Excuse me, I only talk to REAL dogs

“Welcome to the Internet. Where the men are men, the women are men, and —”

Wait, what?

Hang out in the chatrooms that dot the furry landscape, and you’ll find this sentiment expressed not infrequently. Boiled down, it encapsulates the belief that you can’t trust what you see, which is simple enough — but I’ll suggest that this line of thinking is both inaccurate and also slightly troublesome.

If you’re not a roleplayer, this line of discussion is all somewhat irrelevant to you. But according to the 2012 Furry Survey, more than half of furries do engage in roleplaying to some degree, and at some time. This probably isn’t surprising; roleplaying offers a safe space to explore our identities, and it probably goes without saying that furries would gravitate towards this exploration.

It seems to be self-evident that people are willing to accept interacting with people who present themselves as a different species than they really are, and in my experience it’s generally accepted that one’s online sexual orientation can legitimately differ from one’s real-world orientation. So why is gender so problematic?

Well, first of all, what do I mean by “problematic”?

Quantitatively, we notice a strong aversion to changing one’s sex online: 82% of people say that they do not do so, with a strong majority (58.5%) saying they would not do so. Even amongst active roleplayers, 74% hew strictly to the biological sex they were born with — that is, the remaining 18% (26% amongst roleplayers) also encapsulates the (admittedly small) number of transgendered persons who are electing to accurately represent their gender.

Qualitatively, we see statements like, “I’m not a fan of people who are [girls online but] guys in real life” — the backronymic pejorative “GIRL” (Guy In Real Life) applies here — and it is here that we start to see one of the interesting dimensions of the issue, which is that it is expressly gendered and generally heteronormative: far fewer people seem as troubled by the idea that the male winged magic-using bipedal talking sapient fox-wolf mix they’re talking to is actually being operated by a female puppeteer.

We understand, at least to some degree, that furry chatrooms are not accurate representations of reality, as my last description indicates. In my sojourns through the fandom I’ve seen people who claimed to be Russian when they were really American, people who claimed to be lawyers, people who claimed to be thin, people who claimed to have master’s degrees in esoteric subjects…

It’s pretty much par for the course.

So why’s it gender that sets people off? Why not other areas of body image? Why wouldn’t you put in your profile, “I only want to talk to people who are physically fit in real life”? Possibly because it would seem shallow, and slightly irrelevant for the purposes of light conversation, nondirected roleplay, and typefucking?

Let’s examine some possible answers.

The first is that it’s an inherent dishonesty that is fair to judge people on. That is: if I can’t trust that you’re honest about such a fundamental aspect of your personality, then what can I trust you on? Is it supposed to not matter because we’re talking as two avatars? If we’re only interacting mask-on-mask, then what does anything really matter, anyway?

This seems like a logical statement, until you unpack it a bit. After all, someone’s real-world physical attributes are only actually relevant if you enter every conversation expecting the possibility that your interaction on FurryMUCK could logically lead to a real-world romantic or sexual encounter. Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is a weird, overbearing, and even slightly offputting mindset to start from.

We are, after all, expressly entering into an abstracted, idealized world when we engage with avatars. Even chatroom sexuality is transgressive: we gain the ability to interact free of many of the restrictions and repercussions imposed by the real world. Make the phrasing honest: “I would like to pretend to be a dog, and for you to pretend to be a red panda-lynx hybrid, and I would like to put some of my pretend bipedal clothes-wearing ambient-music-appreciating dog parts inside your pretend red-panda lynx body but only if I’d be cool doing that in real life, too.

As pickup lines go, it’s a little awkward.

A more interesting objection, though it’s not often phrased explicitly, is the one that boils it down to the unseemliness of straight men pretending to be women so that they can have straight sex, or to otherwise benefit from the attention they would otherwise lack.

So, then. Fetch me the numbers, Igor!

On the Furry Survey, I ask about presenting yourself in the fandom as a gender different from your biological sex. Five options are presented:

  • No, and I would not do so
  • No, but I might do so
  • Yes, sometimes
  • Yes, often
  • My primary furry avatar fits this description

As said, 58.5% of respondents gave the first answer — that is, that they “would not” do so. When we limit the response to only straight men, that number jumps to 71.6%. A further 21.4% of straight men say they don’t, but they might consider it. Straight men are a third as likely to say they do it “often” (<1% compared to 3% in the general population), and around a quarter as likely to say their primary avatar differs from their own biological sex (1.5% compared to 5.6% in the general population).

It is here that we pause to note a couple more things about the prevalence of gender fluidity. Firstly, in a proportional sense it’s substantially more common amongst women; women are 2.5 times as likely to have a male primary avatar than men are to have a female one, and 2.7 times as likely to say they “often” represent themselves as a different gender. Only 37.2% of women say they “would not” use a male avatar; 64.3% of men say they “would not” use a female one.

