Failing to Protect the Most Vulnerable

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The word “imprint” is often used by kinksters to describe a scene from popular media depicting some kind of activity that can be fetishised — a criminal being flogged in a movie, or a woman getting bound and gagged while she’s being kidnapped on a television show — that left such a strong impression on someone that it can be seen, in retrospect, as what led someone into exploring kinks and fetishes. This past Friday, one of the television shows that led many people of my generation into being fascinated with bondage and kidnapping roleplay, Scooby-Doo, Where Are You?, celebrated its fiftieth anniversary, and by coincidence, my essay “It’s a (Bound and Gagged) Living: Sweet Gwendoline and the ‘Danger Girl’ Archetype,” which includes discussion of how the mid-20th century fetish artist and publisher John Willie influenced public reception of characters like Daphne and Velma in Scooby-Doo, Where Are You?, was published in the anthology Representing Kink: Fringe Sexuality and Textuality in Literature, Digital Narrative, and Popular Culture.

Many of us had our imprinting experience when we were children, long before we developed any real understanding of sex. (My experience came during an episode of the educational PBS kids’ show 3-2-1 Contact, which may be the most Sean Shannon thing to ever happen to me.) It took me a long time to associate my feelings with sexuality, since the only thing I heard of like that when I was younger was “whips and chains,” and I figured that whole thing wasn’t for me because I had no interest in whips. I only discovered much later, in my teenage years, that I could have the chains without the whips, and let’s just say that things took off from there.

That was a different time, though, before elements of kink started getting mainstreamed through everything from Madonna’s Sex book and Erotica album, to films like Secretary and the like, and this doesn’t even touch on all the barriers that the Internet broke down when it came to the exploration of topics related to sex. It’s been over a decade now since television commercials for the film adaptation of Chuck Palahnuik’s Choke made casual mention of the term “safeword” at all hours of the day, and I have to believe that even most twelve-year-olds in America these days have at least some idea of what a safeword is. A scene in a movie or television show of someone being tied up can still be experienced as just a scene, but the prevalence of fetish and kink in the world around us is almost unavoidable at this point, and while there may be advantages to that for people who are kinky, this creates all sorts of dangers when it comes to children.

When YouTube launched over a decade ago, it wasn’t quite as easy to put up a video as it is today (now that so many of us have 1080p video cameras with built-in editing apps in our pockets), but at a time when many American children had desktop computers with webcams in their bedrooms, lots of them were able to figure out how to post videos on YouTube and other similar services. Since many of them craved the attention they got from people commenting on their videos (even before the whole monetization dynamic started playing a role in things), they would often take “requests” from people who watched their videos, and a lot of very bad people quickly discovered that they could easily trick these children into making free fetish videos for them. Even if these children could see past more obvious things like nudity requests, there are lots of niche fetishes out there — as I’ve said before, we need a corollary to the old “Rule 34” to highlight the fact that everything is a fetish to someone — and what may seem like a harmless request for a silly YouTube video could easily be some lowlife tricking kids into making videos for them to get off to.

In these early days of YouTube, someone had the courage to post a video pointing out the prevalence of this phenomenon, and that prompted many people, including me, to engage in efforts to not only get these videos taken offline, but to also educate children and parents alike about the dangers of making these “request videos.” I’ve mentioned this to almost every class I’ve taught for over a decade now, and I can only hope that my efforts have led to fewer of these videos going online thanks to my students sharing my efforts with their families. This work comes with its risks — it should go without saying that the people who crave these kinds of videos have no scruples about anything — but for those of us who care about keeping children from getting mixed up in these horrors, little can be done to deter our efforts.

YouTube was doing a very good job of speedily taking down these videos for a long time, but that seems to be changing in recent months. Even as the recent passage of SESTA/FOSTA, (allegedly to help protect children) resulted in a lot of consensual adult sexual content being effectively censored online, and even touched on things like me trying to advertise my novel, it’s now becoming harder to get YouTube to remove certain videos, even when they are clearly being made for purposes of sexual gratification through having children engage in fetishistic actions. I don’t want to speculate on what the reasons for this could be, but to call this highly disturbing would be a massive understatement.

I’ve always been a firm believer in age-appropriate but comprehensive sexual education in schools, and I believe that has to include at least some mention of the presence of fetishes, since I (and many people I know) first became aware that we had these fetishes long before we even hit puberty, thanks to things like scenes from Scooby-Doo, Where Are You? imprinting on us. This education shouldn’t be needlessly explicit — I’ve long admired Scarleteen for their no-nonsense approach, treating its teen readers like autonomous people capable of making their own life decisions — but I believe that teaching young people about the dangers of people preying on their innocence is a crucial first step towards moving to a place where we don’t have to worry about these videos being made any longer. I’d at least like to think that getting these videos taken down is something that all reasonable people can agree on, but given the difficulties some of us have run into lately with that, it could be that the times we’re living in are becoming even more unreasonable than they already were. Thinking about what this means for the children growing up in today’s world makes me sick.

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