Interview with International Anthropomorphic Research Project’s Nuka about Furry Fandom Gender, Sexuality, and Relationships

Viro: Hello! I’m Viro the Science Collie, and you’re listening to Feral Attraction. I’m here today at Anthrocon 2016 with Dr. Courtney Plante, aka Nuka, who is a post-doctoral researcher at Iowa State University. Nuka holds a Ph.D. in social psychology from the University of Waterloo. He is a co-founder of the International Anthropomorphic Research Project (IARP), a team of researchers that has published a number of peer-reviewed scientific papers about the furry fandom and how it compares with other demographically similar fandoms. Nuka, thanks so much for sitting down with Feral Attraction.

Nuka: Glad to be here!

Viro: The work you do with the IARP is very interesting to us, because we often receive questions about what is “normal” — whatever that means — in the fandom, or even whether being in the fandom itself is even “normal.” These kinds of questions are of course difficult to answer without data and some kind of social psychological backing to them, and that’s kind of where you come in. So thanks again for sitting down with us.

Nuka: Glad to.

Viro: So, first off, we know from the IARP’s work that the furry fandom is rather enriched with people participating in non-monogamous or otherwise non-traditional relationships. These are things like open or polyamorous relationships. Do you think having species dysphoria, or animalistic tendencies, or an interest in furry somehow detracts from someone’s desire to pair bond or otherwise participate in more traditional, monogamous relationships? And what would you say is the approximate percentage of furries who you would say identify as non-monogamous? Is that any different for therians and how they would identify?

Nuka: So as far as we know, the proportion of furries who identify as non-monogamous, non-traditional relationships, is higher than the general population. Although, I don’t recall off the top of my head, I don’t believe there is any significant difference between furries and therians. It’s an interesting question, this idea of whether or not identifying with animals would change or shape the perceived acceptability or preference for non-monogamous relationships. We’ve never tested that directly. Off the top of my head, I wouldn’t suspect that that would be the reason why furries or therians would be more likely to adopt these non-traditional relationships. I think it has more to do perhaps with permissive norms and sort of the fact that being in a place of openness and acceptance that says, “Hey, do as you will. This is a place where the norms of traditional society don’t really apply. So whatever you’re into is okay here.” I think that would be a bigger drive, although it is an interesting question for future research to think about whether or not identifying as an animal might play some role in that.

Viro: For sure. Now, the furry fandom also seems to be enriched for people who identify as non-heterosexual. Do you think that being non-heterosexual is likely to result in people being interested in anthropomorphism and furry, or is it maybe that the opposite is true?

Nuka: I don’t think it’s necessarily a causative effect that accounts for why you see differences in sexual orientation, for example seeing six to seven time more gay furries than you’d see in the general population. I would again attribute that more to norms in the fandom and sort of the fandom’s history, sort of having a background in these more open communities than you would find elsewhere. It is difficult off the top of my head to think of a reason why for example liking cartoon animals or liking anthropomorphic characters would in and of itself lead to an interest in changing one’s sexuality, but I could see how the permissiveness afforded by the fandom to say “Hey, whatever you’re into, that’s cool with me” would make it more acceptable for people who are in this position to be open about it rather than having to conceal it or pretend that it isn’t a part of who they are.

Viro: Right. Now you suggest that the fandom having rather open, permissive norms might actually be an explanation for why non-heterosexuality is more common. Do you have any evidence for that based on other fandoms that might be more open and inclusive where you see similar levels of non-heterosexuality?

Nuka: Hmm, well we do know for example that in the anime fandom we find that the anime fandom is sort of less permissive, a little bit less permissive, and you see sort of an accompanying lower level of non-heterosexuality, but still higher than the general population. So it’s a nice sort of middle ground. So it’s not direct evidence, but it is at least some evidence suggesting that perhaps with future studies we will be able to more directly test that hypothesis.

Viro: Now a couple of other theories that I have heard that might contribute to this is that furry characters tend to be more androgynous relative to other characters or representations, and another that I have heard fairly commonly is that because a lot of relationships are established online where gender and sexuality are not as apparent until you’ve actually gotten to know someone, that might also account for some level of discovery of the fact that people are more okay with forming deep emotional connections with people who might be the same gender or a different sexuality than they are used to. Do you think either of those theories have any credence to them?

Nuka: The first theory, the one about the androgynous characters, that’s possible. I could see how if you feel for or had some sort of desire for a particular character and it was very androgynous, that might sort of get your foot in the door of going down that path.

I really prefer or like that second explanation that you suggested though, that you form relationships with people online. I don’t think it is unique to the furry fandom, but the fact that the furry fandom is a predominantly online space would definitely speak to that. And I think there is definitely some merit to that hypothesis.

