PhD student Lesley Gabriel dons a pair of fake fur ears and tells us more about the Secret Life of Human Pups

As a writer with kink sympathies, every time there’s a documentary about any corner of the fetish community on television, I automatically assume the worst. That the reaction of the great British public will be a rerun of playground taunts – “you’re different and that’s bad, you’re sick” – is inevitable. In The Secret Life of Human Pups, Channel 4 turned their investigative eye to the world of puppy play. This is a fetish which involves participants dressing as fetishwear puppies in leather harnesses who wish to play and be looked after by human handlers. The fun is decidedly non-sexual;  if anything I feel that there’s an innocence in the pups who want to be looked after by kindly handlers. Before the documentary even aired there were messages of support from kinksters of all orientations posted on puppy-play discussion groups on the fetish social media site Fetlife.

The Secret Life of Human Pups provided the viewer with a handy heteronormative anchor – something to relate to in otherwise uncharted sexual seas. In this case we have Spot and Rachel, the former couple who separated because of Spot’s interest in puppy play. In being Spot, our hero reveals that he has a whole other life, a more carefree side to him emerges. It is implied that Rachel would wait until the end of time for her former fiancé, whereas his need to puppy-up is portayed as selfish in the light of the love of such a saintly woman. Spot enters a Europe-wide puppy competition but is horrified to see that the innocent playful fun of the UK puppy play scene is sexualised by our continental cousins. Towards the end of this somewhat bleak documentary we see Rachel driving Spot around in a car – Spot has his head out of the window fulfilling his doggy dreams. It’s an enigmatic ending to a tale with so many unanswered questions.

Of course with documentaries like this, certain elements of the audience are there to point and laugh – Twitter certainly had quite a field day with it. But what about those who watch the documentary and find themselves intrigued by puppy play? Numbers quoted in the documentary seemed to suggest that they would not be on their own, and would in fact be joining growing ranks of non-human identification. In wider popular culture over the last few years the lure of identifying as a non-human creature has proved irresistible to many. Bronies and Otherkin are just two examples of this. Bronies are usually adult male fans of My Little Pony who watch the animated series, engage in online discussion groups and meet up at conventions to dress up as their favourite characters. A number of people of all ages and orientations have found solace in the My Little Pony kingdom of Equestria. Otherkin do not identify as human – in this case they may not identify as animals but as vampires, demons, elves or faeries in a quasi-religious belief system.

Rather than wondering why people would want to indulge in such pastimes, maybe we should be asking why anyone would want to be human? Us humans are pretty evil creatures, hurting each other as well as the environment we live in. Humans have high-pressured jobs, bills to pay and bathrooms to clean. Given the stresses and the expectations on humans, who wouldn’t want to put that stuff behind them, dress up and hang out with their friends? As Chip, one of the pups interviewed in the documentary says “We’re friends, let’s play!”

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