Sadists, masochists, bondage enthusiasts and fetishists like to share photos of their darkest bruises, most complex rope ties, intense humiliations and other visual testimonies to kinkiness. But even the personals sites catering to the BDSM community can't always support all of these explicit exchanges due to obscenity concerns.
"The bigger your company gets and the more successful you are, then the more you are a target," said Kelly Eberhard, co-owner of Extreme Restraints, which recently launched its own dating site through an affiliation with Alt.com. "Obviously, you can't cover your ass in every way, but you can for the most extreme instances, when someone misuses something."
The Extreme Restraints dating site has its own members while also showing profiles from Alt.com. XR provides one of the online stores appearing in the shopping sections of Alt.com and Bondage.com. Eberhard calls it "a little bit more than" an affiliate arrangement.
Alt.com and sibling site Bondage.com now belong to Penthouse Media Group International through its acquisition of AdultFriendFinder. Penthouse Media Group International CEO Marc Bell declined to be interviewed for this article due to the Securities Exchange Commission's quiet-period mandate for companies with imminent initial public offerings.
Penthouse Media Group International has not publicly disclosed whether an official date has been set for the IPO, let alone whether it plans to merge Alt.com and Bondage.com into a single platform. The latter has 728,010 member profiles, while the former boasts 3.5 million.
"It seems like the folks on Bondage.com are a little more kink-lifestyle-oriented, more of a super-niche than Alt.com," said Darklady, an editor at YNOT and organizer of fetish events. "The competition for these memberships has to be fierce because it's a relatively small number of people who are that kinky."
Sources interviewed for this article said kinksters are moving toward more niche-oriented BDSM-related sites with more independent ownership. CollarMe.com, one of the most commonly cited alternatives, is the second largest BDSM personals site. The site has more than 1 million members, and its co-owners said traffic has been increasing since Penthouse Media Group International acquired AdultFriendFinder. "It's not like we've had a million new users come in during a day, but the traffic definitely keeps increasing," co-owner Tiffany said.
CollarMe.com differs from most of its competitors by not charging anything for membership, including unlimited ability to contact other members. Advertising supports the site and keeps it profitable, although the original site launch in 2003 didn't include any ads.
The site also has a relatively distinctive user interface, compared to others in the niche. The home page presents the profile of someone who is logged onto the site and matches the viewer's most recent search query, followed by a table listing others who similarly fit the bill, in order of recent log-ins. For those who haven't saved such preferences yet, the site simply shows the most recently logged-on profiles organized in similar fashion. "We find that people enjoy interacting most with people who are already online or were most recently online and actively looking, rather than people who haven't been on for three years but maybe they're the most attractive," Tiffany said.
A couple of other BDSM personals sites are going the social networking route, including AEBN's Social Kink. "With the recent backlash of profile cancellations and link- and content-censoring from other sites," Webmaster Nikki Lachen said, "our members appreciate being able to express themselves freely and to link freely on their profiles."
Lachen said the site doesn't charge for subscriptions and has already amassed 50,000 profiles. Revenue comes from linking in AEBN's video-on-demand feeds, so the site hopes to amass a broad audience. "BDSM and fetish are made up of many niches," Lachen said, "so it's common to see sites and forums dedicated to one niche within the BDSM-and-fetish umbrella, and every time you niche out, your audience gets smaller."
A niche community and content site that's looking to expand more broadly is the Spanking Internet Network, which already has 200,000 member profiles. The site's revenue comes from subscriptions to adult content, mostly pictures and videos focusing on barehanded ass beatings.
"I see personals sites that have some services but not enough," said owner Sean West, who launched a free personals site with a broader focus this summer.
Claims of not censoring content can become a strong selling point for BDSM personals sites willing to take that stand. That's what's brought almost 1,000 members to upstart Glampers.net entirely through word-of-mouth. "A fair amount of people told me that when they heard that I was OK about people posting pics of their bruises, they signed up because Bondage.com does not allow them to anymore," the eponymous webmaster Glampers said. "They took away the reason that some people hang out there: to show off their bruises and marks. It's hilarious that a BDSM site won't let you post BDSM pics."
Glampers launched her site in November 2007, right after Penthouse Media Group International announced its acquisition of AdultFriendFinder. The ensuing changes in AdultFriendFinder's Bondage.com and Alt.com motivated the Scottish webmaster to launch the community site. "After the AFF sale, things started going downhill rapidly," she said. "People from Alt.com and Bondage.com were posting all over the forums that things were going to get better and didn't. They started taking features away. They banned me for linking to a site that a guy had listed in his own profile."
While Glampers.net has some banner ads from affiliate programs, its webmaster has funded most of the operation with member donations totaling about 750 euros ($1,160), plus some of her own money. She built the site using free open-source software from Dziner Studio. All told, she's broken even so far. "The only reason I managed to keep the site going is because people donated money," she said. "It was impressive to see how many Americans donated money around Christmastime. That was really surprising to me. I know things aren't that great in regard to the dollar right now, and there's a possible recession."
Glampers currently offers free access to the site but may introduce very modestly priced subscriptions, along the lines of a couple of bucks per month, for an upcoming audio-visual chat capability. The site now directs members to chat rooms on a third-party site, Stickam.com.
Also launched relatively recently, MyDungeonSpace.com has amassed almost 13,000 profiles since starting in November 2006. That membership includes 155 paid subscribers, 147 of whom have the higher-level premium membership called "inner sanctum," which costs $23.50 for six months or $35 for a year. Nine have "outer sanctum" subscriptions for $18.50 for six months or $25 for a year. The site offers free subscriptions to anyone who refers a dozen free or paid members.
According to Robert Bruhn, owner and administrator of MyDungeonSpace.com and parent company Myriad Hosting Services (which also hosts 10 adult content sites from its Tallahassee, Fla., headquarters), membership revenue isn't the site's goal. "I wasn't going after membership revenues but rather the ad revenues," he said. "I have about 10 advertisers now. I don't make a lot of money, just a little bit. The whole point of the site wasn't to make money but to offer a versatile community where people who were interested in the lifestyle could come meet others and learn about the lifestyle."
Interestingly, Bruhn didn't consider himself kinky when he launched MyDungeonSpace.com at the suggestion of a friend. Since then, he has developed an interest in the lifestyle, although he still doesn't consider himself a true member of the kink community.
Like other webmasters interviewed for this article, Bruhn said he has seen traffic increase since AdultFriendFinder changed hands, and his site, like the others, has threads posted by members complaining about the new ownership of Bondage.com and Alt.com.
"I can't say we've stolen anyone away from Bondage.com, but there is a lot of negativity about Bondage.com on our discussion boards," said Rick, webmaster of BondageCalgary.com, which largely caters to the Canadian region indicated in its domain name.
BondageCalgary.com, which is supported by banner ads, only has 200 or so local profiles and instead focuses on providing educational information and links to fetish events and retailers. The site gets as many as 400 unique visitors from around the globe each week and has been in operation since 2003.
"While BDSM is becoming more mainstream, there are still, in some regional areas, a social stigma associated with it," Extreme Restraints co-owner Kelly Eberhard said. "So being able to have the anonymity when you first contact someone is important.
"I don't think BDSM personals are more competitive than any other niche. The problem is BDSM is a more focused niche than others. In order to find what you want in BDSM, over the years, you start to self-identify in a niche."
This article originally appeared int he August 2008 edition of AVN Online magazine. To subscribe, visit AVN Media Network.