I would offer a third one as well. I might suggest that the best thing I can think of to describe this hypothesis is opportunistic bisexuality. This idea that we find that many furries in the fandom may come in to the fandom bisexual but really presenting heterosexual because that is what norms suggest and such, and being in the fandom, you know, the fandom is predominantly a male space. You don’t find a lot of women in the fandom. So you might say, well, since the norms are permissive about it, and I am surrounded by other guys, maybe dip your toe in the water and see what it is like. And from there, it kind of goes from there.

Viro: Right. I think the slightly less politically correct term that is used is the “jailhouse gay” phenomenon.

Nuka: I will stick to politically correct, but I think we’re talking about the same thing there.

Viro: Right, exactly. So that makes a lot of sense. Now, based on some of your previous data too, I think what you were talking about makes a lot of sense. You have some data that seems to suggest that sexuality tends to change the longer people stay in the fandom, is that right?

Nuka: Yeah, it is very preliminary data, so I don’t want to make too much about it yet, but it is a longitudinal study where we’ve watched furries over time, the same furries year after year after year, and what we have noticed is that on the Kinsey scale, the 0-6 Kinsey scale, there is a small shift, even over the course of spending a year in the fandom, of furries being slightly more towards the bisexual side after just a year in the fandom, Now, whether this is just some noise in the data that will sort of just wash out after a few years or not, this is a very interesting idea, and sort of coalesces nicely when you look at the other data suggesting that furries who are older in the fandom tend to be a little bit more likely to be homosexual than heterosexual, and some of these hypotheses that spending time in the fandom may make you more open or likely to try new things that you might otherwise not consider.

Viro: Okay. That makes a lot of sense. But, I am curious too, based on what we were just talking about, what with the idea of opportunistic bisexuality, do you think that the identity is changing, or the behavior is changing, or are both of those actually changing?

Nuka: So there is a neat little quirk in psychology that we like to believe that our attitudes determine our behavior, that when I have a thought or belief about something, I behave in accordance with that. And it’s actually both directions happen, that both when I behave a certain or when I have a certain belief I act in accordance with that, but also we find when we act a certain way, our beliefs tend to change in accordance with that as well. So I think that furries find themselves, you know, getting very chummy with members of the same gender, so maybe there is more to my identity than I maybe had thought about before. It opens questions, and maybe it makes them more comfortable with this idea in a way they hadn’t thought of before, so attitudes kind of follow behavior in that case.

Viro: Right. So the question might be, is someone participating in gay relationships or gay sexual activity before they’re comfortable identifying as gay or bisexual, or are they actually changing their identity before participating in those behaviors, and it is probably some combination of both.

Nuka: Yeah. I would be surprised if it wasn’t a bidirectional relationship in this case, that one happened first and then the other, and they both sort of — positive feedback system would be the best way to put it.

Viro: Right. So given that the furry fandom appears to be enriched for homosexual males and depleted for heterosexual females, do you think the culture for furry bisexuality is very different from the culture for bisexuality at large, in terms of how these kinds of people who identify as bisexual, what norms they adhere to, or how they behave in the fandom or anything like that?

Nuka: I feel like in the fandom it is just, I am going to sound like a broken record here, but you’re more open to be it, so in traditional culture it is something that is much harder I think to find partners, it is much harder, you have to go to specific spaces to find people, but in the furry fandom it’s, for lack of a better word, it is a target-rich environment. This is a place where you’re less the outsider and much more the norm. A fantastic sort of example of that is 80 percent of people who are not heterosexual in the fandom find their partner in the fandom. So this one sort of giant, sort of open, sort of safe space, awesome for sort of exploring that part of you that you don’t have to hide, whereas in other contexts, you have to really go out of your way to find these places, or to find a place where it is okay to sort of express this part of yourself.

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Viro: And has any of your data actually looked at the difference between identifying as bisexual or identifying as pansexual and how that compares to the general population?

Nuka: So we know that basically anything that is not heterosexual, there is more of it in the furry fandom. We haven’t looked specifically for differences between rates of bisexuality versus pansexuality relative to one another, but we know that they are higher in prevalence than in the general population.

Viro: Right, okay. So now, of course we know that being furry isn’t just about sex as some members of the popular press would like us to believe, right? But clearly it is about sex for at least some furries, so to what extent does sexual attraction play a role in furry fandom participation? Do we know for example how many furries for example perceive anthropomorphism or furry as some kind of kink or fetish versus just something that they enjoy?

Nuka: Yeah, so you have to always be careful about making blanket statements here. What we’ve commonly said with the data is that for most furries, the vast majority of furries, the fandom is not primarily a fetish, insofar as furries seem to, when we look at content, whether there is a preference for pornographic content or non-pornographic content, furries just seem to like furry content regardless of what is going on in the picture.

