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Fur Shame

Fur Shame
Sherilyn Connelly

March 30, 2011: Kate Bornstein is being interviewed about Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation by Steve Scher on the talk show Weekday on KUOW 94.9FM (Puget Sound’s News Leader!).  As is so often the case with these types of interviews it’s mostly Sex ‘n Gender 101, though the conversation keeps veering back to Kate’s BDSM activities.  (If you want to follow along at home, the relevant bit of the discussion occurs at 40:03 into the mp3. )

I’ve observed that a lot of people in the furry scene are borderline anti-furry themselves, ashamed about their own proclivities and getting very cross indeed when anyone else tries to regard furryosity with any kind of respect.

Steve asks her to explain the concept of “ownership” in a master/slave relationship, and, sounding ever so slightly exasperated at having to go further in that particular direction, Kate replies: “Well, sexual orientation doesn’t necessarily depend on the gender of your partner.  It can depend more on, what is it you like to do? For example, furries. Do you know…oh, good!” She pauses, and you can actually hear her eyes widening in feigned delight.  “Steve, you’re a closet furry!  Oh, look at your bushy tail!”

Sounding more than a little embarrassed, Steve chuckles and says: “I have to admit I saw a CSI episode which introduced me to a concept I had never known before.”

Kate: “Yes!  People who like to dress up as woodland creatures, or…”

Steve: “And then…have sex.”

Kate: “Or not!  Just cuddle.”

Steve, sounding less convinced: “Just cuddle.”

Kate: “The importance is being the woodland creature and flirting.”

Steve: “They’re on the island of rejected mascots, I’m sure, all together.”  (Furry = rejection!)

Kate: “Oh, god, can you imagine that one?”  Another shared chuckle, and then: “My sexual orientation is mostly involved with what I do, and what I really enjoy doing is…”  And from there she goes back into discussing S/M and learning to be dominated and relinquish control vis-à-vis forty years living as an entitled man.

Furries are not brought up again, and the entire exchange takes roughly sixty seconds out of a forty-minute program, the first half of which is an interview with a guy who wrote a book about (real) tigers.  The Weekday episode is eventually archived with the title “Tigers and Furries,” because of course it is.

April 28, 2011: Kate accepts the Judges’ Special Award in Nonfiction for Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation from The Publishing Triangle, which is evidently a thing that exists.  (Full disclosure:  I have an essay in Gender Outlaws, and I like to joke that the book has been receiving all these accolades in spite of my presence in it.  More on that in my next column.)  In her speech, Kate does one of her standard riffs on how there’s a whole bunch more identities than just LGBT.  It’s a bit that she’s been doing since at least 2009, and probably since well before that–which is cool, since it’s more relevant than ever, especially when speaking to a group which describes itself as “The Association of Lesbians and Gay Men in Publishing.”

It starts at about 10:07 in the YouTube video. “We need to read more words by and about Q for queer, A for asexual, A for adult entertainers, S for sadomasochists, S for sex workers, S for swingers, D for drag queens, drag kings and all drag-fuck royalty. I for intersex. Let’s say it again–another F for feminists, because there can never be too many of those.” Her tone turns jocular, and she grins far more broadly than she has in a while (her overall energy level is astonishing considering that Kate is giving this speech while sick with a stomach flu, making her far more of a trooper than I’ll ever be): “Another F for furries!”

The audience laughs appreciatively, and Kate rubs her nose up and down and says in a knowing, almost conspiratorial tone: “Oh, you know what furries are? Heh heh heh…anybody who doesn’t, come up and see me later, I’ll tell you.” Back to her more serious tone: “G for genderqueer–interesting word, genderqueer, the only word in the English language that names a gender that doesn’t refer back to the binary. ‘Genderqueer.’ K for kinky, P for pornographers, P for pansexuals, P for polyamory…and E for et cetera, because it’s going to go on and on and on.”  She makes an impassioned plea for all these various voices and identities to find a place in the modern publishing world.  Whether or not people do in fact come up to her later to ask what furries are is not revealed in the video.

