"Erotic target location error" (or ETLE) is a theory that describes how fetishes might develop. It was first mooted in the early 1990s, but has been largely ignored by psychologists and sexologists since then. In 2009 it was revisited, and possibly reinvigorated, by Dr Anne Lawrence for a paper in the Journal of Sex Research titled Erotic Target Location Errors: An Underappreciated Paraphilic Dimension.
The ETLE theory is simple enough. It suggests that people who experience normal sexual attraction sometimes associate peripheral objects with that attraction, creating a fetish towards that new object. So a foot fetishist might originally have been attracted to, say, women, but they have experienced "location error", making feet their preferred erotic target.
Dr Lawrence proposes that furries are an "uncomplicated" version of ETLE. Furries, she says, are sexually attracted to stuffed animals, and that fursuiting (or as she calls it, fursuitism) is an attempt to transform into an erotic ideal, i.e. a stuffed animal. Furries are therefore autoplushophiles.
The table above mentions plushophiles only, but Dr Lawrence makes clear that she is referring to furries as a whole, using the blanket term "furverts" later in the paper. She uses either term to refer to people who display sexual attraction towards stuffed animals and/or "anthropomorphic cartoon characters", a classification that covers a large majority of our community.
Dr Lawrence's paper is long at 22 pages, and she spends only a half page or so on furries. She concludes that section with: "Formal study will be necessary to clarify the nature, prevalence, and interrelations of plushophilia, fursuitism, and autoplushophilia among furverts and to document the nature and extent of any co-occurring paraphilias."
If you think this sounds bonkers, you'd be right. A close reading of the rest of the paper helps understand how and why Dr Lawrence has got it so wrong.
Dr Lawrence is a sexologist (and former anaesthesiologist) who identifies as an autogynephilic transsexual* woman. That is, she is MTF transgender, and believes that her gender identity is fundamentally driven by her attraction to women, which is a kind of ETLE called "erotic target identity inversion". She believes that many transgender women can be considered to be heterosexual men with ETLE. Those men who wish to transition are similar to those men who get an erotic thrill from wearing women's clothing. Dr Lawrence believes that transgender women are essentially just heterosexual men displaying fetishistic behaviour. She calls them "men trapped in men's bodies".
* her phrase
You will not be surprised to hear that this is controversial. It's a fringe theory, but one that is considered valuable by some respected sexologists. (The personal identification of Dr Lawrence, and others, as autogynephilic transsexuals is evidence that the theory is a useful one in at least some cases.)
Dr Lawrence's paper is an attempt to have ETLE included in the DSM-5, and also for MtF transsexualism to classified as a paraphilia (i.e. a fetish). It's an outrageous paper, full of falsehoods and blatantly misleading rhetorical techniques, all in the service of her stated goal of influencing the DSM-5. The ludicrous section on furries is joined by other so-called "uncomplicated erotic target location errors", seemingly included only to bolster Dr Lawrence's main point. The paper would be laughable it weren't published in a relatively high-profile journal. On my reading, Dr Lawrence comes off as a crank who is interested in advancement of her own pet theory at the expense of anything resembling good science.
That's not to say that some transgender women aren't autogynephilic, or that some furries aren't autoplushophiles. Both cases are true.
The problem with Dr Lawrence's paper has nothing to do with the concept of ETLE itself. The problem is that she over-reaches, not least by suggesting that ETLE should be emphasized as fundamental to understanding "non-homosexual gender identity disorder in men" and fetishes in general.
Side note: Dr Lawrence's use of the phrase "non-homosexual" in the above quote is a tacit acknowledgement that her argument fails if you consider the simple case of transgender women who are attracted to men. She says:
"One can think of homosexual MtF transsexuals as the most feminine of gay men, persons who are so naturally feminine that it is easier and more satisfying for them to live in the world as women than as men."
