Furries and Erotic Target Identity Inversion

20 Apr 2015 |

In a recent article for [adjective][species], I wrote about a 2009 paper that presented an origin theory, of sorts, for furry. The author, Dr Anne Lawrence, proposes that furries (she uses the term "furverts") are all plushophiles, that fursuiting ("fursuitism") is a fetish activity, and that furry identity is an attempt to turn ourselves into the object of our supposed desire. We are, she concludes, autoplushophiles.

To put it simply, the paper is balls. I won't rehash any of the reasons here, except to note that it is possibly the first peer-reviewed scientific paper in history to cite an episode of Entourage.

Yet Dr Lawrence's paper uses an interesting approach. We here at [adjective][species] are interested in exploring furry, and while Dr Lawrence is factually wrong, the general idea—erotic target identity inversion, or ETII—is one that can provide useful guidance to the big question: why are we furries?

Dr Lawrence's article has inspired at least one researcher—who has been in contact with [adjective][species] (and others)—to look at furry from a sexology perspective. The idea is based on the hypothesis that furries may be categorized as having ETII.

Of course, there is never going to be a successful one-size-fits all furry origin theory. Furries find our community through different routes, and participate in our community for different reasons.

In general, ETII may be applicable to those furries who personally identify with a furry character, avatar, or fursona. This is today's furry mainstream: if you roleplay as an anthropomorphic character, or think of yourself as an animal-person in some contexts, you probably fit in this group. Consumption of furry pornography is not a requirement. You might not fit into this group if you don't have a furry identity, or if you only use a furry identity as a convenient way to participate in mainstream furry culture.

ETII is a subset of "erotic target location error", which is the topic of Dr Lawrence's paper. It's a theory that may explain the origin of sexual fetishes.

There is value in research that explores the source of fetishistic behaviour. Firstly, research can provide psychological insight into human beings and human society. Secondly, it can provide a basis for therapy for people looking to understand and control sexual impulses. Of course, that's not to say that someone with a fetish requires therapy—we'd need a lot of doctors!—just that there may be value for some people.

Dr Lawrence's "erotic target location error" theory claims that the target of a fetish originates from its association with a real erotic target. The archetypal example is a straight man who gets sexual enjoyment from wearing women's underwear. The theory suggests that this man—I'm going to call him Panty Dad—is attracted to women, but his sexual focus is subject to a "location error": something associated with women has become his erotic target.

In the case of Panty Dad, he has inverted the sexual interest, applying it to himself. This is ETII (erotic target identity inversion) - he is sexually interested in the idea of himself in panties, an interest fundamentally founded in his desire for sexy mums and his daughter's friends from college.

That is a very simplistic example, but I'm sure you get the idea. In general, ETII is not really about sex. Panty Dad may feel sexy when he wears those panties to the office, but he is not attracted to men in panties. He is interested in women but some part of that interest is inverted, so it applies to his own behaviour and—importantly—his personal identity.

This explanation for fetishistic behaviour isn't widely accepted by sexologists, although ETII does have some high-profile advocates. Like all ideas in a scientific but fundamentally uncertain field (like psychology and sexology), mainstream acceptance tends to wax and wane. Scientific dialogue often takes the form of idea advocacy—Dr Lawrence is nothing if not a culture warrior—with support provided by clinical anecdotes.

Dr Lawrence provides one excellent, elegant example to demonstrate the value of ETII. It's taken from a 1977 article (ref), describing an 18-year-old man who had his first homosexual experience with a uniformed soldier. Following this, he displayed a clear fetish for military uniforms. His behaviour included an incident where he broke into a dormitory of Italian bersaglieri (sharpshooters), and masturbated in uniforms laid out for the next morning.

It's easy to see a common thread in the behaviour of Soldier Boy and Panty Dad, and Dr Lawrence cites a few other illustrative examples. Drawing on research (by others) on fetishes and sexual interests, she identifies a few apparent patterns:

  • Fetishistic behaviour, and possible erotic target inversion, is more commonly observed in men than women.
  • People with fetishes display a disproportionate tendency towards other, coincidental fetishes.
  • It's common for people to dress up as part of their expression of the fetish.
  • Fetishes can manifest as self-focussed experience (such as a masturbatory aid) or as a feeling of identity.

