On Polynormativity

Guest post by Forneus. Forneus is a man pretending to be a fish who is actually a cat.


It started, as these things do, with a realization about myself.

I realized that I had feelings for someone else. Not the sort of feelings that one would call “love”, for sure, but certainly the kind that are at least as strong as your average crush-that-warrants-more-exploring. Furthermore, I felt bad for having feelings for someone who wasn’t my boyfriend, and in that kind of emotional avalanche that only humans seem to be capable of performing, I felt bad about feeling bad about noticing someone else. Because hey, I know several people that have multiple romantic partners, and even more people somewhere along the axis of “I’m ‘attached to’ one person, but we’re open.”

“But wait!”, you say. “Why is this on [adjective][species]? What does this have to do with furries at all?” I’m glad that you asked. It turns out that furries, as a group, are incredibly polynormative.

First, a definition, if necessary: one of the great things about English is that I can make up a word like “polynormative” and its meaning should be immediately obvious, but in case that isn’t the case, I’m defining it here as “more accepting and understanding of poly* cultures than the mean.”

It is also relatively important that we make a distinction between “multiple romantic partners” and “multiple sexual partners”, because as we’ll discover, the difference in numbers is relatively significant. For the purposes of the survey, and this article, we call the former “mono/polyamory” and the latter “mono/polysexuality.”

Both of these pairs are interesting, as each contains its own spectrum. The -amory spectrum runs from total monoamory, through sets of couples who consider one person to be a “primary” partner, to total romantic freedom. Similarly, -sexuality runs from total exclusivity, through what one commenter called “same-room openness” (both partners must be present, but they welcome a third or fourth sometimes), to total sexual freedom.

So now that the definitions are out of the way, let’s talk numbers.

Unfortunately, the go-to group for sexuality surveys, the Kinsey Group, has done exactly one survey on polyamory and polysexuality. It’s relatively fresh, being from 2000, but has one major issue: it was commissioned from Kinsey by a polyamory lifestyle magazine, and the respondents were all pulled from that magazine’s subscriber base. It seems at least somewhat likely that subscribers to a poly magazine are already interested in the subject, which makes the Kinsey survey’s extremely high numbers questionable. However, there are still a few things we can glean from this data: support for polyamory and polysexuality skews young, and skews male, both of which are the prime demographics of the fandom.

Even so, we should find a different source for a decent base number to compare against. One of the standard first-pass texts for people interested in polyamory and polysexuality is a book called The Ethical Slut, first published in 1997, but recently updated in 2009. This book references several studies, a few of which I’d like to highlight:

  • The Finnish Sex Survey indicates that 8.9% of respondents believed that they could support a polyamorous relationship, and 8.2% felt that it was actually best for them at their current stage of life. This survey was only given in Finland, and thus only accounts for Finnish social norms, so take that as a caveat.
  • Blumstein and Schwartz report that 15-28% of married couples surveyed allowed for non-monogamy in certain cases. This jumps to 65% for gay men, which is highly relevant to the standard furry demographic.

By comparison, the numbers in the small survey we ran here at [adjective][species] paint a much different picture:

 

Monogamy/Polygamy survey results

 

Comparing these two gives us a few interesting points, in isolation:

  1. Twice as many furries self-report as polysexual than as polyamorous.
  2. Three times as many furries report as polyamorous than in mainstream society.
  3. Twice as many furries self-report as polysexual than in mainstream society.

An interesting aside: before writing this article, I did an informal Twitter poll of “do you identify as monoamorous or polyamorous, and why?” The results, though I only got about two dozen responses, closely mirror the results of the [a][s] survey, which is great. The body of respondents very likely does too, in that, of n responses, n-1 of them were from furries. My follower ratio is slightly less furry-tilted than many that I know, at about 70/30 furry/non-furry, so we can informally posit that furries are also more likely to talk about these things, too.

To move on, I’d like to see what we can explore from the points we gleaned earlier.

  1. Being a furry conditions us to think that polysexuality is more normal than the mean.

Recently, I was at a friend’s place for a weekly thing. The attendance list was “eight furries”, as it usually is, plus or minus a few, but the point is, this is an event where furry social norms are in full force. Everyone greeted everyone else with a hug, there were 16 names for 8 people, all that jazz. At some point during the night, one of the attendants groped me. It wasn’t incredibly invasive, as these things go: I told him to stop, people looked uncomfortable for three or four seconds, and that was that. He apologized, it didn’t happen again, and all was good.

The interesting part of that event wasn’t the event itself, but the discussions of the occurrence that happened after.

The host: “This is why I wish that I had some more non-furry friends.”

