrink, a FetLife user who tells Rolling Stone he identifies as a switch (someone who plays as both a top/Dominant and bottom/submissive) within the BDSM scene. "Most of the things we do would be illegal outside of a complete consensual context, and rightfully so punishable with sometimes long prison sentences."
Therefore any forums or threads on FetLife involving the planning or execution of a kidnapping, by nature of existing on a site for BDSM practitioners, are operating with the assumption that said kidnapping would be a consensual act that takes place between parties who have negotiated the boundaries of the scene beforehand. The "kidnapee" in the scenario can opt out of the scene at any time, should they choose.
For people who desire to be the "target" in a consensual kidnapping scene, like a woman we'll call Laura Black, often the thrill lies in the uncertainty, but with the knowledge that it's happening in a safe, contained setting. She asked her partner for a kidnapping scene as a birthday present one year. Black provided her partner a list of friends and former lovers that she would want to participate, and her partner arranged the scene. "You know how when you're anticipating something exciting but you don't know when it will arrive, and all your senses seem heightened?" Black, who says she is a switch and a masochist, explains. "That feeling doesn't last forever, but it can be pretty thrilling."
In Black's case, the kidnapping scene was something she requested. "None of my tops have, as far as I know, intense kidnapping desires themselves. They wanted to make me happy and give me explicitly what I asked for," she says. Sam Astair, a self-identified top who assisted in a kidnapping role-play, and asked to have his name changed to protect his privacy, says that giving the kidnapee in the scenario what they desire is a big part of the appeal. "For me it's the thrill of helping others fulfill their fantasies, mostly," he says. As Black puts it, "it's wrongheaded to assume that means that they want to do anything close to it in real life."
Because much of the activities that kinksters participate in are often considered taboo or are misunderstood by people outside their community, FetLife gives participants a place to seek information about how to do kidnapping or hostage role play safely. The forums allow users to share tips and stories; to explain how to abduct the consenting "target" without injuring them; to understand how to avoid psychologically harming the person or violating their limits.
Bottoms in the scenarios can learn how to negotiate and plan ahead of time what they want to happen, and how to both conceptualize and articulate their wants and limits. And, of course, users can seek community and validation. "It's always nice to know that you're not alone, and that other people have done these scenes successfully," says Black. "That you can have your fantasy fulfilled, but even more important, that you're very much not alone in even having these fantasies in the first place." There is real value for people in the BDSM scene in spaces like this.
"it's wrongheaded to assume that means that they want to do anything close to it in real life," says one kinkster.
That said, Kitty Striker, editor of the forthcoming book editor of Ask: Building Consent Culture, says it's irresponsible to give the average Joe access to forums that blur the line between consent and non-consent. "When you first come into the BDSM scene, no one's going to talk to you right off the bat about how to stage a kidnapping," she explains, because newcomers have to build up to that level of play and knowledge. "But on an online forum, nothing's preventing you from getting access to information that may be slipping into the wrong hands," like Christensen's.
Many BDSM practitioners will ask potential play partners for references, and/or put a "silent alarm" in place, which means telling a trusted friend where you will be and with whom, and asking them to send help if they don't hear from you by a certain time. "Sex workers have bad date lists where we can share info on potentially dangerous clients amongst ourselves. There has to be a way to do something like that for the BDSM community," says Striker. "What I'd like to see is the opportunity to say 'this was my experience with this person, make your own decisions based on that.'" Striker, who identifies as a Dominant-leaning switch, says this would provide more agency and consent, which is supposed to be the cornerstone of the BDSM community.
"I feel like there are creeps everywhere. If it wasn't FetLife, it would be Reddit true-crime forums or Craigslist," says Black.
Striker also notes that this isn't the first time that FetLife has been at the center of a scandal like this. Several years ago, a couple who used the site was linked to a violent murder. So does FetLife bear some responsibility for the way Christensen, or other users, chose to use the information available on their platform? Legally no, says David Greene, civil liberties director and senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. In order to be found liable in a court of law, it has to be proven that not only did the content creator intend for the information to be used in the commission of a crime, but that the content would be received by a targeted audience with the will and the capacity to act on it. "My assumption would be that the site is to hook up people who want to do play acting kidnapping scenarios. It would be very difficult to prove whoever created the content did so intending for someone to actually commit a crime instead of engaging in role playing," says Greene.
Greene also says that from a legal standpoint, by serving as a platform for people to post content, FetLife has an another barrier to liability because the platform, as an intermediary, has statutory immunity through the Communication Decency Act. In what's known as "Section 230 Immunity," online platforms are given immunity from most types of liability from user generated content. "That would immunize them against civil suits, like if [Zhang's] family were to bring a civil suit against them for wrongful death," explains Greene. It would also protect FetLife from any state law criminal proceedings, but the protection does not apply to potential federal criminal prosecution.
Ethically, however, some people feel it's a different story. "If I ran a kink/fetish forum and I wanted to demonstrate to my users and the world at large that BDSM was not inherently abusive or dangerous, I would be putting measures in place to ensure bad date lists could exist and that people could more vocally warn each other about possible dangers," says Striker.
"I feel like there are creeps everywhere. If it wasn't FetLife, it would be Reddit true-crime forums or Craigslist… or just some guy in the library taking notes," says Black, the consensual kidnapee. "FetLife didn't create the problem of sexual violence against women and I don't think it's promoting it any more or less than any of numerous other aspects of our culture promote it."
One thing everyone interviewed is certain about, however, is that if Christensen abducted Zhang without her prior knowledge or consent, he was not practicing BDSM – he was committing an act of violence.