Furry Research: A Response from the IARP

Guest post by Courtney “Nuka” Plante, PhD social psychology student at the University of Waterloo, furry, and co-founder of the International Anthropomorphic Research Project. This article is a response to JM’s recent article, “Furry Research: A Look Back at Dr Gerbasi’s Landmark 2007 Study“.

Hi there! I read through (and quite enjoyed the insight in) your recent article and felt compelled to provide my take on things, (keeping in mind that Dr. Gerabsi’s article pre-dates my involvement with the furry research). Given that I’m in the lucky position of being at the forefront of our team’s research, I may be able to provide another perspective on this issue.

I’ll structure my comments in a point-by-point fashion.

“The most obvious problem is the use of the word ‘disorder’. This implies that there is some sort of problem. Gerbasi seems to be pathologizing furry, or at least a large subset of furry.”

 

I both agree and disagree with your statement. I do agree that the use of the term ‘disorder’ is (and has always been) problematic in this regard. I disagree, however, that the term has pathologized furries, for reasons I’ll get into in a moment. But to start, I’ll agree that ‘disorder’ is problematic in its use here.

The stance of the IARP is that furries are neither inherently pathological nor is furry, in and of itself, a disorder. Just like a hobby, a religious belief, or an aesthetic preference, there is nothing “wrong” with furry. Where furry, like anything else, becomes problematic is if, and only if, it begins to cause clinically significant distress for the people who engage in it.

From Dr. Gerbasi’s perspective, she did the right thing for a scientist: she simply asked furries to indicate whether, as a result of the belief that they were not entirely human (for the ones who believe this), there was a persistent feeling of distress or discomfort with one’s physical body. Such items were drawn from a Gender Identity Disorder (GID) scale because this research had been asking an analogous question, albeit in a different domain, on the subject of felt conflict between one’s mental representation of self and their physical body. Asking the question “could there be something analogous to GID for furries?” is not the same thing as claiming that Species Identity Disorder (SID) exists, that it’s something that needs to be “cured”, or that all furries have it—it is a necessary part of testing the hypothesis that some furries may experience discomfort or distress analogous to what those with GID feel—even if only at subclinical levels.

The data reveal that, for at least some furries, they do report significant levels of distress regarding the apparent disparity between how they see themselves in their mind and their physical bodies. Dr. Gerbasi did not claim that furry itself therefore pathological, nor did she go on to claim that furries who do experience this distress are therefore diagnosable. Instead, the intention was always to merely raise awareness that within this fandom there may be some who experience this distress to a significant degree, and were this the case it would be worth taking this person’s distress seriously (for the most part, any clinician hearing about furries might otherwise dismiss it as so much nonsense). The majority of furries do not experience a discrepancy between their “felt species” and their “actual species”, and the majority of those who do feel this discrepancy do not experience distress at anything resembling a clinical level. The point was only to illuminate the possibility that there may be some (and, in fact, there have been cases) who do experience significant enough distress because of this discrepancy to seek clinical assistance.

To summarize the point, Dr. Gerbasi was not intending to claim that all—or even some—furries “had” any condition; it was merely to entertain the notion that, given the content of the fandom, there may exist some who experience a discrepancy between mental representation of self and physical self that is comparable to that seen in GID, and that for some this discrepancy may cause clinically significant distress.

“…the 2011 Furrypoll, which was completed online by over 4000 furries, showed that about 11% of furries consider themselves either non-human or part-human. This is a long way from Gerbasi’s 46%.”

 

More recent numbers across five different samples over two years (with numbers as large as 4,500+ furries in some of the samples) suggests that between 25-45% of furries consider themselves to be “less than 100% human”. These numbers are not incompatible with those of Furrypoll, as the questions asked were different: Furrypoll asked whether people considered themselves “non-human” or “part-human”, while we asked if a person felt “less than 100% human”. A person who felt “95% human” may answer “no” Furrypoll’s question while still answering “yes” to our question. Neither question is “more right”, they’re simply placing the threshold for “human/non-human” in different places. Our measure is more sensitive to any feelings of being non-human, whereas the Furrypoll question seems more sensitive to the distinction between feeling non-human to a significant enough extent that it changes the label you apply to yourself. Put another way, Furrypoll’s numbers may be a better measure of “being a Therian”, whereas the IARP’s question is a better measure of the presence or absence of any feeling of being non-human.

