When most people think about what gets them off, they think about stimuli: what other people’s bodies look like, what it feels like to touch someone, and the sounds others make when touched. But sex is not a passive act, so ignoring our own bodies requires intention and a sort of sexual self-determination most of the cisgender community doesn’t even consider. This assumption of corporeal consistency is fine for now and fine for most, but it won’t be a norm going forward as virtual reality facilitates experimentation with an increasing variety of avatars. In the future, we’ll have sex with and in different forms. Some of those forms will have adorable tails, like foxes.

Within the furry community there is talk of “choosing” one’s fursona, while others say they “identify” as their fursona. If we use queer rhetoric as a lens for the furry experience, it follows that furrydom is both a question of identity and performative expression. Some furries, like drag queens, profess to being in touch with their animalistic fursonas only when wearing a fursuit. As we know, enjoying the performance of drag doesn’t necessarily have bearing on a person’s daily life and sexual preferences; the same goes with the use of fursuits. The difference is that drag is drag whereas fursuits are a simulation of an alternate reality.

Virtual reality, in its current form, is still a solo endeavor, but developers intend to make it interactive and as close to a simulation of the “meatspace” as possible, in the next few years. Having sex in virtual reality currently means sitting in a room and masturbating with goggles on your head, but that’s soon to be a comical, antiquated act, as consoles get more complicated. Eventually, we’ll be able to have sex with someone else, acting as someone else.

So what can we learn about the future norms of the virtual sex from a community that has long been experimenting with avatars? That monogamy is hard to define when sex becomes a creative act or a means of sharing a fantasy. If technology frees us up to have more varied physical experiences with each other, it also complicates what it means to be an individual, severing experience from physicality in a way that makes sex an almost communal endeavor. And if any one thing can be said about communal endeavors, it is this: They don’t always go smoothly.

Inverse interviewed twenty-six furries about sexuality and, tellingly, most of requested that their responses be kept anonymous. The furry world is not particularly known for press freedoms. One of the group’s social leaders, Uncle Kage, has a history of threatening those who speak to the press at all. Though each furry had clearly undergone a different metamorphosis, there were parallels in the stories.

The Dog

Furries, like anyone else, resent generalizations made about their entire population. It’s difficult to settle into any particular understanding about furries as a group — many of them refer to furrydom as a “fandom”, though it’s not entirely clear what exactly they are fans of. The language furries use to describe themselves differs a great deal from one individual to another. Do you become a furry, or do you choose to pretend that you are one? No one’s really sure.

Many furries describe early experiences in which they realized they weren’t actually human, like their peers, but instead a spiritual “other”, not in-human, but para- or quasi-human. Some furries love anthropomorphism, and some aspire to capturing it. A small minority within the furry fandom even use psychedelic drugs to experience themselves as animalistic.

One furry we spoke to, whom we’ll call The Dog, described a very early fantasy that he was becoming himself by growing animal-like.

“I remember walking down the street when I was a kid (about 11 or 12 years old) and fantasizing about turning into a wolf. It was this bizarrely powerful obsession that coincided with becoming pubescent and awakening to my sexuality. I didn’t really understand it, but it was impossible to ignore and it would follow me for the rest of my life.”

The Dog says, though he’s aware that his fursona is a fantasy, he experiences real-life benefits from experiencing the world through a dreamy lens. “Does my fursona live alongside my human personality or am I a combination of the two? I guess I don’t really understand the either/or thing,” The Dog told us. “I have this weird thing with my fursona where, on one level, it’s just this silly fantasy identity that’s just for having fun. But on another level, it feels like my ‘truest’ self because it helps me in a lot of ways—it makes me less inhibited, I have less anxiety when I think about it, and I feel like there’s that part of my heart that connects so much with furry art on this emotional level. It just makes the most sense to me. It feels the most normal.”

Other furries report similar feelings about furriness as a product of a fundamental trait. But lingering fantasies aren’t universal within the community. The only thing that is truly universal is the importance of the internet, which is where furries start to self-identify as furries and experiment with different avatars.

