Maybe a year ago, I was sitting in a bar in the East Village with some friends, mostly heterosexuals and queer women. At the table were several bona fide sexperts, including Stoya, the multitalented adult performer and writer. At some point, I don’t quite remember why, a man we know was being described. “He’s kind of a bear, right?” Heads turned to me for confirmation as the table’s resident gay. “He’s more of an otter,” I countered. “Or maybe a young wolf.” Stoya turned her piercing gaze at me. “Wait, what? Explain these animals to me.”
Lately it feels like the queer world has become a zoo. Bears, a longstanding gay subculture, have been joined by cubs, otters, silver foxes, pigs, pups, and wolves, with more presumably still to come. But if the first animal categories were descriptive and closely linked to body type — bears tend to be bigger and hairier than the average man, or at least than the idealized average man; otters are hairy like bears but lean; silver foxes have gray or white hair — newer categories, like pigs and pups, have less to do with physical appearance and more to do with activities and preferences.
“Puppy play” is a rapidly popularizing phenomenon involving typically doglike behavior, from obedience to sniffing to eating from a bowl. You might call yourself a pup because you like burying your nose in another man’s crotch, even though you’re not into puppy accessories, or you might get off on wearing a dog mask and tail but not really enjoy body odor. It’s a way of relating to the world, and of imagining yourself and your body in connection to that world, especially when it comes to interacting with other bodies.
If you’ve ever had a friend whose cat hated you, you know it’s a thin line between a pet and an animal. One keeps to the rules and regulations of the household, while the other’s relentless, instinctual activity doesn’t reflect or even care about the
mores of the nuclear family. Acting like an animal might allow you to enjoy a pleasure that you can’t imagine enjoying as human — like, say, fetching a ball on all fours — but that’s not a challenge to the existing social order. It just makes it more tolerably, briefly.
The Leather Man, in the West Village, offers puppy-play workshops. There is, however, no core curriculum; puppy-ness is a broad church. As a very recent
article in the Guardian put it, “Puppy play is often part of a larger sexual practice that crosses over with leather folk, furries, and BDSM. But…not always.”
For another example, take pigs. “For me,” says A., a sex worker in New York who has both professional and personal experience with pigginess and pup play, “a pig is defined by raunchiness, hedonism, and insatiability, a guy who will dive into a stinky armpit and lick it out because the taste and smell drive him nuts on the
deepest primal level. That’s a pig.” A pig can also enjoy having a group of men
ejaculate in his face, or enjoy pissing on other guys, or both, or neither. Everybody’s piggy party has a slightly different goody bag.
The animal you identify with is as much a shorthand for yourself as it is for a kind of attitude toward other bodies around you — toward what they can do, and what you can do with them. It’s a way of setting the terms of desire. Chelsea-based clothing brand Nasty Pig, for instance, slaps its porcine logo on hats, shoes, shirts, and jockstraps — “fun clothes to help you get laid,” goes their tagline.
Desire has been limited for a long time, not by what the human body is capable of doing, but by what we imagined the human body should want to do. It’s what we mean by “morality”: Just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should.
Unfortunately, the history of morality is deeply linked with the history of patriarchy, religious oppression, and capitalism, so the ideas we have about what we shouldn’t do often serve interests other than our own — what we’re told is good for our bodies, we’re often told in order to keep our bodies docile, obedient, and productive. This is why, over the course of the twentieth century, sexual “non-normativity” came to be valorized not only as a vehicle for liberating desire, but as a political strategy for liberating the self. Certainly, setting aside one’s humanity to behave like an animal for a while seems like a good example of a self understood differently.
To be sure, there are radical new possibilities in the use of animal metaphor in sexual culture. But there are many different ways to practice a niche fetish, and not all of them have to do with sex. A pioneering account of puppy play in The Stranger almost a year ago describes it as “a form of group relaxation where you could empty your mind of all your cares, forget all of your responsibilities, lower all of your defenses, and bypass small talk forever.”
Nary a hard-on in sight! On the other hand, neither do these new animalistic practices necessarily have anything to do with liberation. The Guardian article mentioned above describes “Tom,” a man who left his fiancée and moved in with another man less out of any urge for sexual liberation than out of a very normal concern over stability and security. As Tom describes it, puppy play is a place where “You’re not worrying about money, or food, or work…. A puppy without a collar is a stray,” he continues. “They don’t have anyone to look after them.”
You can call yourself a dog, or a pig, or even an emu, but is there anything new or radical about a relationship where one person works and takes care of the financial needs while also governing the household? As long as Tom can think of himself as subservient to someone he thinks of as “a man,” he might as well pretend to be a child, or a woman.
But the truth is that sometimes people just want to step away from ordinary life, “like a high-power CEO who’s a secret sub puppy in the bedroom,” muses A. “When he’s in his gear and getting worked over, he’s being cleansed of his daily stress. He’s letting it all go and focusing on the blissfully simple task of merely following direct orders from his master…. He isn’t Mr. CEO; he just wants to be a good boy.”
Asking why anyone wants to pretend to be an animal during sex is akin to asking why anyone wants to have sex standing up: Why not try it out? But the simplicity of an idea doesn’t mean it can’t have deeper implications. To me, at least, it’s clear the proliferation of animal identifications is part of a general cultural project to refine, define, and unfurl sexual identities: Animal metaphors are proliferating just as kinks, genders, and sexual orientations are. We desire a uniqueness in our self-conception, because we’re conditioned to think of statistical scarcity as a marker of value.
But we also want ways of communicating commonalities and attractions as quickly as possible. A dog emoji on your Grindr profile is an easy way of letting
someone know sex with you might involve a lot of sniffing, and they maybe shouldn’t wear deodorant; a pig emoji in your profile is a means of letting someone know that even if you’re not into watersports, it probably won’t offend you to be asked.
So maybe, at the end of the day, animal categories are just the hanky code of the digital age — yet another technology of sex born in that vibrant, queer place where repression and ingenuity meet.