Rare Phobias And Rare Philias

Lovely lovely Mumsnet! In a way, this post doesn’t really belong on this blog but on one of my others, but because it straddles two issues, one gender-related and the other not, it should be here. A couple of things happened today which brought this thought to my attention, and it’s worth going into to illustrate both sides of the issue.

First of all, Mumsnet.

I’ve recently been reading autobiographical works by Eddie Izzard and Grayson Perry, and was curious about how all those nice people on Mumsnet felt about them as gender non-conformists. I was rather surprised to discover that a lot of people on there actually quite like them. Not all of them though. Put on your Joo Jantas and read this if you don’t mind giving them traffic. I’m not going to quote them directly but the opinion is expressed, perhaps unrepresentatively, that someone feels uncomfortable with the fact, and according to his own words it is a fact, that his choice of presentation is sexually motivated and that he’s aroused by other people’s reactions to it. And of course, that’s simply a fact so inflexible that it’s hardly worth saying that it’s her right to feel that way. She just does. That, then, is on the paraphilia side.

Whilom, there had been a post on a FB birdwatching group about a cartoon spider and apparently a number of other posts of spiders which were removed and threads on this matter which had their comments turned off by an administrator. Now I am entirely at peace with the idea of protecting people vulnerable to being triggered and completely support those decisions, but it also gives me pause for thought, because as you probably know I used to be kompounophobic, and no such protection can be available for such a person. Or rather, it can, but it would be futile and disproportionate. Out of respect for people who are still kompounophobic, I still avoid posting pictures of the items in question, because it amounts to a freak of nature that I lost the phobia myself. This, however, is not about that but about the principle of individual differences in general, some of which can be very rare. In fact the Australian military once proved that there weren’t enough things most people had in common for them even to design a small range of well-fitting uniforms for their troops. It is in fact impossible to cater for unknown rare phobias, and having had one, that fact is deeply ingrained in my attitude towards shielding people from them. Of course you should try to avoid triggering people, just as you should avoid giving people with a nut allergy nuts, but there has to be a cut-off point below which the “reasonable person” cannot be expected to be aware of certain phobias, particularly if those phobias are unique. That said, the disabling effect of having these triggers around is just as severe if one’s phobia is rare.

On the other side, there are rare paraphilias, or even common ones which don’t occur to people. This means that one may not know how others are perceiving one, and this, for example, is an extra reason why the idea of enforced modest dressing doesn’t make sense. It assumes a level of conformity and stability in the focus of sexual arousal which I doubt exists. There will be some people, mainly men probably, whom I suspect will actually be more turned on than seeing a naked female form, and in fact hiding bodies away is likely to increase interest in what they’re hidden under. But that may be more a power-based imposition by men on women than about real modesty and it is of course victim-blaming. It also assumes a fixed focus, and behind this, I think, is a desire for a sense of security and a stable world.

And this is the thing. I think what was behind the poster’s expression of discomfort at Grayson Perry’s sexual motivation for his choice of clothing was that they disliked the idea of unanticipated sexual arousal by others. There are two elements here. One is that there is indeed an ethical question with sexual objectification which is occurring here in an unusual way because he likes the idea of being considered ridiculous by others and it’s that sense of ludicrousness which arouses him, without consent, but it also opens the door to a real world in which people might find anything sexually arousing, and there’s no defence against that, which is highly disturbing. It takes away the idea of a safe “home” environment which one can make decisions to venture forth from, because in fact this environment exists in your own head. Jean-Paul Sartre talks about the essential discomfort of other people, as dramatised in «Huis Clos» with his depiction of Hell as simply being trapped in a room with other people forever. This is because of the uncanniness of a “hole” in one’s world where the other person’s subjectivity is situated. That is, one has one’s own version of the world, out of which one cannot step, but this includes other people, who are out of one’s control and to some extent insight. However, I regard this as a very gloomy interpretation of the social world. To quote the psychedelic group Love:

Yeah, I heard a funny thing

Somebody said to me

You know that I could be in love with almost everyone

I think that people are

The greatest fun

Love – ‘Alone Again Or’ from Forever Changes, (c) 1967.

In fact, I’ve always found Sartre to be a bit miserablist and also self-centred and I don’t really understand how such an egoist could have become Communist. I suspect also that Simone de Beauvoir’s negative view of femaleness as biologically determined and basically a trap compared to maleness regardless of social circumstances is related to this. I don’t know as much as I ought about Sartre, but it seems either that they were drawn to each other by their pessimism or that one drew the other into their negative world view. I do understand, of course, that the condition of being female is problematised in patriarchal society but this is the result of what sexism and the patriarchy does to people rather than some rigid biological “given” as she puts it. There’s a lot of biological determinism in her attitude. I don’t mean to disregard her breakthroughs, such as the sex-gender distinction, but there’s a general feeling of trappedness in both their works which strikes me as a failure of imagination.