Many furries referenced either internet discussion boards, such as /r/furry or furaffinity.net, when recalling their origin stories. One furry, whom we’ll call The Fox, said he “found an online furry roleplaying website a few years ago. Furries sort of intrigued me, so I decided to make a character on the website.”

Since that initial experimentation, The Fox has come to identify as a gay man. “I was conflicted about my sexuality at the time, and had an interest in men, but roleplaying with other people would be the first time I’d ever had any sort of sexual interaction with another man, even if he was thousands of miles away. Then, as time went on I started making a bunch of online friends and became more and more active in the community.”

The community The Fox is describing has developed its own vernacular over the past few decades, by communicating on furaffinity.net, and over instant messaging. Several of the furries we talked to greeted us with an excited “Chirp!” and went on to explain some of the colloquialisms of the group, including “yiffy” (pornographic, sexually stimulating), “skritching” (animal-like cuddling, involving love nibbles, petting, tickling, scratching), and “furpiles” (a pile of furries “skritching” together, like a softcore almost-orgy). Since most furry roleplaying occurs on text-based discussion boards, the community has developed an extensive shorthand for describing certain acts and demeanors. If you’re a furry attempting to flirt with another furry, there are verbal cues you can embed into your messages, the way a human might touch another human’s arm, or laugh too much at their jokes.

The Fox

For The Fox, roleplaying through text with anonymous furries was a proxy experience, one which allowed him to experiment with his desires and see some of them come to fruition in a limited, and safe, setting. The internet will continue to serve this function, allowing users to take their first steps toward sexual realization without combating social stigma. As a recent PornHub survey illustrated, American states whose laws prohibit expression of queer identities house, by far, the highest number of people searching for gay porn online. That is to say, discouraging sexual acts does nothing to discourage their expression; in fact, it facilitates a surge in curiosity, and the internet remains a place for private experimentation.

Cybersex, which involves either a webcam or photo sharing and thus takes places IRL in most senses, The Fox says, typically just involves fantasizing about another person, during which he pictures himself, and the physical, human body he inhabits, as part of the action. As in, The Fox has cybersex by thinking about his own body, as it actually exists. Roleplaying, on the other hand, is usually text-based, and during these encounters and conversations he’s able to fantasize about his fursona.

“I have a character that resembles me and that I often roleplay as,” he says. “I wouldn’t really consider him to be ‘me’ though.”

Unfortunately, the public conversation about simulated sex acts really began back in 2007, when researchers found what they called a “pedophile playground” on the Second Life servers. Journalists immediately hit a trenchant question: Did taking part in simulations of intercourse with digitally rendered children, roleplayed by adult users (though this wasn’t confirmed before the acts took place), constitute abuse? The answer was and is unclear, but it is clear that the dynamics of mutually fictionalized sex acts are complicated even among consenting adults.

One genderqueer person, who uses feminine pronouns and whom we’ll call The Deer, answered our questions about fantasy by asking a lot of rhetorical questions she says that she doesn’t have the answers to.

“If I’ve created a character online who a lot of people now know me as, is that character any less real than the person others see at the DMV or whatever? What if your soulmate is perfect for the character you’ve created, but not for you, with all your limitations? When I started posting on discussion boards, I hid who I really was.”

This dynamic obviously allows for a type of sexual transgression unique to body agnostic sexual communities: the big reveal. The people furries engage with online (and, in some cases, in person) might not be who they think they are or, worse, might be someone they think they’re not. Intimacy in that context, becomes less about the individual and more about how the individual presents. One has sex with forms and social roles. One does not expect a coherent personal narrative or receive one. Community norms stand in for agreed upon facts and social signifiers.

“I got off on the idea that I was good at lying,” says The Deer. “I was such a good writer and RPer that people believed I was my character, this sort of suave, brooding dude.”

The Significant Other

As virtual reality becomes more advanced, it’s likely that text-based sexual roleplaying won’t die out completely, just as physical sexual acts will never become entirely obsolete. When asked what type of sexual encounter they prefer, furries gave vastly different answers. One stood out: A woman said that she discovered her identity as a furry slowly, after becoming physically attracted to a man who was already ingrained in furry culture, both online and off. “I don’t know if my interest in furrydom would continue if my partner and I broke up,” she added, “but I think so. It feels like a part of me now.”

