Reddit is a haven for kinky people who’ve struggled to escape real-life discrimination and online censorship

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  • Reddit is home to hundreds of NSFW and sexual kink communities that allow users to share experiences, ask for advice, and meet like-minded people in a non-judgmental space.

  • Before Reddit was founded in 2005, queer people created online communities using dial-up chat rooms. One of the earliest known is net.motss, which was created in 1983.

  • As Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter have shut down “adult content,” Reddit has become known as the most sex-positive mainstream social media platform.

  • In a world where sex education falls short and largely ignores marginalized people, Reddit’s kink communities also act as an educational tool.

  • This story is part of a series commemorating Reddit’s 15th anniversary.

  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

“Opening the doors to behind my deepest sense of self. A warm tsunami that washes everything away in its wake. A key that opens even the darkest and most hidden locks.”

That, according to one Reddit user, is what it feels like to experience erotic hypnosis, a sexual fetish that involves being hypnotized, or hypnotizing someone else, in a sexual setting. Their metaphor-laden love letter to a niche kink was posted on the Reddit community r/EroticHypnosis.

Created in 2011, the r/EroticHypnosis subreddit is home to more than 42,000 members and thousands of posts dedicated to the specific kink. On any given day, the forum is filled with suggestions for hypnosis videos and audio recordings, stories of previous erotic hypnosis experiences, and beginners’ calls for advice on how to dip their toes into the fetish.

r/EroticHypnosis is just one of the hundreds of kink-related forums on Reddit today. Others center around kinks like r/pet play, r/gang bang, r/Bondage, and r/furryfemdom for the furry community. 

Founded in 2005 as the “front page of the internet,” Reddit’s ability to honor anonymity and foster discussions on topics the mainstream often shies away from, has made it a go-to source for sexual exploration in the form of its kink subreddits, communities that are often stigmatized offline.

Sexual fetishism was previously considered a mental illness, and tainted the mainstream’s opinion of kinky people

Psychology’s “Holy Grail,” the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental and Physical Disorders, considered sexual fetishes a form of mental illness until 2013, and that legacy had serious consequences for people with kinks.

As The Atlantic reporter Merissa Nathan Gerson reported in 2015, the DSM-5’s inclusion of sexual fetishes led to discrimination against kinky people. A 2008 survey from the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom found that BDSM (bondage/discipline, dominance/submission, and sadism/masochism) kinksters who had children were losing child custody lawsuits because they were deemed unfit to parent due to their sexual inclinations. Others reported workplace discrimination related to their sexual fetishes.

Reddit, and before that, the dialup chatroom communities of the 1980s and 90s, were born out of that stigmatization. These internet platforms provide non-judgmental spaces for people with particular kinks to share their experiences, ask for advice, and discuss how embracing them has benefited their sex lives.

Reddit has provided a stable haven for the kinky, as fringe platforms have fizzled out or been taken down

Usenet, an online text-based forum where queer people virtually connected as early as 1983, paved the way for Reddit's success as an educational and community-building tool for the sexually stigmatized.
Usenet, an online text-based forum where queer people virtually connected as early as 1983, paved the way for Reddit’s success as an educational and community-building tool for the sexually stigmatized.

Crystal Cox/Business Insider

People in kink communities have long gravitated towards the internet when building their circles because of societal stigmas. Queer people were some of the first to create these communities and they became an integral part of queer culture, them reporter Chingy L wrote in 2019.

According to Sam Hughes, a sexual fetishism researcher and doctoral candidate at the University of California – Santa Cruz, online kink communities popped up long before Reddit’s 2005 inception.

Usenet, an online text-based forum where queer people virtually connected as early as 1983, the year the internet was invented, paved the way for Reddit’s success as an educational and community-building tool for the sexually stigmatized. On Usenet, gay people created the online bulletin net.motss (“Members of the Same Sex”) to discuss discrimination they were facing. Bulletin Board Services was another dial-up-powered network of chat rooms that allowed anonymity, providing a safe space for questions about kink and giving rise to online kink communities.

But they weren’t perfect solutions.

According to Hughes, various online communities surrounding a particular fetish would often pop up, grow, and then disappear when the platform the communities lived on was discontinued, or when the platform deemed the community in violation of its usage policy.

“So for a lot of these communities, it’s the story of almost a diaspora where they form a community somewhere and then the community gets destroyed technologically, and they have to find a new space,” Hughes told Insider.

In interviewing members of the erotic hypnosis community, Hughes learned that “they’ve gone through six or seven stages of this at this point, with a variety of these online sites popping up and then getting shut down.”

In recent years, the same issue has occurred on social media platforms like Instagram and Tumblr.