This is a sentiment that I hear with alarming frequency, and could probably get its own entire [a][s] article. In general, it’s assumed that furries are hypersexual, or at least more sexual than the average bear. This is also true of our assumptions of how the outside world sees us (ref), and statements like the one above do absolutely nothing to dispel that. “Well, if it had been a group of you and seven other random non-furry people, they wouldn’t have assumed that you were okay being touched.” The idea being put forth here is that, as a group of furries, physical contact is expected, and therefore, we’ve normalized it to the point that a random grope is as mundane as a handshake is to someone outside fandom.

This is an unfortunate supposition. After all, a person who expects his personal bubble to be maintained would be offended regardless of whether or not the person doing the bubble-bursting happens to be a furry or not. Attempting to legitimize it as “a furry thing” does active harm to the outside perception of the fandom as oversexualized. It also does no real good for the furs inside who would prefer a more typical set of rules of engagement.

Submitted as Exhibit B: A friend who wasn’t there said to me after the fact: “Yeah, people do that to me all the time, because they assume that it’s okay if I’m in a furry space.”

  1. Being a non-furry operating in a mostly-furry space can skew one’s perception of norms

It’s easy to see how this would be the case, but let’s explore this a bit further. First, the social component: non-furries and furries alike accept the “multiple name” social construct to varying degrees. Personally, I attempt to find out a person’s real name relatively early to avoid conversational awkwardness, as I would prefer to never have another conversation with my mother in which I have to explain why I don’t know the name of the person who’s crashed on our couch for three days. For a non-furry, this is even worse, as “We spent the day with my boyfriend and his friend, uh…Sheppenwolf…” is a risible statement in a great many contexts.

If we advance the clock a bit, it’s easy enough to see how one can become immersed in this culture and normalize it. I, and by extension much of my social circle, have two friends that have legally changed their birth name to their furry name. Both have furry names that aren’t readily identifiable as such, so it works, but in the event that they were named “Tikkamasalacat” or somesuch, a lot of people would shift readily. After all, we’re used to using fan names as a primary mark. Mainstream society, not so much.

This translates very easily into the sexual side of the fandom, which I will discuss…now.

  1. Being a monogamous furry can lead to conflict with the fandom’s polynormativity.

This is something of a logical extension of the previous two, but it’s worth touching on separately. At least one close friend of mine is strictly monogamous, and has expressed some discomfort at some of the standard furry social norms outlined above. This is a slightly extreme example, of course, but many people assume that it’s okay to hug everyone they see at any sort of gathering, without actually asking. This probably shouldn’t be the case, but many furries say that this is one of the things that they like about the fandom. Even so, one person’s idea of openness is another person’s idea of a popped personal bubble.

This bubble-maintenance can actually lead to some very interesting emotional backlash. Perhaps a monogamous furry feels as though he’s cramping the style of the stereotypical furry by shying away from physical contact, or that maintaining monogamy is somehow counter to what the fandom wants or expects. I certainly went through a bit of this myself: early in my exploration of polyamory, I felt very weird for wanting to expand past my relationship, and that quickly evolved into “but most of the people I know have multiple partners, so maybe I’m just doing this wrong.” For what it’s worth, while most of the people I know do in fact have multiple partners, or have at least experimented with such, this is just selection bias, even within the fandom.

There’s an interesting thing to explore hiding in there, too: how 25% became widely perceived to be a majority. Clearly, it isn’t, but much like “every man in the fandom is gay”, the assumption is often made that if you aren’t naturally promiscuous, this fandom is not the place for you. There are a few possible explanations for this, at least some of which are erroneous assumptions in their own right: compare, for example, the perception that all of the art on FurAffinity is porn. It’s actually somewhere around 23% (ref), and that’s “mature” and “adult” art combined, but the fact that this is the art that gets the lion’s share of the views and favorites means that the perception remains that furries are a lascivious bunch. Even if “only” 25% of the furries are in open relationships, they’re sometimes more vocal and certainly more visible, and that makes one more likely to think in terms of absolutes.

To conclude: the fandom’s polynormative nature makes sense as an extension of its openness in other ways. We have a drastically higher percentage of people who see a hug, rather than a handshake, as the standard greeting. I would also argue that the significantly higher favorite count on adult art means that people are often not viewing it in shame. So it’s pretty easy to extrapolate that to the conclusion that people who are open in general, as well as open about what they like, will be more likely to go seek that out.

The last thing to remember is that, while we are statistically more open than others, that doesn’t mean that consent isn’t still of paramount importance. Play safe, and communicate, just like you would expect to do within your relationship, and everyone can get along just fine.