Okay, first off: I do not envy Kate these days.  For all the pioneering work as she’s done over the decades, she’s been getting more and more backlash recently as the newer generations of super-hardcore trans activists look for things to get to get all super-hardcore activisty about.  It makes me glad that I’m unlikely to become anybody’s idea of an icon or hero or a role model and have to deal with the enormous levels of static and backlash and fist-shaking WHY U NO? anger hurled at her (or even less angry, more conciliatory nitpicks like the one you’re reading right now).  And it’s not like I completely identify with Kate—the gender binary actually works just fine for me, inasmuch as I’ve transitioned to female and would very much like to be regarded as female plzkthxbai.  But I don’t take her anti-binary position as any kind of personal affront against me, either.

Darn it, though, the furry shaming bothers me.  Now, unlike Steve Scher I do have a bushy tail which is safety-pinned to my skirt, I’m a regular at the monthly furry nightclub in San Francisco where I’ve engaged in dancefloor yiffing, and I’ve participated in other such events.  So I can’t really say whether or not it would bother me if I wasn’t a furry myself, but I’d like to think so, especially since as a transsexual who grew up in a world in which all manner of gender-crossing tended to get boiled down to (in modern parlance) wtf that dude’s wearing a dress lol, I’m just not comfortable with shame as a tactic.

I don’t believe that Kate is anti-furry (nor do I believe many people besides myself would care if she was). Indeed, it’s clear that she takes a great deal of non-malicious delight in the concept, and it’s her go-to example of the variety of sexual expression.  And yet, the tone of it all feels…well, shaming.  Like, the exchange with Scher doesn’t feel a whole different than “You’re a closet transvestite, aren’t you?  Oooh, I’ll bet you’re wearing panties right now!”  I mean, what exactly was accomplished other than making him embarrassed for no good reason?  What point was being made?  Was there an insight that I’m just not picking up on?  Because it feels to me like it comes out of nowhere, or like it’s a surefire bit that she’s used in the past that she knows will get a laugh and lighten the mood.

It certainly does so in the Publishing Triangle speech, with the same undercurrent (well, overcurrent) of “Oh, you’re one of those people, huh?”  Myself, I can’t help but laugh that pornographer as a sexual/gender identity passes by without comment—seriously?–and I’d wager that somebody somewhere is angry at the exclusion of “D for dapper.”

Hell, I don’t know.  I’m neither an activist nor an especially sharp political thinker. It’s entirely possible that Kate’s playing a deeper game than I can perceive, but no matter how playfully it’s done, teasing people by suggesting/accusing them of being furries and thus implying that being a furry is something to be embarrassed about feels like a continued marginalization of a group which is already pretty goddamned low on the ladder to begin with.  (I’m also well aware that the “I’ll bet you’re wearing panties right now!” comparison I made above is probably offensive to some people, since it implies that furries are even close to being on the same level as trans people, which they are most certainly not, amirite?)

It wouldn’t even matter if Kate was anti-furry, I suppose.  I’ve observed that a lot of people in the furry scene are borderline anti-furry themselves, ashamed about their own proclivities and getting very cross indeed when anyone else tries to regard furryosity with any kind of respect.  (Every so often someone says “Maybe we should have a flag or something,” and it’s usually met with “NO! IT’S A FUCKING HOBBY! NO FLAG!”)  It’s not too hard to believe that they might lack the internal fortitude required to be openly comfortable with something that meets so much societal disapproval and shame from so many directions–even from the most progressive of queers.

Oh, whatever.  It’s no big whoop.  They’re only furries.

Comments

  1. Abbie

    Great essay! All I can suggest is that shame may be an important part of the narrative for someone into BDSM. In other words, the pleasure from dressing up in fur may be viewed as a hobby, but the pleasure of being scolded for dressing up in fur could be played as a domination & submission scenario. Maybe Kate grabbed an opportunity to play dominatrix on the air.

  2. jay

    So, you can critique things Kate has said, but when others do it….they’re overcritical “angry” hardcore activists? Is there something wrong with being a hardcore activist?
    When someone, charismatic and charming and frequently right-on as Kate is fucks up, it’s still fucking up. And not pointing it out makes it worse, because then all that’s left is the echo chamber.

  3. I get really annoyed when queers use shaming language around sexuality at all. Even queer groupings construct their own social hierarchies and the rights-and-wrongs, the inherent assumptions, will inevitably have a tyranny of their own.
    I think it is the assimilationist angle of “look at me, I’m ACTUALLY rather normal”, instead of the view: “look at everyone, we’re all pretty weird and different”.
    And yeah, it feels especially gross when coming from the trans community. (Mind you, the trans community, anecdotally, and over all, seems to be much more accepting. Go dissociative identities!)

