A “furry” is not just someone who enjoys dressing up as a cartoon animal — it’s someone who belongs to a community rooted in a love for anthropomorphic characters. People who participate in furry fandom generate and repost art and writing about the things in which they’re emotionally invested; popular topics include Sonic the Hedgehog and Zootopia. The fandom is a medium of self-expression, helping to stabilize fans’ sense of themselves. This is why really intense fandom participants tend to be younger. (And in true fandom style, there are members who are interested in erotica and pornographic depictions of the things they idolize, like fanfiction where Snape and Hermione get it on.)
Furries congregate all across the web, but one of their most prominent meeting spaces has been Tumblr, where they’ve been able to share everything from artwork to pornographic material. This will now change: On Monday, Tumblr issued a new set of guidelines regarding adult content that will go into effect December 17 in which new and existing posts that include “photos, videos, or GIFs that show real-life human genitals or female-presenting nipples” or “[depict] sex acts” will be removed from the platform, “with the ultimate goal of removing as much of it as [the company] can.”
The same day as the guidelines were issued, Tumblr users reported that the “furry” hashtag was completely scrubbed of content. (Furries are, to put it simply, fans of anthropomorphic creatures.) The tag, like its companions #anthro (which stands for “anthropomorphism”) and #fursona (an alternate, anthropomorphic ego that furries adopt), was a means for “furries” to seek out and promote original artwork of animals with human characteristics, mostly devoid of sexual content. Plenty assumed it was a ban of the tag entirely, confusing furries across the fandom.
The tag became active again on Tuesday morning, filling up with artwork featuring anthropomorphic characters with no acknowledgment of the error. (An inquiry to Tumblr’s PR went unanswered.) If Tumblr had been cracking down on the furries, they wouldn’t have been alone on the internet: In April, Motherboard reported that a popular dating site for furries, Pounced.org, voluntarily shut down because it was worried about potential liability for furry sex-worker ads, despite the site predominantly being a place for furries to connect and meet up in real life. But after giving the robust community a place to congregate for so many years, why would Tumblr see the furries as something to ban?
The furry community is easily stereotyped as a deviant kink scene for people interested in roleplaying and dressing up as animals during sex, by people who aren’t familiar with the furry community. Animal roleplay or petplay is a variant of BDSM practice, of course, but the two communities rarely converge — which is not to deny that the furry kink scene exists. “Everything created by human beings has some degree of what people think is attractive — and attractive is a big, broad unquantifiable word — however you define that,” Rod Stansfield, co-founder of the first furry convention ConFurence Zero, said in an interview with CNN. However, researchers at FurScience (also known as the International Anthropomorphic Research Project, or IARP) have found only a slight preference for furry porn over regular human porn within the community; only about 5 percent of furries began participating in the fandom due to a furry fetish.
When asked about why the mischaracterization of furries occurred, FurScience co-founder Sharon Roberts brought up the various TV depictions of the fandom that misconstrued it as a kind of sex cult, such as those in CSI, Vanity Fair, and 1000 Ways to Die. “People sometimes feel that there needs to be some wild explanation for behavior that they deem to be unusual. Furries are asked to explain all the time why they happen to have an interest in anthropomorphic art. The answer is actually really mundane in that it (the furry artwork) is aesthetically pleasing,” Roberts wrote in an email to The Outline.
“Furries simply like the art style and associate it with positive things (e.g., childhood memories). But an answer as simple as ‘aesthetic preference’ doesn't seem sufficient for something the general public sees as being so out of the ordinary. ‘People bonding over an interest in cute drawings’ may not seem as catchy as more sensationalistic titles,” she said. “It’s an unfortunate trend because authentic stories of human connection — the ebb and flow of real people’s lives — are anything but boring.”
Furry fandom has created an industry of furry arts, too, in which fans commission artists to draw themselves as anthropomorphic creatures (in addition to more general drawings). Those who can afford it purchase “fursuits” from dedicated costume-makers to embody their fursonas in real life; according to Atlas Obscura, a fursuit can cost upwards of $3,000. There are about 40 annual conventions worldwide meant for furry artists to promote and sell their wares and for the most part, these creators promote their work on Tumblr, DeviantArt, and furry-specific art-sites like Fur Affinity. New York Magazine reported in 2016 that many artists do furry work even if they don’t identify as a furry to supplement their income; they have gotten such work by using sites like Tumblr to reach furry enthusiasts.
The temporary Tumblr #furry tag removal wreaked havoc on the fandom’s ability to continue to share and promote furry art, but the greater ban will affect erotica artists specializing in furry work. The gay furry erotica artist known as CensorRottie told me that Tumblr was “a big site for bringing in interested viewers not normally associated with the furry fandom.”
“Many people on Tumblr just looking for or sharing real-life porn would occasionally find erotic art that touched their interests, introducing new appreciation for art to a previously unaware audience,” he said in a Twitter DM. “Without a site that joins pornographic material of both live action and illustrated material, I think we'll see a notable slow down in the growth of not only the furry community, but the erotic illustration community as a whole.”