The final point is an important one. People with ETII tend to see their fetish as part of their personal identity, rather than a sexual interest. (For example, Soldier Boy claimed his behaviour was due to his desire to become a soldier himself.) People will commonly feel that the identity-related aspects of their interest are the most important aspect.

This is a problem for researchers, because they cannot hold much stead in self-reporting of identity inversion. People tend to deny the erotic component completely, or claim that the erotic component is secondary to personal identity.

It's reasonable to say that the demographics of Dr Lawrence's ETII groups match with the general furry population. I have also, anecdotally, been told by researchers that fetishes seem to be more common in people who work in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, mathematics), which also fits in neatly.

Furries also tend to claim that identity aspects are more important than erotic aspects. Yet this is only on a personal level: furries think that sex is much more important to the community as a whole.

Data from the 2012 Furry Survey
Data from the 2012 Furry Survey

Data from the Furry Survey shows that people rate the importance of sex within furry to be lowest for them personally, and higher for other furries (and higher again for public perception). Logically, the importance of sex to each furry, collected together, must be the same as the importance of sex for furry as a whole. The estimates are therefore wrong: furries either underestimate the importance of sex to themselves, or they overestimate the importance of sex to others.

This is an interesting result, and we have tended to explain it here at [a][s] by looking at the friendship paradox, and the differences between internal and external judgements. The friendship paradox shows that our friends, mathematically, are more likely to have more friends, be richer, be happier, and have more sex (ref). This is in addition to the tendency for people on social media to discuss positive things, which makes our friends seem less bogged down in the minutiae of life and therefore more happy/rich/sexual, all of which combines to make furry for others appear relatively more sexual than it really is.

The ETII theory gives us another reading of this result. We may naturally consider identity to be the major component of our own furry experience, yet we can see the importance of the sexual aspects of furry when we remove ourselves from the judgement. We can see the pornography, the flirtatiousness, the openness, the sex positivism—all things we may personally appreciate and enjoy to some degree—and conclude that it is particularly important to the furry community. But when we look at ourselves, we think of our furry identity first and foremost, with sexuality (and everything else) a secondary component.

Dr Lawrence directly mentions furries in her paper, however her analysis focusses on plushophilia, which is a marginal interest within furry (around 8% identity as plushophiles). And as I wrote in my previous article on Dr Lawrence's paper, her analysis of furry is problematic. However her approach towards a different group may be relevant to furry: zoophiles.

Her analysis is particularly interesting because she notes that a significant number of zoophiles report that they personally identify with the target of their sexual attraction. Dr Lawrence then goes on to describe behaviour that is recognizably furry: she mentions fursuiting as an expression of animal-identity, and also touches on body modifications such as those of the late Stalking Cat. This section is short, but with its mention of animal-person identity it provides clues as to how the ETII might apply to furries.

Perhaps surprisingly, a fair bit of research on zoophilia and zoosexuality has taken place over the last 15 years or so. The seminal work is a book written by a sexologist, Dr Hani Miletski, in 2002. Dr Lawrence quotes statistics from Dr Miletski's research, noting that 20% of the zoophiles who participated in Dr Miletski's study reported it was 'completely or mostly true’ that they identified as a non-human species: in this case, the animal they are attracted to.

The identification with animals sounds like a furry trait, and in fact Dr Miletski's work shows that the furry community is fairly well known among zoophiles. I have written about the cross-over between zoophile and furry groups before on [adjective][species]: around 20% of zoophiles feel their identity can be expressed as an animal-person, and around 15% of furries self-report as zoophiles. You can read more on the topic here.

The existence of a larger zoophile group is key for the application of ETII to furry. ETII requires that the inversion takes place for a minority of the group, hence there must be a non-inverted majority. So if we hypothesize that furries can be described as zoophiles with ETII, there must be a lot of non-furry zoophiles (i.e without ETII). Evidence indicates that this is indeed the case, with the zoophile population roughly estimated to be in the 0.1-1% range, and furries perhaps (and very roughly) 0.01-0.1%.

A second criterion for ETII is that it usually comes with a fetishistic behaviour focussed on items that represent the original erotic target, for example Panty Dad and his lady underwear. Dr Lawrence drew a blank on this one, saying "I have not found descriptions of fetishism for items associated with animals or animals’ body parts", and supposing this might be because animals tend not to wear clothes.

Had Dr Lawrence been a more diligent researcher, she would indeed have found evidence of fetishistic behaviour focussed on animals' body parts, in the furry community. She could simply point towards the fine selection of products offered by Bad Dragon.

