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If you spend much time on the Internet, you’ve probably heard of a subculture known as “furries” — and if your only exposure to furries has happened online, you probably have largely negative associations with the furry community. From YouTube “cringe videos” to outright “fursecution” (content warning: link contains depictions of self-harm and derogatory slurs), most of us would, at first glance, write furries off as mentally unstable and immature sexual fetishists. Some of these stereotypes may have an element of truth to them; for instance, sex is often a part of being a furry: websites such as Second Life provide avenues for furry sex (Waskul and Martin 2010:300). However, the inner workings of this subculture are more complex than most of us imagine.

Five furries wearing fursuits, mostly canid in nature, sitting in chairs at a convention. Image URL: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/be/Anthrocon_2007_Furry_Tales_fursuit_table.jpg

Furries are pictured here at a convention, wearing their fursuits.

Background

Before we can tackle some of our assumptions about the furry community, we must first define who we’re talking about. According to Gerbasi et al. in one of the most significant academic works on furries to date, furries exist at the intersection of anthropomorphism (ascribing human qualities to non-humans) and zoomorphism (essentially the opposite of anthropomorphism). Many furries feel a deep spiritual and emotional connection with a particular animal, to the point where they may even identify more with their particular species of animal (their “fursona”) than humanity (Gerbasi et al. 2008:197–198). Upon reading this simplified definition, it seems obvious why most people would look upon the furry community with amusement or even outright revulsion — under what circumstances would it even be possible for someone to truly identify outside the human race? Many of us might be tempted to immediately pathologize the furry community; this is one of the most common insults aimed at furries (Gerbasi et al. 2008:199). We see manifestations of this pathologization all the time, whether explicit or implicit. For instance, if you’ve ever watched pro- vs. anti-trans activists argue on the Internet, you’ll often come across the following argument: “Well, a man saying they identify as a woman is like me saying I identify as a unicorn. Should you be forced to take me seriously, even though there’s no proof I’m actually a unicorn?”

However, the truth is that we cannot really be sure what biological and social causes may lead someone to identify within the furry community. In the extensive study carried out by Gerbasi et al., we see that some common stereotypes about furries are actually relatively accurate — for instance, the furry community is largely male (86% of surveyed furries were male); furries tend to like sci-fi more than the general population; canids are popular choices for fursonas — whereas others are entirely inaccurate — for example, not all or even most furries wear fursuits; furries do not, on the whole, have traits consistent with personality disorders; not all furries are gay. The researchers also found that furries tend to come into their identities and get involved with the furry community at a relatively young age, usually in their late teens (Gerbasi et al 2008:204).

One of the more perplexing traits the researchers noted in their furry subjects was that of genuinely desiring to become an animal. Gerbasi et al. treated these desires much more seriously than most of us probably would at first glance, and even went so far as to suggest connections between “Species Identity Disorder” and Gender Identity Disorder, which has since been renamed “gender dysphoria” and is a diagnosis for people who are transgender, referring to the discord between their physical bodies and their internal sense of gender identity (Gerbasi et al. 2008:218, 220). Gerbasi et al. later went on to claim that they were simply making a comparison, rather than advocating for a new kind of diagnosis (2011:303). Nonetheless, this comparison is controversial for many reasons, not the least of which being that Gender Identity Disorder (and, to a slightly lesser extent, the new diagnosis of gender dysphoria) is often a stigmatizing label that has been used to advocate for conversion therapy (Probyn-Rapsey 2011:297), and thus carries a great deal of baggage. Species Identity Disorder should not be considered a legitimate medical diagnosis because gender is a social construct, and there is a great deal of scientific evidence that indicates gender-affirming medical care for trans and gender nonconforming folks can be lifesaving. There is no analogous comparison to be made with a desire to become another species, nor is there any analogous health care that could be given to individuals who identify as having Species Identity Disorder. This is not to say that furries’ feelings and deeply held identities regarding this matter are not valid or genuine, but rather to suggest that comparisons to gender dysphoria do not fundamentally make sense.

A drawing of an anthropomorphic creature that looks somewhat like a dog or a bear, with large muscles, wearing jeans and a collar. The creature tugs at their collar with their hand, asking the reader, "Do you think this collar looks good on me?"  Image URL: http://img03.deviantart.net/f489/i/2012/062/a/6/collar_cuty_by_nobu552-d4rkasp.jpg

An example of furry fanart.