    Furries have long been the goto victim of internet society, and it is slowly seeping in to mainstream consciousness, still. But often the main context of absorption is via the Internet-styled mocking , ala Bornstein.
    And as you noted with the mass of self-hating furries, the wall of condemnation and shame certainly has toxic effects.

    The furry subculture walks such an unique and fine line. There are a huge number of us for whom the attraction is primarily sexual, or at the very least, somewhat sexual.
    Then there are those for whom it is more just a hobby, a non-sexual interest.
    These two (roughly defined) groups mix freely and you’d have a hard time really declaring one a majority. (I tried to think of any other niche-interest populations where the non-sexual aficionados mix so freely with the sexually driven ones. The snark center of my brain immediately shouted out “Adolescent beauty pageants”…)

    Anyways, I hope there is more discussion here about these topics. If any theoretical angle should be employed for dealing with the uprising of furries and the intersection(s) with modern sexuality, I would hope that the strongest voices would arise from the post-structuralist identity-constructing world of modern queer trans voices.

    • Eva O.

      I think all of you are taking this anti-furry thing way too seriously. Let’s face it, outside of a non-sexual conformist/intellectual/kink/social subgroup/urban setting, furries aren’t exactly a part of mainstream-controversial, collective consciousness. I doubt any one of your grandparents know what a furry is and what they do (If you’re reading this and one or more of your grandparents knows or is/are, themselves, a furry/s, then mazel tov to you!). I would bet money that a large percentage of Americans, Europeans, Latin Americans, etc. over the age of 40, not only do not know what a furry is, but could care less if you like to crawl around on all fours and sniff other people’s butts; that’s why it’s a sub-group, folks. I really resent one of the earlier comments about the “audacity of the trans community to look their noses down at furries” (How dare they?! Pff, up yours, dude/ette!) or the comment about how the trans-community defies social convention. If anything, most trans-people, outside of San Francisco and NYC, are working very hard to conform to social convention and the commonly-accepted gender binary. How, you ask? By matching their bodies with their minds and presenting an outer visual to the internal.

      Now, I’m all for egalitarianism and what not, but enough is enough, people! Put down the (Insert latest equal rights and acknowledgement for sex/subgroup-activist book here) and use your commen sense. Trans is not the same as Furry. No one’s going to commit suicide because their brain is telling them they’re a horse, but society won’t allow them to transition; no one is going to get their ass kicked if they walk down the street in full-on furry regalia; no teen will be kicked out of his/her home because mom found the head of a chicken costume under the bed while vacumming–and if this ever happens, let me know, and I’ll delete this comment.

      At the risk of being “one of those small-minded and insensitive non-furry people” I’d advise furries to just chill out and have fun; enjoy each other’s company and dance around the proverbial dionysic-fire with heads of dead animals on your shoulders (like they did in dem Greek olden times”). Don’t make it out to be this huge crusade against social norms or conventional sexuality, because…pssst…it’s really not. Nothing’s new under the sun, my friends.

      • Eva O.

        I realize there were several grammatical errors and misspellings in my last comment, particularly, the words “vacuuming” and “Dionysian”.
        Just wanted to point that out before anyone else did.

      • kplay

        Congrats for drawing the circle JUST wide enough to include you, and then vehemently guarding the borders.

        No one is equating furry with trans. No one. There was only the expectation and hope that trans/queer communities wouldn’t so readily go after the easy targets.
        And your equation of transitioning with the desire to conform to all social expectations is baffling, if not insultingly dismissive.

        Your rant heavily parallels the hand-waving that any mainstream group does towards a smaller group that complains. You can go to Foxnation and find the structure of your argument laid out against just homosexuals, for example. “Enough is enough” indeed.

        You feel offended because someone voiced that they are upset with your kinds of attitudes and don’t like to be the subject of your derision.
        You reply back trying to fully justify the derision and that people should just chill out and be ok with that. Good luck with that.

        • Eva O.

