Relationships

Grey Matters

NoGrey aims to take the ambiguity out of negotiating kink encounters. But can any app fully account for the complexities of real-life intimacy?

A woman setting up a kink scenario on the NoGrey app.
Photo illustration by Slate. Images by mactrunk/iStock/Getty Images Plus and NoGrey.

For those in the kink community, having erotic, intimate fun is never as simple as saying, “You’re a dom? I’m a sub! Let’s play.” Before every encounter, conscientious kinksters talk things through. New partners figure out their compatibility down to the specifics of, say, the kinds of bondage they both like, what limits they have, and how they want things to feel: Intense and aggressive? Light and playful? Something else? Even established partners check in on how each other’s tastes may be changing, or hash out the details of exploring a new kinky act or mixing things up. There are entire classes and books on how to cultivate this sort of pre-scene communication.

Kink communication can be such an involved process that it can feel a bit daunting. This is especially true for newbies who might not know or have the vocabulary for everything they want to talk about, deeply shy individuals, or others who might have trouble finding the time, space, or words to really dig in.

NoGrey, a new app launched in the spring by a team of Australian kinksters, aims to make that pre-liaison conversation process quicker and easier. The app allows users to sift through over 600 kinks, specifying their levels of interest and experience, then builds a simple visual representation of those interests to compare with others one might choose to pair with and meet in real life. Users can also build clear templates for scenes to show partners, laying out all the things they’d like to get up to, their limits, the feel they’re looking for, and aftercare instructions for easy reference. After each session, partners are invited to anonymously review each other—not with a Yelp-style write-up, explains app co-founder Eloise Palmi, “like 0 out of 10, did not get the orgasm,” but by answering questions “like, ‘did this person’s skill level meet what they claimed?’”

This app will likely be a godsend for many in the community looking for new tools to help them keep interests, ideas, and partners straight—and structure conversations about them. It cannot however, its creators stress, actually replace those conversations. Yet that is precisely what a number of kinksters I’ve told about or shown the app in recent weeks worry it could end up doing. They observed how eager many folks are to escape the open-ended, infinitely dynamic, and ultimately messy world of negotiations into the cleaner and clearly delineated world of systematized, plug-and-play kink—an understandable temptation, but one that increases the risk of disappointing, or at worst physically or mentally harmful, encounters.

Kink communication is about a lot more than just creating static fingerprints of interests or tableaus of scenes to compare with a partner. For one thing, notes Kitty Stryker—a sex writer, activist, and long-time kinkster—the same terms, or rankings of interest or experience in them, could mean drastically different things to people. “Saying you are interested in piercing, for example, covers a lot of ground,” she says, from what might look like recreational acupuncture to a full, large needle being pushed through one cheek, across the mouth, and out the other. Also, just because a person was interested in piercing when they made a profile or tableau doesn’t mean they still will be when they meet up with a partner; their desires could even change as a play session goes along. And a lot more goes into planning a scene beyond just matching up interests. If you have a busted knee, Stryker points out, and don’t communicate that to a partner before, say, a rope suspension session, or keep them updated on how that knee is doing throughout the experience, there’s a chance that something could go wrong, leading to serious, lasting harm.

“BDSM scenes and interactions can be infinitely dynamic in a way for which no app can account,” says Michal Daveed of the Eulenspiegel Society, America’s longest-running BDSM education and support group. Even with an app to help you organize initial thoughts, you need to dig deeper and keep lines of communication going throughout a session—and afterward, too, to grow and learn.

Palmi acknowledges all of that, explaining she just intends for NoGrey to help people “focus on a set of ideas and intentions, knowing that the experience will have to define itself in the moment.” She adds that, “when you initially sign up for the app, there is information on the screen saying that it is not in any way intended to replace communication” before or during a scene, just supplement it. That is a lot more than most kink-focused apps—often date-finding tools that match people up based on flattened and simplistic interest tags, sometimes designed by people with little to no actual experience with the community—offer by way of contextualization and negotiation promotion.

