‘It’s Not a Fetish’: An Interview with One of the World’s Leading Furry Researchers
They call it Furscience.
Furries are misunderstood. Though the fandom has been around for years and has flourished on the internet, most of the misinformation society has gotten about furries has been from media. There was that CSI episode. And then the Vanity Fair article. The 1,000 Ways to Die segment. But, according to Dr. Sharon Roberts, who is part of a team of researchers working on the International Anthropomorphic Research Project, also known as Furscience, those portrayals are largely incorrect.
"The ubiquity of those representations of the furry fandom has been the only source of information that we've had [as a society]," Roberts told VICE.
Furscience is working to correct those misconceptions and show who furries really are through science. The four founding members are Dr. Roberts, associate professor, Renison University College at the University of Waterloo; Dr. Courtney "Nuka" Plante, who is doing a post-doc at University of Iowa and identifies as a furry; Dr. Stephen Reysen, associate professor at Texas A&M University-Commerce; and pioneering researcher Dr. Kathy Gerbasi, Niagara County Community College. To date, the team "leads the world in peer-reviewed scholarship on furries and the fandom."
Furscience recently released some videos that they hope will break stigma and intrigue the public to learn more about the realities of the furry fandom, so we reached out to Roberts to interview her about the massive global furry research project she has been part of.
VICE: When was the first time you heard about furries?
Dr. Sharon Roberts: The first time I heard about furries was actually from the CSI episode, so it was actually a long time before I became a researcher on the project. I thought it was really interesting. I'm an identity resolution scholar... I'm an open-minded person, so I didn't think that much about it. I just thought I'd like to know more about it.
Can you brief me on what exactly the International Anthropomorphic Research Project is? [author's note: I stumbled over "anthropomorphic" terribly]
[laughs] Yeah, the International Anthropomorphic Research Project (IARP)—it is a mouthful, which is why we've gone with Furscience at this point... I was the last person to join the team in 2011, and we produced more papers and chapters than any other research group on the planet when it comes to furries. We wrote a book that we weren't interested in making money on, but we just wanted the facts out to the public; we made it available for free on Furscience. Our goal is to get people to understand the science because when you understand the science, you recognize that everything you think you know about furries based on media portrayals is wrong.
Where do you go to conduct your research?
One of the places is conventions. We have a team that regularly is present at the Texas Furry Fiesta; Kathy has been going to Anthrocon for ten years now, which is the biggest furry convention in the world. I've been going to CanFURence—that's a new one in Ottawa. There's also Furnal Equinox in Toronto, that's the biggest one in Canada, so we've been regular attendees there.
At conventions, we give a research panel for the participants. Often, the questions that we ask on research projects are directed by furries—there's things furries want to know about other furries. Those panels are always exhausting and worth it in a lot of ways because people learn about themselves in your panel, which is fascinating. People have come up to me regularly after and said, "I didn't realize there was a name for what I have felt my whole life." I think it validates who they are to know there is a science behind it that understands it, defines it, explores it.
When I came on the team, I'm a quantitative researcher myself... I found the need to infuse qualitative work into what we were doing. Qualitative work brings the dimension of "Why?" to any research question you're asking. So we can ask "What?" or "How many?" with quantitative, but understanding the meat of somebody's life is best done through qualitative analysis. So, we started doing focus groups and interviews. One of the research things we are doing next is called the Furscience Universal Recruitment Project. It's a database, people are doing an intake survey, and none of that data gets used for anything other than identifying people who might be interested in very specific studies. So we're looking at international growth in terms of our partnerships with other universities and other researchers.
How many people have you surveyed for the project as a whole?
Probably over 20,000 in terms of everything we've done—surveys, interviews, focus groups, etc. The data has come from over 70 countries, six continents (nothing from Antarctica).
There is a huge stigma that furries are associated with sex. Can you tell me what you've found in your research in regards to that?
