Up With Smoke
A most unlikely fetish
By Michelle Chihara
FEBRUARY 23, 1999: Sam* describes himself as "nondescript" and "fortyish." He's tall and stocky, with blunt fingers and slightly messy brown hair. He's wearing a tweed jacket and a striped yellow tie, sitting across from me in the nonsmoking section of an upscale Irish pub downtown. We're in a booth, separated from the business-lunch crowd by high wooden seatbacks, and Sam leans in to confide that he hates smoke. "I'm not militant about it," he says. "Just don't pollute my air. . . . I wouldn't let my 70-year-old grandmother smoke in the house. I made her go outside in the cold."
But Sam's relationship to cigarettes is more complicated than that. In the mahogany shadows of the quasi-Celtic decorations, he confesses that when he is sexually aroused, his feelings about smoke change radically: "I think it smells great," he says. "I want to be near it. I want a seat in the smoking section." When Sam is "on the prowl," as he puts it, he wants smoke blown in his face. He fantasizes about being forced to smoke: "I find that to be incredibly exciting." But most of all, he wants to see a woman smoking. He finds images of a cigarette-wielding Marcia Clark, of O.J.-trial fame, "extremely attractive."
Sam, by his own admission, is a "smoking fetisher," one of unknown thousands of men from all walks of life whose sex lives revolve around -- or even depend completely on -- the encounter of a lit cigarette and a woman's lips.
"I happen to enjoy watching women light their cigarettes," Sam says. "Watching them hold the cigarette with their fingers. I notice if it's a lighter or matches, I watch them inhale when lighting. There's no detail that goes unnoticed."
Sam, who is married, says his wife humors him. "She says, 'Sam, I know that when I smoke, I've gotcha.' "
Some smoking fetishists, like Sam, are nonsmokers. Some smoke. Some smoke for a while, then quit, but remain fetishists. "Some of the guys smoke all the time," Sam says. "I don't know if I'm typical. But I'm one who has that total, well, illogic-ness of hating it and loving it."
"The guys" is an apt way to put it; smoking fetishists are, for all intents and purposes, all male. No one is quite sure exactly how many there are nationwide; estimates from people inside the scene range from tens to hundreds of thousands. They mostly meet online, and enough of them have gathered around listservs, forums, and Web sites to have spawned a cottage industry. Business got a boost when the Wall Street Journal ran a story about smoking fetishists in 1996. Now, there are at least a dozen companies that cater to their needs, supplying videos and members-only Web sites.
Pornographically speaking, those needs are relatively modest. Sam shares with the vast majority of smoking fetishists a certain demureness of taste: although there is such a thing as smoking porn -- catering to men who like to see women smoking while performing all manner of sexual acts -- the core community of fetishists is turned on primarily, and sometimes solely, by the sight of an attractive woman taking a long, deep drag. As one smoking fetishist from upstate New York wrote me in an e-mail: "The biggest turn-on: Hands free, dangle, cig straight, cheeks hollowed followed by a nostril exhale, with the cig still straight in the mouth, and her hands still away from her face (strange, huh!)."
Fetishists are avid collectors. They assemble huge collections of seemingly innocuous images of women smoking -- on film, on the Web, on videotape. Ron Andrews, an indie filmmaker who caters exclusively to smoking fetishists, sells videos that boast, "No story line, no music, no titles, no gimmicks, and of course, no nudity."
Four or five years ago, Ed Luisser -- a filmmaker and smoking fetishist in Edmond, Oklahoma -- started writing to used-magazine shops looking for old men's magazines from the '30s -- "in hopes," he says, "that they would have photographs of women with cigarettes." It was slow going at first, but Luisser kept collecting stills, and then began creating his own. In 1992, he got a video camera and began shooting videos. "I still thought I was alone on the earth" in his interests, he says, until, in 1994, one of his old magazine contacts told him someone else had written, a photographer, looking for the same kinds of images. With some advice from the photographer, a few more contacts, and then the Web, Luisser began to sell his work.
Luisser is now owner, president, and director of Coherent Light Photography, the seminal smoking-fetish video company, incorporated in 1995. He still works out of his living room, without a studio, and still uses his own furniture as props. The company has more than 40 titles available, and Luisser makes two or three new videos every month.