However as Stryker points out, communication is tough, plain and simple. Many people, even in the kink world, “will do whatever they can to avoid having a conversation,” including latching on to an app they can flash like a comprehensive order to be executed seamlessly. Some of the press materials for the app talking about how it strives to leave no gray areas (hence the name) between partners before a scene may feed into this impulse, or desire for a clear and simple tool, for many.

Stryker adds that this dynamic plays out with analog tools as well, like the long checklists or spreadsheets some kinksters have used for years to work out scenes or figure out compatibilities with a new partner. New people, she says, sometimes just tick something off on a checklist then move on, thinking it’s done and dusted, without thinking through everything involved in, say, recreational waterboarding. Partners too have used checklists as an excuse, in her experience, to avoid checking in during a session because they’re just delivering on what someone wanted.

It is entirely possible, Palmi admits, that people could use NoGrey in communication-averse ways she never intended. However, she says she would “rather see people enabled to play and engage with others for the most part with a good understanding of what the other partner wants than feel they were unable to broach that at all, or that they were unable to communicate effectively whatsoever. If the app wasn’t here, those people would simply not play. Or they would want to play anyway, but with insufficient communication. Perhaps something is better than nothing.”

And ideally the app’s review system could help to weed out flagrant abusers by flagging people who repeatedly cross boundaries or ignore communication during play (a big issue in the community), while also helping folks recognize when they or others are falling short on communication. If partners consistently rank low on responsiveness to needs or signals, that’s a clear sign something’s amiss.

Unfortunately, the review element of NoGrey has been the most controversial with users to date, with debates breaking out on the app’s social media feeds about the ethics of how to run and present them. It is very much a work in progress. Palmi admits it is possible to game the current system as well, getting people to post reviews for interactions that never happened, which would not override someone getting flagged as outright dangerous, but could create false expectations of experience or responsiveness and further muddy communication waters. (One might assume bits of knowledge in someone who falsely portrays themselves as a seasoned rope bondage pro, for instance, and so perhaps gloss over key pre-play conversation points you wouldn’t otherwise.) Daveed also worries that offering a review system could disincentivize talking to one’s partners about bad experiences, which she notes is not always the best response to such an experience, but is often useful for both parties for learning how to better communicate with each other and others in the future.

None of this means that NoGrey is a bad app. It actually seems like an excellent tool to add to the great kink-bat utility belt that could help people organize their desires and ideas, enhancing communication in the best cases. But any tool that helps people simplify and systematize kink, or any kind of intimacy, can easily be misused as a tool for avoiding the complex, dynamic, and often messy and tricky conversations and negotiations between two individuals—which can provoke untold anxiety in some but also makes intimate play good. And there are so many tools one can use, both analog and app-based, to abdicate communication for short-term mental comfort.

It would be great to see an app that, instead of expediting or simplifying communication, focused on helping kinksters—or anyone, really—learn how to communicate with greater confidence, fluidity, and regularity before, during, and after intimate encounters. There are an almost infinite number of ways to do that via an app, even within the structure NoGrey. Bubbles could pop up, for instance, when one is building a scene with nuances to consider or ask a partner about; pros who don’t need that advice could disable them. If someone consistently gets negative reviews on responsiveness, the kink equivalent of Clippy (Whippy?) could pop up with communication guidance, or links to local negotiation education materials or courses.

NoGrey is now raising money to put together a second iteration of the app. So there may well be the chance to add such a feature, mitigating the risk that people might use their app as an excuse to shut down and helping even more kinksters, especially newbies, navigate pre-, mid-, and post-scene negotiations on a much more fundamental level. And hopefully they take that chance. Because tools and add-ons like that would go a long way towards realizing Palmi’s admirable core goal: enabling and empowering people, safely and consciously, to really get their freak on.