Thursday 26 May 2016

Secret Life of the Human Pups

Ah, the rich tapestry of human existence. Channel 4 has previously leered at dogging, and taken a voyeuristic peek behind the doors of exclusive sex parties. Polyamory, elderly sex workers, German brothels are also recent topics of late night tabloid telly. Who and what next? The commissioning editors must have thought long and hard before before coming up with ... human dogs.

No, I'm not talking about dogs who want to be human (doesn't that encompass all dogs anyway?). It's the other way round. Human beings, grown adults acting and performing like canines in dog suits. This is a subset of the Otherkin subculture, a group that identifies with mentally, spiritually, and where possible, physically with non-humans. These can be the fantastical, like elves, dragons, vampires, angels, and whatnot. Or the mundane, like cats, dolphins, and ... dogs. Most are happy to live out their identified species in groups of the like-minded where they can roleplay and suchlike. Puppy play, with its structure of handlers and pups grew out of the BDSM scene - hence why the dog outfits featured are basically fetish wear.

Secret Life of the Human Pups begins with Tom from Hertfordshire who, thanks to his doggy alter ego, Spot, won Mr Pup UK at a very alternative version of Crufts last year. This qualifies him for the Mr Puppy Europe competition in Antwerp to try and win the title of Europe's 'top dog'. As Spot, every spare moment is spent as a dog chasing puppy toys and curling up in his cage. As you might expect, this hasn't come without a personal cost. While she supports his alter-ego, Tom's ex-fiance Rachael makes it very clear throughout the programme that she would like their relationship to get back on track should he tire of being a dog. In the meantime, she's happy because he's happy, and he has no intention of putting his canine side to sleep.

The pups are one side of the subculture. The other are the puppy handlers. These are typically men (like the pups themselves) who provide opportunities for play, "training", and so on. The relationships sometimes are but not always conventionally intimate/romantic. The impression is given that the handlers are the ones that organise the subcultures. Kai, for instance, is in charge of online community pages (he estimates there are around 10,000 pups in the UK) and arranges the occasional meet up. Andy has six pups in his "pack" and says for him it's about creating a family, as well as being able to guide and shape young minds. He is also responsible for monthly meets. You are also left with the sense that despite its roots in the BDSM scene and reliance on fetish wear, the British community at least is not heavily sexualised. It has moved to centre on "head space", on concentrating on being and presenting as a dog.

This contrasts strongly with Europe. The footage from the Mr Puppy Europe competition in Antwerp leaves little doubt that this is a big part of the continental scene. From doors emblazoned with the legend "Warning, puppies in heat", to semi-naked blokes on leads, to raunchy competitive routines between pups and their handlers, Tom's/Spot's no-sex-please-we're-English routine perhaps cost him the top spot. But still, coming second he did better than the last 18 years of UK Eurovision entries.

In between there's a few snatched moments chatting with Chip, Bootbrush, Silver, Kaz, Pan Pup, and Dynamo, pups who provide little snippets about the life, and there are big recurring themes. The main one is putting aside anxiety and social convention and just being. As Chip put it, we have to be civilised and live within the boundaries of what it means to be human. As a pup he can throw that aside and become animalistic, but also be more sociable and playful without convention intervening. Likewise, Dynamo suggests that disproportionate numbers of pups have high pressure jobs and this is a form of escapism. This is hardly surprising. In fetish and S&M cultures, power play is central (indeed, a debate about sexual ethics once caused a Trot group to split). The appeal of being submissive is giving up control and subordinating one's body and sensations to the whims of another, and this can manifest itself in all kinds of ways. The Miss Whiplash trope beloved of 80s and 90s tabloid editors is the most conventional way of thinking about this, but it goes beyond someone getting tied to a post for a thrashing - for some it's a letting go of social mores and expectations and being governed by the pleasure over the reality principle, even if (depending on the context) that might involve some (eroticised) pain. The same kind of understanding applies here. Freud noted that we're born polymorphously perverse, as a bundle of desires that demand immediate satisfaction. As the infant matures into childhood and adulthood these instincts are tamed and we become beings capable of functioning in large, complex societies. Desires are repressed but constantly bubble up from the unconscious and can, in some cases, cause mental illness. Leaving aside debates about Freud, dogs are, if anything, four legged iterations of the id. They sleep when they want. They engorge themselves on food. They take pleasure in the most disgusting activities, and they're perhaps even more sex obsessed than their human masters. Framed in this way, as creatures that are mostly left to indulge every impulse and pleasure, you can see why being a dog might hold that escapist appeal.

As an escape, puppies differ from its Otherkin kin. The usual narrative of non-human identifiers tends to evoke mysticism and cross-species spiritualism (and cross-dimensional in the case of fantastical creatures) to interpret their desires to have pointy ears or take flight with a set of feathery wings. The relationship between their human and puppy selves presented here appears to be more contingent and less deep-rooted, at least in how they are presented.

The second interesting aspect to this is the pup subculture is almost entirely male, and that isn't because the men involved are mostly gay. Noting this, Kai suggests it's because women who move into pet play tend to prefer being kittens. I suppose one explanation is the well-worn gender typing of dogs and cats as embodying masculine and feminine traits. That can't be all of it though. Again, going from pups' testimony there is a bonding element to this. Masculinity is changing, but in its hegemonic forms at least the possibilities of intimate but non-sexual relationships between men remains circumscribed. Bonding over and fixating on traditional male pursuits largely remains the order of the day. Something like pup play transgresses this. For the handler, it allows for an exploration of a caring role vis a vis his pups, and for the pup themselves to experience being the object of care by another man. Similarly with the pup meet ups, it allows for a degree of physicality, of touching and being affectionate toward and with other men without triggering complex anxieties around sexuality and propriety - the rules of normal (gendered) human interaction no longer apply and new intimacies "not allowed" by conventional masculinity become possible and are accepted by participants.

There's always a danger with this sort of programme of pointing and laughing - we'll have to see what Gogglebox makes of it. But apart from the sub-salacious subject matter, Secret Life of the Human Pups raises interesting questions about social conventions that go beyond pups and their handlers. If, to paraphrase and twist our bearded German friend, there are groups of people who find solace not just in their animal functions, but in being actual animals, then something is severely lacking in our society if we can't find ourselves as thinking, feeling, sensuous human beings.


Speedy said...

I ask myself - haven't they got anything better to do? And the answer is evidently, no.

Chris said...

I think Facebook proves that billions have nothing better to do!

We all have nothing better to do. Your nothing better is no better than my nothing better.

We try to rank the nothing betters where my nothing better ranks highly as a worthy endeavour and we rank lowly those we think are strange/stupid.

To my mind this puppy stuff is off the bleedin scale, but well done for attempting to articulate it for me!

Women dressed at kittens is another thing altogether!

Gary Elsby said...

Would you like me to take you for a walk Phil?

Phil said...

Thanks for your kind offer, Gary. On this occasion I'll have to pass.

asquith said...

You won't be walking in that field near the canal in Baddeley Green, it's been fenced off :(

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the best review I've found of this show, better than the professional writers and quick journalism of all the other stories. I'm also a Dog as well and feel it in my soul, been that way since about 13 years for sure.