Have you ever had the inclination to dress up as a dog and roll around on the floor? Or wanted to bark at somebody who annoyed you? Many people may have asked their friends or partners that question after seeing the recent Channel 4 documentary The Secret Life of Human Pups. This documentary explored the experiences and motivations of this growing social trend. Yet what does research show on the subject? Until recently, there was no research at all on this behaviour. My article, published in Archives of Sexual Behavior, was the first to document ‘pup play’ (Wignall and McCormack 2015) and I am continuing to explore the social nature of pup play in ongoing research.
Through interviewing 30 young gay and bisexual men who engage in pup play, I developed the following definition: Pup play is a kinky, mostly sexual, activity where individuals engage in a form of animal roleplay that mimics the behaviours of young dogs. This includes licking, barking, biting, scratching, cuddling and more. Individuals label themselves as pups and normally wear gear associated with dogs, such as a collar and leash, and associated with kink, such as a harness and cuffs. Individuals tend to adopt a submissive role; however, power hierarchies can form within groups of pups.
While it is not necessarily a new activity, pup play has developed in recent years and received growing media attention. A Vice article, a TV documentary, pups appearing on prime time television, foreign news stories, and even pups taking part in pride marches worldwide.
Individual motivations for engaging in pup play differ, but there are two main reasons for participation: sexual and social. In my original research, 23 out of 30 pups recognised a sexual aspect to pup play: it was inherently sexual, it occurred alongside other sexual kinks or activities, or it could be erotic or sexual depending on how it occurs. One participant said, “Pup play can be sexual, simply be doing it in a sexual setting… Whether or not it becomes sexual, I find it erotic… I just find that I’m in a state of arousal, and that’s my body’s natural reaction.”
Yet exemplifying the generally sexual aspect of pup play, global sexual kink events are providing areas where pup play can occur; the world’s leading gay and bisexual kink website has added a ‘pups and handlers’ sexual interest; sexual kink shops are now selling pup play related paraphernalia.
To say that pup play is often sexual is not to disregard the social nature of the activity. It is this social aspect that is less documented and arguably less well understood. In exploring the social, it may be easier to think of pup play as a subculture: a group of individuals within a society that has a shared set of attitudes, practices, beliefs, language and norms that is different from the dominant group. Subcultures are normally oriented around an activity or attitude, in this case, engaging in a kinky activity with a distinct group of people.
Once framed as a subculture, it is easier to understand the importance pup play can have for individuals who practice it and how it is more than just ‘a sexual activity.’ 26 of the 30 participants I interviewed recognised a strong social element to the activity. Again, they discussed how the context and setting played a role when locating the social element of pup play. For example, pup play was seen as a primarily social activity when done in one of the two social pup events, Puppy Pride and the Pup Social. Here, the focus is on relaxing or engaging in playful activities.
A key component of this relaxation is achieving what participants describe as a ‘pup headspace.’ This is similar to the ‘flow’ headspace or ‘being in the moment’ achieved when doing yoga or long distance running – one becomes immersed in the activity and starts to forget about the surroundings or others. Being in the pup headspace also allows a queering of social norms – a pup can approach anybody and demand strokes or affection in a way a human is not socially supposed to.
Pup play was described as seeping into other parts of the participants’ lives. This was because of its social nature, including making friends and connecting with others. One participant said, “I know a lot of pups who have also become really good friends to me… we might be pups, but we also have normal conversations and look out for each other outside of the pup stuff.” While some kept these friendships separate to their non-kink friends, for others there was simply an amalgamation of their friendship networks. The mixing of friendship groups seemed to be related to an individual’s willingness to identify (semi)publically as kinky. Key to understanding this is that pup play is not just a sexual and social activity; it has become the basis for community.
This community nature of pup play is not restricted to event spaces, but has also flourished online. Pups chatted in a variety of ways, from the more simple methods of texting and calling, to more niche kinky socio-sexual networking sites like recon.com. However, one of the main methods participants used to keep in contact with their pup friends, and maintain a level of engagement in the pup community more broadly, was through the social networking site Twitter.
Twitter has been described by some participants as playing a key role for the pup community, particularly for those wishing to explore and learn more about pup play. One participant told me “that’s how we do it now. [Pups] join Twitter because we tell them it’s how they can meet people. You don’t have to, but it’s the easiest.” During data collection, it was obvious just how important Twitter was for some pups, and just how many of them were on Twitter – 26 of the 30 participants I interviewed said they used it. Since my initial study, I have come across hundreds of pup profiles on Twitter from a worldwide geographical spread.
Twitter was not created with the intention of providing a platform for socio-sexual subcultures. Indeed, pups’ use of Twitter is even more surprising, given there are established websites that provide a platform for those with kinky sexual interests to interact with others similar to themselves. There is no single reason why Twitter has proven so popular among pups. Partly it is because the platform allows for two profiles, near-synchronous conversation and varying levels of privacy. Yet the adoption and transformation of technology and how it functions for individuals is an ongoing debate (David 2010). Are subcultures, such as the ‘pups’ in my research, structuring themselves around the available technologies, or are they adapting them to suit their own purpose? Is the tail wagging the dog or the dog wagging the tail?
The increasing popularity of pup play is an intriguing phenomenon. This is partly attributable to the increasing importance of sexualized leisure for many people in a society where sex is seen as a recreational activity, no longer limited to monogamous relationships. Research has shown how both kink and sex are leisure activities that can also hold deep emotional importance to individual’s sense of self. Indeed, there is a growth of narratives about sexual experiences where the erotic is desexualized, allowing for a blurring of socio-sexual boundaries (Newmahr 2011). It is in this context that the importance of the community and subcultural aspects of pup play arise – where pup play is seen as a playful and ‘light’ version of a kinky sexual practice that also facilitates relaxation and intimacy between practitioners. Pup play may be a kink particularly suited the current social context.
Given that practitioners determine the nature of pup play, any definition or understanding will evolve in line with how the behaviour and sub-culture changes. What can be said currently is that it is a fascinating sexual and social activity, with only one palpable negative component – sore knees from being on all fours!
David, M. (2010). Peer to Peer and the Music Industry. London: Sage.
Newmahr, S. (2011). Playing on the edge: Sadomasochism, risk and intimacy. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
Wignall, L. & McCormack, M. (2015). An exploratory study of a new kink activity: ‘Pup play’. Archives of Sexual Behavior. Online first.
Liam Wignall is a PhD student in the Centre for Research in Media and Cultural Studies, at the University of Sunderland. His doctoral research examines the influence of social media on kink communities and identities. He has also published research on kinky sexual practices in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, on the everyday consumption of pornography among young men with non-exclusive sexual orientations, and he has an article on the changing nature of homophobic language recently published in the British Journal of Sociology.