“Dr Fiona Probyn-Rapsey, who disagrees with Gerbasi: ‘There are a myriad of reasons why furry participants at a furry conference might identify as “less than 100% human,” not the least having a hangover from furry drinks the night before.‘”

 

I feel that the argument I made above better accounts for the discrepancies between Furrypoll’s numbers and our numbers than the argument that a convention environment is somehow meaningfully different. We have done a number of studies where the same survey was administered both at a convention and online, and have found only minor differences (primarily having to do with age of sample or available financial resources), and almost no differences with regard to how “furry” a person was or their inherent “human-ness”. Frankly, I felt Dr. Probyn-Rapsey’s statement about “furry drinks” was insulting and trivializing to those who genuinely feel not entirely human. This insult was further compounded by the fact that Dr. Probyn-Rapsey’s research was based on relatively little contact with furries (in comparison to Dr. Gerbasi’s continued treks to Anthrocon and non-stop dialogue with hundreds of furries in any given year), and Dr. Probyn-Rapsey seemed more focused on attacking GID than on actual concern for furries.

“Dr Probyn-Rapsey challenges Gerbasi’s tentative diagnosis of ‘Species Identity Disorder’ directly: ‘What might be the “treatment” for such a condition?‘”

 

It should be pointed out that Dr. Gerbasi never claimed that “furry” was something to be “treated”—this is a straw man built up by Dr. Probyn-Rapsey. Dr. Gerbasi only claims that for those furries for whom the feeling of being discomfort with one’s physical body is causing significant distress, it might be worth considering it somewhat analogous to the way one would address a person who felt discomfort with the gender of their physical body. There is no attempt to “normalize” non-furry or to “pathologize” furries, only to state the very obvious: if a person’s particularly troubled by not feeling human and being trapped in a human body, it’s worth taking seriously.

What makes Dr. Probyn-Rapsey’s point so ironic is the fact that the IARP has recently had an article accepted for publication in a clinical psychological journal where we appeal to psychologists to avoid pathologizing the “furry” in furry clients, who are often seeking a clinician for completely unrelated reasons (e.g. depression, anxiety issues, etc…). Our team’s stance is that “furry” is not pathological, not unless an individual furry feels that being furry is causing them distress.

“Probyn-Raspey’s biggest problem is Gerbasi’s link between ‘Species Identity Disorder’ and Gender Identity Disorder.”

 

There really is no link intended between GID and “SID” beyond the fact that it served as a convenient analogue for comparison and a source of some existing questions to ask. Dr. Gerbasi had no intent of validating or discrediting the diagnosis of GID, or of debating the merits or worthwhile of it as a diagnosis. Instead, she was merely observing that it was a condition that clinical psychologists recognize, and that a comparison might be made between folks experiencing distress over their felt gender and the gender of their body and a furry who was experiencing distress over their felt species and the species of their body.

To avoid beating a dead horse here, I’ll point out that a full rebuttal was published to Dr. Probyn-Rapsey’s article called “Why so FURious?” (ref); those wishing to obtain a copy can contact our team (furry.research@uwaterloo.ca).

“It feels to me that Gerbasi has chosen to introduce ‘Species Identity Disorder’ because she was hoping to be the first to identify a new psychological phenomenon.”

 

Actually, I think the answer is simpler and less self-aggrandizing than that. When publishing within a field, it is necessary to tie your research to what exists within the field. If you fail to do so, you run the risk of nobody in the field caring about what you’ve said, even if it’s of potential relevance to them, because they don’t see the connection.

For example: Dr. Gerbasi initially conducted the Anthrocon study in response to a clinical psychologist who approached her with a furry client who was experiencing distress over being furry (if I recall correctly, the person did not want to be furry anymore, but could not escape “furry” feelings). If Dr. Gerbasi had gone ahead and simply published an article dispelling stereotypes about furries, no one in the field would have cared: they would have said “what the hell’s a furry and why should I care?” However, by mentioning GID, anyone with an interest in self-body discrepancies, or body image issues, or clinical psychologists more generally, now has a reason to read the article, because its potential relevance to them is made apparent.