Speaking of trappedness, I don’t think Grayson Perry has the power to overcome his sexuality, so all we’re left with really is the power he has to reduce or eliminate his libido, and that seems like rather a big ask. That said, insofar as free will exists at all, we do have the choice to mould and express the given of our sexualities in particular ways. The classic example would be pædophiles choosing not to express their sexuality at all. On top of that, though, may be the myth of the unstoppable male libido which must be satisfied at all costs and which men themselves find irresistible. I don’t believe that’s how things really are for men, at least those who have the degree of impulse control found in most people. Given the facticity of his sexuality, involving dressing up as a little girl to provoke an air of ridicule in others, which is partly exhibitionist but no worse for that in a man who, after all, puts on exhibitions, as a creative person who wishes to perform it makes sense and is organic in how he uses that, and to criticise that amounts to kink-shaming, which I have no truck with. Some gender-critical people have described themselves as “kink-critical”, and apart from the unacceptability of that position, i.e. thinking negatively of people for something over which they have no control except the rôle it plays in their lives and whether they express it at all, it’s only a short step from that to homophobia.

This post wouldn’t be here if it was just about paraphilias. Phobias are also an issue. I used to live in a perceptual world equivalent to being expected to accept that people just would cover themselves in vomit or excrement and with the exhortation that I too should do so on formal occasions such as job interviews and funerals. This, incidentally, indicates that the morpheme “-phobia” here is used more in the sense of homophobia than arachnophobia, as a powerful sense of disgust and aversion rather than fear. Not that fear isn’t in there too. This aspect of my phobia gives me insight into the sheer ridiculousness of homophobia. Society is not going to change itself for my convenience and there’s no reason why it should. Likewise, simply because some people are disgusted by what they imagine two people of the same sex and gender get up to sexually, that doesn’t give them the right to intervene.

It must be the case that for many people the world is a constant real-life horror show thanks to their phobias, and there’s nothing to be done about it because the phobias in question are intractable and perhaps an important part of their identity, but also obscure enough not to be anticipated by the vast majority of the population. I have been such a person. It’s limiting in ways which cannot be anticipated, but also a sad fact of life. Nonetheless, it probably is worth mentioning a few rare phobias for the sake of the people concerned (tryptophobia doesn’t count as it’s no longer rare, but should also be remembered):

  • Cotton wool buds
  • Being “drowned” by peacocks
  • Entering a space which has recently or will soon contain a hazard
  • Peanut butter (presumably not the same as being afraid due to being allergic to it, which is clearly rational)
  • Particular colours
  • Paper
  • Cynthia (“The Moon”)

The question arises of how much inconvenience or difficulty it would cause to screen all of these things out just in case, and the negative consequences of doing so. It’s always going to be a judgement call, and quite a difficult one at that, depending on the likelihood of encountering that particular phobia.

The paraphilia/phobia issue is reversed in more ways than one. Not only do they seem to be psychologically similar, at least when they are apparently random and rare, but the perceived adverse effect is reversed. Having an unusual phobia makes the world a hostile place to live in because one never knows when one might encounter the trigger or it may even be practically impossible to do so. Having unusual paraphilias makes the world potentially hostile for other people because of sexual objectification without consent. It means that we may become aware of the same kind of set of circumstances as people with unusual phobias are all too aware of. Hence it’s understandable that one might wish to attempt to repel the possibility or even deny it, and it’s also something you can’t “unsee”. One is at least aware that men are socially conditioned into sexually objectifying women with a certain presentation, although it would place responsibility in the wrong place to expect those who do present in that way not to do so. The existence of a range of other unknowable paraphilias opens up a whole new frightening and creepy world one can’t do anything about.

I would, however, say this. It’s notable that the legalistic religious insistence on dress codes is reminiscent of wanting the world to be simple and comprehensible, with definite answers. The idea regarding women’s appearance is that certain features are attractive to all and only men and that they can be disguised or hidden to reduce or eliminate that attraction. It’s a simple answer to a perceived problem which fails to take into account the chaos and complexity of reality, including ourselves, which brings to mind the idea that the Universe was created in six days and will shortly be destroyed, a few millennia after its creation.

I am theist. However, the existence of my phobia and paraphilias seemed so random and arbitrary that it’s hard to reconcile it with the existence of God, not because of the idea that God has inflicted them upon me but because they are deeply meaningless. Associations can be made causally while evoking evolutionary psychology in some shape or form, but not actual reasons. They just seem so arbitrary and pointless. Perhaps it’s also the case that conservative religionists wish to defend their world view against this apparent randomness.

Reading Grayson Perry’s book ‘The Descent Of Man’ and looking at his other work, I’m left with the impression of a profoundly humane individual who has given masculinity a lot of thought. He doesn’t seem like the kind of person who is contemptuous or oblivious of people’s interests or feelings generally, and in fact it’s practically impossible for him to be so if he’s aware of the idea of wanting to look ridiculous and humiliated in front of others. Confessing to that actually seems quite courageous and honest to me. He isn’t mocking women with his image although it does reflect an unfortunate stereotype.

The point really here is that people’s uniqueness is something to be appreciated and has such a wide range that we cannot imagine it. This can make the world seem threatening, or it can make people as such fascinating.

Monkey Hate

Major trigger warning for cruelty to members of other closely-related species and possible connections to human child sexual abuse.

I wanted to get that in first, before even the picture credit, but to give her her due, the above image is credited thus: Photo by Rachel Claire on Pexels.com

This is about something which currently manifests as an internet phenomenon but may have existed in human nature for longer than we’ve even been human. Before I get going, I’m going to become a bit “sciency”, but the bulk of this post isn’t about that. There is a point to this outline, relevant to the subject of this post.

Cladism is the classification of organisms into groups of genetically related populations with common ancestry. This has led to some confusing descriptions of animals in particular. For instance, there’s a sense in which all mammals, reptiles and amphibia are fish, because our common ancestor is a Eusthenopteron-like species of fish, so we form a clade with bony fish, and in which birds are reptiles because they’re dinosaurs and dinosaurs are descended from reptiles. Likewise, there is a sense in which all humans and other apes are monkeys, in particular Old World monkeys. It’s like matroshka dolls. There’s a large doll called “simians” containing two smaller dolls called platyrrhines and Catarrhines. The platyrrhines are native to South and Central American only. The catarrhines originated in Afro-Eurasia and include hominoids and cercopithecids. Hominids include gibbons and their relatives, and great apes including humans. Everything is inside the big doll called simians. In other words, we’re all monkeys. This doesn’t sound right because there’s a lot of insistence on distinguishing apes from other monkeys, for instance emphasising our larger bodies, less arboreal nature, lack of long external tails and dorsoventrally compressed trunks, but we are still monkeys, and there was a time when we were all competing on a level playing field, as it were. It’s enlightening to bear this in mind in what follows.

This is where it starts to get exceedingly distasteful.

There are a very large number of channels on YouTube dedicated to torture, accidental death and serious injury to various species of simian other than ourselves, and apparently also excluding other apes and New World monkeys. I’m having to do this by hearsay because if I seek out these channels or videos myself I will be rewarding them with views and advertising revenue and thereby boosting their profile. This, in fact, is in itself a major issue because it means that if one wishes to hear from a contrary viewpoint to one’s own, one risks boosting that for the general public without foreknowledge as to the nature of the content, which encourages one to stay in one’s own reality tunnel. Nonetheless I do have secondary sources for this and so far as I can tell it is uncontroversially extremely cruel.

It’s in the YouTube creator content guidelines that causing suffering or death to animals deliberately for purposes other than food preparation or hunting (because our society perversely considers that acceptable) is not admissible content and will lead to the channel uploading it to be closed and demonetised. Closure and demonetisation of channels by regular users happens very often for apparently minor infractions, in the latter case often without informing the user. These monkey hate channels are often old and still monetised. YouTube is also aware of them, since they receive numerous complaints about them, but they simply persist, in a similar manner to how they do with Elsagate videos. This is rather baffling, since the videos don’t seem to be submitted by any of the big players, so one would expect them to be held to the same standards. This, though, is not the focus of this post.

As far as online manifestations of monkey hate are concerned, this might be traceable to a site set up in 1996 CE called http://www.ifihаdаmоnkеу.соm (obviously not that but again, I’m trying to avoid page impressions – that’s kind of a phishing link). This was just a bad-taste humour website set up in response to PETA, and although I’m vegan I’m no fan of PETA because they are no friends of animals other than humans, have an anthropocentric view of animal liberation and aren’t above rather appallingly sexist campaigns, not to mention their startlingly crass approach to publicity. For whatever motives, the person who started the site was at first rewarded by various bad-taste jokes, which however rapidly got out of hand and were hard not to believe were actually serious. The search engine result brings up the description “the Best Source for Metaphorical Violence Against The Monkey You Don’t Even Have in the Whole Wide World!”, and I’m not sure whether that description has been there since the start or not, but it was there in 2001, which is as far back as the Wayback Machine goes with it. Even back then it was hard to tell whether or not to take the submissions as jokes or not, which is of course a common online problem. It’s also hard to discern the motivation for annoying PETA, since it could be similar to mine or it could just be carnism.

You needn’t be vegan not to be disturbed by these videos though. There’s a focus on adult monkey sadness and baby monkey suffering and death, all the victims seem to be Old World monkeys, and there’s a wider context of cruelty, as with fake animal rescue channels, where YouTubers endanger or injure dogs and cats in order to film themselves “rescuing” them.

I think at this point I owe it to Cambodia to post something more general, and I hope more positive, about the country because of what I’m about to say: a large number of monkey hate videos originate from that country. Some of the channels posting them from Cambodia also post dramatised videos about underage girls being raped, which suggests a possible link between child sexual abuse and monkey hate. However, the commenters on these videos are usually either bots or apparently White Anglophone males, whose profile pictures are unique to the channels. Hence there is a hypothesis that monkey hate is a proxy for child abuse and sadistic pædophilia. There’s a further hypothesis which I don’t accept that the videos use steganography, which I shall now explain.

Steganography is a method of hiding something in plain sight. One of the rookie mistakes in using ciphers is that they are not concealed and stand out as obvious codes. Guvf, sbe rknzcyr, vf na boivbhf pvcure. It makes a lot more sense to hide the message imperceptibly in something which looks routine and ordinary, such as a jpeg or online video. This is done by altering a small portion of the data slightly, resulting in a video which is indistinguishable from the original but contains encoded data. However, I don’t think this can be done on YouTube because I’ve tried it and it doesn’t work. This was a few years ago now and things may have changed, but the videos are considerably altered by the time they’ve been uploaded, or at least they used to be, and I don’t think they could be relied upon to preserve the data. In fact I doubt they ever would. Therefore I’d reject this out of hand, and in any case it doesn’t make sense to submit videos which violate the terms of service to do this. It’d make more sense to submit innocuous videos with steganographic content, and for all I know it can be done now due to improvements in video quality. I might try it again soon on YT.

There could have been incidents of monkey hate before the internet became popular, but most people wouldn’t know about them and there wouldn’t usually have been much of an audience. As such, the phenomenon may have things in common with the Targeted Individual community, where people with a sensitive cognitive style and feelings of persecution find each other online and reinforce each other’s beliefs.

A number of hypotheses have been suggested regarding this. They include:

  • People who live in areas where monkeys are common regard them as pests and celebrate their suffering.
  • Germphobia.
  • Addiction.
  • Sadism.
  • Sublimated or encoded child sexual abuse.
  • Phobia.
  • Disgust.

The first hypothesis might explain how the videos appeared in the first place but doesn’t explain the fact that their audience largely consists of English-speaking White males. They also tend to use the kind of language employed by the American Right, such as calling people “snowflakes”. This suggests a further thought, which is that it’s sublimated or encoded racism.

Germphobia is similar to the first, and in this case one must be careful not to accuse people who are germphobic of being into this too. However, the species involved are not particularly unhygienic compared to others, such as bats for example, and although there is phobia of bats it doesn’t lend itself to sadistic videos of bats being tortured, although that might be difficult to achieve.

Regarding addiction, clearly the videos are likely to be addictive whatever the appeal is, because that’s a common happening on the internet, as with pornography for example.

Sadism is very likely to be involved in one way or another. It may also reflect a lack of legislation against cruelty of this kind in Cambodia and other countries from which these videos originate, or difficulty in enforcement if they do exist. Cultural relativism may also make the subject matter seem worse to Westerners than it does to people in Southeast Asia. Also, the chances are that the financial “reward” for getting views on such videos is a motivation for the people posting them, so they may themselves not be specifically sadist although they are likely to be sociopathic or psychopathic, and the former condition may have arisen due to their upbringing. The videos appear to divide into three categories: voyeuristic, home made and what I think of as “found footage”. Voyeuristic videos involve chance recordings of monkeys suffering from events not instigated deliberately by humans, such as predation or accidents. Home made is deliberate cruelty to captive animals, actually acquired for that purpose. This can involve attempts to instigate hostility between monkeys. Finally, found footage involves recordings made surreptitiously of humans being cruel to monkeys of other species, something which is obviously a lot easier nowadays than it used to be.

The question of encoded child sexual abuse is another matter, blending into sadism. It could be that the unacceptability of child abuse videos on the internet, not to mention the personal risk in viewing them, leads people to watch or make videos which don’t attract that kind of unwanted attention from the authorities. This is of course speciesist, and there could be popular support for clamping down on them to the same extent, but the situation may not be as black and white as it appears.

I’m going to deal with the last two together, as I think they may be the most significant. Monkey haters have been interviewed and for the ones who have come forward, these two seem to be the explanation. For some people, individuals of closely related species may occupy an uncanny valley between the utterly non-human such as cats on the one hand and humans on the other. This similarity seems to be interpreted by most people as cuteness, but for some it seems to evoke disgust and horror like the undead might do for many.

This is what was revealed, or at least reported, by monkey haters who have been interviewed. One of them recounts a visit to a zoo when he was eight. Up until that point, he’d considered monkeys to be cute and cuddly, but he found the actual experience of seeing them – he mentions mating in public as an example of what triggered him – disgusting and shocking, and this stayed with him into adulthood, eventually manifesting as monkey hate. Significantly, he not only has no urges to be cruel or watch cruelty to other animals, just monkeys. He admits he became obsessed and that it was an addiction, and he feels very guilty and disgusted with himself about it. He also specifically hates baby monkeys, the reason given being that they have tantrums, although this sounds like a rationalisation. His own theory is that it’s instinctive, and surfaces sporadically in some people, but used to be widespread, and also that it’s more common than it seems. It might, in his opinion, also be an outlet for people who have underlying violent tendencies towards humans.

I have to admit this makes a lot of sense. Back in the Miocene, our ancestors were one species of many apes, to the extent that palæontologists can’t identify who they were, but sometime between 24 million years ago in the Oligocene when the first monkeys came into existence from the tarsier-like omomyids and the emergence of Proconsul, the first known ape, 21 million years ago, we would have been monkeys surrounded by possibly competing other monkeys. Since Proconsul is close to the ancestor of all apes, not just us, this raises the question of whether other great apes, and also the various gibbons, also engage in cruelty to tailed monkeys in particular. The Gombe chimpanzee community in particular is known for its violence and this is sometimes manifested in the killing of tailed monkeys such as the red-tailed monkey, although they do eat them. Bonobos and orangutan would, at least prima facie, be considered less likely candidates but this is not scientific of course.

To most people living in European societies, the tailed monkeys are unfamiliar, unlike in the places where they’re likely to live. This unfamiliarity means there is no obvious “bridge” between them and the rest of nature, and this may lead to a sense of the uncanny to a greater extent than it would for humans who live alongside them. As such, the introduction of monkeys as a novelty may come across as an affront to their distinctive identity and might also constitute a threat if they are used to the idea of human dominion over the rest of the animal kingdom. I don’t think it can be mere coincidence that the main audience for these videos is White and English-speaking, and I wonder also if it’s a manifestation of xenophobia which extends to overt and active racism, hence the use of alt-right language. The people who live with wild monkeys from day to day might see them as an economic resource such as for food, tourists or these videos, but they don’t seem to bear them animosity. They’re just doing White people’s dirty work for them. On the other hand, I’m guessing here, but I would expect some of them to regard them as “tree rats”, as the term has it, similarly to how many people in cities see rock doves.

The interviewee thinks there are probably a few dozen hard core monkey haters, which makes it sound like a trivial matter, but there are also thousands upon thousands of casual monkey haters, who watch the videos for entertainment regularly without commenting or engaging. Some of them clearly do get sexual gratification from it, and interestingly despite their apparently homophobic attitudes are very zealous in their defence of their right to do so. There are also two kinds of target. Babies are one, and tend to mention the kind of characteristics often attributed to human babies, such as clinginess, dependence and spoiltness. The other target is the grief of the mothers who witness the death and injury of their children. The former is particularly reminiscent of child abuse and the latter, I think, gives a clue as to the possibility of it being to do with opposition to feelings of tenderness and love. Some fans go so far as to say they’d like to kill all humans who feel positively towards monkeys in any way, and a link is also made between monkey behaviour and neurodiversity as a “justification”.

I want to close by making two observations. Most of the videos are made in Cambodia in spite of the fact that non-human primates are found all across Asia and Afrika, and also in South America. Old World monkeys are more closely related to us than New World monkeys are. In fact, cladistically we are Old World monkeys. These would’ve been the monkeys, or similar ones, with whom we would’ve been in conflict in the Oligocene and Miocene, but this fails to explain why Cambodia specifically would be the source. Could it be that in that country in particular, the terrible trauma seen as inflicted by Pol Pot has brutalised the populace and led to this tendency? Or is it more a question of economic necessity: people in particularly severe hardship will seek any source at all to support their dependents and themselves? One thing this has brought home to me is how little I know of Cambodia, and I would like to explore this on here in the near future.

My Button Phobia

Trigger warning: various phobias – I can’t mention them because those would be triggers for readers with them. Sorry.

For most of my life, up to about 2014 when I was forty-seven, I had a button phobia. I had it for as long as I can remember, and I mentioned it yesterday. I didn’t mention it often, even to people I trusted, for two reasons. One was that I didn’t want it to be exploited for the sake of a joke or something, and the other was that it was difficult for me even to say the word. I’ve decided to talk about it and its effects on my life here.

I describe my abhorrence of them as a phobia, but it’s more like disgust. This is also how other people tend to describe it, although there seems to be a separate pure phobia too, sometimes originating from a negative experience such as almost choking on one as a small child. The usual explanation given for phobias is conditioning, and I’m sure that’s often true. For instance, when I was a child I was also afraid of dogs, and that was because of one jumping up into my pram when I was a baby. This has now long faded, probably by the time I was about ten. The phobia I’m describing here, though, has unexpectedly gone, and I’ll go into that later.

You may have noticed that I’m avoiding naming them. I used to do this when it was active, but now I’m doing it out of consideration for anyone reading this who might have it. I have only knowingly come across one other person with this issue, and he was a gay man. When I found out, I carefully asked him questions because by that time, when I was twenty, I already suspected there was a link between my gender incongruence and this, and that later turned out to be true for me in a very peculiar way, but he didn’t report anything along those lines, hence my free use of that pronoun to refer to him.

The Greek, i.e. technical, term for this is koumpounophobia. I’m not sure how useful it is to have a name for it. There was a phase a few years ago when the internet was slightly younger, when it was being flooded with practically identical websites purporting to address various different phobias, and this was one of them. To my mind, not only was this annoying, since it obscured anyone who might be reaching out to others on the matter, but it was also futile even if the quality of the therapy offered was good, because koumpounophobia is usually an entirely different kind of beast from the likes of my former phobia of dogs, which proceed from a fairly simple learned response to a traumatic association with the object of the phobia. There seems to be a second class of phobias which are more like this, and are often rare, although there are common examples. For instance, arachnophobia (fear of spiders) doesn’t seem to be due to trauma, at least in this life, but is more connected to instinctive fear of that small venomous animal. It doesn’t seem to be based on anything here in Britain, but over much of the rest of the planet even quite small spiders could be a major risk to life, and presumably at some time in our distant evolutionary past, spiders have ended up killing a lot of our potential ancestors to the extent that the actual ones who survived because they were afraid of them passed that trait on to many of us. I get the impression that most people seem to have at least a mild fear of spiders. I have never had any, and I wonder if that’s because the facility in my brain which would manifest that phobia is dedicated to koumpounophobia instead, although I’m not sure because it’s more nauseating disgust than fear, which I presume arachnophobia isn’t.

Koumpounophobia is by no means the rarest phobia. One of the strangest, to my mind, is described as “fear of being drowned by peacocks”, which remarkably is not unique but is extremely rare. I can’t quite remember the details of it but it seems to involve the prospect of being surrounded and overwhelmed by displaying peacocks which would kind of erase your existence through their visual exuberance. Apologies if this disturbs anyone. I mention this one because I think it might offer a clue as to what’s going on. Peacock displays clearly evolved because they make a major visual impression, which in the occasional human triggers a fear response. Up to a certain point, they seem to be doing the same kind of thing in a human brain to that of a peahen, but instead of leading to sexual arousal, they lead to fear in these people.

It’s said that one person in 75 000 has koumpounophobia. That’s about thirteen people in a million. It can make it very difficult to function in the world because one tends to avoid clothes with them and environments with them as far as possible, which of course isn’t very far. It doesn’t fade with exposure either, unlike some other phenomena which become habituated. It has a major impacts on people’s careers in a major way and makes it harder to enjoy special occasions like weddings or achieve possible catharsis in funerals. From a personal perspective, all sorts of things probably impaired my educational achievements, and some of that was down to me, but one thing which definitely did was that the compulsory period of secondary education included a particular kind of school uniform. And imagine the difficulty with job interviews. The problem is that a ubiquitous bit of clothing technology is inextricably woven into the fabric of society to the extent that makes it much harder for someone with this issue to cope. It isn’t even anyone’s fault, and I’ll come back to that because it’s important.

Cats are said to be afraid of cucumbers. This is anecdotal as far as I know and it would be cruel to test it, but the reason seems to be similar to this problem. Cucumbers resemble snakes visually and in terms of odour. Some snakes smell of cucumber and clearly to a cat, whose colour vision is less acute than most humans’, a cucumber looks like a snake. This happens whether or not they’ve ever seen snakes, and it strikes me as similar to koumpounophobia. It’s a side-effect which in the feline case is usually quite innocuous and not something which would be a problem in the wild because they presumably rarely encounter anything similar which is just a vegetable. I would imagine they’re afraid of non-venomous snakes, eels and legless lizards too, but the fact that snakes are often dangerous to them rather than just potential prey means they have this instinctive response.

I used not to be able to say the word in any language I knew it in. It influenced a kind of basic design ethos in my childhood which other people have taken further, notably Steve Jobs. In my case I associated them mildly with wheels and knobs, rotary motion in general and of course controls with the same name, and therefore was keener on hovercraft and linear induction motors than wheeled vehicles, although of course a standard hovercraft has hidden rotary movement in the form of its fan. I imagined a world where there were only slide controls and rectangular touch sensitive panels. Because I ended up going into philosophy and eventually herbalism rather than becoming any kind of designer, this had little influence on the world, but a person like Steve Jobs, who wished to eliminate them entirely from Apple products because of his own phobia, did end up having enormous sway in certain areas and consequently we now have touch screens rather than keyboards. He didn’t invent those of course, but did play a major part in popularising them, and apparently he was also able to cope with an initially fairly conventional career path.

I would imagine that it’s also been a spur for some fashion designers, although I’m not aware of it. It was a major factor, needless to say, in my own clothing choices as an adult, and in fact despite my gender incongruence the more important factor in my preferences was whether they had those fastenings or not. It also applied to press studs and piercings, in that a sleeper or stud was too much like one of them to cope with, on myself or someone else. Consequently, with the exception of jeans I only wore them on work-related occasions, which for me was taking herbal consultations, teaching adult ed and giving talks and lectures. I’ve seen it claimed that the metal ones are less triggering for most people with this issue, but that didn’t apply to me. For some people it extends further to other small round objects, and I suppose for me there was a mild extension to wheels and a stronger one to ear studs, and that last is a jump-off to what I think is going on.

I believe that the source of the phobia in instinctive terms is abhorrence of certain skin lesions, such as boils and those of smallpox, and to some extent skin conditions related to poor constitutional or nutritional health. In evolutionary terms, we’re genetically programmed to avoid these and move away from them, and also not to reproduce with people whose skin health we perceive as poor, as that suggests they may not be good candidates for healthy gametes, low-risk pregnancy or sustained parenting. Incidentally, it’s interesting that sexual attraction to all gender presentation has a universal preference for such features as clear skin and “good” hair, and this spills over into non-sexual contexts too. It’s also deeply unfair, but I’ve already blogged on the faults in the wisdom of disgust. For koumpounophobes, this association works the other way. The experience of nausea and disgust is transferred.

Neurologically, although this doesn’t seem to be backed up by current hypotheses on the origin of phobias, it seems evident to me that phobias share features with sexual paraphilias and epileptic foci. They’re not fundamentally explicable in terms of associations as mental events or amenable to a life experience based narrative in these cases, although as with my dog phobia they are in many others. The response is also not exactly fear, and I was definitely afraid of dogs and not disgusted by them, so it may be that calling them phobias at all is a misapplication of the term. If you ask someone with a sexual fetish why they are turned on by particular objects, clothing or practices (and that’s not strictly speaking a fetish but the word tends to be applied loosely), they can give all sorts of reasons based on appearance, texture, odour and associations, but although these can be understood intellectually they’re never going to lead to the person hearing the explanation acquiring that paraphilia. On the other hand, if you actually have that kink, you won’t even need an explanation because you will immediately understand. There are of course many cases of kinks arising as a result of experience, which for example probably explains why foot and footwear fetishism is so common – they’re in a toddler’s line of sight a lot – but others, such as leather, rubber and PVC, are, I’m guessing, more to do with their comparison to skin and possibly also their physical restrictiveness, and that association doesn’t result from a specific experience but a kind of archetypal similarity. Psychoanalysis, while mainly useless and baroquely distanced from lived reality, does include the useful concept of cathexis here, which is the allocation of emotional and/or intellectual energy to an idea, object or person – “item” is probably the word I’m looking for here. In the case of paraphilia this is positive cathexis, and with phobias it’s negative cathexis.

The other similar category seems to be epileptic seizures triggered by specific foci such as flashing lights or, in one famous case, an open safety pin. This last is particularly close to koumpounophobia. There may be the perceived danger of a point, which will probably be instinctive, or it may be the simple recognition of the concept which triggers the seizure. It’s clearly not appropriate to attempt to explain epilepsy in psychoanalytical or even psychological terms beyond a certain point: maybe the perception of danger from a pin is valid, but that wouldn’t trigger epilepsy even in most epileptics, and it may be nothing to do with it at all.

I should emphasise again that this explanation doesn’t apply to all phobias, or even to all koumpounophobia, because sometimes they arise from learned experience, but on the whole koumpounophobia doesn’t. People often seem very keen on coming up with pop psychological explanations for such things, but they also used to try to explain left-handedness in this way, even in academic circles.

For me, having koumpounophobia has influenced my attitudes towards other things. In Nineteenthly’s utopia, of course there wouldn’t’ve been any of these fasteners and other things would also be different such as all keyboards being membrane like the ZX81’s and hovercars and maglev vehicles replacing wheeled cars and trains, but it would obviously be silly to enact laws making them illegal just because they disgusted me. This has, I think, informed my attitude towards the whole notion of the wisdom of disgust and also homophobia. It seems to me that heterosexuals’ ideas of homosexual activity disgust many of them, but to me that’s irrelevant to ethical judgement, and that arises not only from my own queerness but also from my own koumpounophobia. That said, I did once write a short story about a character who was koumpounophobic and found himself in such a “utopia” in a parallel universe where they were considered old-fashioned and superceded.

A couple of other things. The phobia was so much part of my identity that I didn’t want to lose it. I felt it would lead to me doing disgusting and loathsome things like wearing clothes like that, and I didn’t want to become that person. The author Audrey Niffenegger’s novel ‘Her Fearful Symmetry’ includes a character, Martin, who is obsessive-compulsive and can’t leave the house, who says something like “part of the problem is not wanting to have a solution to the problem”. This could be seen, for example, in germ phobia: someone who is germ-phobic might consider it dangerous not to exercise the degree of care taken to avoid infection, as they see it, and if they were “cured”, it would lead to them acquiring that infection. Not wanting koumpounophobia to end is more abstract, as for most people, though not all, it isn’t perceived as exposing them to danger. It is in a few, for instance some people think they’re germ traps although that seems mainly to be a rationalisation for their phobia but also an extra connection to instinctive disgust, and others are worried they might choke on them. My concern was more like the fear of losing one’s good taste or fashion sense.

I’m still trying to confine gender-related issues to the blog dedicated to it, but it would be remiss of me to omit the remarkable experience of the phobia actually going away. Although I still have my moments, for instance if I’m stressed, since I started taking oestrogen, this phobia has disappeared! I don’t know what to make of this, but it means I am now that person I feared I would become in that sense. I do, however, find that validating because it clearly means that gender incongruence is an organic brain phenomenon rather than something resulting from upbringing or trauma, or anything like that, and that I became “fixed” in all sorts of ways when I started on HRT. I have a vague idea that it might just be something to do with physical penetration, but that doesn’t seem particularly feasible to me. In this new régime, though, I do wear them, and it’s absolutely fine from the viewpoint of not being distracted by disgust or fear. But, there are still two issues. One is that of loyalty to my former “community”. Although I’m aware that this town of around fifty thousand is too small for there to be more than one koumpounophobe in it, I also don’t want to be the source of someone else’s distaste. You may have noticed that I’ve avoided using any images in this post, and that’s why. The obvious images would be triggering. I know it’s unlikely, but I don’t want to be that person even though I’d be swamped by loads of people who are completely unaware and probably consider it peculiar that this even exists, and therefore persist in doing what they do. It’s also impossible to take all obscure difficulties people might have into consideration and they might even be contradictory. The other is that I’ve now got so used to zips and the absence of fasteners that putting on clothes with the Fastener That Dare Not Speak Its Name is actually a massive faff and quite time-consuming. On the other hand, taking time to do that sort of thing is a form of self-care a bit like doing your makeup properly. A third aspect is that if I do wear clothes with them, it can feel like a kind of affirmation that going on oestrogen was the right thing to do, because I now have that option. The last time I did it, I was actually less aware of my clothes than I usually am.

I want to close with the experience which led me to post this. I came across this video on YouTube, which I’m posting as a link rather than embedding because of the trigger issue on the thumbnail, and it turns out that this YouTuber, Georgie Carr, was also selectively mute, and that also affected a family member of mine. I don’t know what to make of this, as these are a single example of them occuring together (I don’t want to call them “comorbities” because that sounds like a term given by detached and perhaps not particularly caring outsiders to them), and I’ve never been selectively mute myself, but it’s noneteheless interesting that they should cluster even if I’m seeing a pattern which isn’t there. I feel like I’m beginning to piece together a more comprehensive understanding of what’s going on, but it still seems quite mysterious and I still don’t know. It’s so fascinating though.