by Ray Gary
The very particular beauty of a balloon is inseparable from its fragility. For a number of people, most of whom choose to remain anonymous, this beauty extends beyond reminisces of childhood. A Google search of ‘balloon fetish’ reveals the clandestine online world of looners – people with a fetish for balloons. Images of scantily clad women straddling large, colourful party balloons, digging their nails or the heel of their stiletto into the taut latex, will forever change your perception of balloons and their purpose.
When a single red helium balloon was delivered to my office, accompanied by a small scribbled drawing of a man digging his fingers into a balloon held in front of his groin, I couldn’t bring myself to return to my desk. It is not something I’d want my colleagues to see. But that wasn’t the only reason to pop the balloon and tear up the note. Having my secret hankerings acknowledged and, to my mind, parodied so publicly was embarrassing, infuriating and very exciting. I needed to compose myself.
With a slight stretch of the imagination, latex, as soft and pliable as it is, has the tactile sensibilities of skin. Lying on a pair of partially inflated balloons can mimic the sensation of breasts pressed against one’s chest. The knotted end of a balloon, with folds as thin and intricate as spider-threads, looks uncannily like a shaved anus.
But looners are not borne out of loneliness or deprivation of human sexual contact; balloons do not stand in for sexual partners. For most looners, balloons’ likeliness to certain features of human anatomy is coincidental. It is the balloon, in and of itself, that forms an integral part of sexual arousal and satisfaction, even though sex-acts may include partner/s.
I’ve never met another looner in person. Netflix’s Strange Sex estimates the number of looners worldwide to be between 250,000 and 500,000 – though, due to its perceived strangeness, very few looners disclose their fetish, so a more accurate estimate is impossible to attain. In spite of its presumed size, the looner community is quite diverse, with looners deriving pleasure from balloons in one or more of the following ways: popping them, watching their sexual partner pop them, rubbing them against their body, or lying on or humping them.
The three main groups of looners are poppers, semi-poppers and non-poppers.
For poppers, balloons, and the act of inflating them, are a near-perfect metaphor for sex, encompassing the atavistic relationship between fear, sex and death: as the balloon expands, the latex becomes increasingly tight, hard and volatile. The sound of breath, deliberate and rhythmic, is both comforting and terribly unsettling. Anticipation, as the balloon nears the brink of bursting, is accompanied by feelings of danger and excitement. When it finally explodes, the sound and feeling is utterly overwhelming. The balloon bursting is both deathly and orgasmic.
In looner forums, this method of bursting balloons is known as ‘blow to pop’, and appears to be the most favoured. Other methods include sit to pop, squeeze to pop or nail pop, stomp, pin pop, cig pop (involving a cigar or cigarette) and so on. Poppers are very particular about the method used to burst balloons.
A further and, if anything, stronger attraction for poppers is watching balloons being burst by their partner/s or members of their desired sex. In an interview with Mona Darling, professional dominatrix and women’s sexual wellness consultant, Tim Popper relays that he gets excited while watching ‘pretty ladies pop balloons by sitting on them or holding them close. Popping with pins or cigarettes or even by stepping on them does nothing for me.’
Debauchery is chic nowadays, and my ex-husband, Glenn, can’t help that his tastes are banal. Same-sex attraction is no longer deviant. There is something titillating about polyamory and fetish-play. Glenn found my fetish fun; he enjoyed taunting me (the red balloon and note delivered to my workplace, for example).
When, in the heat of the moment, he would withdraw a balloon from his pocket and begin inflating it, I would grow still and quiet. My breaths would become shallow. I would give into the pleasure somnambulistically, as Howard Jacobson describes, letting myself go ‘on the understanding that it [fetish play] is not alluded to when it is happening.’ The slightest relation from Glenn, How do you want me to pop it? or Watch me stomp this fucker, would draw me to the strangeness of my attractions and I couldn’t help but recoil.