It’s not necessarily for the sake of being “the first” (those who’ve met her in person know that she’s not attention-seeking or self-aggrandizing), but instead was likely a device to ensure that the people who might have found it the most relevant would be drawn to it, and to more firmly establish it within an existing body of psychological research (rather than some orphaned article on a topic no one really knows).

“Her article was the first, and to date only, publication of the International Anthropomorphic Research Project, which Gerbasi heads.”

 

Actually, to date the IARP has three confirmed publications in peer-reviewed academic journals (four if you count the rebuttal to Dr. Probyn-Rapsey), one currently in a “revise-and-resubmit” status, two currently under review, and two currently in the process of being written up. This is in addition to presentations and posters given at eight different academic conferences. The topics of the other published / reviewed articles focus on the use of furry community as a coping resource for members of a stigmatized recreational group, a qualitative study of furries presented to the clinical psychological community urging them to avoid trying to “cure the furry” in furry clients, and articles investigating fan group involvement and global activism and socio-structural characteristics within stigmatized minority groups. So we’ve been keeping quite busy!

“The IARP is a grand title for three researchers operating from a small community college. And calling it ‘International’ is bit bullish seeing as it’s based on the fact that they have scientists from the United States and Canada”

 

The choice of the term “International” was meant to reflect the more than 70 countries from which respondents have come (including all six continents—ignoring poor Antarctica), not to reflect the “international” nature of the researchers themselves, who all reside in North America. Additionally, we are currently in the process of establishing a translated version of our surveys for use in Japan for the purpose of a cross-cultural comparison of “Furry” culture and “Kemono” culture.

I’ll also mention that, to date, the IARP consists of four “regular” members (myself, at the University of Waterloo, Dr. Stephen Reysen at Texas A&M University – Commerce, Dr. Sharon Roberts at Renison University College and Dr. Gerbasi at Niagara County Community College), and has worked with / is continuing to work with more than a half-dozen other collaborators from fields as diverse as social psychology, anthropology, sociology, clinical psychology and English.

“Plante joined their group in 2011 and is presumably on the way to earning the first ever PhD in furry studies.”

 

*laughs* Actually, my PhD is in social psychology, as I’m an experimental psychologist (who, when not doing research on furries, also studies video game violence and fantasy engagement). I don’t suspect a degree in “furry studies” would get me very far! It’s also important to recognize that while I may be a furry, and while I’m passionate about researching furries, I am a social psychologist first. This is important to understanding the questions that drive my interest in the fandom and my own particular bias.

“Most recently they have kicked off a longitudinal study, where they will be following furries over a significant period of time. I expect their study will dig up some interesting data, showing how we mature as members of the furry community.”

 

Indeed! More specifically, we are hoping to track what happens to furries as they get into the fandom, spend time in the fandom, and (for some) choose to leave the fandom. Changes in attitudes, beliefs, and identity are just some of the many topics we’re hoping to watch unfold over time!

“The IARP dataset from 2007 is no longer considered to be particularly large or useful. Of all the available datasets, today’s researchers are most likely to use Klisoura’s Furrypoll”

 

Indeed, the original 2007 study is quite small by comparison, though we conduct studies two or three times a year which regularly have more than a thousand furry respondents! I’ll point out here that Furrypoll is a fantastic resource, and represents a wonderful complement our own research, given its larger sample size (owing likely to its running year-round as opposed to our surveys which are only open for a few weeks at a time) and its ability to ask questions of under-18 furries (which, unfortunately, we are prohibited from doing due to the nature of ethics boards). Comparing our research with Furrypoll is like comparing the work of biologists and organic chemists: both are valid approaches that solve different questions and, when combined, provide an even richer understanding of the areas where they overlap!

*phew* That was a long response! Thanks very much for the thoughtful criticism and for taking the time to comment on and link to our research! I’ll also encourage you to check out our latest results (Furry Fiesta 2013), which include some brand new issues in the furry fandom (e.g. pornography, employment and living arrangements, relationships, fantasy engagement, etc…). If you’re interested in participating in one of our future surveys (or in signing up for our longitudinal study), feel free to check out our website: https://sites.google.com/site/anthropomorphicresearch/

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5 thoughts on “Furry Research: A Response from the IARP

  1. Hi Nuka. I know I said this in the original thread but it’s worth repeating here: thanks for contributing such a fascinating response.