There is a slight preference in general for pornographic content, but if the fandom were first and foremost a fetish for everyone, what you would expect to see is everyone is here for the porn, and that is not really what we see. That is of course not the same thing as saying that there isn’t any of that in the fandom, just that it isn’t predominant, it isn’t sort of what most furries are here for.

A good sort of comparison is among people who play video games or people who engage in the anime fandom, for example. You wouldn’t say that a person who is an anime fan or who is a gamer is a person with a video game fetish or an anime fetish. They may all have very active sex lives, they may all very much enjoy content that combines their interests with sexuality, but very few of them would you say are there exclusively or predominantly just for the porn.

We do find that 5-10 percent of furries do fall into that category of, no, it’s basically just for the porn. But it is incorrect to categorize the fandom as a whole as being just a fetish. Does that makes sense?

Viro: Yeah, it does. And I think, you know, obviously the popular press likes to pick up on some of that stuff because it is flashy and more visible than some other aspects of the fandom. A bunch of nerds gathered around a table looking at art is not the most photogenic right? So that might be a little bit of why that happens as well. But you know we often do say that furries as a fandom are fans of anthropomorphic animal characters as a sort of catch-all definition. But surely for some people who identify as furry, they’re actually in the fandom more for the community or belongingness aspects than they are for the fan appreciation aspects, you might say. So do we have any data on how many people are really here for the furries and not so much for the fur, so to speak? I myself would say that I am here for the community more than for the artistic aspects, because frankly it is one of the better ways to meet my fellow gay geeks that I have ever found. So, I know that I am not alone in that.

Nuka: So what you are talking about is a distinction that we made early on, especially one of my colleagues, who makes a distinction between what is called “fanship” and “fandom.” So fanship is “I like this stuff.” What you’re talking about is the content that I am a fan of. Fandom is “I like being around other people who share my interests.” And we found these things are correlated, typically pretty highly correlated. So if you like content, you also tend to like being around other people who like the content, but they are not perfectly correlated; there is some distinction, and it is entirely possible to be high on one and low on the other. I think in the fandom, you tend to find much more that if you are going to be high on just one of them, it’s going to be on the community side of it, the fandom part of it. And the fandom one is really the much more interesting psychological scale, because it is the one that predicts well-being, it is the one that predicts happiness and life satisfaction. It is the difference between “I sit in my basement alone and kind of look at this stuff by myself,” which doesn’t really predict anything about well-being or community or happiness or social support network in the same way that “I hang out with other people. I have this social support network. I have these people that I interact with with some regularity,” which is hugely predictive of well-being and happiness and basically any other sort of psychologically significant measure you can think of.

Viro: Okay. That’s great. That makes a lot of sense to me. So work by your colleague Dr. Gerbasi coined the term “Species Identity Disorder,” and that term has been a little bit maligned since that paper originally came out I think, but it was originally meant to describe people who feel they are something less than 100 percent human, capturing for example therianthropy. So does therianthropy correlate with being kind of non-conforming in other ways, such as being non-gender binary, and how does species dysphoria correlate with other forms of dysphoria?

Nuka: So I will backtrack just a little bit and say that Dr. Gerbasi has said ever since that was sort of her first foray into the furry research, and that was only ever intended to be sort of a comparison to help people try to understand what this might be like. She was never intending to suggest that this was a disorder, she was never intending to suggest that we need to create a category that says therians have some kind of problem, and it is often misconstrued that way, and I think if we went back today, I imagine she would probably rethink how she did that.

Viro: Right, because it sounds like pathologizing it in a way.

Nuka: Yeah. And even now, we’re working on a paper that does just the opposite, and tries to say you can experience what therianthropes experience without any of the maladaptive depression or dissatisfaction or any other sort of negative qualities — that identifying with an animal isn’t in and of itself is problematic. 

Viro: Right.

Nuka: But to answer sort of the broader question there, we have found in the past at least that therians relative to even furries are more likely to identify as transgender or genderqueer/non-binary, to sort of have this much more non-conventional attitude toward sexuality and towards identity, so there is definitely some association between the two, and I think we’re even suggesting, though I don’t have the numbers on hand, that they may be more likely to experience signs of body dysmorphia, at least in qualitative data that we’ve collected so far.

Viro: Okay. And do you have any real reason to explain why those two correlate, besides just the obvious idea that when you’re non-conforming you’re more likely to be non-conforming in other ways?

Nuka: That’s kind of the simple explanation, that’s kind of the one we’ve got right now, is that as soon as you start seeing fluidity in one aspect of your identity, why stop there? It kind of suggests a more global openness or fluidity of your identity as whole. It seems weird to be very arbitrary about some aspects of your identity but not others.

Viro: Right. Now you mention that there are some aspects of depression and things that can be associated with experiencing dysmorphia or dysphoria. Is mental illness overall enriched in the furry fandom in comparison with other demographically similar populations or fandoms?