The images are arrestingly, intensely erotic for smoking fetishists -- and only for smoking fetishists. For outside observers, the material is excruciatingly repetitive and PG-rated. In Coherent Light's Cigarette Holders, a scene opens with a full-length shot of a woman named Shandy stretched out on a day bed. She wears a long black gown with a hint of feathers at the collar, and she's smoking a cigarette perched in a long holder. "Mmmm, this makes me feel so good," she purrs. "Want me to take another drag? Okay, I won't make you beg for it. I'll just give it to you." A close-up or two of her lips. More smoking. Cut. New cigarette. "Back again?" Shandy blows a little kiss to her viewer at the end of a cigarette. The tape lasts for an hour.
Shandy's smoke (Shandy is followed by Angela, Brianne, and Shanna, a silent blonde) is lit from behind, so that the smoke seems to take on a life of its own. It streams out of the women's mouths in thick, creamy banners, hovers in the still studio air, curls back on itself, climbs slowly upward. Ed Luisser says that he developed lighting techniques to highlight the smoke without throwing bizarre shadows onto the women's faces. "For a lot of us, the important aspect is seeing the full action of taking a full drag and exhaling," he says. "To be blunt, most others who have jumped into [this niche market] have copied my techniques."
Since no two fetishists are alike, other videos cater to other tastes. In The Doctor's Patient, a man is forced to smoke by way of a strappy contraption that Luisser says is a modified fireman's mask. Still others vary the accessories: holders, cases, lighters, brands, techniques, and costumes. Dan*, a 30-year-old financial worker in Boston, says that a woman smoking a cork-tipped cigarette (where the filter is beige, as in Camel Lights) is such a turn-off that he'd rather she not smoke at all. He prefers Marlboro 100s. Luisser doesn't have strong feelings about brand, but prefers that veiled hats be involved. Many men prefer stronger cigarettes. For some, it's how a woman lights the cigarette, regardless of the brand; for others, it's how she smokes it.
When fetishers communicate online, in newsgroups and on bulletin boards, they share descriptions of "sightings" -- particularly well-executed inhales and exhales. They put up page after page of stills of women smoking. They create collections of video-captured scenes from movies in which actresses smoke. They compile online lists of celebrities who smoke IRL, "in real life." The posts on these newsgroups reveal a group of people with particular and demanding tastes who pay strict attention to detail. The average smoking fetishist can tell you exactly what brand Julia Roberts smoked in My Best Friend's Wedding (Marlboro Red, cork tip). And smoking fetishists tend to be articulate; Sam, an enthusiastic reader of other people's sightings, says that part of the reason that he does not share his own is that he feels his writing abilities aren't up to snuff. A typical sighting:
"Bringing the exhales inside . . .
"Saw one of my favorite types of sightings this morning. . . . A 'mature,' (maybe 50s??) attractive woman was entering the grocery store as I was checking out, no cig in sight, but blue smoke was absolutely streaming out of her mouth and nose from her obviously huge, pre-store last drag. I watched her walk into one of the aisles, the last remnants of her exhale trailing behind her! Started the day off on a very positive note!!"
The most active smoking newsgroup is alt.smoking.glamor, run by Matt Landry, a network engineer who lives near Detroit. When Landry was in high school, his mother found a "cache of stained cigarette ads" in his bedroom. "Naively, when she asked me what was going on, I told her the truth," he says. "I was 16."
Landry's mother is, to use the fetish world's term, an "anti," someone who is passionately against smoking. "She was" -- Landry pauses -- "upset about this. I think if she had found that I had killed someone, she might have been more upset. But maybe not. She hasn't come around at all. She's still not a part of my life."
From his college-dorm room, he launched the newsgroup alt.smokers. "In a fit of what might be called desperation, I decided to give the universe one last chance to provide me with a community I could call home," he says, calling the newsgroup "the irrational last-ditch hope of a flat-broke and chronically depressed college student." The initial response was warm; from about 20 people in 1993, the list has grown exponentially. Now, alt.smoking.glamor (alt.smokers's direct descendant) counts 50 to 60 posts a day, and Landry claims a passive readership in excess of 125,000 users. He spends 45 hours a week working on his various responsibilities to the smoking-fetish community.
"If someone had told me that the community would eventually number in the high tens to low hundreds of thousands," he says, "I would have called him insane."