          Kplay, I don’t know you, but it seems like you fly off the handle anytime someone’s opinions don’t perfectly align with yours. It makes me wonder exactly who you’re trying to convice, us or yourself?

          “And Your rant heavily parallels the hand-waving that any mainstream group does towards a smaller group that complains”

          Just to be clear on things, I am not, in any way, slamming furries or furry culture, nor do I think I’m being dismissive. On the contary, I find the (sexual or asexual) furry scene to be quite charmingly whimsical and deliciously primal. I not only have nothing against the furry community, I like furries and enjoy their company, but, let’s not fool ourselves, it’s still a fetish (sexual or not), a hobby, something you do for fun. It is NOT the same thing as being transgender, gay or lesbian. This absolutely DOES NOT make the transgender experience more or less relavent than the furry/kink/bdsm/role-playing experience. It is neither better nor worse. It’s simply two separate entities—like the difference between favoring a few sprinkles on your sundae and needing to eat something or you’ll die. Does that make sense? Trans is defined and diagnosed as GID, under the widely accepted Eligibility Criteria and Readiness Criteria of the Harry Benjamen Standards for Care of Gender Identity Disorder. It is neither a sex thing, nor is it a hobby.

          “There was only the expectation and hope that trans/queer communities wouldn’t so readily go after the easy targets”

          You’re being alarmingly paranoid here; no body is going after you. No body cares that you’re a furry. Shall I repeat that again? Sure, why not? Nobody cares that you’re a furry. A large majority of “internet haters” are mischeviously looking to hate anything, regardless of what it is; so long as it’s new and different, it’s fair game. Don’t take it personally, this in no way, reflects the way most intelligent, decent people feel. Ask anyone, outside of an internet blog what they think about people who dress up as animals and meet in clubs to dance and have a good time. The answer you’re more likely to get is, “Oh, how cute!” or, “That sounds kinda fun!” Very rarely will you find someone who says, “Ewww, what? That’s gross! Let’s go leave a burning cross on one of those weirdo’s front lawn! Adam and Eve, not Adam and Beave!” Be grateful that you’re viewed with tolerant indifference, rather than violent hatred.

          “your equation of transitioning with the desire to conform to all social expectations is baffling, if not insultingly dismissive.”

          And your inability to view trans people as a non-subgroup, but as people from all walks of life who happen to have GID, is laughable and trite. If you don’t think, for whatever internal reasons, that transpeople lead normal, conventional lives, then that’s your problem and, in no way reflects on the rest of us.

          “You can go to Foxnation and find the structure of your argument laid out against just homosexuals, for example”

          Oh, Kplay, you’re gonna get it now…really? You had to go there? Thank God you didn’t say this to me in person. (Sigh) let’s refer back to Identity and Sexual Politics 101, shall we? Fact# 1: Sexual orientation and gender = two completely separate entities. What planet are you living on, Kplay? You should be aware of this concept by now. I’d expect more from someone who subscribes to PrettyQueer.com.

          “You reply back trying to fully justify the derision and that people should just chill out and be ok with that. Good luck with that.”

          Three’s a charm: NO BODY CARES THAT YOU’RE A FURRY. I’m not justifying anything, all I’m suggesting is, if you’re getting your panties all in a bunch over what a famous activist may or may have not implied, then I think it’s time to get over yourself and stop worrying about who likes you and who doesn’t. As long as you’re not being stripped of your basic human rights (For example, like marriage or education.), then GET OVER IT, NOT EVERYONE’S GONNA LIKE YOU!

          “You feel offended because someone voiced that they are upset with your kinds of attitudes and don’t like to be the subject of your derision.”

          Dude, really, I could care less what you think at this point, but, I figured you might appreciate it if someone tries to enlighten you on how things work down here on planet earth.

          And, in the words of Ms. Connelly, plzthxbie!

          • kplay

            OK, obviously we are talking past each other.
            You are seeing what you want to see, and accusing me of the same. Oh internet…

            Please, if you really just came here to say that this topic is irrelevant and claim that people are somehow equating trans and furries (no one has), then just please stop.

            “NO BODY CARES THAT YOU’RE A FURRY”

            You keep saying this over and over, but really, it’s not relevant to anything I wrote.

            Anyways, thanks for your enlightenment. I hope you got it out of your system.

            • Eva O.