Nuka: So we’re not clinical psychologists, but we’ve tried at least in a very sort of haphazard way to assess this by asking people to self-report if they’ve ever been diagnosed with anything, and we have found that furries compared with non-furries are pretty comparable with regard to having been diagnosed with medical disorders, psychological disorders, being on psychotropic medication, ADD, depression, anxiety disorders, etc. They’re pretty much on par with what you would find in the general population or even lower, and the only real condition we could find where furries score higher in prevalence than the general population was Asperger’s, or high-functioning autism, where they are about twice as high as the general population, even after controlling for gender differences, but that sort of gets misconstrued a little bit, because we’re comparing that to a general population, and one of the features of Asperger’s is sort of an obsessive interest in something, so I would suspect that you would find that in any fan group. A fan group is sort of by definition people who are obsessed or are very interested in something, so I suspect if we compared that to another fan group, we would find that that is not a lot, not very different.

Viro: All right. That makes a lot of sense to me. So do we have any real information on how common it is for furries to have a primary fursona that is different in gender from their self-reported gender identity?

Nuka: Yes. We find that 15-20 percent (depending on the sample you’re looking at) of furries say that they at least with some regularity have a fursona whose gender differs at least a little bit from their non-fursona gender. The reasons for it are varied, and you can imagine there are a lot of different reasons, from exploring a different aspect of one’s own identity, to just wanting to experience something different, to seeing what it is like, to trying on a completely different identity. So there’s a myriad of different reasons why this might be the case.

Viro: Okay. That makes sense. Now, the last couple questions I had for you are concerning age demographics within the fandom. I am curious why the fandom tends to have a bit of a skew towards younger furries, and whether we know much about the psychology of older furries who do choose to remain in the fandom.

Nuka: Yeah, so it’s one of the big questions right now that we’re trying to understand, is why there’s this huge fall off after about 25, you just see rate of participation just plummet in the furry fandom, and we have a couple of hypotheses for why, although testing it is proving kind of difficult.

So one possibility is called the Scaffold Hypothesis, which is that furries rely on the fandom at least, in a lot of the formative years of their lives, for things like developing friends, learning how to socialize, learning how to sort of cope with the curveballs that life throws you, and after a while you develop that sort of social support network, you develop friends, you develop coping skills, and you don’t really need the fandom anymore — it’s kind of served its purpose, and you can go on without it.

Another possibility is that life happens, in terms of if people get married, if they have kids, if they have a career, if they have to pay a mortgage, it makes it a lot harder to have the time and the resources to go to a furry convention or to hop online and spend a few hours chatting with furries, and that may sort of reduce your ability to sort of interact with the fandom.

So that’s sort of our predictions at least about why this is the case. We don’t have any concrete answers yet for why age does what it does in the fandom.

Viro: Okay. That makes sense to me.

Nuka: Was there another part to that question?

Viro: That was mostly it. The other part was just, for those older furries who do choose to remain, what do we know about them?

Nuka: In terms of the older furries, we do know that the furries who stay around for longer, not surprisingly, they tend to identify quite strongly with furries, so it tends to be the case that furries as they age, the ones who are less interested in it, for whom it is kind of a fad or a thing they’re into for a few years, and then they kind of go off and find other things as they get older, but that remaining few, that 10 percent or so who hang on well into their 30s, 40s, and 50s, this is something that they are very passionate about, and they identify very strongly with this interest and with the community.

Viro: Those of us who are podcasters or researchers might end up being in that particular bucket.

Nuka: I suspect, yeah. I’m already pushing 30 this year, so I am already in the top 10 percent of age, so I am probably there.

Viro: We may be in for the long haul!

Nuka: Yeah!

Viro: Okay. So, now given that aspect of there being such a generational or age skew in the fandom, have you studied at all whether there is a greater prevalence of intergenerational relationships within the furry fandom versus other fandoms or at large?

Nuka: I can honestly say that we have never thought to look at that, but it is a fantastic question, and I think going forward we might start asking about that, because it is a really good question. It’s one of those things where, until someone asks, it never dawns on you that that is even a thing worth asking. So it’s a great question.

Viro: I expect royalties on your next grant proposal.

Nuka: Oh, excellent, yeah, yeah.

Viro: Fantastic! So thank you so much for sitting down with me today. I really appreciate it.

Nuka: Thank you!

Viro: All right. Again, this has been Nuka speaking to Viro for Feral Attraction.

Viro the Science Collie

Viro Science Collie is a PhD virologist and medical writer, experienced in teaching, technical communication, and writing for the public. He has been active in the furry community since 2012 and has been happily and ethically non-monogamous for much of that time. His interests include non-traditional relationship structures, technology, biological science, and tennis.