Animal magnetism: Inside the world of the furries
Back in the early 1995, one of my good friends (who knew that I had an academic interest in sexual paraphilias) asked me if I knew of any psychological research on ‘furries’. He told me that his girlfriend preferred to have sex with him when she was dressed up in animal clothing (in this case, a fox). At the time I knew absolutely nothing about the ‘furry fandom’ community but I always kept an eye out for academic research on the topic.
It wasn’t until 2001 that I saw the first article on the phenomena – a journalistic feature by George Gurley in Vanity Fair. Gurley proclaimed “This is no hobby. It’s sex; it’s religion; it’s a whole new way of life”. Although I didn’t know anyone personally in the furry community, I was led to believe that they weren’t very happy with the way that Gurley had portrayed them. My next memory of furries in the mainstream was when I watched a 2003 episode of ‘CSI: Crime Scene Investigation’ (called ‘Fur and Loathing’) where furries were the main focus of the show when a man was found dead fully dressed as a raccoon.
The furry fandom community has also developed its own vocabulary including words such as ‘fursona’ (furry persona), ‘plushie’ (person who loves cuddly toys), ‘fleshie’ (a non-furry person), ‘fursuiters’ (people who dress in animal costumes), ‘yiff’ (furry pornography), and ‘skritching’ (scratching and grooming). It should also be noted that the word ‘plushie’ has also been used to describe someone who has a sexual paraphilia concerning sexual arousal to stuffed animals. However, an old and unpublished survey from data collected in the late 1990s by David J. Rust of 360 members of the furry community (325 respondents from furry conventions and 25 respondents online) suggested less than 1% of them were plushophiles (0.3%). It was also reported that 2% of the sample were also zoophiles.
In a more recent attempt to replicate Rust’s study, Evans (2008) carried out a survey on 276 people who self-identified themselves as being furries and who were recruited from furry or furry-related online message boards and forums. Evans reported much higher prevalence rates of both plushophiles (7%) and zoophiles (17%) than the study by Rust. Evans claimed that because the majority of Rust’s survey was conducted in person at conventions, participants were susceptible to the social desirability bias when it came to zoophilia and plushophilia.
Despite the existence of the furry fandom community being around for over the years, it took until 2008 before the first peer reviewed academic paper was published that included some primary data on furries. The research was led by Dr Kathy Gerbasi (Niagara County Community College, New York State, USA). She carried out research on the topic, and the paper was published in the journal Society and Animals.
Before presenting their findings, Dr Gerbasi and colleagues overviewed the cultural, media, and minimal academic writings on the topic (such as a passing reference to Shari Cauldron’s discussion of furries in her 2006 book ‘Misfit furries: Who are you people?’), as well as defining two central concepts as defined by the American Psychological Association:
- Anthropomorphism: “The attribution of human characteristics to nonhuman entities”
- Zoomorphism: “The attribution of animal traits to human beings, deities, or inanimate objects”
There is no official definition of what a ‘furry’ actually is although most furries would agree that they share an interest in fictional anthromorphic animal characters that have human characteristics and personalities and/or mythological or imaginary creatures that possess human and/or superhuman capabilities. Furthermore, furries are often said to identify with (and may even desire to assume) characteristics of non-human animals. Given the lack of official definitions, Gerbasi and colleagues gave this detailed description of furries and furry fandom:
“A furry is a person who identifies with the Furry Fandom culture. Furry Fandom is the collective name given to individuals who have a distinct interest in anthropomorphic animals such as cartoon characters. Many, but not all, furries strongly identify with, or view themselves as, one (or more) species of animal other than human. Common furry identities (“fursonas”) are dragon, feline (cat, lion, tiger), and canine (wolf, fox, domestic dog) species. Some furries create mixed species such as a “folf” (fox and wolf) or “cabbit” (cat and rabbit). Furries rarely, if ever, identify with a nonhuman primate species. Many furries congregate in cyberspace, enjoy artwork depicting anthropomorphized animals, and attend Furry Fandom conventions”
This study’s aim was to explore the furry identity. The participants comprised a convenience sample of 217 furries and 29 non-furry individuals that attended the world’s largest annual furry convention (plus a small comparison group of 68 students). The research team was helped by the fact that the conference chairman supported the study being undertaken. A lot of data were presented throughout the paper and I will only report a few of the main findings here.
In relation to gender, the majority of the furries were male (86%). In relation to their sexuality, male furries were 31.5% homosexual, 28%, heterosexual, and 40.5%, bisexual. (These findings were also similar to unpublished surveys of socio-demographic among 600 furries carried out by the University of California Davis Furry Research Team. This same survey reported that only 18% had a fursuit and that 76% were in a relationship with another furry). Among female furries, none were homosexual, 58.3% were heterosexual, and 41.7 % were bisexual. In relation to preferred species identity, furries were most likely to report being wolf, fox, lion, tiger, folf (fox/wolf), and cabbit (cat/rabbit hybrid).
