In our horrid modern world riddled with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, many former pleasures are altogether unavailable: karaoke, packed concert venues, sitting inside at a bar making conversation with the bartender. What do all these have in common? They are at their core about the comfort of being in a community.
Many younger gay men who crave that personal interaction and community have found it through pup play, which has continued to grow in popularity during the pandemic. On the surface, the fetish practice may seem like nothing more than pretending to be a dog when hanging with, and sometimes having sex with, your best mates. Underneath, it’s about seeking comfort, care, and community in an increasingly cold world. With another wave of COVID crashing down on us and Trump supporters looting the Capitol, who wouldn’t rather be a “big dumb dog,” in the words of Zan, a pup-play enthusiast.
Zan, 27, discovered the pup-play fetish on Tumblr seven years ago from his dorm room at Boston University. His Twitter and Instagram are full of selfies in various neon pup hoods (or, to the layperson, masks) with a trendy chain necklace. In his experience, people in the pup community are looking to have their emotional needs met. “There’s a lot of anxious people in the pup community,” he tells me over Zoom.
Anxious people gravitate toward scenarios where someone is there to soothe them, to tell them that they are in fact a “good boy.” This dynamic is at the core of pup play. “There’s a dom/sub relationship where one person is providing care and one person is receiving it,” Zan explains. After the government has failed to provide any sort of care for us, why not seek out a new master?
“Everything is so fucking stressful and annoying and evil and awful,” he adds. “I can’t look at my phone anymore, and my brain is falling out of my ears, and then this huge guy in rubber with tattoos wants you to be his dog—and you’re like, ‘Wow, that sounds so easy and great!’”
More than stress relief, pup play offers Zan and others a sense of security. Part of that security also comes from so-called “packs,” which are a spin on the classic idea of queer chosen families. Before he found a like-minded group of people in Brooklyn, the fetish was mostly an internet aesthetic for Zan. Now it’s a whole identity, and the people he’s found through it are his pod.
The community feel is also key for Jasper, another member of the pup-play community, who also goes by Dadpup or Aura. “I wanted a group, a family—and I wanted a pack. I wanted to be with people I could trust and not just have one-night stands with.” He has been actively identifying as a pup for five years. Initially, he became familiar with the subculture 11 years ago by attending the fetish festival MAL (Mid-Atlantic Leather weekend). The old guard of leather daddies didn’t provide much “coddling” or friendliness” in Jasper’s terms, which made pups stick out among the participants of the festivals. “I was hesitant to hang out with the pups at first because they seemed so needy or clingy,” Jasper recalls saying. “I wanted to be a badass and not have the comforts of someone else with me at the time.”
This kind of “badass” identity is a mainstay of many sorts of fetish play, but perhaps disillusioned young men are wary of anything that sounds like the toxic masculine ideals that have caused so much harm already. Why not engage in something kinky and fun that also provides care and support?
The platforms of Twitter and OnlyFans have been central for pup visibility, largely due to the demographics of people on the sites. “It is a younger crew, for the most part,” Jasper notes about the pup community compared to the fetish community at large. Jasper is quick to note that over the 10 years he’s been involved, he’s seen the entirety of kink rise.
Still, the most visible people online are the younger ones, who appear in our algorithms with thousands of followers already. “You’re seeing more people on OnlyFans; people are becoming more comfortable in the people that they are,” Jasper says. Besides an increasingly strong sense of self, Jasper also notes that the rise of OnlyFans is connected to fewer people having to face repercussions from jobs they no longer have. People are creating accounts (pup or otherwise) to both alleviate new financial burdens and fulfill the human desire to connect. In the absence of real-life humans to gather with, throwing on a hood and turning on the webcam is the best alternative.
Many of those hoods come from Mr. S Leather. The fetish store saw an increase in pup play as soon as they launched their neoprene hood in 2016. Some hoods run for as low as $109.95, or cheaper than a Nintendo Switch. Now, Mr. S Leather has a whole section of their store devoted to pup accessories. You can get butt plugs with tail attachments, S&M-esque muzzles, collars, leashes, and chain-lock collars that would look at home around any trendy gay’s neck.
Zan will wear the hood sometimes when he’s just hanging out by himself. “You ever feel like shit so you put on a big hoodie? It’s like that,” he says. Jasper also sees how the fetish could be a comfort. “You can actually become something else and feel more comfortable in that suit because you need to get away from reality most times, especially now,” he says. “We don’t want to live in this reality.”
Before the pandemic, Zan’s pack threw parties at the Brooklyn bar The Vault. They managed to pack the venue on a Wednesday, not something that the now-closed space could do often. But the OnlyFans and Twitter accounts won’t close, giving aspiring dogs a way to find their pack. “Even if we’re not meeting in person, we’re virtually meeting,” Jasper says.
Some pups trying to grab a hood and meet virtually for the first time may have to wait a little longer than normal. “Unfortunately, in order to keep our production facility COVID safe, we have fewer people making hoods, so availability and turnaround times are a little longer than normal,” Murdy, the marketing director at Mr. S Leather, shared with TheBody over email. Murdy continued, “Most pups are not worried though and are happy to wait for their pup creations to be delivered.” They’ll have to wait longer till they can roll around together in a group of like-minded dogs. Until then, their front-facing camera and the expanse of the internet will have to do.
It’s easy to chalk pup play’s rise up to the increasing strangeness of our time. But is it so strange? Frankly, underneath all the gear and fantasy, pup play is just about finding the love, security, and community we all seek in scary times. Acting like a dog is just a means to an end.