Digital Masks: What Desire Looks Like On The Internet

In college, my first boyfriend told me a story about the previous “beau” he dated, his pet name for the special men in his life. (I’ve always preferred “gentleman caller.”) The courtship was going well until one evening when the two of them went out to dinner one a night when Ian had a cold. It turned out that his beau had a “sneezing fetish,” which meant that he was extremely turned on by the expelling of snot from one’s nose. Because Ian was currently sneezing up a storm, this made it hard for him to concentrate during the date, culminating in an extended period where he excused himself.

When the story was told to me, I didn’t get the subtext, as I’m naive when it comes to all things nookie. My friends call me the “Cindy Brady of sex.”) He had to explain what he was doing in the bathroom. “Oh,” I said. I always end up the punchline in these situations instead, the last to get the joke.

At the time, I found this story to be an unusual curiosity, a certain outlier in the way that people conduct themselves sexually, but the older I got, the more I found out that what sounds taboo is surprisingly common. When the movie Contagion debuted, the online sneezing fetish community debated the morality of seeing it in theatres. Contagion was considered an event film for sneezing fetishists, but the problem is that it’s about a worldwide plague. Can you get turned on by Gwyneth Paltrow’s red nose if it ends in her death?

To me, this debate was less notable than the fact that there is a community of sneezing fetishists to begin with. No matter what you can think of, there’s a forum for it on the internet. A couple months ago, I inadvertently dated a “somnophiliac,” which I’d never heard of before. “What’s sexy about sleeping?” I wondered. “Is he turned on by my drool?”

I wanted to understand this desire, so I decided to do some research on the subject. I’m a writer. This is what we do. When we don’t know about something, we google it. There isn’t a lot of research on the subject, so I had to go right to the primary sources, finding an entire genre of porn devoted to the “Sleeping Beauty” fetish and another called “Creeping.” It’s the internet. If you want to find something, you will.

Sleeping Beauty porn you can probably figure out the gist of yourself, and creeping is like its kooky cousin. In Creeping, a porn actor begins to engage in sexual intercourse with someone who pretends to be asleep. The object of sexual desire is woken up by the instigator’s actions, which are usually in the form of a sensual message or a blowjob. The former slumberer will a) freak out and then consent to sex or b) pretend like it’s no big deal and continue unalarmed by the consent issues at play. Either way, it ends in sex.

However, in rare cases, the sleeper c) remains asleep to pretend to be molested by his sexual partner.

If you were unsure whether this was intended to be rape, the fine print in the video usually clears it up for you. (See: The tagline of GayCreeps.com.) The object of desire is most often a “straight roommate” or other heterosexual male unsuspecting of the act. This genre plays on the pornographic desire to see straight men converted to homosexuality, the “Gay For Pay” mentality that websites like Corbin Fisher or Bait Bus play into. Any guy can be queer if you just give him enough money, right? (Spoiler: No.)

However, Corbin Fisher’s actors (many of whom are gay in real life) overtly consent to the act, and BDSM porn websites like Bound Gods and Men on Edge, which include a great deal of rape play, always make sure that you know the actors all have equal agency here. They often include interviews with the subjects after the intercourse ends. As a viewer, you know that it’s all simulated, but Bound Gods stops to double check — probably for liability reasons. Viewers of Sleeping Tube or Gay Creeps likewise know it’s all for show, but the simulated lack of consent is part of the fantasy. The disclaimer would break the erotic fourth wall.

The logical assumption is to assume that enacting such fantasies through porn acts as a gateway drug for the real thing and identifying with a “creep” online leads to real life creeping. However, that’s not the way fantasies actually work; what you want to have simulated, you don’t necessarily want in real life. As Psychology Today argues, just because a gal likes when her partner takes control of her doesn’t mean she wants to actually be sexually assaulted or gang raped. That’s why it’s called “play.” If it were real, it would cease to be fun.

In Freakonomics, Steven Levitt further debunked the “gateway” mentality of entertainment, showing that violent movies reduced the rate of crime by giving potential criminals an outlet for their aggression — a safe space to vent their desires. (He also found that Adam Sandler movies did the trick.) And researchers have often argued the same thing about niche porn: It’s a way to participate in autre fantasies without having to do anything that would get you in trouble.

Statistics show that rates of violent crime have fallen in recent decades, just as niche entertainments have been made widely accessible via the internet and technology makes the purchase of fantasy increasingly anonymous. Back in the day, you had to go to a theatre or a video store to get your rocks off, enacting the private in the public. Now you can hide behind your computer screen or read your Mommy porn on your Kindle. All you need is a credit card. The market makes the transgressive commonplace.

The factors of the internet and crime could be casually unrelated — as Levitt himself said — but Levitt’s research is particularly worthy of consideration in today’s blame-happy media environment, where the popularity of pornography and violence make easy scapegoats for any social evil. When we make sex into a Reefer Madness-like substance whose sole purpose is to pollute and degrade, we miss out on the other roles that fetish can play in the lives of those who engage in it. Sex isn’t always liberatory, but for those whose desires have no other outlet for recognition, it’s the closest thing to freedom you’re going to get.

Last night a friend of mine, Marc Felion, introduced me to “masking,” a fetish that gives furry culture just a hint of Vanilla Sky. Maskers wear a full-body, latex costume that hides their identity, as if they were dressing up as a Real Doll. (Perhaps that could have solved Ryan Gosling’s girl problems.) In a short post about masking (TW for transphobic terminology), Felion cites the definition of the practice from Everyone Forever:

From the wearer’s point of view, the mask provides an opportunity to be completely surrounded by the powerful smells and tactile qualities of latex. They can heighten sensitivity and fear/excitement in the way leather and rubber sensory-deprivation hoods used in BDSM scenarios do. And because many of the maskers combine the mask with tight-fitting corsets and layered clothing, there can also be an element of containment or bondage.

Felion showed me YouTube videos of well-known maskers performing low-budget video parodies, which aren’t quite porn but play on the performance of fetish. Masker Kerry performs in “Good Morning Joan,” a surreal send-up of The Cardigans song, and the “Masking: Impossible” series stars Kerry, Antonia, Kitty and Lycramaskgrrl in their own take on the Tom Cruise spy films. The stars don’t speak, because the masks don’t allow them to move their lips, so they remain silent through the films, adding a fascinatingly Kubrickian subtext to it. It’s like DIY Eyes Wide Shut.

As I was watching these films, I was bizarrely fascinated by them, perplexed by the appeal of masking in the same way that I was sneezing fetishes all those years ago. I couldn’t say I got masking, or why someone wants to walk around in a latex suit, but as Marc showed me pictures of the masking stars out in public, at events and gatherings, I couldn’t help but be happy for them. Like Ian’s beau, these folks just wanted a space where they could be recognized and find others who shared their desires. They wanted somewhere to feel like they are part of a community, less alone in the world.

We all wear masks in everyday life to get what we want, putting on different identities as they suit us. I might not ever understand the appeal of sleeping or sneezing and masking videos will always make me deeply uncomfortably, but it’s not about my comfort. It’s about theirs. TC mark

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