If you’re one of the three in four people using dating apps or websites who have experienced some form of sexual violence while using dating apps, in the five years to 2021*, the news that the Albanese government has ordered online dating companies to create an industry code of practice to protect users from sexual harassment and violence, would have hit home. We need protection from predators – and we need it now.
Here, the author of Tinder Translator, Aileen Barratt takes a look at the dark side of dating apps.
“Swipe right if you’re kinky.”
Translation: I wouldn’t know the first thing about consensual, playful kink. I just describe myself as a Dom because I like hitting, choking, and hair-pulling without asking whether or not my sexual partner will enjoy it.
Sometimes I think about how much better sex would be if every man who mentioned kink in their bio knew the first thing about the world of BDSM. How much more playful, consensual, and exciting the landscapes of intimacy and desire would be if they were as enthusiastic about communication, consent and aftercare as they were about spanking and spitting.
Too often, though, men (especially cishet men) who include some reference to BDSM or kink in their dating app bios have one central desire—to be violent and abusive to women during sex.
You only have to pull up the homepage of Pornhub to see that so many acts, from hair-pulling to restricting airways, have become the norm. Unfortunately, what hasn’t moved over into the mainstream is the culture of care and communication that is central to the kink community. Instead, we are left with often violent acts of domination—almost always by men to women—being depicted as sexually enjoyable for all parties (porn actresses really can sell it).
A lot of us vaguely know that there are sex parties, clubs and even fetish apps, but most have no idea of the amount of boundaries and self-policing that goes into making those spaces safe and enjoyable. There’s a lot that those of us who engage in vanilla sex (and we’ll talk about all the ways the term ‘vanilla’ is incorrectly used to shame and coerce women in V is for Vanilla) could really learn from.
The principles around sharing and practising kink are commonly expressed as either Safe, Sane and Consensual, or RACK (risk-assessed/aware consensual kink). Boundaries are discussed before anything takes place, safe words are shared if needed, and if someone is known to have violated boundaries and agreements then others are warned and that person is no longer welcome in the community.
People who enjoy and engage in BDSM discuss their needs for aftercare before they get down to business. Some people like cuddles, or to discuss how they feel about the scene (the term used for the sexual scenario they have created with each other), or they want to shower straight after, or whatever. Even if you’re only meeting for sex, your responsibility to each other doesn’t end at the point of orgasm. Aftercare is a big part of the incredibly mature approach to sex that exists within many of these communities.
Of course, as I said before, most men who claim to be kinky, and/or to be looking for someone who is, are unaware of any of these concepts.
Men Who Call Themselves ‘Doms’ On Dating Apps
There is a frightening number of f**kboys who call themselves Doms, or ‘dominant’ in bed, on dating apps. These men rarely mean they are seeking a playful, consensual, pre-agreed scenario where a woman whose kink is submission engages in mutually satisfying sex. They mean they want to hit you and call you a slut.
And look, if that’s what you’re into, great! I’ve had some fun being submissive in sexy situations before, no judgement. But it was mostly fun because I knew the guy I was doing it with was aware that I liked it too. We discussed boundaries, we chatted after sex about what we liked and didn’t. It felt mutual and safe.
Too often, though, no conversation takes place. The blame for this lies largely with the dual phenomena of widely available violent porn and books like Fifty Shades of Grey—both of which imply that what women really want is to be dominated.
But if even being a billionaire who looks like Jamie Dornan doesn’t excuse the emotionless, controlling sexual appetite of Christian Grey (and I’d like to emphatically state that it doesn’t) why should we accept that behaviour from Keith the accountant off Tinder?
Too many women are subjected to acts of domination and degradation without being asked if they want it. And let me be clear: that’s not kink, it’s abuse.
In what other context could someone hit, insult or strangle you and have you think ‘well, I guess that’s just what he’s into’?
I have spoken to dozens of women who have had scary, and often painful, experiences at the hands of male sexual partners. Being spat at, slapped round the face and called horrible degrading names are not rare events; they are all too common.
Some will say ‘he was lucky I shared his kink’ when reporting those stories. And while I am super glad they weren’t traumatised by the experience, I’m not sure it’s helpful. Because, sure, you liked what he did, but he didn’t know you would. And men who enjoy inflicting pain on women, or degrading them in other ways, without prior knowledge that it’s a turn on for them, are walking red flags.
We have to ask ourselves why they would enjoy that. Why do they want to hurt us?
Sure, some assume that ‘all girls like it’, whatever it is, but they are likely to be the same guys who have never actually asked a woman what she likes.
Often during sex with men, women don’t feel safe to say stop or express that they aren’t enjoying themselves, so the guys go on assuming they are some sort of stud. One woman told me about a man who had done something non-consensual during
sex, and when she’d confronted him about it he’d said it was ‘easier to apologise than to ask for permission’. So that’s, you know, incredibly chilling.