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25 thoughts on “On Polynormativity

  1. Some interesting observations here, though I can’t say they match my own perceptions after attending quite a few furry conventions and other social events.

    Yes, simply physical contacts such as hugging, shoulder rubbing, or hand/paw pats are frequent and common, and mostly no one thinks anything of it. I am monogamous, in a 30 year relationship, with only slight inclinations toward polyamory (but not polysexuality) yet I appreciate this physical openness to touch.

    It’s true that furry as a whole has this “reputation” that, as far as I can tell, is mostly phony. It concerns me that some people who otherwise don’t get the climate and culture are misled into involving themselves precisely because they seek out some kind of orgiastic mate-swapping frenzy that isn’t there. The end results can be embarrassing for all concerned.

  2. A very interesting post. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

    I am a bit puzzled by the survey results. A comparison of the first and second graphs seems to suggest that almost every that is single is also polysexual, or, that every furry that is monosexual has a partner already.

    I find that very hard to believe. I wonder if you could comment that.

    1. While I’m not the author, I can’t resist pointing out the fact that n=57 means the number of respondents to the questions is infinitesimally small and therefore may not be a good sample. It’s difficult to draw the conclusion you have made from such a tiny number of observations.

      1. Yes, I understand that but n was the same for each question so it is not as if some answered the first but not later questions, and yes 57 is a relatively small sample size, but I find strange to say we can draw conclusions such as 2x as many furries self-report as polysexual compared to polyamory, yet we cannot say anything about all the single furs appearing to be polysexual?

        If n is too small to make reliable statements about the latter then it would seem to me that it is too small to make reliable statements about the former.

    2. Thanks for the positive feedback.

      I see it this way: the relationship status question requires one to report an actual situation, whereas the sexuality question just requires a preference. It is actually possible to be single and still polyamorous, as well as, oddly enough, a polysexual virgin. Therefore, the two can’t necessarily be compared directly.

      Perhaps one thing that was not reflected well enough was that these are meant to be ideologies, but this is part of the reason for the distinction between “poly* active” and “poly* inactive.”

      1. Another possibility I was thinking of depends on the actual wording of the questions. One could be polysexual but be in a monogamous relationship currently because your partner is monogamous and expects it of you as well.

  3. I’m on the introverted side for a furry — which is to say I’m introverted in both “mundane” and furry contexts, instead of introverted in “mundane” contexts and extroverted in furry contexts, like most furries seem to be. One consequence of this is I don’t really like physical contact from strangers; I have a strong sense of personal space, and really only like to be touched by people I’m on close terms with. I’m happy to report that I’ve received very few uninvited hugs at furry cons, and I’ve been to a lot of them. While there are always people who get overly familiar in uninhibited settings, I haven’t found it to be a large portion of the fandom.

    On the other hand, I have a friend who has some physical paranoia issues (doesn’t really like to be touched, even by friends) and he does sometimes have trouble articulating this to furries, since friendship = hugs is a pretty accepted thing. He sometimes feels like people take it personally that he doesn’t want close contact.

    There are definitely furries with boundary issues, but I think that has more to do with the fact that a lot of us are poorly socialized than it does with the furry fandom itself. Most of us grew up as ostracized misfits, I think, and as a result didn’t always learn all the rules of social interaction one normally picks up from social interactions as a kid.

    1. Have you found that people who want to hug you hold out there arms and pause before doing so? (Which is what I would expect at the very least, if they don’t verbally ask)

  4. I should point out that polysexuality denotes attraction to multiple genders and is therefore a sexual orientation, distinct from polyamory.

    1. Equivamp, so would heterosexual and homosexual be unisexual orientations, then bisexual, then polysexual for more than two but not every, and then pansexual for every?

      1. It is my understanding of it that that is the case; however, someone else would probably be better to ask, as I do not fall under any of those orientations.

  5. For my own experience I haven’t experienced things as you describe. What I have received from my fellow furs is acceptance and support being poly, but… it’s still not ‘the norm’. And I’ve spent just as much time unravelling misconceptions about poly and non-monogamy in general with them as I would with any other set of friends where the topic came up. Having a group of wonderful furs amongst my friends is not a recipe for ordinariness for my being poly, frankly neither is my association with the sci-fi convention crowd or the queer community. If anything I might extrapolate that others whom may have experienced difficulty fitting into mainstream society may be sympathetic and understanding for my own position, but I’m not given to assumption around this as I’ve frequently been disappointed.

    I think some of what you’re talking about belongs in a conversation about boundaries and the tendency for such things to be ‘push until stopped’ as opposed to ‘ask/signal, don’t act till invited’ behaviour.

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