Secondly, it would seem that since straight people are substantially less likely to do, then the slack is made up by those in other portions of the sexuality spectrum. It was suggested that partly this might be because changing genders allows you to explore your own notional homo- or bi-sexuality in interesting — and safe — new ways.

But this is an interesting concept, and we’re going to come back to it in a bit.

If we compare those who say they would not and those who say they always present themselves as a different gender, it’s true that there are certain evident differences. For one, as stated, people who always do so are less likely to be straight (22% vs 43%), and far more likely to be pansexual (24% vs 4%). They’re also three times as likely to be asexual, though — 11.3% vs 3.7%. In real number terms, they make up 5.6% of the fandom, but 22% of the fandom’s asexual people and more than a third of the pansexual members.

Outside of sexual orientation terms, they are also, as stated, more likely to be female. They are older, though by less than a year, and have a higher degree of education. They are 19% less likely to be single and 45% more likely to be in a long-term relationship.

Their positions on an attitudinal survey tend to be more extreme. People with gender-transgressive primary identities are 46% more likely to strongly disagree that what other people think of them is important (14.2% to 9.7%). They are 50% more likely to strongly disagree with the statement “creativity is one of my strongest attributes” (43.4% to 28.4%). They are 88% more likely to “strongly agree” that they are more talented than most of their peers (10.9% to 5.8%) — but also 55% more likely to “strongly disagree” with that statement (18% to 11.6%).

They are not appreciably likely to say that sex is more important to their furry identity (average score on 10-point scale is 4.6 vs 4.3), which circles us back to an earlier point. It may seem like I am, to a degree, harping on this, but I think it’s important to note that, from the evidence, people who change their gender online aren’t doing so for sexual reasons.

So what does it tell us if we think they are?

What first drew me to this topic was how closely the discussion recalls classic and unfortunate interactions transgendered individuals are familiar with. As I said to start with, because the question discusses presenting an avatar different from your biological sex, a small number of those people are transgendered persons — but most of them are not, and I am certainly not going to suggest that gender dysphoria is the primary motivation.

But, in furry chatrooms and roleplaying environments, you see the same classic scripts playing out. You see the same troubling, parochial belief in “traps” — people who are disingenuously trying to mislead straight men into a life of… well, certainly a life of something, anyway, and evidently something more problematic than simply pretending to be a tiger. You see the same stigma attached to gender transgressiveness, particularly in the notion that people make the choices they do because they would be relationship-unsuccessful otherwise (a statement that is demonstrably incorrect).

You even see hints of “trans panic,” with people discovering “the truth” about their conversational partners attacking them, belittling them, and engaging in other behaviors that are designed to reinforce a gender-normative worldview. I ran a roleplaying chatroom for nine years, and I cannot count the number of times, as a moderator, I had someone breathlessly “out” someone to me.

“Oh, bloody hell,” you are sighing into your scotch. You wave the waiter over to bring you your check, shaking your head and muttering: “Here they go on about transphobia again.”

Well.

Yeah.

I’m willing to call this out because, as I said, it seems to be equally parts silly and troubling. I have yet to see a clear articulation of why it should be acceptable to change your species but not your sex that doesn’t boil down to balky circumlocutions around the fundamental issue that people still see gender as immutable and transgenderism as the slightly skeevy hallmark of second-class persons.

That is to say, I don’t see a clear articulation that doesn’t either hem and haw around that issue or reveal a hell of a lot more about the speaker than you’d initially suspect. As I said, your conversational partner’s real-world gender is dubiously crucial if you enter into conversations expecting the possibility that you intend to engage with them in real-life sexual contexts, but that’s a can of worms all on its own.

As the New Yorker‘s Peter Steiner once famously quipped: “on the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” Anonymous communication involves striking a careful balance between respecting the freedom that comes from constructed identity, and being aware of the assumptions we make in our interactions with others.

It’s clearly something that we’re uncomfortable with: anonymity invites its own destruction, and the Internet takes a singular pride in denying of others the right to be anonymous, or to choose on their own terms what they present. And when gender roles come into play, we run headlong into traditional discomfort with people who don’t play by the rules. Hence the invention of new stereotypes, irrespective of whether they are actually accurate — and I have no doubt that some of you who have gotten this far are thinking: yeah, but I know people like that.

Perhaps.

But these seem to be edge cases, and the thing that strikes me about the dim eye turned on those with gender-transgressive identities is that casual chauvinism is still chauvinism, and bears reflection. The fandom has an established and positive legacy of being supportive of all types of self-exploration. How peculiar — and slightly sad — it would be if this is one of the last to enjoy the legitimacy of existing unexamined and uncriticized.