Those unable to have the fantasy of a member of their desired sex bursting balloons realised have to, like many other fetishists, rely on the feverishness of their imaginations; others are willing and able to pay for it. A student of the University of Columbia, moonlighting as an escort, reveals that a regular client of his pays him to pop balloons while she watches and masturbates. ‘It’s not the strangest request I’ve ever gotten, but it’s probably the easiest,’ he tells The Lion, a student-run blog.
Bursting balloons is more exciting than it is scary – which is not to say it is not often quite scary indeed. The stress response that comes with bursting balloons, however inchoate it might be, is tinged with excitement for most. For poppers (and semi-poppers) that stress response causes arousal, which, due to its masochistic leanings, links it to BDSM.
Despite the fact that balloons being burst excite him, Tim Popper admits to always feeling weary around them. He has a phobia about being in situations over which he has no control and balloons are present. As an aside, he reveals that ‘the “Tim” in my pseudonym stands for timid, not Timothy.’
Fetishism, as a descriptor of atypical sexual behaviour, is most commonly defined as intense eroticisation of either non-living objects and/or specific, typically non-sexual body parts. For the most part, fetishists require the object of their desire to be present, either physically or imaginatively, in order to become aroused and achieve orgasm. But it is not always as clear-cut.
As beguiling as I find them, it is not balloons, but them being destroyed by men that appeals to me. Thinking about or seeing a man tread on a balloon gets me engorged. I’m gay: men are essential to my fantasy and I am wholly attracted to them.
Kris, an academic working in the field of neuroscience, feels differently: it is balloons themselves that excite her. She is asexual. The way a balloon becomes increasingly transparent, its shape distorting, when it is being sat on, squeezed or crushed underfoot before it bursts arouses her.
Kris identifies as a semi-popper, though the distinction between poppers and semi-poppers is tenuous. Balloons bursting are essential to sexual enjoyment for poppers, while, depending on their mood, semi-poppers do not always set out to pop balloons. Semi-poppers report a balloon-bursting phobia, which varies from day-to-day. When in the mood, all the balloons that were inflated will be burst during fetish-play. Other times, it is fun to just have them lying around. Kris is most aroused by the feeling of a balloon about to burst under her, despite having an intense fear of sudden loud noises. In an interview with Dr Angela Lewis, she reveals her most favoured form of fetish play:
“First I start with some ‘balloon foreplay’. This involves blowing up a few balloons. I then squeeze them into the ground/bed and watch them distort. I imagine how good it would feel to sit on one. I squeeze the balloons in various ways, using different body parts. I might lie on one, but avoid it getting in contact with my genitals. The idea is to do this until I can’t stand it anymore. When this happens, I ‘ride’ the balloon. As the name implies, this means straddling the balloon, putting my weight on it and bouncing/grinding against it. My favourite way is putting the balloon on an armchair or other similar-shaped support, as opposed to a flat surface. It allows me to put more weight onto the balloon. While doing this, I’ll also attempt to pop some balloons by hand or pop the balloon under me – depending on its size. A pop can bring me close to orgasm, if I’m aroused enough. Also, the more aroused I am, the more ‘brave’ I get with popping the balloon, so it becomes a positive feedback loop. Eventually I get to a stage where the sexual pleasure totally overwhelms the fear and all I want to do is pop that balloon. I won’t last long in this stage.”
For the most part, looners, as any other sexual minority group, are not able to explain the reasons for their attraction; there wasn’t a revelatory moment in which balloons suddenly became attractive. The fetish cannot be congenital, but, like any other sexual attraction, it seems – particularly to the person in whom it occurs – to develop naturally overtime, most likely rooting itself within the individual during their formative years. According to author and New York University lecturer Katharine Gates, trying to understand how a fetish develops is ‘as complicated and fraught a question as, “Why do some people become gay?”’
The overriding memory I have is thinking men bursting balloons the most macho and malicious of actions. As a child, I remember hating it. Much like Tim Popper feels now, I wouldn’t want to be in situations in which there were balloons and people. As I grew, my feelings changed. By high school, I was leaving inflated balloons in classrooms and communal areas in the hope of seeing male teachers or older male students pop them. The most perfunctory of pops would give me weeks of masturbation material.
