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Wednesday, August 20, 2003
By Paul Ford
What we talk about when we talk about fetishes.
I was telling my mother about pony girls. “They dress up in little ears and eat oats out of a bowl on the ground,” I said. “And then they give cart rides.”
“Are they like the plushies?” she asked.
“Sort of. They're more like the furries.”
“People who believe they are actually animals.”
“As opposed to—”
“People who have sex with stuffed animals, which is the plushies.”
My mother frowned. “Do you think if we sell my dolls online plushies will buy them?” My mother is a dollmaker and puppeteer. I am helping her set up a site to sell her work via the web. Each doll or puppet takes hours, and she becomes attached to her work. She wants to see her creations in good homes, propped on mantles and dressers in places of honor, not gored with a seam-ripper and defiled by a systems administrator wearing a jester's cap and a fox's tail pinned to the back of his Dockers.
“Well, the site isn't going to be called mousemouth dot com or anything.”
“No, it's going to be called puppets and dolls dot com,” she said.
“We should be fine,“ I said.
A little later in the drive, I said, “I guess there's nothing harmful in wanting to be a sexual pony.”
My mother made a face like a dozen lemons. “But who wants to dress up as a pony and drag carts around?”
“I can explain it all in two words,” I said, pausing. “'Bay Area'.”
Two ponies dressed as people, from an illustration by Granville, and two people dressed as ponies, faces digitally blurred, emailed by a friend.
Is it any more strange to believe that your inner creature is a fox than to believe in some sort of soul-plasma that flies to heaven when your heart stops beating? Your parents, rabbi, and the pope will confirm the soul-plasma as real, but there's no hard evidence for it outside of faith, any more than there's evidence for an inner dolphin or wolverine. The inner animal is easier to mock than the trinity, or the idea that after you end your corporeal stretch, you might come back as a king, a dung-beetle, or bodhisattva, but only because, in its current, anime-influenced form, it's a relatively new idea. In time all weirdness becomes respectable, hence the Mormons.
The Internet has made sexual fetishes things to celebrate. It gives people ways to explore their alternative erotic selves, whether kissing mannikins, wearing a ball gag, or cross-dressing as women, men, horses, or badgers. When the fantasies are shared, and the meetings held between that class of individuals known as “consenting adults”—what is the cost of their difference to society at large?
As far as I can tell, there is none. While it may raise senatorial hackles, these differences from the norm do not shred our culture, harm our children, or particularly offend God (God is far too occupied in the Middle East to worry about people having toe sex in Mineola); in most cases, these fetish communities allow individuals who may have trouble in the larger, consensus culture to form relationships and bonds that they can't have otherwise. One man's disgusting perversion of nature is another's chocolate scented strap-on mangina.
It will all be laughable before long. In the year 2100, the pony girls will be snickered at as we now marvel and laugh at the erotic attraction of a single bare ankle in 1900—how could they have made a big deal over that? Now, those freaks who've replaced their ears with ginger-scented stoat sexual organs, that's some weird shit. Why can't they just plug their neural jacks into one of the digital sex circuses, like regular people?
I wonder if fetishes might not, in the long run, be as constraining as they are freeing. Is the person for whom the pinnacle of sexual experience is licking a sugar cube out of someone's hand—is that person limiting themselves from the wider range of erotic and emotional experience by focusing so much energy on one particular fantasy? That is, is the alternative sexuality, ultimately, limiting, as limiting as the fetishists say straight sexuality is?
I'm as vanilla as a sundae sans toppings and have no place from which to answer. The few times I've dated women with peculiar wishes, I've done my best, but it always ends up a sad comedy: neckties stained, an eggplant that might have made a perfectly fine dinner rendered unsalvageable, and me, bulging out of a nurse's outfit intended for someone much, much tinier, someone with, say, a size 38 waist, running out of breath halfway through singing Wichita Lineman, the air pungent with talcum powder, and the ensuing, unsettling silence—the silence that comes as we both realize, together, that we're not getting what we want—broken only by the creak of the trapeze.
So it is not for me, that world of paper ears and doll violation, and as an outsider, I do wonder if these new fetish communities are not too insular, building walls from the judgmental world, receding into their shared fantasies. But I have no way of knowing, and perhaps I'm looking up at sour grapes from my conservative perch.
Human urges are so overwhelming, so crippling for their possessors, like the portrait of desire in Death in Venice, that you can't blame these folks for looking to each other to find respite from their sense of strangeness. If you can get what you want without hurting anyone, you should probably go get it, and societal norms be damned. Because you can't please society, which tends to frown on everything that isn't glossy-white, thin, rich, straight, and in possession of a late-model car. We all grow up trying to form ourselves into that limiting mold, but sooner or later those without money, looks, and beach houses need to feel normal; we need to experience at least some acceptance, to know that our passions and yearnings are not horrid obscenities, just different. The rest of us browse personal ads, but for a pony girl, hope is the thing with fetters.