The researchers were also interested in either confirming or disconfirming some of the stereotypes surrounding the furry fandom (many of which emanated from their journalistic and media portrayal in the early 2000s). Below is a list of the main stereotypes followed by the extent to which Gerbasi and colleagues data either confirmed or disconfirmed them.
- “Males are more likely to be furries than females” (Confirmed)
- “Furries recall liking cartoons more as children than others” (Confirmed)
- “Furries like science fiction more than others” (Confirmed)
- “Common furry species are wolf and fox” (Somewhat confirmed)
- “Male furries wear both beards and glasses more than other males” (Not confirmed)
- “Furries are employed in computer or science fields” (Somewhat confirmed)
- “Furries wear fursuits” (Somewhat confirmed)
- “A preponderance of male furries are homosexual” (Not confirmed)
- “Furries consider themselves less than 100% human” (Somewhat confirmed)
- “Furries would be 0% human if possible” (Somewhat confirmed)
- “Furries are perceived as having behaviors common to personality disorders” (Not confirmed)
- Furries have specific kinds of connections to their species which parallel aspects of gender identity disorder” (Somewhat confirmed)
For me, the most interesting part of the published research was the creation of a “furry typology” based on participants’ responses to furry-identity questions. Basically, being furry means different things to different furries. More specifically, furries were asked to respond either ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the following two questions:
- “Do you consider yourself to be less than 100% human?”
- “If you could become 0% human, would you?”
These give rise to two independent dimensions of (i) self-perception (undistorted versus distorted) and (ii) species identity (attained versus unattained). Approximately 25% of the furries responded positively to both of these questions. The research team claimed that these responses meant the furries in this particular grouping had “distorted and unattained” identities (i.e., what could possibly be termed a “species identity disorder”). The implication of this finding has lead to some debate as Gerbasi and colleagues speculated that this particular type of furry that has ‘species identity disorder’ has certain characteristics that parallel individuals that have gender-identity disorder (GID).
“For the largest group of furries, the undistorted attained type, being furry may simply be a route to socializing with others who share common interests such as anthropomorphic art and costumes. For distorted unattained furries, the similarities between their connections to their species and aspects of GID are striking. For these furries, considering the self as less than 100% human and wanting to be 0% human is often accompanied by discomfort with their human body and feeling that they are another species trapped in a human body. These connections parallel criteria for the diagnosis of GID”
This has led to some debate as Dr Fiona Probyn-Rapsey (University of Sydney, Australia) contested the ‘species identity disorder’ versus ‘gender identity disorder’ analogy in a short 2011 paper also published in the journal Society and Animals. Her main argument was that GID is itself a highly controversial diagnosis that has been criticized for pathologizing homosexuality and transgendered people. She also tried to argue that the constructs used were based on unexamined assumptions about what constitutes “human” identity and regulatory fictions of gender identity. Predictably, Gerbasi and colleagues provided a vehement response to Dr Probyn-Rapsey and claimed that Probyn-Rapsey’s focus on gender identity disorder completely missed the main point of the study (which was in essence to report the first ever empirically published data on the often misrepresented subculture of furry fandom).
Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
American Psychological Association. (2007). APA dictionary of psychology. (2007). Washington, DC: Author.
Caudron, S. (2006). Misfit furries: Who are you people? Fort Lee, NJ: Barricade Books.
Evans, K. (2008). The furry sociological survey. Located at: http://www.furrysociology.net/report.htm
Gerbasi, K. C., Paolone, N., Higner, J., Scaletta, L. L., Bernstein, P. L., Conway, S., & Privitera, A. (2008). Furries from A to Z (anthropomorphism to zoomorphism). Society & Animals, 16(3), 197-222.
Gerbasi, K.C., Scaletta, L.L., Plante, C.N. & Bernstein, P.L. (2011). Why so FURious? Rebuttal of Dr. Fiona Probyn-Rapsey’s Response to Gerbasi et al.’s Furries from A to Z (Anthropomorphism to Zoomorphism). Society and Animals, 19, 302-304.
Gurley, G. (2001, March). Pleasures of the fur. Vanity Fair, 174-196.
Padva, G. (2005). Dreamboys, Meatmen and Werewolves: Visualizing Erotic Identities in All-Male Comic Strips. Sexualities, 8, 587-599.
Probyn-Rapsey, F. (2011). Furries and the limits of species identity disorder: A response to Gerbasi et al. Society & Animals, 19, 294-301.
Rust, D.J. (2001). The sociology of furry fandom. Located at: http://www.visi.com/~phantos/furrysoc.html
University of California, Davis Department of Psychology (2007). Furry Survey Results. Located at: http://studyf3.livejournal.com/1383.html.
Posted on April 5, 2012, in Gender differences, Paraphilia, Popular Culture, Psychology, Sex and tagged Anthropomorphism, Furries, Furry Fandom, Gender Identity Disorder, Species Identity Disorder, Zoomorphism, Zoophilia. Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.