There are a handful of other newsgroups, Web-based forums and bulletin boards, and a portal site that collects links to most of the major companies and sites. This network provides a resource for people like Matt Landry and Sam, who otherwise often feel stranded and alone. There is also a print 'zine, Smoke Signals, published in Providence by Mike Williams.
"We get e-mails daily from people saying, 'I thought I was the only one,' " says Williams. "It is in some ways, for everybody who's doing this, a labor of love. I managed to find a few people before the Web. . . . I was just discovering kindred spirits out there, so it made sense to put a newsletter together. There were 25 people at the start." Williams won't quote an exact circulation figure, but says it's now considerably more.
The smoking fetish is not an acquired taste. Every fetishist I spoke to said that he was aware of his peculiar sexual proclivity by the time he was 11 or 12 years old; increasing exposure simply helps put a name to a long-standing feeling.
Rigorously defined, a fetish -- any fetish -- is a fixation so overwhelming that the object in question is absolutely necessary for sexual arousal. But fetish reality tends to span a spectrum. Some men need their partner to smoke in order to be aroused, period. Some can gratify themselves only by seeing particular images. Some simply prefer sex with smoke, or feel that smoke greatly enhances their sexual experience.
Experts say the smoking fetish, like others, probably relates to a defining childhood experience or experiences -- impressions from a time when the world was both more frightening and more magical. (This explains, among other things, the current popularity of the Marlboro 100. Says Luisser: "The 100 was considered to be the feminine cigarette about 20 years ago, so it affected people growing up in the late '60s and early '70s.")
"[Many fetishes] have to do with the fantasy of a woman who has a certain kind of mastery of magical powers, like over an object that glows," says Katharine Gates, author of an upcoming book about fetishes called Deviant Desires (due out in September from Juno Books). "That could seem somewhat magical to a child, and also quite frightening and dangerous." And exciting.
The thrill of the prohibited has always been part of a cigarette's appeal, for casual smokers and serious enthusiasts alike. "Cigarettes have always been identified with the illicit," writes Robert Klein, a Cornell professor and author of the book Cigarettes Are Sublime (Duke University Press). "Whereas smoking cigarettes was once an act of defiance, it is now largely an occasion for guilt, although defiance and guilt have always belonged to the psychology of cigarette smoking." Cigarettes, Klein notes, have long been associated with revolt and rebellion, with countercultures and with independence movements.
Klein writes that "a European Community health investigation [shows] that European women are much more likely to smoke in those countries where they are the most liberated from traditional roles and places. This fact lends credence to the suspicion that some of the current impetus for the wave of antitabagism derives from its concealed misogyny or antifeminism."
Relating the fetish to feminism might not be such a stretch. For fetishists, a woman smoking seems to embody sexual power and grace and control. "The glamour end of it," says Luisser, "has to do with the sophistication. . . . I like powerful women, not dominant so much as assertive, self-empowered."
Sam likes watching women smoke who, he feels, "should know better." Like Marcia Clark. Younger women, he thinks, smoke without the same awareness and commitment -- or they smoke to be trendy.
The Virginia Slims "You've come a long way, baby" ad campaign has been feeding off the connection between feminism and smoking for years. In 1929, the publicist Edward Bernays -- sponsored by tobacco companies -- galvanized proto-feminist sentiment around cigarettes by organizing a "Torches of Liberty" rally in which women publicly marched and smoked through New York City, demonstrating for equal smoking rights. The event created the intended controversy, and helped link cigarettes with feminine independence in the public imagination.
Power is certainly one ingredient of the fascination with cigarettes. "It's a blatant sense of power for her," Sam says of his wife. "And for me, it's a sense of powerlessness, having a woman arouse you that way."
The forced-smoking fantasy played out in The Doctor's Patient places men in an outright subordinate position. The pretty blond doctor who forces an unsuspecting patient to smoke through a fireman's mask is played by Selena, one of Coherent Light's most experienced models. An Oklahoma office worker by day, Selena (who declined to give her last name) seems to enjoy playing with the sense of power that she gets from such "modeling." Sometimes, she says, she and her friends will use the smoking techniques perfected for the videos at bars or at restaurants. "A lot of us will do this on purpose," she says. "We'll smoke seductively." Selena has posed topless before, but she would never consider making a sexually explicit video. That would be "too private." But of the smoking she says, "Frankly, it's fun."