The Dangers Of Choking
Out of all the non-consensual and scary acts I regularly hear about, choking (or strangulation, as I like to more accurately call it) is by far the biggest theme. Some women report almost every new partner doing something ‘chokey’ without consent. It’s certainly happened to me, and to be honest I didn’t used to mind it. It wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I began to learn just how dangerous it is. Spoiler alert it’s really f**king dangerous.
In a survey of women who sleep with men in my Instagram community, 77% of respondents said they had been subjected to a violent or degrading act that could be misconstrued as BDSM (spanking, hair-pulling, spitting, insults) without giving prior consent. And 60% reported being strangled non-consensually during sex.
If kink is a spectrum, then breathplay (which is what choking and other forms of airway restriction are called in the BDSM community) is right at the ‘wow this is really f**king risky’ end. A lot of kinksters would not even entertain breathplay as an option, and I have been told by members of the community that some clubs and dungeons have blanket bans on any kind of breath restriction—even if the people who are doing it together have had training and done it a hundred times before. There is always a significant risk of incredibly serious injury or even death with these acts; it makes sense that a safe, risk-aware community may see fit to ban them altogether.
So, on the one hand you have the kink community—who are open to all kinds of shit your average fuckboy would be fully shocked by—saying that choking is super dangerous and should only be attempted by sober, experienced and trained people (and even then maybe not at all). While on the other hand you have drunk dudebros, who aren’t even aware that the primary function of breathplay is to heighten your partner’s orgasm, throttling women for fun. This seems fine.
The Language We Use In The Bedroom
Depressingly, these bedroom behaviours are so normalised that many young women don’t even think of them as optional. Often they are ashamed to admit they don’t really enjoy rough, poundy sex where they are being ‘dominated’ by men who have made no attempt to arouse them before said pounding. Pounding. Bleurgh.
I often think about how many synonyms for sex are violent in essence.
Given a good seeing to:
Honestly, the amount of cishet men who think something along the lines of ‘I’d destroy that pussy’ is a sexy opener is wild. It’s like, erm, no thank you sir, I’m actually quite fond of my vagina.
The language we use around sex matters because all of these terms imply a roughness that most people with vaginas will simply not enjoy, unless it’s been built up to with lots of other stimulation.
More than this, they are all verbs – they are doing words, they are descriptions of one person doing something to another person, rather than with them. Heterosexual sex is too often discussed as something men perform and women receive, and I’m sure I don’t need to spell out why that’s so problematic.
Of course, thinking about sex in this way also limits how men can explore their sexuality. Many young boys watch porn and think they have to play a role that they wouldn’t naturally desire. The expectation of aggressive male domination in the bedroom is sad for everyone, but it’s especially dangerous for women. You only have to look at the use of the so-called ‘rough sex defence’—employed by defendants who argue they should have reduced or no culpability because the offence occurred during a ‘sex game gone wrong’—to see this very clearly.
The campaigning organisation We Can’t Consent To This (WCCTT) have found that out of 67 people killed in claimed cases of sex gone wrong, 60 were women and only seven were men. Even more striking, all suspects accused of causing these deaths were male. At the time of writing, no woman has ever attempted the rough sex defence in a murder trial.
Cases such as these have risen significantly over the past decade. In the 1980s and ’90s the argument that victims had consented to the acts that injured or killed them were used in UK courts once a year or less. In 2016 that defence was used 20 times, often successfully.
Campaigns from groups like WCCTT mean that the use of the rough sex defence will no longer be admissible in court in the UK, but their work continues to highlight the ways in which violent men will use alleged kink and sex games as an excuse to cause unthinkable harm to their sexual partners.
If you’re thinking that this has all gotten a bit heavy, you’d be right. I don’t know how to write wry jokes about this stuff. It’s just not fucking funny, is it? But it’s important. I couldn’t write a book about modern dating and misogyny and leave out this horrific and yet ubiquitous aspect.
Most of you reading this are strangers to me (at least I hope you are, or sales will have gone horribly badly), but I care about you. I want you to have fun, pleasurable sex and I really, really don’t want you to die. So, if I have to be a buzzkill for half a chapter, so be it!
Pain may excite some people sexually, and it’s awesome if you want to play around with that with someone you trust and can talk to. But we have to keep challenging the normalisation of men hurting women in heterosexual sex, and the expectation that women should just be okay with it. We have to keep challenging the idea that sex is something men do to women – rather than with them. It’s fucked up and we all deserve better, more pleasurable and frankly more interesting sex.
TL;DR: He’s not kinky, he just likes hurting women.
This is an edited extract from Tinder Translator by Aileen Barratt. Published by Hardie Grant Books, $26.99
* The Australian Institute of Criminology