MerakBurr, another erotica artist specializing in furry work, agreed that furries selling art on Tumblr would be affected by the move, but noted that there are alternative spaces. “The community does not only exist online (in fact, Midwest FurFest — a furry convention — was held last weekend in Chicago and had more than 10,000 attendees),” the artist told me. “I expect most of the furries who used Tumblr will simply move to alternatives like Twitter and Fur Affinity.” (Fur Affinity is the furry-focused online art gallery made as an alternative to DeviantArt and its ilk.)
CensorRottie and MerakBurr both said that they promoted their art on other platforms besides Tumblr, which helped dull the impact of Tumblr’s new ban on their work, but other artists have not had as much success. Artists drawing anthropomorphic characters in and outside of the furry fandom have taken to Twitter outraged that their safe-for-work art has been marked as obscene by Tumblr bots. The Guardian reported this week that “a photoset of the actor Sebastian Stan wearing a selection of suits with no socks on, an oil painting of Christ wearing a loincloth, a still of ballet dancers, and a drawing of Wonder Woman carrying fellow superhero Harley Quinn” were all flagged for explicit content.
Good riddance tumblr, thanks for marking me and many others posts as explicitt. Not only are nsfw/ artist not safe but now sfw are as well. Oh and sending a review will take months pic.twitter.com/T8mbrNxsm3— Generic NewWave Band (@thebluebear27) 3 December 2018
Same boat, poorly handled situation pic.twitter.com/mpCpCc3WgJ— Vonzent (@Vonzent) 3 December 2018
Seems like tumblr hates cute things and bears pic.twitter.com/9DIS0pAbw2— Bren (@Mareckirawr) 3 December 2018
Patch O’Furr, the founder of furry news-site Dogpatch Press, said that the furry community has already shifted away from Tumblr to sites with better user interaction. “The main furry social media in 2018 is on Twitter, or Telegram groups,” he told The Outline. “As far as I know, Tumblr had most popularity for certain art makers or themed furry porn accounts, but few that aren't easily moved over to the other places.”
Tumblr’s move hasn’t happened in a vacuum, either. It follows what has become broader and broader web censorship to comply with FOSTA-SESTA, the controversial anti-sex trafficking bill signed back in April. The bill — an amalgamation of House-signed Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act and the Senate-passed Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act — subjects websites to criminal and civil liability for “facilitating” sex-trafficking violations and/or prostitution in states where sex work is still illegal. Websites may be held legally responsible for content posted regardless of whether the offending post in question was posted “before, on, or after [the] bill’s enactment.”
Vox reported that the bill had a chilling effect on most websites, even if they’re not explicitly associated with solicitation: “The vague terms of the bill mean that the only choice for most websites in terms of how they approach policing user content lies between strategic inaction or preemptive overreaction.” Reddit has deleted several subreddits since the bill passed, and Craigslist has suspended its personals section for fear of liability.
CNET reported in late November that the Tumblr app was recently banned from the iOS app store due to the app’s inability to completely filter and remove child pornography from the site, and that Tumblr itself had been requested by two different international governments, Indonesia and South Korea, to stop hosting porn. Tumblr CEO Jeff D’Onofrio mentioned in his post on the policy change that “posting anything that is harmful to minors, including child pornography, is abhorrent and has no place in our community.”
In February, Emma Llansó, the director of the Free Expression Project at the Center for Democracy and Technology in Washington, D.C., pointed out that the bill would “actually discourage some platforms from engaging in good-faith moderation efforts.” Tumblr, instead of making a nuanced and sex-positive attempt to curb sex trafficking and child porn on their website, has chosen to enforce full-scale censorship reliant on machine-learning bots that replicate the biases of their human creators. Fandom smut and written erotica will be permitted on Tumblr so long as they’re not visual, which does little to stem the actual problem of sexual exploitation; sex workers who rely on Tumblr to advertise their services and screen clients now find themselves scrambling to the next social media platform that also serves as a portfolio and gallery for their work. In an interview on FOSTA-SESTA’s repercussions, Electronic Frontier Foundation activist Elliot Harmon told Rolling Stone that websites’ adoption of automated filtering technology would be a worrying development. “When platforms over-censor their users, marginalized communities are often silenced disproportionately,” he said.
The furry fandom has thus been caught in the fallout. One of the many questions remaining will be whether Twitter will also concede and ban all allegedly NSFW content. It will take a while for puritarianism to reach the shithole that is Twitter, but in the meantime, furries are making do as they always have — finding and building community in a shifting media landscape.
“Remember, furries are fairly tech-savvy as a group and have had a strong online presence since at least the 90s,” Roberts wrote. “Furries existed well before Tumblr was around, and they will continue to be just fine — if slightly inconvenienced — by this policy.”