Furry Research: Minorities within a Minority

27 Apr 2015 |

The International Anthropomorphic Research Project (IARP), a group of psychologists and sociologists who have been working with and around the furry community for many years, have just published their latest set of data online. The results are from data gathered at Furry Fiesta, which the IARP visit annually. Their Furry Fiesta research gets better and better each year.

The Furry Fiesta studies have become a testing ground for new ideas for the IARP, and always bring up some fascinating insights, as well as some crowd-pleasing frivolity. This year's Furry Fiesta report is titled Minorities Within a Minority, Face Recognition, and Furry Pornography and it's well worth reading the whole thing.

There is too much of interest to focus on a single element in my review, the same problem I have had for [adjective][species] in the past, such as when I wrote about their focus group on the experiences of women at furry conventions last year. So I'm going to pick out some nuggets, focussing on those that relate back to topics of discussion here at [a][s] in the past. There is a lot more in the IARP report itself (including a section where they exposed non-furries to furry pornography).

Furries with Disabilities

A few years ago, I interviewed a few furries with physical disabilities for a piece here on [a][s]. The premise of my piece was that the furry environment, where a person will often socialize through the guise of a fursona rather than an arbitrary human meatbag, would be a particularly welcoming one for people with physical disabilities. It is well understood that people with obvious disabilities suffer social prejudice in all sorts of ways, and I was wondering if furries—an environment where human physical appearance is less important, especially online—were better at, as they say, seeing the person not the disability.

The answer, as you might expect, was more complex than a yes-or-no. Furs with physical disabilities appreciated that they could socialise in some ways without the stigma of the disability, but they also were wary about pretending their disability didn't exist. As one person put it: "Having my fursona do things I can’t do is fun, but sometimes I don’t like it because it feels less me." On the whole, it was difficult to draw any real conclusions beyond the well-known phenomenon that the internet, socially and practically, has been a massive boon for physically disabled people.

The IARP asked furries about their own disabilities, and found that a remarkable 54% of furries self-identified as having one or more disabilities. The disabilities were overwhelmingly non-physical; they were categorized as mental health or cognitive disabilities in a large majority of cases. (It may be that furs with physical disabilities are less likely to attend a convention like Furry Fiesta for practical reasons, although anecdotally I found it difficult to find many physically disabled furs, and the ones I did were mostly very social people. But there is wild selection bias going on here, so I don't think we can read much into that.)

The IARP asked furs with self-identified disabilities about the differences between their human selves and fursonas. Like my interviews with the physically disabled furs, the IARP were interested in whether furries would incorporate or excise their disability from their fursona. It's an especially interesting question because previous IARP research has shown that we tend to create fursonas that are an idealized version of ourselves. Would our disabled furries use their fursona to wish their disability away?

The answer, again, is neither yes nor no. Disabled furs most commonly responded that their fursona served to help them forget their disability, or to hide it from others. In both cases, this means that the disability can be rendered irrelevant: furs with disabilities are treated as a person (or animal-person) in furry spaces first and foremost, without the disability informing social interactions.

Data courtesy of the IARP
Data courtesy of the IARP

As with my small and informal survey of furries with physical disabilities, it's hard to read much into the IARP results at this stage. It's not clear whether the advantages of socializing through the guise of a fursona is different from other online socializing, or indeed if the IARP respondents experience a difference in the value of their fursona online and offline. Even so, the results are especially interesting given that the data was collected at a convention (and so the furries in question must be relatively adept and comfortable in offline social environments), and that fur with disabilities were more likely to say that their fursona represents "who they wish they were".

Not surprisingly, the IARP have flagged these results as worthy of further research. It's common for furries to appreciate the freedom that a fursona affords, especially in social environments, where our assignations of everything from socio-economic status to body shape to gender become less important. It makes sense that furs with disabilities might get particular value from this.

In counterpoint to the use of fursona as a mechanism for escaping ourselves, previous research from the IARP (reviewed by [adjective][species] here) has demonstrated that (broadly), the closer our fursonas represent ourselves, the better our mental health. More specifically, IARP research has shown that furries with diverging fursonas are more at risk of some negative psychological states.

This phenomenon was reinforced by results from this year's Furry Fiesta. IARP researchers asked about differences between real age and fursona age, and correlated that with several variables, including self-esteem:

Data courtesy of the IARP
Data courtesy of the IARP

This reinforces the idea that fursona is an idealized version of one's self. It suggests that someone with a fursona closely-related to their real self feels like they are already close to ideal. Such people can be expected, quite reasonably, to have high self-esteem.

That's not to say that there is a problem with having a divergent fursona, or that high self-esteem is necessarily a positive trait. There is evidence that fursonas act as a testing ground for future behaviour, and so help furries self-improve. Someone with a non-divergent fursona may have higher self-esteem, but they also may be more stagnant; those furs with a divergent fursona (or fursonas) may be more likely to improve and grow.