Furries meet several of the criteria required for us to be considered, at least in part, as zoophiles with ETII. However the idea would undoubtedly meet a lot of resistance from many furries. Most of us, myself included, would deny that furry is fundamentally zoophilic. Furry, we might say, is about identity as an animal-person.

This is a catch-22, because that's exactly what we're expected to say. ETII tends to manifest as identity rather than sexuality, and so we are not really in a position to make a judgement. As Dr Lawrence says:

"ETII can superficially appear to be ‘disorders* of identity’ primarily, and erotic phenomena only secondarily, if at all. Many persons with putative ETII tend to emphasize the identity-related aspects of their feelings and deemphasize the erotic aspects"


* Note that Dr Lawrence use of the word "disorder" here is misleading. It signifies a psychological divergence, not a psychological problem.

There is also the well-understood fact that people will tend to misrepresent themselves if they have a non-mainstream sexual interest. People tend to deny fetishes, sexual fantasies, and non-heterosexual sexual orientation. For example, in its comprehensive household survey, the UK Office for National Statistics found that 1.5% of Britons admit they are gay, whereas less direct methods (where sexual orientation is inferred rather than directly asked) from government agencies place the actual number at 6%.

In short: we can't be trusted. Our opinion on whether furry has any connection with zoophilia isn't reliable. And regardless of how it feels from the inside of furry, from the outside there are good reasons to connect the two.

For starters, animal-person identities (and art and porn and everything else) have one thing in common: the animal aspect. Furry can be seen as essentially defined by the animalization of human beings, and much of the scope for expression of identity within furry is based on how far along that spectrum we each like to go. We might have feral characters, or taurs, or be digitigrade, or have different types of genitalia, all the way from "mostly animal" at one end through to "mostly human" at the other. We could equally be called zoomorphic humans as anthropomorphic animals.

The link with furry has not been lost on researchers into zoophilia. A draft classification for zoophiles was published in 2009, and furries are specifically mentioned. The author proposes that "human-animal roleplayers"—a shorthand description for furries if I ever heard one—be considered "Class I zoosexuals". Of course, publication in a peer-reviewed paper doesn't make it true, but it does demonstrate that it's a reasonable way to look at the furry phenomenon.

All this is evidence to support the idea that furry may have its origins in zoophilia, and that the mechanism of ETII has led each of us to personally identify as an animal-person. In sexologist-speak, the furry identity may be autozoophilia.

Of course, furry is a broad church, and there is no simple definition that can cover the entire community. However, ETII may explain why so many of us find value in our expression of furry as an identity, and may well be the engine that drives furry's growth as a worldwide phenomenon.

There are some aspects of ETII that don't appear to be supported by furry behaviour. The most obvious is gender. If ETII dictates that we identify as the target of our attraction, then we would expect, in general, furry expressions to match the target's gender. This is true for some furries but not others:-

Those attracted to animals (or anthros) of the same gender—homozoophiles if you like—can be expected to dress up and fursuit as a furry of their own gender. This is indeed usually the case. Heterozoophiles, on the other hand, would be expected to dress up and fursuit as the opposite gender, a bit like a Furry Panty Dad. Yet for all the heterosexual furries out there—usually men attracted to female anthros—we don't really see fursuit cross-dressing or furry genderfuckery from otherwise cisgender furs. This doesn't seem to be consistent with ETII, especially considering that, for all of the range of sexual orientations in furry, heterosexuality is still more popular than homosexuality (although it's pretty close).

This is an issue to be addressed with data, and as far as I am aware there is insufficient research to draw any sort of conclusion. Certainly, I am not aware of any formal research on the gender preferences of zoosexuals, which seems like an obvious starting point.

It's also worth noting that not all seemingly obvious examples of ETII turn out to be correct, following investigative research. This may well be the case with furries, and the furry-as-autozoophilia hypothesis may be demonstrated to be wrong. In any event, the psychological origins of furry, whatever they are, don't inform the day-to-day furry experience. For all the psychology jargon and the 3000 words or so it's taken me to reach this point, the value of the idea doesn't amount to much.

The real value is to help us think about and understand our own drivers. If we can gain understanding of what makes us furry, it can help us find personal meaning in being a furry. As ever, in our extraordinary community, thinking and being furry can help us achieve greater self-acceptance and happiness.