The conversation around sex has always contained traces of the animal, whether it is Sigmund Freud’s theory of how sexuality is a dominant part of humans’ “natural” animality (Kiloh), or Dominic Pettman’s suggestion that the pursuit of sex commonly involves going on dates outfitted in animal products or animal mimicry like leather, fur, or even feathers (Pettman 68). The image of “the animal within” is a popular archetype invoked when discussing the phenomenon of sex, ceding to the concept of sex being controlled by animal impulse, passions, and reactions (Kiloh). But what if someone were to give in to quite literally their “animal within” and embody that animality in its totality while still engaging in what they perceive to be solely human sex? In this essay, I will explore the kink practice of puppy play and examine how embodying the domestic dog perpetuates the societal understanding of human-pet relations in the West, while simultaneously offering a path towards finding harmony with a repressed animality and bringing into clarity how beholden humans are to the constructs we create.
Puppy play – or pup play – is a type of roleplay practice in which humans mimic the behaviours of dogs, most of them being, as the name suggest, puppies (Wignall et al., 3637). This roleplay is a distinct subculture within the broader BDSM subculture – that is, Bondage/Discipline, Domination/Submission, and Sadism/Masochism – and involves the mimicking of a dog’s posture, the wearing of a collar, and the use of other items associated with dog ownership such as dog toys, harnesses, and other paraphernalia (Wignall et al, 3637). The activity is predominantly practiced by gay and bisexual men – although it is also practiced beyond those demographics (Wignall et al. 3643) – and can occur alone, with other role-players called “pups”, or with a handler (Wignall et al., 3637), the person responsible to looking after them, carrying their gear, providing “dog training”, and generally interacting with the pups (Wignall et al., 3639). Liam Wignall, co-author of the study “Findings from a Community Survey of Individuals Who Engage in Pup Play”, has also documented that as pups age, some may then transition into the handler role to mentor new pups to the scene (3639).
Although websites and manuals created within the puppy play community often connect the practice to other ethnographic or historical contexts – perhaps in an attempt to legitimize it - there is “little evidence connecting puppy play to the ancient and non-western practices identified by practitioners”, Lawson and Langdridge write in their article titled “History, Culture, and Practice of Puppy Play” (580). The authors instead trace the puppy play scene back to the end of the second World War in the United States, with “dog-slaves and SM clubs and spaces providing the necessary elements for the scene’s articulation” (Lawson and Langdridge, 580). Post Second World War, queer communities around American military bases formed, leading to queer subcultural groups, of which the leather scene is most famous (Lawson and Langdridge, 581). At conception, the leather scene involved a strict set of protocols in which submissive “boys” could interact with dominant “Sirs” or “Daddies”, where the boys were entirely subservient and trained into the leather scene through correct exhibiting of behaviour, posture, and speech (Lawson and Langdridge, 581). A key component of training was punishment – “errors in protocol, or mistakes made in service would be corrected by punishments designed to inflict pain, or humiliate”, and one kind of punishment involved being “reduced” to the role of a dog, forbidden to walk on two legs, forbidden to speak, and made to eat from the floor or a dog bowl (Lawson and Langdridge, 581). According to Lawson and Langdridge, this type of punishment was “closely connected to but distinct from the formal, Old Guard leather protocols; the ‘dog-slave’”. The dog-slave, in Old Guard leather protocols, was a submissive role that was connected to the role of ‘boy’, and involved a person being trained by a dominant Sir or Master to move on all fours, eat from a dog bowl, and to sit or speak on command, as expected from an obedient dog (Lawson and Langdridge, 581). Lawson and Langdridge describe the relationship between dog-slave and Master being often explicitly sexual, like the relationship between a ‘boy’ and ‘Sir’. In comparison, puppy play is different from the dog-slave in that for many people who are pups but not dog-slaves, they claim that it places emphasis on the act of playing rather than the sexual humiliation of being a dog, since the act is now undertaken through the initiative of the practitioner themselves (Lawson and Langdridge, 581).