              Well, obviously, you’re an idiot…oh, you…

              “NO BODY CARES THAT YOU’RE A FURRY”
              “You keep saying this over and over, but really, it’s not relevant to anything I wrote.”

              Well, that’s funny, ’cause last I checked, you were accusing of having some kind of negative attitude towards our community.

              “Please, if you really just came here to say that this topic is irrelevant and claim that people are somehow equating trans and furries (no one has), then just please stop.”

              Don’t tell me what I can and can not do. You do not own me nor this website. I have a voice and a right to use it, regardless of whether you agree with me or not. I’ve got better things to do than reading your replies to me all night, so YOU STOP

              • Eva O.

                Well, that’s funny, ’cause last I checked, you were accusing me of having some kind of negative attitude towards your community.

              • kplay

                “Well, obviously, you’re an idiot…oh, you…”
                “I’ve got better things to do than reading your replies to me all night, so YOU STOP”

                Oh I love you internet. You win. Good night.

                • Eva O.

                  Good night and good riddance.

                  P.S. It’s not “anyways”, it’s “anyway”…grammar is as important as big words when you’re trying to sound smart. :)

  4. Jamie

    I spend a lot more time hiding and being shamed by my non-sexual, non-active involvement with furries and their subculture than I do at being trans. And while it does nothing for me sexually, I admit, I love the costuming and the role play, and have done my share of kitty play in a BDSM scenario.

    In my experience I am far safer admiring I am trans than that I don’t scorn and despise furs.

    • “And while it does nothing for me sexually, I admit, I love the costuming and the role play, and have done my share of kitty play in a BDSM scenario. ”

      Just to clarify, was the kitty play done just as a tool of the scene?
      Was it not erotic unto itself? Not to nitpick, I just love kitty play and have a hard time seeing it as non-sexual. :)

      • Jamie

        Mostly as an RP tool, yes. I am very tatile and enjoying being petted and scratched, espeically on my head. Likewise, with bondage for me it is about those sensations of being tightly held and such. None of it is sexual, just tactile and perhaps sensual. But I am relatively sex-phobic at this point so there is a place where things can’t go past. :)

        I’ve been involved in, either directly or through close friends, the Furry scene since 1992, when I discovered FurryMUCK. I’ve met plenty of people from there, lived with some, slept with others, though never in a furry sense. But that was when I was young and unbroken. :)

  5. > I’ve engaged in dancefloor yiffing

    You had sex in public, on the dancefloor? They didn’t throw you out for that? o.o

    Other then that line, which I’m assuming you don’t really know what you said, it’s a interesting read. Yes. I’m a Furry.

    • “sex on the dancefloor” happens in many clubs, and mostly includes fingering/handjobs. It doesn’t mean they got in to the full-on ass-fucking in the middle of the dancefloor. :)

  6. inotowok

    Unfortunately, we’ve all been conditioned to react poorly to people or behaviors that are unfamiliar to us — either to laugh, pathologize, or attack. It takes some education and awareness to get past us that.

    I might have laughed at furries yesterday, but I won’t tomorrow. Thanks, Sherilyn.

  7. Roz Kaveney

    I’ve been thinking that we need to start considering what happens when and if species-queer people start emerging more generally from the closet – furries, yes, but also otherkin and therians. One day, quite soon, there will be technology that works for them and lets them do stuff, and they are going to expect solidarity, and we are going to be Failing if we react to them the way cisLGs treat us.

    Kate’s right to think a conversation needs to start whatever one says about her playfulness about it. And there isn’t a conversation that I am aware of; Caitlin Kiernan wrote an sf story about the issue some years ago. We aren’t even coping terribly well with neutrois and genderqueer people yet.

    And then there are the transhumanists…

  8. I found this article very interesting, as someone who is a non-binary identified trans person and a furry. I have never been in a closet regarding my trans identity, but very few people know that I hang out with furs. I understand the shaming associated with the furry fandom, and how they are seen as the “bottom feeders” of the internet social hierarchy.

    That said, I had an interesting interaction on my favourite online social hangout – IRC. One of the system administrators refuses to accept my trans identity as anything but “what was written on your birth certificate when you were born”. This kind of lack of acceptance floored me. I still have no words really for the hurt it causes.

