Leather or latex, high heels or handcuffs — when it comes to fetishes, "You can attach your erotic needs to just about anything," says Burlington clinical sexologist Gale H. Golden.
For Chris Burney, "anything" happens to be balloons. And for years, Burney, who turns 30 this week, kept that kink a secret, convinced that no one else could possibly find sexual pleasure in something as strange as inflating and popping a balloon.
Turns out, he's not alone. Now Burney is a regular in a vibrant online community of self-proclaimed "looners," and he's speaking out about his fetish.
Fetishes "are such a taboo, and not many people understand," Burney says. "I don't want other people to feel ashamed."
Burney is what is known in the looner community as a "popper" — someone who gets off on balloons popping. In footage shot for the Learning Channel's show "Strange Sex," he appears excited, breathless and a bit nervous as he blows up an enormous orange balloon. "That was awesome," he says, giddy and shaking, after the balloon pops.
Doing it himself is enough to bring him to orgasm. But, as he explains in a YouTube video called "Why I Have a Balloon Fetish," he especially loves watching women blow up balloons until they burst.
If that strikes you as hard to understand, join the club.
"I still to this day don't understand why it does it for me, but it makes me happy," says Burney, who isn't bashful about discussing the subject over coffee in a downtown Rutland café. He sports a goatee and close-cropped hair, along with lip and eyebrow piercings. At 6-foot-7, he's a soft-spoken, gentle-giant type, a big guy who, until a few years ago, had a big secret.
A sexual fetish, by definition, is a preoccupation with a particular material or body part. Someone with a fetish might get turned on by feet, or by the feel of silk or latex, or by the experience of wearing women's underwear, explains Golden, whose latest book, published in 2009, is In the Grip of Desire: A Therapist at Work with Sexual Secrets. She's emphatic about what a fetish is not: a disorder, at least in most cases.
"The word 'fetish' resonates with 'dysfunctional,' 'illegal,' 'bad,'" says Golden, "but it isn't necessarily any of those things."
Golden acknowledges that fetishes can cause problems, particularly when they interfere with people's work, life or relationships, or when a fetish becomes a requirement for functioning rather than an occasional turn-on. But in other cases, she says, fetishes simply provide spice in the bedroom. (Burney's fetish falls into the second camp; while balloons provide a source of pleasure, they aren't mandatory for his sex life.)
"Who are you really harming if you want to masturbate in the privacy of your home and are looking at panty hose?" Golden asks.
Pinning down the origin of fetishes is tricky. Researchers make careers out of trying to understand desire. "Sex really is a very, very powerful thing that is very elusive," Golden says. "Everybody keeps trying to grab at it — 'What is it, what is it, what is it?' — but the power of the erotic is just overwhelming."
Golden subscribes to the theory of "imprinting," which holds that a fetish takes root early in childhood. That's certainly the case for Burney. He believes his fetish evolved out of an early childhood fear of balloons; he remembers being "deathly afraid" of them, particularly of the loud noise of their popping.
By the time he hit 7 or 8 years old, Burney says, the fear began to be tinged with an almost euphoric feeling — nervousness, fright and excitement all jumbled together. But he was ashamed of the fascination. As a teenager, he'd shoplift to sneak balloons into his home, anxious lest his parents find out about his strange obsession.
All the while, Burney says, he assumed he alone had this strange fetish; it wasn't until he was 19 and watching late-night HBO at a friend's house that he learned about the larger fetish community. The show made a brief mention of balloons. Burney typed "girls with balloons" into an online search engine, and his jaw dropped.
"I was shocked to find that there was an entire community. It was probably one of the most enlightened feelings I've had in my entire life, knowing that I wasn't the only person out there that shared this," Burney says. "And there were so many people! I can't believe how many looners there are out there."
Even after plugging into the online fetish world, Burney concealed his looner love from friends and family. That slowly changed in his mid-twenties, when Burney was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma. His father died six months into his chemotherapy treatment. Burney, who had briefly relocated to Pennsylvania, moved back to Rutland after the two hard blows. He says he felt increasingly that, at a terrible time in his life, it was important to be true to himself.
"I felt like I was lost, and this was the only thing I could do to branch out," Burney says. He began outing himself to the other people in his life. His mother was supportive. Friends were a little confused or thought his revelation strange, Burney says, but it didn't ruin any relationships.
Next, Burney started speaking publicly about his fetish. That included doing an extended interview on an episode of "Strange Sex" and starting a YouTube channel. He now has more than 80 clips on YouTube, and runs a Facebook group called "Looner Mayhem" with more than 900 followers. Burney also participates in the online social networking site FetLife.com, which advertises itself as the world's most popular free social network for the BDSM, fetish and kink communities.
"People in the world are either very hateful towards me, or are like, 'Wow, you're so lucky,'" Burney says.
Why lucky? He has a go-to kink that he knows will turn him on, he explains: a trick that never fails to bring pleasure.
When it comes to materials, Burney isn't talking about popping party balloons you'd pick up in the grocery store. "The bigger, the better," he says. While he calls the kink harmless, he does advise other looners, especially "poppers," to wear glasses and earplugs as a precaution.
No shops cater specifically to looners, Burney says, but various specialty balloon manufacturers carry appropriate products. When he discovered them, he jokes, he thought they were all but designed with looners in mind.
Every looner goes in for a different kind of balloon, Burney notes: "It's the color preference; it's the way it looks; it's the size of it." He daydreams about someday opening up an online shop for looners, who often go through international sellers and pay hefty shipping and handling fees to obtain specialty balloons.
Currently unemployed, Burney aspires to be a photographer and filmmaker. So far he's dabbled in amateur porn, uploading clips to the website Clips4Sale.com, which specializes in fetishist fare. His ex-fiancée took a starring role in many of those films; in one YouTube trailer, she appears surrounded by inflated balloons. She never took her clothes off, Burney says. The couple's clips still made money.
The two recently separated, but Burney says their breakup wasn't related to his fetish. He gives credit to his ex, who's still a friend, for being supportive. When dating, he says, he takes the tack of telling women sooner rather than later about his unusual turn-on.
"And if they like it, then party on," he jokes. If not? Burney isn't interested in hiding that part of his life, he says, and would rather know early on that a potential partner isn't down for the occasional balloon in the bedroom.
"Why would you want to live your life miserable and not happy?" asks Burney. "I want to be loved for me."