CHICAGO — A website that hosted an “Abduction 101” forum linked to a 28-year-old suspect in the kidnapping of a Chinese scholar in at the University Illinois bills itself as the most popular sexual fetish site on the internet and has faced pressure over recent months to be clearer about not tolerating behavior that could be viewed as criminal.
Brendt Allen Christensen, who earned a master’s degree in physics from U of I, is charged in the June 9 abduction of 26-year-old Yingying Zhang, who investigators believe is dead. The federal complaint says Christensen’s phone was used on April 19 to visit the FetLife.com forum, including to view threads entitled “Perfect abduction fantasy” and “planning a kidnapping.”
Christensen remains in custody and is due to make an initial appearance in a U.S. District Court on Monday. The Champaign, Illinois, man was arrested and charged on Friday after agents heard him on an audio recording telling someone he had kidnapped Zhang and held her against her will.
FetLife describes itself as “the Social Network for the BDSM, Fetish & Kinky Community,” stressing in online policy statements that it is a place for consenting adults to trade advice and images of themselves, and to arrange to meet. Established in 2008 by Canadian software developer John Baku, it now claims more than 5 million registered members.
The website early this year prohibited hundreds of fetishes after FetLife was cited in a few criminal cases, including one in Australia, Baku said in a February note to members. He said that, among other things, he wanted to reduce any legal liability and risks to the wider community.
As of Sunday, however, the site still included multiple forums on abduction fantasies and the group, “Abduction Play,” had more than 78,000 members who had expressed interest in the topic. Among the current threads was one called, “Tools of the Kidnapper” and another titled, “Original kidnapping Play.”
One registered member who commented in the kidnapping forum agreed that anyone who engages in such a fantasy must first provide consent. But the person goes on: “I enjoy the knowledge that I COULD do anything I wanted to them. I’m well aware that once I render them helpless, their very life is in my hands.”
Anyone can register on the site and become a member immediately. Users give their ages, genders and roles they wish to play, but otherwise remain anonymous.
Detailed policy guidelines on the site stress that any interaction online or in person with members must be between adults and consensual.
“FetLife’s community is … open-minded and non-judgmental,” it says, adding, “Our number one priority is to create a fun and safe place for kinksters.”
Neither FetLife nor Baku responded to messages seeking comment.