'Friendship is Magic', by James Robert Douglas

Illustration by Ben Juers.

When the My Little Pony franchise was rebooted in 2010 as the TV series My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, it quickly garnered an unexpected cadre of fans. Bolstered by lively discussion on such sites as 4chan and Reddit, the franchise was adopted by males aged thirteen to thirty-five – hardly the predictable demographic for a show aimed at young girls. These fans came to be known as ‘bronies’—a portmanteau of ‘bro’ and ‘pony’—and today, according to the online Brony Study conducted by two psychologists from the University of Georgia and Louisiana State University, there are at least 50,000 self-identified bronies, eighty-five percent of whom are male, with an average age of twenty-one.

The precise course of the development of this fan culture is unclear. In some tellings the bronies began watching and discussing My Little Pony ‘ironically’. The fact that the fandom is thought to have begun on 4chan and Reddit—two sites where insincerity and unblinking absurdity are the lingua franca—lends credence to this. But the enthusiasm shown by bronies, and their use of a distinctive lingo (‘anypony’ for ‘anybody’), caused them to be marginalised by the host websites. Independent sites were established, and brony culture (based on the frequency of Google searches) expanded in 2011. Eventually, a sexual subset appeared: ‘cloppers’, who masturbate and profess sexual attraction to eroticised images of the My Little Pony characters. One figure puts the ‘clopper’ population at twenty percent of all bronies.

Many bronies no doubt make an effort to dissociate themselves from the ‘cloppers’, preferring to emphasise the more clean-cut enjoyment garnered from the show—socialisation cues, conflict resolution, moral lessons—rather than the pony-directed sexual fetishism. Nevertheless, it’s tempting, as an observer, to conflate the two, in part because the story of this dual culture has many identifiable parallels with definitively sexually pathological (pathological in the sense of being considered abnormal, perverse, or illegal) cybercommunities.

How do we distinguish the fetish from the joke; the ‘pervert’ from the naïf?

The topic of sexual pathology on the internet is an ocean fit to drown in; in part because the waters get so murky, as the brony story suggests: how do we distinguish the fetish from the joke; the ‘pervert’ from the naïf?

In a 2009 literature review titled ‘The Impact of the Internet on Deviant Behavior and Deviant Communities’—prepared for the Institute for Homeland Security Solutions at Duke University—the authors McDonald, Horstmann, Strom, and Pope identify the internet’s capacity for shaping deviant communities along three lines: its ability to connect previously isolated individuals, to give them a forum to validate their proclivities in a risk-free manner, and to afford them greater leeway to engage in active information-seeking behaviour that reinforces their interests.

Summing up, the authors write that the internet is “well suited to support deviant lifestyles and behaviours because it is unregulated, information is privately posted and can be obtained freely and anonymously, and it connects individuals with others who practice the same deviant behaviour”. Addressing the particular pathology of paedophilia, the authors write that the internet plays a “prominent role” in “affirming and validating identities of paedophiles, and in serving as a platform to recruit those who have a proclivity toward paedophilia”.

A 2013 New Yorker article ‘The Science of Sex Abuse’ describes this role in action. The author Rachel Aviv focuses on the story of ‘John’, a former soldier incarcerated for paedophilic tendencies and child pornography offences. In 1998 John had been using the internet for less than a year. Within five months of watching a television special about child porn on the internet he had downloaded more than two thousand such images. In anonymous chat rooms, Aviv describes, he felt liberated to adopt a persona as a “real life paedophile”, inventing paedophilic episodes that had previously only existed as fantasy.

John was arrested as part of a sting arranged by military police and the FBI. Undercover officers posing under the screen name ‘Indy Girl’ were approached by John in a child pornography chat room. After some correspondence, ‘Indy Girl’ offered to meet John in person and introduce him to her fourteen-year-old sister. When John arrived at a Kentucky park and sat down with two undercover officers posing as the girls, he was arrested. John admitted to authorities that he was sexually attracted to the girls in child porn photographs, but insisted that the stories he had related online about abusing minors were false; fabricated in order to impress other posters and engage them in conversation.