Fursonas are unique to the furry community. Everyone, to some degree, presents a version of themselves to the outside world that diverges from their "real" self, online and offline. Fursonas, which might be thought of as an extreme version of a universal feature of human nature, are an obvious focus of study for the sociologists and psychologists of the IARP. It's been a theme of their work for some time, and undoubtedly will continue in the future.

Furry Women

Another ongoing theme of IARP study, and one we have talked about a lot here on [a][s] over the past few years, is the treatment of women within the fandom. Furry is male-dominated, and appears to have a culture that isn't welcoming to all, or even most, furry women. You can read a review of [a][s]'s coverage here.

The IARP ran a focus group at Furry Fiesta 2014, which added to evidence that sexism is a problem within furry. 68% of women in the IARP focus group agreed that furry is an "intimidating place for women". This year they cast a wider net, looking for evidence whether furry women experience furry differently from furry men. They discovered:

  • That furry women experience internal elements of furry as strongly as men (self-identification, importance of fursona), but experience external elements differently (women feel less like part of a community and engage with furry culture less deeply).
  • That furry men and women experience the same rates of unwanted attention from others, and feel alienated from others within furry to the same extent.
  • That furry women were less comfortable than men about presentation of gender in furry pornography, and that gender was "brought up" more often in interactions with other furries.

What's interesting about these results is that they reflect not just what women have said to the IARP in the past, but that they reflect comments by men made in response to articles on the topic here at [a][s]. The results clearly demonstrate that while women are in a disadvantaged position compared to men, this inequality is possibly a simple result of furry's gender imbalance—roughly 80/20 male/female—rather than any outright sexism.

The fact that women experience furry in the same way, and experience equivalent unwelcome attention, is evidence that there is nothing implicitly sexist about furries in general. Yet the fact that women are (significantly) more likely to feel intimidated and (significantly) less likely to feel like part of the community clearly demonstrates that furry has a problem.

The IARP researchers hold fire on drawing any conclusions from these results, but it's not difficult to see how a male-dominated community can be inherently, or accidentally, sexist. The same phenomenon is seen in many community that have a dominant majority, where members of the overarching culture create an unwelcoming environment for a minority without doing anything "wrong". This phenomenon can be seen today seen by looking at the treatment on homosexuals in majority Christian communities. In such communities, homosexuals tend to feel unwelcome by default, and special steps are required to remedy this problem. This might include policing of aggressive or offensive language, creation of gay-only community groups, and visible acts of advocacy.

It's common in such cases for members of the dominant majority to resent having to make special consideration for the minority groups, and this can be seen in some Christian groups. Some Christians resent the appropriation of words like "gay", some feel that gay-only groups discriminate against non-gay people, and others might wonder where there is no "straight pride" parade.

We see similar complaints from members of the male majority within furry. (Examples include complaints about "politically correct" language, or about events at conventions from which men are excluded.) The complaints are understandable, and nobody deserves to be vilified as bigoted or sexist for expressing them. But the fact remains that when there is a dominant majority in a community, like men within furry, positive steps must be taken to help the minority group feel welcome. "Doing nothing wrong" isn't enough - that just reinforces the status quo. Men within furry must take concrete steps to make furry a more welcoming place for women.

Furry Artists

Finally, the IARP looks at the relationship between artists and consumers within furry. This relates back neatly to the recent Commissioning Etiquette Guide we recently published here at [a][s].

Our etiquette guide was written by a guest writer and published anonymously, in part because we were concerned it might provoke one of those artist-vs-consumer slanging matches we have all seen before. We thought that an anonymous writer would prevent any complaints from becoming personally-directed. In the end, it received nothing but praise on Twitter and other social networks.

The IARP results suggest that our experience reflects the reality: that the relationship between furry artists and furry commissioners is, on balance, a very good one. There does not appear to be a large problem or conflict between the two groups.

The IARP data shows that there is very good agreement between artists and consumers on how each groups is expected to behave. Each group is realistic and positive about the other. This suggests that problems are caused by a few "bad eggs". As the IARP concluded, the problems and drama we see online are caused by "rare encounters with [...] very few individuals".

The poor behaviours cited by artists are commissioners who are "entitled" - those that are unreasonable in their expectations or think they deserve special treatment. On the other hand, complaints by consumers are largely driven by artists who manage their time poorly. (Interestingly, complaints about price did not feature: artists take note.) As concluded by the IARP, problems can be reduced "through clear communication, both of the commissioner’s expectations, but also of the artist’s terms of service and their ability to accommodate the commissioner’s request in the expected time frame".

The IARP report includes a lot of easily-understandable data and covers more ground than I've mentioned here. You can find the whole thing at the IARP website.