In the future, sex will be less about who you and your partner(s) are, and more about what you’re able to create for each other, either through roleplay or the simulation of an experience. Many furries are already attuned to this conception of sensuality, because they have to create a shared fantasy with their partners in order to fully enjoy sex with each other and project their imagined identity into the fun.

“Obviously,” says The Dog, “the stereotype is that fursuit sex would be the way to fully immerse oneself in the fantasy, but it certainly isn’t the only way. Don’t underestimate the power of imagination! For me, sex is mostly fantasy. We can be anything we want to be! That’s the power of role-playing. Sometimes I’ll be in my own fantasy when my boyfriend is in his, and there’s this understanding that you’re both separate people with different needs and desires.”

In that way, sex using virtual reality, or shared technology, might foster creativity in sexual acts in a way that hasn’t really been explored in the mainstream. VR sex and abstract technological advancements will force users to focus on building a narrative together. The Dog says he felt closer to his boyfriend during sexual interactions online than he had in previous real-life sexual encounters with others, because he was letting down his defenses and expressing himself more clearly than he would have been forced to do in person. It is possible to have normal sex without communication, but very hard to have fantastical sex without real honesty. The bigger fiction becomes the greater truth. This is, incidentally, why some furries prefer “yiffy” porn over human pornography: It simulates the act of creating a shared fantasy rather than simply depicting sex.

“I adore furry porn,” says The Dog. “I much prefer it to images of real life humans. I think it’s worth mentioning that furry porn tends to have more humanity than a lot of ‘regular’ porn. Since it’s a drawing, the artist has to bring emotion and humanity into the image in order to make it relatable on some level.” Furry porn endeavors toward emotional narratives, and most mainstream pornographic films still don’t employ that strategy. The Dog is correct to be concerned; our neurology, it seems, is even being shaped by the lack of emotional narrative in our porn.

Back in 2014, a study published in JAMA Psychiatry saw results that indicated regular porn viewing dulled the senses and the sensors in the brain dedicated to receiving and enjoying rewards. That is, using mainstream porn to achieve orgasm makes it more difficult, in the long-run, to keep satisfying oneself, whether through fantasy or physical acts. The Dog pointed out a similar take on mainstream porn, telling us, “When you look at videos of people fucking — which I also like, don’t get me wrong — there’s more dehumanization taking place. There’s more objectification, and you usually don’t know the people that you’re jerking off to.”

Porn, the JAMA study argued, actually diminished the physical grey matter in users’ brains, because watching strangers fucking, devoid of all emotional context, actually kills your desire to search for an explanation or story. The more porn you watch, the less you care about the variables which lead up to having sex — foreplay, courting, negotiation, teasing. Furry pornography and virtual sex both exist very solidly in an emotional context, and both will preserve those things.

The Human

As sexual, technologically literate creatures, we’ll have to explore emotional and physical stimuli on an introspective level furries have already mastered. Sex in virtual reality will expand and complicate the notion of identity in lust, and many of us will have to grapple with what excites us when anything is possible and accessible.

The most concerning part of moving into our shared sexual future is losing our individual tastes. The shape and texture of our individual sexual appetites are endangered, as porn saturates media, and actual sex acts become increasingly informed by tech. In order to preserve our own sexual preferences, we’ll have to look to the furry community as a society built almost entirely online, by way of fan-art and digital role-play.

Sex, after all, has always been about building excitement between you and your partner through a curious discourse, through learning about what he or she wants and likes through gentle experimentation. Sex in virtual reality shouldn’t shift the core structure of this friction, but it will toss a few new variables into the act of wooing and satisfying another person: physical presentation, artistic rendering, technological literacy, and the fact that sexually exciting media will be accessible to us at all times.

In order to preserve our humanity while having sex in virtual reality, we’ll have to borrow tactics from furries, who have, ironic as it is, complicated, adapted, and, in some cases, eliminated their human natures in their quest for pleasure online.