Reddit, however, has been one of the few places — and the most prominent one — where kink-related conversations have been able to thrive and develop (relatively) unencumbered.

Unlike Instagram, Facebook, and Tumblr, Reddit protects NSFW content

This Monday, June 29, 2020 photo shows the Reddit logo on a mobile device in New York. Reddit, an online comment forum that is one of the internet's most popular websites, on Monday, June 29, 2020 banned a pro-Donald Trump forum as part of a crackdown on hate speech. Reddit banned a total of 2,000 of these forums, or subreddits, most of which it said were inactive or had few users. (AP Photo/Tali Arbel)
This Monday, June 29, 2020 photo shows the Reddit logo on a mobile device in New York. Reddit, an online comment forum that is one of the internet’s most popular websites, on Monday, June 29, 2020 banned a pro-Donald Trump forum as part of a crackdown on hate speech. Reddit banned a total of 2,000 of these forums, or subreddits, most of which it said were inactive or had few users. (AP Photo/Tali Arbel)

Associated Press

Though social media has seemingly opened a world of connection and community, that isn’t true when it comes to sexual content that isn’t deemed mainstream.

Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram have strict guidelines about the types of content users can share, and moderators will remove posts they’ve found to violate those guidelines. Tumblr, a popular blogging platform that was once home to NSFW content like pornography, written erotica, and nude images, announced it would no longer allow “adult content” in December 2018.

“If you’re a website that’s trying to build a mainstream audience, sometimes a way that you deal with that is you cut out people that are sexual minorities as a way to try and make the sites more normal and more appealing,” Hughes said. 

FOSTA-SESTA, a federal law to curb sex trafficking that penalizes internet services for sexual content, reinforces these anti-sex guidelines. Since the bill was passed in April 2018, kink-specific websites like Pounced.org, as well as mainstream platforms like Craigslist and Google, have removed sex-related content, Vox previously reported.

Reddit stands alone as the only mainstream social media site that largely protects content on the grounds of free speech. It is a complicated position. The site has removed some of its sex-specific subreddits as a result, including r/escorts, r/maleescorts, r/hookers and r/SugarDaddy. It also has a poor track record on censoring communities that exploit child pornography, which is illegal.

But its commitment against censorship allows hundreds of other, positive but “taboo” communities to flourish.

What’s more, unlike on other platforms, you can be anonymous, making it an alluring platform for people interested in exploring sexual taboos. You don’t need an account to access subreddits, including NSFW and kink-related ones. People can simply go to the website and type in the community of their choosing. To post, you can create an account using any username.

“Reddit is great in that it has this really low barrier to entry. You don’t necessarily need to have a profile. You can be pretty anonymous on the site, and that’s great for folks who are really worried or just getting their feet wet or just there to find images or media,” Hughes said.

Kink subreddits are “sex-positive places where people are going to learn,” according to a sex researcher

Justin Lehmiller, a sex researcher at The Kinsey Institute, is done with Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram as fruitful platforms to share his work and generate conversation.

About 8 years ago, Lehmiller used Facebook to share his research on topics like masturbation, sex toys, d— pics, and infidelity, and followers would comment on and discuss his findings.

“I had very explosive growth for my page and attracted tens of thousands of followers in a fairly short period of time,” Lehmiller told Insider. 

But that changed. “Growth has really become stagnant because Facebook has changed their rules in terms of whether or not they promote sex pages and so forth. And so it’s just not really a platform where I could connect and reach people in the way that I used to in the past.”

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Crystal Cox/Business Insider

On Reddit, it was a different story. In the same time period, he witnessed the growth of the r/psychologyofsex subreddit he created for his work, which he’s found to be more sexually-accepting.

“For most of the sex-related communities that I’ve seen on Reddit, these tend to be sex-positive places where people are going to learn, they’re going to connect, they’re going to feel normal,” Lehmiller said. “There aren’t, at least from what I can see, a lot of downsides to most of these subreddits, because they’re really just promoting more sexual communication and freedom of expression.”

A place to be less alone

According to Lehmiller, there’s a misconception that internet communities gave rise to sexual kinks and fetishism. In reality, sexual fetishes existed long before the internet, but people who identified with them hid in the shadows, or repressed their interests, because of the stigma surrounding them.

Usenet, then Bulletin Board Services, and now Reddit, have changed that.

“Most people who have interests in kink or fetishism feel weird or abnormal in some way, because information about these interests just isn’t readily available because they’ve been widely stigmatized and pathologized for a very long time within the mental health community, and the medical community, and just in public in general and in our broader culture and society,” Lehmiller said.

“So having this online tool, this resource where people can go and to learn more, to connect with others, to be less alone, is something that’s very valuable to them.”

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