John was sentenced to fifty-three months in prison for possessing child pornography and using the internet to persuade a minor to have sex. On parole, his internet viewing habits gradually became explicit once again. When an officer searched John’s computer and found images of underage females, John was found in violation of his parole and, in 2005, was sentenced to an additional two years in prison. While John was inside, in 2006, Congress passed the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, which allowed the Bureau of Prisons to incarcerate prisoners beyond their projected release date if they appeared to pose a danger to children in the community. Identified as a “sexually dangerous person”, John was retained within the prison system beyond the completion of his sentence and eventually, in 2012, transferred to the Butner Federal Correctional Institute, where he would undergo “therapeutic confinement” and treatment.

The crux of Aviv’s piece is the ambiguity around John’s diagnosis as a paedophile and the justifiability of his incarceration. Despite his very real crime of possessing child pornography (for which he completed the relevant prison term) and his self-admitted and officially documented attraction to minors, John had never performed a paedophilic act in ‘real life’.

One of John’s predominant character traits seemed to be a tendency toward fantasy and role-playing. He invented paedophilic acts to impress other on the internet. He had gravitated towards fantasy games like Dungeons and Dragons as a teen. He participated in a club called The Society for Creative Anachronism, which re-enacts medieval culture, where he had taken the identity of a Polish nobleman Jan Wedrówka.

At Butner, John was thrown into a therapeutic environment premised on the necessity of patients “accepting responsibility” for their deviant behaviour. But the pressure brought to bear by this therapeutic apparatus led to many patients wholesale inventing episodes of sexual deviancy in order to appear fully cooperative, and thereby advance along the stages required of them in the therapeutic process. One patient in this system came up with a list of one hundred and forty-nine victims, thirty-four of which were dated as being abused during the period of his incarceration. At his civil commitment hearing, the judge declared that the crimes were a “product of his imagination, not actual events.”

In the disinhibiting space of the internet they become “fantasy offenders”.

The Butner program produced a study in 2009 that claimed that, while receiving treatment at Butner, eighty-five percent of child pornography convicts admitted to physical sex crimes. This study, according to Michael Seto at the University of Toronto, is a statistical outlier. Other non-Butner studies suggest a fifty percent child pornography offender to sex offender correspondence. The other half of CP offenders, as Aviv relates, are thought to not have the antisocial traits (such as lack of empathy) common to criminal pathologies. Rather, in the disinhibiting space of the internet they become “fantasy offenders”.

This concept of ‘fantasy’ offenders and offences seems to lie at the heart of the kind of the pathologies and deviant behaviour facilitated by the internet. In ‘Social Control in a Sexually Deviant Cybercommunity’, published in Deviant Behavior, the authors Roberts and Hunt describe the typical behaviour of a community of ‘cappers’, a group dedicated to the recording and dissemination of sexually charged webcam feeds. A distinctive feature of this activity, the authors write, is that its practitioners interpret capping as a kind of game. A successful webcam ‘cap’ is known as a ‘win’. One capper tells the author ‘‘It becomes an addiction for a lot of people to get as many caps as they can and create collections and grade others and build reputations, in other words the more they cap the more it starts to become a game.’’

This sort of attitude is similar to that of the CP sharers, as described by Aviv. CP chat room users may consider themselves ‘collectors’, trading pictures in order to assemble ‘sets’ of the same abused child. As with John’s situation, there’s a slippery tangle of interpretation at the heart of the capper subculture. Legally speaking, cappers may be involved in child pornography; but they do not necessarily see it as ‘real’ child pornography, and may prefer to identify as ephebophiles or hebephiles rather than ‘real’ paedophiles.

In internet communities, behaviour traditionally demarcated by society as pathological shades into fantasy. It manifests as game-playing, facetiousness, and ‘joking’, and seems, to its practitioners, at least, somehow unreal.

Another strain of such fantasy can be found in the development of Men’s Rights Activism, particularly in the denizens of the ‘PUAHate’ community–a messageboard frequented by Elliot Rodger, who in May this year killed six people and injured thirteen, in a spree believed to have been inspired by his immersion in the MRA community. PUAHate—PUA is short for ‘pick up artist’, as in Neil Strauss of The Game fame—was a forum dedicated to debunking the ‘myths’ perpetrated by pick up artists, whose methods and techniques of seduction are believed by members to be either ineffective or deliberately false.

Although PUAHate began with this reasonably harmless goal in mind, its most popular section was the ‘Shitty Advice’ sub-forum, where members discussed topics under the rubric of alternative dating advice. According to a post by a purported former PUAHate member—titled ‘I sort of knew the 2014 Isla Vista killer’, on the website ben-ts.net—the Shitty Advice section developed as a kind of joke:

“The tone at the start was one of comic negativity. People would go on a ‘performance rage’ style tirades about how women will only date male models, and how you will remain a virgin forever if you do not have a perfectly proportionate midface [sic].”