Subcultural Themes in the Furry Community

People within the furry community, like many subcultural groups, often define themselves in opposition to other subcultures. In a recent study (Plante et al. 2015), British psychologists found that furries who identified strongly with their community were likely to hold “essentialist beliefs about furry identity” (i.e., beliefs that reinforce community norms and exclude others) if they were compared to fans of anime (which the researchers felt was a group with similar characteristics to the furry community). However, when compared to sports fans, or no other group at all, these furries were less likely to demonstrate this kind of heightened essentialism (Plante et al. 2015:365). Thus, the researchers determined that, when faced with stigma, furries and other marginalized subcultural groups may reinforce boundaries of authenticity as a response (Plante et al. 2015:365–366). Stigma is a common response to subcultures that challenge societal norms of gender, sexuality, outward appearance, etc., and inscribing and reinscribing markers of authenticity that separate the in-group from the out-group is a common method of dealing with stigma in a way that positively constructs group identity in opposition to these societal norms. At the same time, as noted by Plante et al. above, subcultural groups are sometimes more apt to define themselves in opposition to similar groups, rather than groups that are completely different, as this further cements a particular subcultural group’s position as genuine or authentic. Of course furries are different from mainstream society, and also from other subcultures such as punks, goths, and the kink/BDSM community, but their most nuanced boundaries of authenticity lie between them and much more similar groups.

Four furries wearing fursuits are pictured at a convention. They are doglike and catlike in appearance, and all are wearing t-shirts. Image URL: https://c2.staticflickr.com/8/7284/9754655266_60243d2db0_b.jpg

More furries wearing fursuits.

Laycock (2012), who conducted research on the Otherkin community (which, at first glance, would appear to overlap heavily with furries), found that furries are actually looked down upon by Otherkin. Even though Laycock found that many elements of furries were also present in Otherkin, the self-imposed boundary between these groups serves as a vehicle “to lend legitimacy to Otherkin. ‘The original nominizing act,’ Berger reminds us, ‘is to say that an item is this and thus not that’” (82). Thus, whether it completely makes sense or not, this type of in-group-out-group categorization is vital to both furries’ and Otherkins’ sense of identity and uniqueness.

Ultimately, the furry community is a generally friendly, welcoming place where people with unconventional desires can be themselves and interact in a safe space with others like them. Being a furry is not purely about a sexual fetish; it is about a form of identity that is not accepted kindly in larger society, and about a sense of community with like-minded others. The furry fandom is rich, lively, and complex, full of artists, sci-fi aficionados, and people who don’t actually identify as people. So, as Gerbasi et al. said in the title of their 2011 paper: “Why so FURious?”

 

Works Cited — Scholarly Resources:

Gerbasi, Kathleen et al. 2008. “Furries from A to Z (Anthropomorphism to Zoomorphism).” Society & Animals 16(3):197–222. One of the largest, if not the largest, existing studies regarding the furry community. Over 200 furries were surveyed for the purposes of this study.

Gerbasi, Kathleen C., Penny L. Bernstein, Laura L. Scaletta, and C. Nuka Plante. 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 & Animals 19(3):302–4. After Probyn-Rapsey et al. response to “Furries from A to Z,” Gerbasi et al. issued their own rebuttal.

Laycock, Joseph P. 2012. “‘We Are Spirits of Another Sort’: Ontological Rebellion and Religious Dimensions of the Otherkin Community.” Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions 15(3):65–90. This study concerns Otherkin, a community that, in theory, overlaps a lot with the furry community, but in practice uses the furry community as something to define itself against.

Plante, Courtney N. et al. 2014. “‘More than Skin-Deep’: Biological Essentialism in Response to a Distinctiveness Threat in a Stigmatized Fan Community.” Br. J. Soc. Psychol. British Journal of Social Psychology 54(2):359–70. This study concerns responses to stigma within communities that experience some degree of marginalization, focusing specifically on furries.

Probyn-Rapsey, Fiona. 2011. “Furries and the Limits of Species Identity Disorder: A Response to Gerbasi Et Al.” Society & Animals 19(3):294–301. This paper is a scathing response to “Furries from A to Z,” criticizing the original paper on its coining of the phrase “Species Identity Disorder.”

Soh, Debra W. and James M. Cantor. 2014. “A Peek Inside a Furry Convention. Archives of  Sexual Behavior 44(1):1–2. This brief paper focuses on the experiences of one of the authors at an actual furry convention.

Waskul, Dennis D. and Justin A. Martin. 2010. “Now the Orgy Is Over.” Symbolic Interaction 33(2):297–318. This paper focuses on the Second Life game, which is sometimes a magnet for furries and other marginalized sexual communities.