Jeff Mannes, in his dissertation “The Origins of The Pet Play Fetish”, suggests that “no other animal species seems to be better suited for pet play than dogs,” mainly because it’s the most visibly domesticated animal in the way that no other animal is in the Western world (8). In addition to their popularity as household pets, and thus increased visibility as a domesticated being, there is consensus among practitioners that for the purposes of roleplaying as an animal, the characteristics of a dog that humans value are the ones they seek to embody. Koda (a pseudonym), age 50, said in Langdridge and Lawson’s study “The Psychology of Puppy Play: A Phenomenological Investigation” that “it’s kind of wanting to be of service, wanting to express my love, devotion or respect for someone by being of service to them whether that’s physically, emotionally, financially, sexually or what” (2206). There is a societal perception that dogs want to be of service and to express their “love, devotion or respect” by being of service – and while that, at least from the human perspective, can be said is true of our contemporary canine companions, it is important to note that the desire to serve is one imposed on them through generations of selective breeding by humans. This desire to be a pup because a pup wants to be of service reflects the cultural perception of human-dog relations. Further into the interview, Koda explains the emotional state of being a pup as a “primal attitude”, viewing “[his] man” as the “head of [his] pack and the “person [he’s] devoted to” (Langdridge and Lawson, 2211). Koda emphasized his use of the word ‘devoted’, saying: “Actually, devote is probably a perfect word, there is that kind of welling of a sheer I will do anything for this person” (Langdridge and Lawson, 2211). This emotional response may very well be true of a dog towards their person, but in the human roleplaying of a dog, how much of this reaction is mapping human passion onto the popular image of the domesticated dog, using the dog as a conduit for the expression of the animality that presents itself during sex? In Erik William Boyd’s thesis “The New Kink: Human Pup-play in the Contemporary Moment”, the unconscious integrating of the human understanding of pet mindsets is further revealed. Boyd’s interviews with puppy play practitioners shows this through a pup with the pseudonym Ken remarking that while in the mindset of a puppy “you have to know the exchange of power” (26). Ken explains that he is simultaneously surrendering to but also guarding his handler, saying “I protect him, I make sure he’s okay” (Boyd, 26). Ken acknowledges the exchange of power in the practice of puppy play – after all, it is a kink, which normally orients around power exchange (Wignall et al., 3638). However, this statement can be interpreted as the exchange of power in a human and pet relationship with dogs surrendering to their human’s will and guarding and protecting them. This embodiment of “culturally canine” traits is reflected outside the act of sex as well – Steve (pseudonym), another practitioner of puppy play, notes that “pups end up volunteering for everything […] I see them volunteering at every event I go to and they volunteer at my events and they seem to really like to help people and make people happy,” coming to the conclusion that “in general[,] that’s one of the missions of pups is to make people happy” (Boyd, 20). As a member who, due to his own subjectivity, is privy to the driving force behind the community, Steve pinpoints one of the motives behind puppy play as joy fulfilment. One person’s analysis of the community may not be representative of the puppy play scene, but it is telling that the language used once again mirrors the prevailing conceptions around dogs and what humans believe to be their “mission”.
In addition to taking on the traits of a dog given the most value by their humans, pups also notably do not speak while immersed in roleplay. Agamben notes in the chapter “Anthropological Machine” of The Open: Man and Animal that “language nevertheless cannot be regarded as already inherent in the human soul; rather, it is […] a production of man” (35). Language, being produced by man, can also be relinquished, and it is in this way that one’s animality can assert itself. In Boyd’s interview, Steve says that being in that headspace, his thoughts just flow – “I’m not controlling them anymore… it just flows and it’s very instinctual it feels, and I don’t have no idea if this is happening. There’s a more primitive part of my brain that just takes over” (34) Similarly, Koda says in Langdridge and Lawson’s study that “…I kind of allow myself to shed the ability to talk and with the ability to talk it kind of allows me to almost Zen-like enter a much more pre-verbal state; I stop talking so I stop thinking in words and it becomes a much more emotional primal headspace that I allow myself to then fall into” (2208). The first-hand accounts of these practitioners show that once language is relinquished, the animal part of oneself is no longer closed off and out of reach, at least momentarily. That is not to say that it is a mindless state – Ken describes loving being in that mindset because of the need to be present: “You can’t be in your head; you have to be attentive… you have to listen, and you have to understand what is in the unsaid” (Boyd 26). The duality of both having no language to restrict the flow of thoughts and still having the awareness to listen and understand suggests that perhaps in their pup headspaces, they have achieved finding the balance between one’s animality and one’s humanity. Nietzsche asserts that while dreaming and sleeping, the animal returns to the human being (Lemming 26) – but perhaps with puppy play, the animal has returned to the human being not dreaming or sleeping, but in an in-between state.
