Readings — From the March 2015 issue

Below the Pelt

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From “A Peek Inside a Furry Convention,” a letter sent by Debra W. Soh to the Archives of Sexual Behavior and published in the journal’s January issue. Soh is a Ph.D. candidate in sexual neuroscience at York University, in Toronto. “Furry fandom” is a term given to the collective subculture of furries. A paraphilia is an unusual or deviant sexual interest.

I couldn’t wait to meet a furry, someone who adopts the identity or persona of an anthropomorphized animal in social — and often sexual — interactions. Since first discovering their existence two years ago while working in a sexology lab, whenever people ask me what I do, I respond with a question of my own: ‘‘Have you ever heard of furries?’’

My opportunity to see one in the ‘‘flesh’’ arrived in the form of Furnal Equinox, the largest furry convention in Canada (with 910 attendees). I attended in hopes of learning as much as I could about ‘‘the fandom’’ and uncovering the answers most sexologists are dying to know: Is this a genuine paraphilia? Or are the media exaggerating? Is it even about sex at all?

The convention area was nothing like I had expected. In truth, I was expecting the individual conference rooms to be dimly lit and for the corners to be filled with couples — or groups — of costumed folks engaging in kinky sex. Instead, I noticed many other things. Not everyone was dressed in a full fur suit; some were only wearing partial costumes, such as felt ears and a tail. As the day went on, I saw furries removing their headpieces, either to rest or to have a cigarette outside. Most were young, friendly, and male, with a nerdy or raver-inspired style of dress. Many would communicate with me only by gesture — to keep up their fursona. Besides the vendors, hotel staff, and those helping to run the convention, there were very few of us dressed in everyday clothes.

The central conference room was called the Dealers’ Den. Among the items for sale were stuffed animals, fur-suit paraphernalia (fox ears, paws, animal collars, and fluffy tails designed to mimic natural movement), T-shirts with whimsical sayings (fur fag), realistic-looking weaponry, and jewelry. Every artist’s booth had binders and iPads displaying their portfolios.

Many of the furries are themselves talented artists who design and construct their own fur suits. A large proportion of furries collect both erotic and nonerotic furry art. The adult-themed art depicts anthropomorphic creatures with human genitalia engaging in typical sex acts. I was told that the depictions of human genitalia, as opposed to anatomically correct animal genitalia, help viewers put themselves in the role of the characters.

While I was perusing merchandise, the official fur-suit parade began. A total of 265 costumed furries waved as they passed and happily allowed themselves to be filmed or have their picture taken. No two looked alike. Many wore accessories: a parasol, suspenders, Clubmaster glasses, balloons. One appeared to be channeling Nineties grunge, with a flannel shirt and Fender Stratocaster.

Almost all furries have a fursona, but only a small proportion wear a fur suit. Many furries feel that, in everyday life, we are all forced to adopt personas; their fursona allows them to be their true selves. The one message that was consistent across my conversations was that each member of the community felt they had something that made them different and ill fitting in mainstream society, such as Asperger syndrome or a facial tic. The fandom gave them a safe venue in which to express themselves.

After the parade ended, I wandered around the other conference rooms. One was filled with furries playing a selection of popular video games. I sat down next to a table of males in their early twenties who had removed their headpieces to eat sandwiches from the restaurant next door. I overheard them asking one another what they were studying in university. One replied, ‘‘Neuroscience.’’ (I had to struggle to stifle my immediate reaction to turn and say, ‘‘Me, too! Which school are you at?’’ I didn’t want to cross the line between furry life and real life.) They agreed that there was a large proportion of furries studying the hard sciences.

The convention wound down by evening. The fur suits gradually disappeared, and I became increasingly surrounded by plainclothes individuals wheeling suitcases and saying their goodbyes. As I collected my jacket to leave, I saw a little girl in a baby-doll dress, who looked to be about two years old, kissing the snout of a male furry who had knelt down to her height. I then realized that the furry was her father. I felt unexpectedly touched by the scene.

Furries are well aware that the public perceives their community and lifestyle as primarily motivated by sex. From my conversations that day, I got the sense that there are layers behind the decision to become a furry, and that sex and furry pornography are only one aspect of their lifestyle. Most surprising to me was how open and welcoming the community was to a non-furry like me. For the entire time that I was at the convention, not a single furry asked me what I was doing there. It seemed everyone was too busy making new friends and having fun.

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