    A few things about Dr Probyn-Rapsey’s article seemed odd to me. Firstly, it was published some 4 years after the original IARP article. That seems like a long time: did it come completely out of the blue for you guys, or did she contact you to ask questions directly?

    She seems to have a bee in her bonnet about GID, which is fair enough, although—as you point out—she missed the point, overemphasizing Dr Gerbasi’s reference to GID and perhaps misunderstanding why it was mentioned in the first place.

    Still, I wonder if you have a reason to say that Probyn-Rapsey’s “research was based on relatively little contact with furries”? Her article read, to me, like one written by a furry insider. I can’t help but wonder whether this is what piqued Probyn-Rapsey’s personal interest in Dr Gerbasi’s article in the first place.

    1. Heya JM – No problem!

      Responding point-by-point:

      – To my understanding, Dr. Gerasi was never contacted by Dr. Probyn-Rapsey about the article. Instead, we learned about the paper from the journal editor, who offered us a chance to respond to the critique (of course, I may be incorrect about this, but I don’t recall Dr. Gerbasi ever mentioning that we were contacted!) The fact that it came 4 years after the original article (we weren’t the IARP back then, it was just Dr. Gerbasi!) isn’t that suspicious; there aren’t a lot of folks doing this stuff, so the research takes time to trickle in.

      – The GID thing: Yup. The article, to me, reads a LOT more like an “I hate GID because it pathologizes transgender individuals” (a debatable point on which you could certainly write an article) and a lot less like a “your research is problematic” article. A mountain was ultimately made out of a molehill (the GID/SID thing was a relatively minor point in the overall article), and I feel like an attack on the research itself would be better directed toward limiting aspects of the methodology (e.g. lack of longitudinal design, no experimental data, the sole use of convention-going furries, the nature of the questions used in the SID construct, etc…).

      – I guess I’m not convinced she’s a “furry insider”; I’m pretty confident she’s not a furry herself, and she’s attacking what was, at the time, the only scientific article that was actually aiming at dispelling stereotypes about the fandom. Perhaps she had a friend or knew a student who was, themselves, a furry. The article feels, in some ways, like it’s accusing Dr. Gerbasi of being a bully and pathologizing the poor furries (even though, if anything, the article and Dr. Gerbasi’s research and contact with the media has served to dispel stereotypes about furries and has been widely supported by furries!) I guess that’s why it feels so… “false” to me (for lack of better way to put it): it feels like she’s coming to the aid of furries who weren’t asking for her help. It feels especially so given that, in the four years since the article has come out, our research has further dispelled even more stereotypes, expanded to include furries the world over, and even includes a furry as one of its co-founders! Moreover, a quick look at her research area (http://sydney.edu.au/arts/gender_cultural_studies/staff/profiles/fprobynrapsey.shtml) suggests that psychology really isn’t her field: “feminism, critical whiteness… Australian literature and film”… She’s from a Department of Gender and Culture Studies (and, as such, is about as entitled to speak critically on experimental psychology as I, as a social psychologist, am to speak critically about English literature. Her field seems to be one that tackles broad social injustices (which is worthwhile and admirable, don’t get me wrong), but I feel that her attempts to protect furries just don’t ring true (after all, nothing in her research background gives her any claim to special knowledge about furry culture, the psychology of furries, what it “means to be furry”, or the issues that are important to furries). Dr. Gerbasi, on the other hand, has had furry RAs, a furry collaborator, the support of much of the furry fandom, and has made the trek to Anthrocon every year for the last 7 or 8 years, paying to do so out of her own pocket.