    “It’s not too hard to believe that they might lack the internal fortitude required to be openly comfortable with something that meets so much societal disapproval and shame from so many directions–even from the most progressive of queers.”

    It seems to me, at least in my case, that it can be viewed from both sides of the fence. Yes?

  9. liquid

    full disclosure at the getgo: i’ve been a relatively active member of the furry community for close to 12 years.
    That being settled, i think that while a large portion of the shame that furries feel comes from negative media representation-notably CSI and the Tyra Banks Show, a larger portion comes from an interesting social dynamic: people don’t understand things that are different, and it is very very difficult to explain furry anything to people. It is my opinion that most of the shame people feel is internally generated-it is probably more closely rooted to anxiety than anything else, this fear of being singled out as different from the group, mocked or scorned for it. I think this is a kind of generalized social disapproval that affects most small self referential communities, be they trekkies or larpers or model train enthusiasts, the idea that variance is negative. The only real way to change this is to change a basic core of our society-and i can’t see that happening soon. Until we reach that utopia, i think most of these self contained communities will remain just that.

  10. CB

    Mainstream acceptance of furries will never happen not because of snarky comments by queer activists or commenters on the internet, but because of the tendency of those who are vocal about the subject trying to define its broad spectrum in their own terms.

    In this article, you definitively equate furries with sex, a conclusion that is far from flattering and far from accurate. Furry, first and foremost, is about the creation and appreciation of anthropomorphic animal characters, and secondly about the community sharing that interest. To generalize it in a broad sweep as “people who dress up in animal costumes and have sex.” Perhaps this is because your involvement with the community extends no further than “dancefloor yiffing,” but the spectrum of involvement for those who could loosely call themselves “furries” is much broader than you seem to acknowledge.

    Furry shaming is going to continue relentlessly so long as authors and activists continue to define it as a subculture of people who dress up as cartoon animals to fuck. Pigeonholing the entire definition in such a way won’t encourage anybody to take a closer look at what the fandom is actually about.

    • CB

      Edit: “To generalize it as “people who dress up in animal costumes and have sex” doesn’t present the whole picture of the fandom.”

      • And here you go, shaming the sexual side of furry.
        I do not think the author generalized furry as a sexual thing, but she was mentioning it in the specific context of how people discuss it shamefully in regards to sexuality.

        Furry shame exists because a lot of the community is shamed of the sexual side, as you seem to be from your posting. It is near impossible to separate the sexual and nonsexual contingencies.

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Furry_fandom#Sexual_aspects

        If you don’t find it sexual, that’s OK! You might just really appreciate Disney cartoons and whatnot.
        But to scorn and/or deny the sexuality that is seething throughout the entire culture is silly.

  11. fluttershy

    Thanks for this.

    I recently discovered I was a furry. I clearly blame My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic for this. I guess I just had to find the right animal to be.

    I’m dealing with a lot of this. I’ve known a lot of furries over the years thanks to the internet. And I have found many furries – and a lot of the furry drama – to be *funny*. I know a lot of furries find this stuff funny too. But now I wonder if there was an element of scorn in it from me – thinking I was a non-fur and poss even knowing I was a bit furry subconciously, or maybe it had to do with me being trans. I’m kind of an evil person when it comes to making fun of people behind their back too. So I guess what I’m trying to say is that I might have been guilty of furry-shaming in the past. (Furry is a sexual thing for me too, related to pony/petplay.) And now that I’m getting into fur I’m trying to deal with everything all over again or for the very first time.

    This was a really good article articulating why furry-shaming is wrong.

    I will probably see you at Frolic. (But I am really shy! haha for reals)

  12. Kenny

    Maaan, this is ridic. I’m a furry, and I’m so not ashamed. To me, being a furry equates to partying and meeting lots of cool people. In a sense, it’s like college. Right down to the fursuits.

    Put it this way. If you’re ashamed of being a furry, you’re doing it wrong. I wouldn’t let other people who don’t know me tell me how to live my life. You wouldn’t be able to tell I was a furry by the way I dressed or looked anyway, so that just goes to show you that not all furries are shut-ins with no sense of decency or hygiene. So take that and stick it in your hat, Kate Bornstein.

    By the way Sherilyn, you go to Frolic? I’m a local bay fur myself! I’ll say hi next time :D

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