Furry is not a fetish. That's hands down the most important thing to know... You have a group of people who are largely male and young. I think you're going to find that any large group that is male and young, they're going to include sex as part of their life, their activity. We sell sports cars by putting scantily clad women on them... Everybody uses sex in a way to sell products. You can of course find sexuality in the furry fandom, but it's not different from the cover of Cosmopolitan, it just has ears and a tail on it. We've done studies of porn in the furry fandom... It turns out furries think other furries like porn more than they actually do.
We had a control group look at drawings—furry porn is always an artistic representation, not a photograph ever, always just a cartoon or computer generation. We asked people who were not furries to grade the erotic nature of these, and it turns out that they viewed them as less pornographic than furries did. What that means to me is that furries think other furries like it more than they actually do. It's one of those things that is present, but you can easily avoid the porn in the fandom. Look at Star Trek, how many erotic images of Spock and Kirk do you think there are? You'll always find that in any fandom. You get 7,000 people together, you're going to find someone who is doing something... It's no different a physicians' or marketing convention.
Read More: Partying With Edmonton's Furries
It's kind of like Rule 34 then. Another stereotype is that when people who have heard of furries think about them, likely they picture fursuits. But can you explain to me the range of how furries express themselves in their appearances?
The fursuits get the most attention, and in terms of a researcher who is trying to keep somebody's identity protected, the fursuit becomes a good way of doing that too... Only about 15 percent of furries own fursuits—they're prohibitively expensive for most people. An inexpensive or cheap fursuit would run you about $3,000. If you're looking at furries being a younger fandom—in their early 20s, from our studies—I don't know about you, but when I was 23 I didn't have $3,000 to spend on a fursuit. A lot of people will make their own fursuits because they are really gifted in terms of constructing heads and bodies, sewing.
About 50 percent of participants in the fandom will wear some kind of furry paraphernalia: a set of ears, a tail. It might be a T-shirt, a bracelet, a collar. Most of the time I would say people are not wearing these things in their everyday lives, but of course there are people who would wear that every day. You're on the [subway], you're going to see a tail sometimes. Most fursuits are worn exclusively at fursuit events. For instance, with the permission of a bowling alley, they might go bowling in a group with fursuits on. They're always going to have the permission to do that, but they'll show up in their fursuits and have a good time. They might be part of a parade or they'd go to a furry convention. Those are usual special occasions when they wear the fursuits; in terms of paraphernalia, it's up to the individual. There's a lot of furries who don't wear anything—it's just something they know about themselves.
You mentioned that this is a young fandom and that participants skew to the younger side as well, in their early 20s. Why do you think that is?
I can tell you about the history of the fandom. Science fiction is the root of the furry fandom. Back before geek had been ameliorated from its negative association, back when geek was not cool... At science fiction conventions, you would find there would be these panels from people who had this special interest in anthropomorphism. The internet of course made this explode in terms of helping people find each other.
What are your goals with the Furscience videos you've put together?
The videos are PSA tongue-in-cheek type of videos. They put furries doing ridiculous, mundane things in their fursuits, and the point is of course furries don't do that. But if you'd like to learn about furries, come to Furscience and learn the facts. They're campy, and we've done them intentionally that way.
I saw you're also putting together some resources for parents of furries. Can you tell me more about why that's important?
When I go to furry conventions, I do the information for parents panels. I will host a panel where parents who have come with their kids come, and I see a lot of parents who have only seen the negative stuff on the internet, and they're terrified because that's all they know. They only know CSI and Vanity Fair, and that's problematic. When I sit down with them, I say, "Listen, I'm child-free, but if I had a kid and the worst thing they told me was that they were a furry, I would consider myself homefree. This is great, this is fantastic. We don't have any issues." The furry fandom is about friendship and artwork at its very core.
If I had to sum it up into one word, it would be "friendship." It's a place for social support, moral support, emotional support. It's a place where shy and introverted people can engage with others who are like them in a safe environment that lets them have the benefits translate into their everyday lives. Shy and introverted people engage in conversations, and it's almost like they're able to practice those kinds of interactions in a safe way that make them stronger in their everyday lives. Of course there are people who are not shy as well. Parents' resources have come as part of a larger request that came from the fandom to give people the facts on what a furry is because they were tired of people not understanding that this was a good thing for them.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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