Because in all probability, insisting you will only talk to real dogs is a losing game, of dubious reward.

About Klisoura

Hi, I'm Klisoura, furry writer, essayist, and geek-of-all-trades! You may remember me from such instructional pamphlets as "Shedding: Your problem is everyone's problem" and "Coping with estrus: When in doubt, don't go out!". I consult and write for [a][s] because a little knowledge is a dangerous thing and that's right, Iceman, I am dangerous.

Before posting a comment, please read our Code of Conduct

14 thoughts on “Excuse me, I only talk to REAL dogs

  1. Amusingly, I see something else in these numbers. It has little to do with transgender or cross-dressing or even stage acting. It simply appears to be based on the usual politics of imagined male dominance in the world.

    Most (though not all by any means) straight males view anyone who is not straight and male as somehow defective or inferior. As I’m sure most of us are aware, this underlies most of the sexist issues in human cultures. Actual sexuality isn’t important here. The fact that someone who is physically male, born that way, might be willing to surrender his natural-born male dominance and act the part of a mere female, or a gay male (which amounts to something even worse,) is not only incomprehensible to these people, it is utterly repugnant. And they fear it too, because those who do this with impunity are threatening their own male-dominant notions. This sort of thing behaves just like a religious belief in the end, and having it uprooted or overridden by reality is simply too threatening and disorienting to be permitted.

    Consequently, the answers to these questions cannot be counted on as valid, accurate, or genuine. The bias toward the “No and I would not consider it” response grows out of these fears, AND the fear of discovery even if the response chosen is not a true one.

    1. In your scenario one would expect that there would be more males than females claiming to never consider it as well as more straight males than heterosexual males. Both those expectations do seem to be borne out by the data, but I am somewhat skeptical given that the survey is anonymous. Wouldn’t anonymity mitigate any such bias or fear?

      1. No, my long time observation has been that anonymity is not sufficient to remove these fears. This is especially true with younger people, and as we know, the mode of respondents’ ages humps (no pun intended) in the lower twenties.

        Also, for males in Western cultures, this is a matter of self-recognition and perception that takes more maturity before it can be admitted even to one’s self in most cases. Things are changing in US society, but not fast enough for this to make a difference yet.

  2. I think a lot of the issue people have with people representing themselves as female when they’re not, is that when a guy starts talking to a girl online when looking for a relationship, they expect that at some point during the relationship that the other party would be willing to meet with them offline. Keeping in mind how much of the male population is strait, the thought that the girl they want to meet with is actually a guy is unsettling.
    I think the point about how we represent ourselves online as animals is in some ways moot in this discussion, because anyone who actually believes that I am a dire wolf that walks on two digigrade legs, wears clothes, and speaks fluent English is probably a bit too young for this to really be an issue. We all KNOW I’m a human sitting at a computer, but, to a strait male, the gender of the person sitting at the computer typing to you as a female you are emotionally invested in is important.
    I have friends who rp as biological different genders than their own, one is trans, the other lost a bet and decided to roll with it, but he always tells people his true gender before anything happens. I have no issue with people who rp as a different biological gender than they are IRL, when they are open about it, because then I know not to get my hopes up about ever getting in a relationship with them to the point where we meet IRL.
    One thing I would like to see, how do people feel about this? Are they fine with it, when the person openly tells you they are male IRL? Is that still a terrible thing to do?
    Maybe see how sexual preference mixes into this, as well.

  3. Nice article. You bring up several interesting ideas. I do, however, think there is a bit of a flaw in one of your basic premises.

    Mainly I don’t see where the furry survey supports the contention that furries have a problem with other people having a different gender online than in reality, nor that this is seen as more problematic than having a different sexual orientation online than in reality.

    Firstly you claim that there is more of an issue with changing gender than other aspects such as sexual orientation. I don’t recall, however, any question from the furry survey asking if I ever changed my sexual orientation online and would I ever do so, nor one about what I do for a living. So the data does not provide any support, as far as I can tell, to the claim that more people have a problem with changing their sex online than their sexual orientation.

    Secondly, the fact that 82% of people say they do not change their sex online is not the same as saying 82% of people have problem with someone else changing their sex online. I do not like to eat grapes myself but that does not mean I have a problem with people who do like to eat grapes.

    I, myself, replied to the survey that I do not and would not change my gender online. If asked, however, I would have said the same about my sexual orientation, and the same about falsifying my educational credentials or job. Now as far as how I feel about other people, I actually would have more of a problem with them falsifying their job, education, and sexual orientation, than their sex.

