Paraphilias in Popular Culture

Paraphilias – that is, sexual attractions (‘philia’) to things outside the normal range (‘para’) – are seeping into popular culture in a disarming way. Have you heard of ‘plushies’, ‘looners’ and ‘feeders’? I hadn’t either until relatively recently, while watching a couple of TV shows.

plushieIn season three of the endearingly quirky HBO series Bored to Death, the main character, private investigator Jonathan Ames (played by Jason Schwartzman), takes on a case involving unfaithful plushies. In the episode, Jonathan spies on a woman having sex with a guy in a tiger suit – a hilarious and absurd situation. Not knowing whether or not this was something made up for the show, I googled it and discovered that plushophilia is a sexual fetish for stuffed toys or for having sex with people dressed in animal suits – apparently part of the ‘furry subculture’. Given plush toys didn’t exist until recent times (except for teddy bears, which have been around for over a hundred years) it made me wonder, how do these paraphilias arise? Are they an inherent part of a person’s psyche, or do they develop in response to environmental cues? Or is it a combination of both?

Perhaps you’ve heard of ‘looners’? I hadn’t until watching season two of The United States of Tara, a looner2comedy-drama series starring Toni Collette as a woman with a multiple personality disorder. In one episode, her teenage daughter Kate films herself doing ‘favours’ for internet admirers to buy things on her wish-list. One of her online admirers is a looner – a guy with a balloon fetish – for whom she blows up and sits on balloons in exchange for a Vespa. Apparently looners categorise themselves as either ‘poppers’ (those for whom the bursting of the balloon is crucial for their sexual gratification) or ‘non-poppers’ (those who have a phobia of balloons bursting). Interesting stuff.

Another example of a seemingly innocuous paraphilia creeping into popular culture can be found in the gorgeously funny 2009 film City Island (starring Andy Garcia and Julianna Margulies). The film is about the dysfunctional Rizzo family in which everyone maintains a secret life. The teenage son Vinnie has a feeder fetish involving a 24-hour webcam and a morbidly obese neighbour – a relationship that is portrayed in a remarkably endearing way.

For the uninitiated, Feederism is a fat fetish in which people eroticize feeding and weight gain. ‘Feeders’ are individuals who gain sexual pleasure from feeding others and encouraging them to gain weight, while ‘gainers’ are individuals who receive sexual gratification from being fed and becoming obese, sometimes to the point of immobility. Feederism is more common among heterosexuals, where men are the feeders and women the gainers. Participation in the feeder community is mostly through the internet, with people using online chat forums and webcams.

donnasimpsonIn around 2010, a 300 kg New Jersey woman, Donna Simpson, was involved in the feeder community and attempted to become the Guinness Book of Records’ most obese woman. People paid money to the 44 year old mother of two via her website to watch her eat. One person from Germany sent her credit cards with instructions to order take-away, while another from California wired her $200 a week to buy groceries and would call to hear what she bought. She said that the people who paid to watch her eat weren’t ‘toothless trolls’ but often lawyers, accountants or college students who had a fat fetish.

Remarkably, two years ago Donna Simpson embarked on a journey to lose the weight and live a healthier life. ‘I realised that I was their fantasy,’ she said of her viewers who paid her to consume more food, and that ‘what it comes down to is that you become a slave to the food and to your feeder.’ In an interview with the UK’s Daily Mail, she admitted to using crack cocaine to try to shed the kilos, but ‘all it did was make me clean my house really, really fast’, she said. It seems that at least in the case of feederism, a person’s paraphilic tendencies may change over time.

While researching this topic, I stumbled across a website called Dimensions Magazine, an online forum for feeders and gainers. Browsing one of the threads in the forum, I discovered (and wish I hadn’t) there is a fetish for ‘squashing’. Apparently wearing goggles or a snorkel can help prolong the experience, especially for first-timers. I’ll say no more, except that the human mind can be fascinatingly disgusting.

It also made me wonder whether paraphilias such as feederism have only evolved in modern times, because they are facilitated by the internet, or whether they have existed for centuries and were fulfilled in a different manner? One can almost imagine an obese woman during Victorian times being maintained, like a queen bee in an opulent London parlour, by her wealthy benefactor who had a fat fetish. How would we ever know?

In the next installment of this post, I’ll attempt to answer some of the questions posed above, discussing the prevalence of paraphilias, theories about the causes, and citing some unusual case studies involving chickens and car exhaust pipes. Stay tuned!