The emotional hurt and neediness may have been genuine, but it was exaggerated and shaped to performative and facetious effect. Under this style of discourse, it seems, a kind of alternative universe developed, where absurd claims about women, race, penis size, masculinity, and sexuality were discussed in the language of scientific or ethnographic analysis.

PUAHate shut down following Rodger’s spree, but the twitter account @pua_hate_txt, which mockingly excerpts from PUAHate posts, provides a hint of the attitudes promulgated there: “Going on a date is a proven way of getting friendzoned”; “If you love women you’re low IQ”; “There are only three things that matter to women. dick size. lean body mass. personality in that order”; “If governments really wanted to prevent school mass killings they should subsidy gym-fees, plastic surgery, and a hot caring virgin wife.”

According to the former PUAHate member, the tone of Shitty Advice began to change sometime in 2013. A new generation of posters seemed to not understand the joke, and it was difficult to tell who was ‘playing along’ and who took the enterprise seriously. The poster describes proposing that parents should be required to mix a hair regrowth formula into their breast milk when feeding their sons and receiving thoughtful and honest critiques and refinements in reply, a response that they found “disturbing”. This logic—that of the generational slide—also seems to describe the path of the brony ‘cloppers’ from facetious enjoyment to honest emotional involvement to sexual fetishism.

Bronies no doubt would object to being compared to paedophiles or child porn collectors, but the structural similarities in place probably compare to just about any online community: religious groups, or atheist groups, or ‘Twi-hards’, or ‘Beliebers’, or ‘Cumberbitches’.

As the My Little Pony title has it, friendship really is magic – or rather, community is. Communally held reality casts a spell over privately held fantasy, turning the indeterminacy, the ‘playfulness’ of subjective desire into objective actuality: the joke becomes real.

The ontological indeterminacy of online fantasies effaces their adherent’s understanding of their real world actuality.

The internet is the alchemical conduit through which this transmogrification takes place: not unique in its possibilities, but distinctively accessible and potent in its effects. The internet accelerates and feeds the development of communities, deviant or not, but it cannot morally distinguish between them; good or bad, cyber communities are cut from the same cloth. Existing ‘virtually’, the ontological indeterminacy of online fantasies effaces their adherent’s understanding of their real world actuality – and the consequences that can result.

The social problem is how to identify and treat those individuals and communities that are pathological, and those which are not. Aviv’s reporting in the New Yorker shows the moral, legal, and therapeutic quandaries stumbled into by the Butner therapeutic program when treating ‘fantasy offender’ paedophiles. It’s clear that this is a medical problem that society is still trying to make sense of.

In a revision to the fifth Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, published in 2013, the explication of ‘paraphilia’—loosely defined as any sexual interest other than sexual interest in ‘normal’ consenting adult human partners—was expanded to include ‘paraphilic disorders’, indicating any instance of paraphilia that “causes distress or impairment to the individual” or “personal harm, or risk of harm, to others”. This seems like a firm practical line between ‘fantasy offender’ and ‘offender’.

Cloppers, for instance, practice a paraphilia that probably doesn’t cause hurt to any proximate victims; cappers and child porn collectors, on the other hand, do: their obsessions inhabit an identifiable constellation of victims, exploiters, and criminal behavior. It’s possible, though, that the subjective experience—the absence of distress and impairment, the unburdened consciences—is basically the same. One is a disorder, one is just a kink, but they both seem, in many respects, to be drawn from the same well.

It’s disturbing to think that there could be something about the discursive affordances of the internet itself that is metastasizing the tendency of individuals and communities to engage in various forms of fantasy paraphilia, and that this very affordance also disguises the line where paraphilia becomes disorder, where fantasy finds victims.

Sometimes, it seems, there is no real proximate victim right up until suddenly, horrifically, there is. PUAHate posters may have directed their vitriol at a fictive, fantastic ‘womankind’, but their hatred eventually found its mark in real women targeted for murder by Elliot Rodger.

It’s all fun and games, except when it’s not.

James Robert Douglas is a freelance cultural critic and Interviews Editor at The Lifted Brow.

This piece was originally published in The Lifted Brow #24: The Medicine Issue. Get your copy now.