Like any obsessive behavior, the smoking fetish can have a dark side: under cover of online anonymity, fetishists sometimes post disturbing statements about what turns them on. One man remembered a couple of teenage flames who started smoking while running track in high school: "I want to know how their black little lungs are today, and how much they would wheeze if I challenged them to a mile-long run" [Joshua, posted January 27,1999].
Another anonymous fetisher writes: "Any of you guys have experience with women smokers talking about the negative aspects of smoking? This is especially a turn-on when they talk about it while smoking. I remember my wife telling me a while back about how depressed one of our children's classmates' mother looked. . . . She told me that the woman's mother had just found out she had lung cancer and was a heavy smoker. My wife told me this while she was smoking her bedtime cigarette, very sexy, and just what the hell was this horny smoking fetishist supposed to say. 'Yeah, honey, those goddamned cancer sticks, why don't you put that one out that you've got stuck in your mouth . . . right now!' A heavy-smoking woman that I work with (affair material if I ever decided to pursue it, awesome double pumper) was speaking at coffee break of a supervisor's wife that had just died of lung cancer at 45 and was a heavy smoker; she had just turned 42 herself and just keeps on puffin' to this day! Is she immune? Hell no, but she is so addicted. I've watched her smoking while wearing the patch and heard her talking about her body 'just needing the nicotine.' A definite turn-on, huh, boys?"
Other fetishers are more deeply conflicted. One writes about the "event of a lifetime" that involved a teenage heartthrob and a cigarette, but finishes his reminiscences with, "Funny, when I think of her now, I hope she has quit. At our age (early 50s), she would be approaching the real health danger zone. I hope she had a good smoking life, turned on a lot of guys, then quit while she still had her health."
Sam is one of these men: he married a smoker, and then helped her quit. "I care about her," he says. "I don't want her to hurt herself."
When I finally talked Dan, the 30-year-old Boston financial worker, into meeting me in person, he wrote me a curt e-mail setting a rendezvous outside a darkened restaurant, saying, "I'm a prompt and reliable person. . . . If you're late, I won't wait longer than 5-10 minutes." I arrived early and still had to persuade Dan to accompany me inside, into the warmth of an almost deserted coffee shop. He was deeply apprehensive about our conversation being overheard.
Dan turned out to be reasonably good-looking, with a round face and sharp amber eyes. As we talked and the edge wore off his rare, dry grin, he confessed to being a smoker "IRL." But he hides both his habit and his fetish from family, friends, and coworkers. He's not even sure he would want to date a regular smoker (his current girlfriend smokes only to indulge his fetish). "There is such a negative stereotype associated with it. I wouldn't want people to judge me on whether or not I smoke."
After a number of girlfriends, smoking and non, Dan has met a woman who seems to match his sexual preferences. She doesn't smoke, but she smokes for him. He tells me that this one "might be it"; he even mentions marriage, in passing. He admits that he is still sometimes stopped in his tracks by just the right drag, between just the right fingers, on the right kind of Marlboro 100. But, he says, "Men never really stop looking," and right now he feels very lucky.
If he is very lucky, Dan will be one of those who manages to work his fetish into a fulfilling relationship, instead of being isolated by its rigid demands. For now, Dan tells me that he is glad he granted me the interview. He never speaks to anyone about cigarettes and sex, so this conversation, he says, "was kind of cathartic."
A smoking fetish is "a double-edged sword," says Dian Hanson, editor of Leg Show, the nation's largest fetish magazine. Women, she says, tend to leave men who make them feel like they're playing second fiddle to a cigarette. But at the same time, "their [fetish] will give them a greater sexual happiness than most of us will ever know."
Abby Ehmann, editor of Extreme Fetish magazine, puts it this way: "We're all freaks to some degree." After all, sex is always equal parts weirdness and magic, equally fantastic and odd. We usually laugh at fetishes as a way of averting our eyes from something that makes us deeply uncomfortable. Most of us will never know exactly what it is we're missing. Talking to a law-student friend of mine, I explained the intense, unfailing sexual power that fetish objects have over their possessors.
"Wow," she said. "I want a fetish."
* Names with asterisks have been changed at the request of the subjects.
Michelle Chihara can be reached at email@example.com.
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