More Than Just a Pretty Face: Unmasking Furry Fandom
Recent research debunks common misconceptions of the furry community.
Posted May 12, 2017 | Reviewed by Jessica Schrader
This is the third installment of interviews with speakers from the 2nd Annual AltSex NYC Conference, which was held on Friday, April 28 in a midtown NYC theater. Courtney Plante is a research psychologist, co-founder, and lead analyst of the International Anthropomorphic Research Project (IARP)—a team of social scientists who study identity development, stigma, and inter-group/inter-species dynamics in the furry fandom. He presented original research on the furry fandom community, specifically who they are, what they believe, and what draws them to join this unique subculture.
Q: Let's start out by assuming that the audience knows nothing about furries. What is a furry?
A: A furry is a fan. Star Trek fans are fans of Star Trek, sports fans are fans of sports. Furries are fans of media that feature walking, talking animal characters ("anthropomorphic" animals). Prominent examples include films like Zootopia or Disney's Robin Hood, books like Watership Down or Redwall, and video games like Night in the Woods or Pokemon. In the same way that a sport fan's interest can manifest itself in a wide range of ways (e.g., going to games, painting their faces, watching the game at the pub with their friends), furries' interests can also manifest themselves in a wide range of ways: from creating/consuming media to costuming to traveling to conventions to interact with other fans. There's no one "right" way to be a furry, just like there's no one "right" way to be a fan of anything else.
Q: Early on in your presentation, you explored some of the most common beliefs and misconceptions about furries. What are they?
A: There are a number of common misconceptions about furries. Typical misconceptions often reduce the fandom to little more than a fetish or "sex thing," infusing sex with elements of the fandom that are not inherently sexual. For example, about 15-20% of furries wear elaborate costumes called "fursuits" in much the same way anime fans cosplay as their favorite characters. However, unlike anime, furries are often assumed to engage in fursuiting for sexual reasons, despite the fact that this is very rarely the case. Similarly, people assume that an interest in anthropomorphic animal characters is akin to an "animal fetish" or sexual attraction to animals—something that, again, is not borne out by the data, which show that furries are no more likely to be sexually attracted to animals than the general population. Yet another misconception about furries is based on the assumption that there is something "wrong" with furries—that pathology needs to be invoked to "explain" why a furry becomes a furry. Despite this misconception, evidence shows that furries are no more likely to have been diagnosed with any sort of mental illness, and studies routinely find that furries are just as happy and well-adjusted as anyone else in the general population.
Q: What makes someone interested in becoming a furry anyway? How do people even learn about this community?
A: I would argue that most people have a history of consuming furry-themed media: We're a culture that grew up with Bugs Bunny, Mickey Mouse, and Pokemon—shows that all prominently feature anthropomorphized animals. While many people simply "grow out" of that interest, some people retain a lifelong fascination with it—in the same way that some people continue to love Star Wars or model trains well into their adulthood. Furries primarily discover the furry community online, through furry forums or furry-themed message groups, where members organize meet-ups, discuss content, and do pretty much what you'd expect to find in any fan community.
Q: You described the furry community as a participatory fandom. What do you mean by this? What are some of the key aspects that differentiate this community from other subculture types of communities?
A: Unlike other fan groups (e.g., Star Wars, Harry Potter), where the focus of the fandom is a single line of media and/or where a single person gets to decide what counts as "canon" in the fictional universe, the furry fandom is incredibly decentralized. No one person is the arbiter of what "counts" as furry, nor is there any one unifying piece of content around which the fandom is organized. As such, the fandom is more of a conglomerate of artists, writers, costumers, musicians, and fans who congregate and collectively contribute content to the fandom: more than half of furries do some form of graphic art or creative writing, meaning the fandom is filled with thousands of unique content creators. This is one of the traits that makes it far more participatory than other fan communities—rather than passively consuming content, many furries actively contribute content.
Q: You made sure to highlight that furries don't generally experience this interest as a kind of sexual fetish. Can you elaborate a bit more on this? Why do you think the perception about furries is sometimes so inaccurately sexualized?
A: While furry-themed pornography does exist, the furry fandom is not defined around this fact—in the same way that the existence of video game pornography does not mean that the term "gamer" is an inherently sexual one, nor does it imply that the group is organized around a fetish. Instead, the presence of furry-themed pornography is a natural merging of the interests of the fandom's predominantly young (18-25 years old), male demographic. In the same way that fantasy or science-fiction fans may enjoy merging erotica with their favorite literary genres, or sports fans merge sexuality with their favorite sports team (i.e., cheerleaders), or car aficionados merge sex with their hobby (i.e., "pin-up girls" draped across sports cars), furries do much the same thing with furry-themed content. Unfortunately, furry-themed content is distant enough from mainstream content that people simply don't know a lot about it. As such, they "fill in the blanks" with assumptions about deviant sexuality, and assume "it must be a sex thing." These misconceptions are also helped along by inaccurate portrayals of the furry fandom in media (e.g., CSI), which characterize furries as sexual deviants in the interest of creating a more titillating story.
Q: A strikingly high percentage of furries identify as LGBTQ. Why do you think that is?
A: The high proportion of LGBTQ members of the furry fandom (relative to the general population) is likely a product of several factors, including the fandom's origins and its norms of openness and inclusiveness. The furry fandom has its origins in cities such as San Francisco and Toronto, which have traditionally had strong, supportive roots with the LGBTQ community. As such, from its inception, the furry fandom was established as a place where members of these communities could be themselves without fear of judgment. These same norms continue within the furry fandom to this day, with openness and inclusion being central pillars of the furry community. Moreover, given the fandom's fantasy-themed nature, many furries feel that it makes little sense to mock or discriminate against others—it's hard to make fun of someone when you're dressed up as a fuzzy blue fox. Couple this with the fandom's strong progressive/liberal orientation, and you end up with a community where LGBTQ members feel welcome and where people who may have been unwilling to consider non-heterosexual or non-traditional gender identities feel welcome "testing the water" when it comes to expressing these aspects of themselves.
Q: You have been doing a lot of research and publishing on furries. Where can people read more about your research and where can they find more accurate information about the furry fandom?
A: For those interested in knowing more about furries and the furry fandom in general, they can check out our (the International Anthropomorphic Research Project) research website: www.furryresearch.org, where we post all of our most recent findings. In addition, they can download our free eBook at www.furscience.com to see an excellent summary of everything we've learned about the furry fandom from nearly a decade of research.