    I don’t find the comparison with pretending to be a bipedal wolf to be equivalent to the one of pretending, for example, to be a lawyer because I don’t think anyone would actually believe I was a bipedal wolf whereas it is possible that I could be a lawyer. For me, it boils down to whether I am actively trying to deceive someone or not.

    To be clear, I am not trying to argue that there is no tranphobia, just that I do not think the data in the furry survey supports the argument, and most certainly, I do not think the 82% figure accurately describes the level of transphobia.

    Several of the other points you bring up I do find interesting, such as the correlations between sexual orientation and willingness to change gender, but again I think it is a mistake to assume that not wanting to change gender oneself means that someone has a problem with someone else adopting a different gender.

    If a similar question had been worded with regard to presenting oneself as a dragon, and the results were similar, it certainly could indicate a bias against those who say they are dragons, but there are other possibilities as well. I would argue that if one were interested in that question that they should then develop a new survey that more specifically addresses that issue.

    Finally I just want to say that I hope you don’t take the length of my post as a negative indication of how I felt about your article. The length was due solely to the fact that I wanted to make sure I was clear. I do think the point I am trying to make is relevant, but that is not to say that I did not like your post–I am just longwinded. I thought you raised several interesting ideas and possibilities that I think would be interesting to examine further.

    1. I should clarify something here! (I probably should clarify many things, but one in particular), because I don’t want to be misunderstood. My primary point in this was not that there are a lot of transphobic furries (irrespective of whether there are or not, it wasn’t my point), ONLY that statements that boil down to “ew, gender-bending” (and I would include the pejorative “GIRL”) have problematic underlying principles that reflect similar thinking as related transphobic statements.

      I don’t think that the high number of people who say that they would not change their sex online:
      a) Is indicative that a high number of people are transphobic or even
      b) Is indicative that a high number of people have a problem with people who change their sex online

      I do think it reflects an entrenched belief that it is less acceptable to do so, although I wouldn’t attach a value judgment to that, of course. In a similar vein I would say that the political breakdown of the fandom implies that it is less acceptable to be socially conservative, although I venture to say that most furries wouldn’t attach a value judgment to being so. My point was only that there is a large segment of the fandom for which gender roles appear to be relatively fixed — as they are in the general population.

      There’s not a good way to test for transgendered issues, specifically, although an interesting follow-up article would, I think, ask transgendered persons how safe they feel in the fandom. I suspect most of them would be relatively positive about the experience — although not all.

      1. *nods*

        I definitely agree that “ew gender-bending” and GIRL are transphobic. Fortunately I have not been exposed to any one using those terms.

        Sorry for misunderstanding what you were using the numbers for regarding changing sex. It seemed to me that there was something interesting in the numbers but that more would have to be done to sort out whether any sort of transphobia was involved.

  4. This is something I’ve been contemplating recently myself, so it’s interesting to see a post on it. For myself, it’s only strictly in the case of sexual roleplay — and it seems, perhaps, unfair that the post seems to make the assumption that *all* roleplay is sexual in nature — that it’s something I’d like to be clear on before anything begins, purely because I see very little boundary between my ‘sona and myself, and although the situation has rarely come up, I feel I would be uncomfortable in such a situation with someone where either the character (one guy invited me to a scene with ‘I know you’re gay, but there’s this lion girl…’) or player was not of the gender I’m attracted to. For this same reason I portray myself as the same gender I am in RL. Sexual roleplay isn’t a very major thing for me, however, so I rarely run into these kinds of issues.

    1. I have had problems with people saying RP and meaning exclusively sexual RP. I had told some people that yes I enjoyed RP and then had them start sexual RP….which was not what I had been meaning.

      1. Absolutely, I’ve had the same situation myself. When you couple that to a good number of furs (at least, in my social circles…) being interested in pen-and-paper roleplaying, it can be hard to discern exactly what they mean.

        1. It is the pen and paper that I always meant, and rather assumed when people asked about RP, but now I am more careful. Rather nice to know I am not the only one with that issue. :o)

  5. For a good while, online I was pretending to be a female. If only because of a ‘why the hell not’ sort of affair.
    And it was never an issue except with a few occasions where one would ask me my real gender and I pride myself on not lying about it.
    Unfortunately, a few would react….poorly to this revelation.

    So in the end, it’s just become easier to present my actual gender. Makes it easier talking to folks because you don’t ever get the issue of some folks feeling deceived.

    And yet, nobody comments on the fact that one might be a buff muscly 6′ wolf with a 12 inch wang, but irl they might be short and portly with an average bit ‘twixt the nethers.
    Nor as mentioned is there seemingly an issue with ‘you’re a girl playing a guy? Raagggee!!’

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *