Friday, September 27, 2013

Can I Have Some Facts Here, Please?

I'm getting weary of cable television shows about balloon fetishism. Don't get me wrong, I have nothing against the balloon fetishists themselves, who want to tell their story and promote some understanding and maybe acceptance. And I have to admit that Dennis fared a lot better on The Discovery Channel's Forbidden segment as far as editing, lighting, and music than did his predecessors on similar shows in the past on TLC and National Geographic.

But what about research? What about facts? What about getting experts who (and I realize that this is a radical idea) actually know what the hell they are talking about?

Let's take the most recent show, Forbidden, as an example. Here are some of the ideas presented as fact through narration and by talking heads "experts" (whose names are not given on this particular show, leaving us no chance to check their qualifications):

"There are up to 250,000 'looners' worldwide." Anyone who says that they know how many people in the world have a balloon fetish are pulling figures out of thin air. At least the expert on Strange Sex had a study she was referring to, although she doesn't actually remember where the study came from (something I know from personal correspondence with the good doctor). I suspect the worldwide figure is probably higher, and the 250,000-500,000 for the US alone cited in Strange Sex is much too high, but there really is no way to tell. This is not the sort of thing that Nielsen runs a telephone survey on. ("Good afternoon, this is Mr. Johnson from A.C. Nielsen. I'd like to ask you about any sexual fetishes you have. Hello? Hello?")

"Looner lads outnumber ladies by 30 to one." I have no doubt that lady balloon fetishists are much rarer than gentlemen balloon fetishists, but no one knows the ratio with any certainty whatsoever.

"And they're mostly young—in their 20s to 30s." Excuse me? As a balloon fetishist in his mid-50s who has been corresponding with other balloon fetishists since I was in my mid-20s, and who acquired his balloon fetish in his pre-teens, I can tell you that this notion is patently ridiculous. We come in all ages.

"Balloons are brought out during special times, which would be one thing that would make it [sic] more likely to be a fetish object than something that you would see every single day." Yeah, right, that's why there are so many shoe fetishists because, you know, shoes only come out during special times. Who is this woman?

"Part of the thing that makes a balloon fetish too is the fact that it can look as though it's a sexual shape." This woman obviously has no idea why people develop fetishes. "Oh yeah, that balloon looks like a breast and that one looks like a penis, and that shoe looks like a ... shoe." She's really just making this up as she goes. I'm sure she's never talked to a real balloon fetishist in her entire life (at least not that she knows of).

"Unlike kids' balloons, which are made of cheap synthetic rubber, Dennis favors inflatables of premium natural latex." Good luck going into your local party store and finding a balloon made of synthetic rubber, which is not cheap at all. Although balloons might have more or less added chemistry, the balloons that kids play with are the same latex balloons we play with. We just don't play with them the same way.

Aside from the factual errors, there is the whole structure of this, with the talking heads and the little history of the invention of rubber balloons thrown in to make it sound like the show covers the entire subject.

With all due respect to Dennis, his approach to the fetish is only one aspect of a very, very broad subject. Popping was only mentioned by Dennis as something that just happens sometimes. For Dennis, as with non-poppers in general, that's an undesirable thing. But for others, myself included, balloons popping is an important part of the experience. And for many, it's the whole point of their fetish.

But back to the subject of "experts." I don't think anyone is a true expert on balloon fetishism. Those of us who have one tend to have a fairly narrow view. And I doubt that anyone, even a clinician, who does not have the fetish would devote the necessary time for true in-depth study.

But the cable channels have to have their talking heads, right? So they pick a handy psychologist or two and just ask them to talk on camera about balloon fetishes. And, not having treated a balloon fetishist before, because rarer than a balloon fetishist is a balloon fetishist who seeks treatment for it, this person coughs up whatever is in the literature (or what they remember from the literature, if they are too lazy or haven't been given time to look it up), plus whatever comes to mind about how they think a balloon fetish might play out.

Worse yet is consulting someone like Karen McIntyre, the "expert" from National Geographic's Taboo, who is a reporter who wrote a thesis paper about balloon fetishism while she was a journalism student. Look up her paper: it's full of bizarrely cute animated graphics. And somehow this one paper makes her an expert.

And one of Taboo's other experts was a sociologist. Now there's someone who really knows about sexual development!

It's not that I think the general public needs to know all the little details about our sexual interest in balloons—there are certainly more important things that they, and frankly we, should be devoting our attention to. But of the information that's out there, these shows are where the majority of non-fetishists find out about this unusual fetish.

And I think we'd all be a lot better off if they were getting information that actually contained some good old-fashioned facts.