      In the end, I suppose I’m calling into question Dr. Probyn-Rapsey’s “furry credentials”. As a furry myself, having a non-furry tell me what I ought to be offended by (and being offended on my behalf) seems a bit like straight person telling a gay person that they understand what’s important to the gay community and are willing to take on these issues on the gay community’s behalf…

  2. Greetings, I have been reading your website and thought I’d take a minute to comment (from the horse’s mouth so to speak).
    The first furry study was actually conducted in 2006, not 2007. It was published in 2008. The first time I was able to attend Anthrocon was 2007, due to an unavoidable family commitment conflicting with the date of Anthrocon 2006 (my middle kid’s PhD ceremony at Stanford the same weekend.)
    I became aware of the furry fandom a few years before our first Anthrocon study, due to my role as a moderator on an Anthrozoology discussion group sponsored by a group previously known as Psychologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (currently known as Animals and Society). I discovered there was no research on furries and that there were clearly amazing media claims (Vanity Fair ‘nuf said there). To be honest I think that is the only Vanity Fair article I ever read. Anyway I was not approached by a clinical psychologist, I did however have a student who was a furry in 2005 (and several since then) and my student really wanted to attend Anthrocon and I was intrigued to learn more from a scientific perspective about furries, so we obtained permission from Uncle Kage to attend AC in 2006 and conduct a study. I still recall he warned me that we could attend but no one would participate… we took that as an empirical question.
    One of my early collaborators was a friend at Niagara County Community College, Laura Scaletta, who knows way more about clinical psychology than I ever will and she and I wondered , IF… what the Vanity Fair article said was true, what psychological conditions might that represent.

    Please read carefully here, I said IF…

    She thought it would represent a personality disorder and I thought it might be a parallel to Gender Identity Disorder. We tried to explore both possibilities in our first and second student and repeatedly did not find evidence for the personality disorder hypothesis, but did find that there are some furries who do have discomfort with their human body along with other indicators which parallel GID. At the time we were first working on this I could find no indication in the peer reviewed literature that acknowledged such feelings existed. And if a person read our original research article they would see how very cautiously we made that suggestion about a possible species identity disorder. To be honest I suspected that if I did not make the connection of the POSSIBLE species identity disorder, which was a logical conclusion given the GID model we were working with, someone else probably would. By the way, I would now say species dysmorphia . Nuka is also correct that research needs to be connected to existing research literature in order to make sense or be taken seriously.
    I subsequently have seen some mention in other publications about this, I think in a book called Witch in the Waiting Room by an MD Robert Bobrow. His is not a research work however.

    It is true that after I started the research I was contacted by an anonymous high school student who was a furry and who did not want to be one and did not know how to tell his parents or get help. Thanks to my husband who is a pediatrician, spouse thought of a way for that person to get help without having to reveal things to the parent that the student wanted to keep private. That experience certainly highlighted the importance of getting information about the fandom to the clinical world. Clearly in the case of that student who wanted help, there was discomfort in that identity; however it is important to note that for many furries the furry identity is an important and positive aspect of their identity. Thus our recent article directed at clinicians that they need to understand the phenomenon and not decide that the furry identity is the problem or issue in a client who comes for help.
    Regarding Probyn Rapsey… she never contacted us, our only heads up about her critique was the notice from the journal editor in which we were given her article and the opportunity for a brief rebuttal. She was allotted many more words than we were. AND when we sent the editor the first version our response, I was told we had to “tone it down”… when I asked what that meant…point out fewer of her flaws or point them out more nicely I was told BOTH! Thus our rebuttal does not represent what we really wanted to say. She is not a social scientist, I think her background is literature. As I would not presume to write an article on Shakespeare or Melville etc , it astounded us that she was allowed to go on and on about our research. In fact she actually had the title of our article wrong but the editor allowed that to be fixed. (one less error for us to point out).
    I would like to point out that none of this work would have been possible without the support of many members of the furry community, most notably Dr. Sam Conway (Uncle Kage) and other members of the Anthrocon staff and now others at Furry Fiesta and Oklacon and for that we are very thankful.
    I’d also like to briefly comment on how things take time. In 2007 I met with two members of the Anthrocon staff who suggested practical research methods and also ideas for subsequent research. In2013 we finally were able to begin to follow up on some of those suggestions. As Nuka wrote in his article about research, there is no perfect study. I don’t think there ever will be. You do the best you can and you keep plugging away and building on previous work (your own and others.)
    By the way I am always happy to engage in discussion. Thanks
    Kathy

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