Yet, even as a pup, practitioners are still beholden to the same human expectations that they are trying to escape. One integral part of transitioning from adult human to young puppy is the wearing of the puppy hood, which the psychology study notes it indicates the change into a puppy headspace, and “[acts] symbolically to invoke the removal of human qualities (like language)” (Langdridge and Lawson, 2212). The wearing of the hood means to act as a signal of the shedding of the human consciousness. The pup hood is not the only transitionary accessory – puppies also make use of tails, whether “plug-in” ones used for their sexual element, or “show tails” that do not require insertion but strap around the waist (Langdridge and Lawson, 2206). Wearing these enable the practitioner to look and act more like the dog they are roleplaying and compels them to think and move differently (Langdridge and Lawson, 2206). However, the decoration of the body is still a uniquely human trait. In his book Creaturely Love: How Desire Makes Us More or Less Human, Dominic Pettman’s observes humans furnishing with animal accoutrements, and analyses it as a human insecurity, stating that “it is as if [humans] feel incomplete in our own skin and need to supplement our all-too human desires with creaturely supplements or protheses: and elaborate zootechnical apparatus designed to augment the creature without qualities” (68). It is as if it is not enough for the pups to be in the mindset of a puppy – they also feel the need to resemble one physically to complete the transition. Ironically, here the transition to animality shows just how embedded human technologies like clothing are in society. Furthermore, the Wignall et al. study showed that of the participants who identified as a pup, 574 out of 662 had a chosen name for their pup personae (3642). As with language, names are a uniquely human technology. A lion is a lion is a lion (Despret 126), but a pup is not any other pup – there is still the human desire to retain individuality through the association of an arbitrary sound with one’s identity.
Participants of the study also identified themselves as a specific dog breed, with the most popular being Husky, Wolf, and German Shepherd (Wignall et al. 3642). What these breed choices have in common is their size and association with “masculinity”, and the authors of the study suggest that it perhaps speaks to the intersection of masculinity with kink (Wignall et al. 3642). The puppy play scene – being originally an outshoot from the leather scene, with its emphasized masculinity in performing roles like “boy”, “Sir”, and “Daddy” – retains the same reverence and idealizing of masculinity, continuing to value it despite the departure from personhood during roleplay. Therefore, the human image of masculinity is projected onto the dog, and practitioners cannot escape the associated expectations even as they are escaping into their puppy headspaces.
In conclusion, the kink practice of puppy play in the queer male community illuminates and reinforces the societal understanding of human-pet relations through the enactment of animal traits humans find valuable in the human-pet relationship. This provides practitioners a path towards connecting with a repressed animality through the voluntary relinquishing of language and position of headspace. It exposes how entrenched humans are in technologies and constructs like clothing, individuality, and gender roles even when positioned as non-human.
Jiayue (Jenny) Pan is a Chinese-Canadian writer, artist, and voice actor who recently graduated with a Bachelor’s of Design degree from OCAD University’s Illustration program. Her illustration work addresses societal inequalities through storytelling as seen in her thesis “Accessible Fantasy”, which explores the representation of disability in a genre where it is often neglected. Her poetry can be found in the second edition of OCAD University’s Pulse Print Literary Journal. Her voice can be heard on the podcasts Under The Electric Stars and Boston Harbor Horror Presents, and perhaps in the wind - if you listen close enough…
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