I include this quote as an example of Dr Lawrence's willingness to make pat, apparently post hoc rationalizations whenever evidence contradicts her theory. She roughly supports this statement with several references from the 1980s, plus one from 1997, eras not known for their appreciation of the full range of possible gender identity. Similarly she makes no comment on non-binary gender, a growing set of identities and expressions that provides counter-evidence to the supposed prevalence of ETLE as a driver for people who are not cisgender.
There are many other problems with Dr Lawrence's paper. These include:
- General misuse of terminology, including use of the term "error" in ETLE. She assumes that fetishes are the result of "mental dysfunction" and therefore use of the word error "reflects an objective assessment, not a subjective or moralistic one". She specifically rejects the phrase "erotic target location variant", which is preferred by other researchers.
- Misgendering of trans people. It's bad in this paper but worse on her website, where for example she repeatedly refers to a transgender women as "he".
- Consideration of the long-debunked theory that fetishistic behaviour might be linked to childhood head injuries. (She dishonestly presents this geriatric idea as a straw man to be dismantled later on.)
- The suggestion that "sexual inexperience" and "lack of social confidence" predispose men to fetishism.
- And many, many others.
It's no surprise that Dr Lawrence's screed failed to have an impact on the formulation of the DSM-5, and that she remains a fringe figure in her field. Yet her work, some of it at least, has a lot of value. Science always needs contrarians, and her willingness to challenge the status quo can encourage work that may lead to improvements in such a complex field. It is also laudable that her research is apparently inspired by consideration of her own condition as an autogynephilic transsexual: it gives her work poignancy and legitimacy.
Unfortunately those qualities are not present in her section on furries. ETLE is a sound concept to help think about people who are autoplushophiles, but it should be obvious to any vaguely-informed observer that such descriptions don't apply to furry as a whole.
Dr Lawrence's set of references tell the story:
- That Vanity Fair article (2001)
- That Salon article (2000)
- An episode of Entourage
- A book titled Deviant desires: Incredibly strange sex (billed as "lavishly illustrated")
- Plus two newspaper articles, from 2000 and 2007 (one of which doesn't reference plushophilia, and the other adopts a dreary sneering and titillating attitude towards sex)
It would be hard to imagine a lazier collection of references. I can't see how her research on furries meets the standard for a high school essay, never mind a paper for publication in a peer-reviewed journal.
Dr Lawrence's furry section starts with the description of a man who masturbates using plush animals, and has the fantasy of becoming a plush animal himself. On its own, this seems like a valid, uncomplicated example to explore ETLE and autoplushophilia. However Dr Lawrence goes further, using her references to classify all furries as "persons who display sexual attraction to plush animals, engage in sexual behavior while impersonating such animals, or both". She states that fursuiting is an example of this, coining the term fursuitism to mark this as a fetish activity. She sees fursuitism as an example of autoplushophilia i.e. the erotic desire to become a stuffed animal.
She does include one caveat, that fursuiting is not always an erotic practice. Her scientific, peer-reviewed reference for this statement? Wikifur.
Despite the obvious and abundant shortcomings of Dr Lawrence's paper, it will likely lead to further research on furries from a sexology perspective. Interest in further research may be driven by both the utility of ETLE as a mechanism for exploring the genesis of fetishes, and Dr Lawrence's status as a high-profile contrarian in a complex field. Certainly, of all the many ways that researchers have approached the topic of furry—sociology, psychology, animal geography, feminist theory, and others—sex is a notable absence.
Further research can only be a good thing, not just because it will add to the growing knowledge of what underpins our unique community. It will, we hope, be of a lot more value than Dr Lawrence's contribution.
You can read more about Dr Anne Lawrence here:
- http://www.annelawrence.com/ (her personal site)
- http://www.tsroadmap.com/info/anne-lawrence.html (a trans resource site that discusses, among other things, Dr Lawrence's 1997 resignation as an anaesthesiologist after she examined a patient's genitals without the patient's permission)