I grew older still and discovered gay bars. To have my fantasies realised – or if I’m too drunk to control myself – I will lock myself in a toilet cubicle, inflate a balloon or two and, as insouciantly as possible, drop balloons among the bar’s patrons as I make my way back to my table. In those situations – and any other in which attractive men and balloons are in my periphery – I cannot concentrate on anything else. I watch the balloons fastidiously, though I hide the focus of my attention, lest my deviant desire be found out. I’ve perfected the sideward stare.
When a man casually kicks up one of my balloons and pops it with the smouldering tip of his cigarette, or, noticing a balloon had wafted to under his chair, he stomps it, I would have to go to the bathroom to relieve myself. On looner website Balloonbuddies.com, Dan reveals his similar, though heterosexual, fantasy:
The strongest, most pervasive fantasy I have is to be in the company of a woman who is completely nonchalant and unperturbed while blowing up, playing with and popping balloons. A woman who has the ability to handle balloons without fear is devastatingly sexy.
Balloons are a marvellous source of merriment; looners find particular pleasure in having their living areas littered with them. Though a room or cupboard full of weeks-old, soft and slowly deflating balloons might, to most, seem slovenly, to looners it is a source of comfort and contentment. There is, in fact, a group of looners absolutely averse to the notion of popping and discarding balloons.
Non-poppers find balloons more sensual than sexual. Witnessing or hearing balloons being burst, especially deliberately, can cause them extreme anxiety. The texture, smell and colour of a balloon determines the intensity of feeling a non-popper has to it, but it is balloons’ propensity to be easily destroyed (vulnerable seems a wrong word for inanimate objects) that makes them attractive and worthy of protecting to a non-popper.
On the episode titled Taboo, part the Strange Sex series, Dave professes his ‘real, true love’ for balloons. When one pops accidently, he is visibly agitated – wincing, bending over and deliberately obscuring his view, as if witnessing an execution. Afterwards, he cradles the shards in his palm, rubs them against his cheek and whispers lovingly and consolingly to them.
In her essay ‘Looners: Inside the world of balloon fetishism’ Karen McIntyre argues that non-poppers are at the greatest psychological risk, as the most fanatic of them ‘treat balloons as if they were human, so much so that they equate a busted balloon with murder.’
Lynda, a fifty-five-year-old teacher, finds balloons nurturing and reassuring. To her, they offer stress relief rather than sexual climax. Blowing up balloons will not only make one smile, which is known to reduce stress, but the deep breaths promote relaxation. Lynda, as Karen McIntyre explains, goes a step further:
At home, Lynda and her long-time boyfriend own three helium tanks. They sometimes fill their bedroom, living room or shower with balloons. Lynda built her own cage out of PVC pipe and soft netting. She traps herself in the cage with balloons, turns on a large fan, and allows the balls of latex to whip around her, stimulating her senses to invigorating heights. She equates the feeling to a junkie’s high, ‘so intense, so wild and awesome’ that she collapses in ecstasy afterward like one does after incredible sex.
I’ve had the most incredible sex with Glenn, my ex-husband. I was utterly attracted to him, and balloons were never essential to our coupling. The many times he indulged my fantasies were when we had the most memorable and pleasurable sex. When, after asking him to burst a balloon for me, he did so with more boredom than enthusiasm, I didn’t find it at all stimulating. A man bursting a balloon in any way usually turns me on, but seeing Glenn do it with such distraction and lacklustre made me uneasy. He later said that he wanted something different; that, together, we were no longer exciting. We separated soon after.
In the years that we were together, he’s given me enough masturbation material to last me my lifetime. But I would do anything to see him, once again, stomp a balloon, the ends of his mouth raised in a coquettish smile.
Fetishes, more nakedly than ever before, are testament to the fact that the more research one does, the more one learns how much remains unknown and will never be understood.