(CNN) The furry community has a message for the rest of the world: Their culture is not about sex.
In fact, people in the furry community are largely annoyed about how their community has generally been portrayed by mainstream media outlets.
Most feel like depictions of sexual fetishists wearing furry costumes and cavorting at wild parties are inaccurate and downright unfair, say experts.
For the unaware, we're talking about a worldwide community estimated at hundreds of thousands strong who call themselves the furry fandom.
They're made up of old and young, all genders, CEOs, blue-collar workers, singles, couples, parents, students, LGBTQ and straight — all who celebrate fantasy animal characters with human traits.
How do they celebrate? To each, their own. The different ways run the gamut.
For example, do you have an unusually powerful fascination with Bugs Bunny?
Well then, you might be a furry.
Maybe you like to doodle original animal characters that reflect your alter-ego or persona, aka your "fursona."
Again, you could be a furry.
What if you love your animal character so much you want to wear a costume of it?
You very well may be a furry.
For many furries, putting on their costume sparks a fascinating metamorphosis.
Take longtime furry Joe Strike. When he puts on his reptilian costume, Strike transforms from self-described "pretty mellow guy" to a character he calls Komos.
"I become very sinister — very forceful and intimidating," says Strike, author of a book on the fandom called "Furry Nation." "It's so much fun to become that other person — this kind of mysterious, alluring character. Some women really take a shine to him and it's really a blast."
Because the colorful furry costumes get the most attention in the media, it supports the perception that furries are all about costumes. But they're not.
In fact, the co-founder of the first furry convention doesn't own a costume at all.
"If you honestly believe that furry fandom is about costuming, then you've missed the point," says Rod Stansfield, perhaps better known in the community by his pen name, Rod O'Riley. "Saying furry fandom is about wearing fur suits is like saying 'Star Trek' fandom is about wearing pointy ears."
In the 1980s, Stansfield and his partner Mark Merlino — during visits to science fiction conventions — realized the furry fandom was becoming a bigger thing of its own. By 1989 they organized an "experiment" they called ConFurence Zero at a Holiday Inn in Garden Grove, California: the first known "furry convention and seminar."
Although only 65 people showed up, including only two or three in costume, ConFurence Zero started a movement of sorts.
It gave momentum to the fandom, later resulting in similar conventions such as Califur, Canada's VancouFur, Australia's ConFurgence, Eurofurence and Anthrocon, which is now held yearly in Pittsburgh. Last summer's Anthrocon, one of the biggest, drew about 8,400 people, including nearly 2,000 in costumes, according to the event website.
"We don't feel like furry fandom is something we created, it's something that was there," Stansfield says. "We were just the guys who introduced it to itself. We just came up with a goofy new way for fans to talk to each other — actually meeting, face to face. People took that and ran with it."
Three decades later the fury fandom is much bigger, using the power of the internet to reach out, organize, engage with each other and share — via videos, podcasts and art.
Pocari Roo, Barton Fox and Stormi Folf are just a few of many furries who host video channels on YouTube discussing fursonas, affordable fursuits and other topics. "I simply want to help the world understand our fandom a little better," says Stormi Folf, who prefers to use his fursona "for reasons of privacy and safety."
"I'm known as a furry but only family and close friends know my real name," he said.
It's a subculture just like any other — including unique terminology.
The fandom has grown big enough to get the attention of academia. A group of scholars has established a continuing research project at furscience.com tracking furry attitudes and backgrounds by asking them to answer questions on surveys.
"Demographically, it's mostly white. They tend to be sort of middle class and they tend to be what you think of as nerds," says MacEwan University instructor Dr. Courtney Plante, who runs the study along with researchers at Niagara County Community College, Texas A&M University and other universities.
The project's website says more than 75% of furries are under age 25 and about a third identify as "exclusively heterosexual."
Sixty percent of furries who answered surveys reported part-time or full-time enrollment in postsecondary education.
"They often like video games, computer games, board games, anime, science fiction, fantasy," Plante says.
Dancing is also big among fursuiters. In addition to costume dance events at conventions, nightspots have been getting involved. For more than a year now the Eagle Bolt Bar in Minneapolis has been hosting "Suit Up Saturday," where 20-30 fursuiters, show up every week, the bar says.
An overwhelming percentage, 84%, identify as male.
A female artist in the community who calls herself InkTiger says the mostly male fandom hasn't been a big problem for her. "There's some sexism in the fandom, as there is in any other part of society. I don't think it's any more pronounced in furry than anywhere else."
But what does research say about fursuiters and sexual fetishes?
"We find that, with most furries and their fur suits, there's no sexual element to it for the vast majority of fursuiters," says Plante. "It's because they want to be a cartoon character in the real world."
But just like any other group, furries acknowledge a small element of sexual activity during gatherings. In the community it's known as "yiffing."
"Yiffing can refer to anything from affectionate hugging or nuzzling to totally going at it," says Strike. "It's definitely part of the fandom but it's not what the fandom is all about. If I had to throw a percentage on it I would say maybe 15%, give or take."
Stansfield, co-founder of the first convention, says it's sad the furry fandom is mischaracterized as a "sex style."
"Everything created by human beings has some degree of what people think is attractive — and attractive is a big, broad unquantifiable word — however you define that."
A lot of furries have some kind of bullying history. Researchers found they reported "significantly more bullying than the average person." According to furscience.com, 61.7% of furries reported being bullied from the ages 11-18.
Compare that with bullying rates among US students grades 6-12. About 28% have reported being bullied, according to stopbullying.gov. Internationally, a World Health Organization survey of 35 countries found 34% of all young people reported being bullied at least once in the past couple of months.
"Research shows that furries benefit from ... interaction with like-minded others in a recreational environment, which is associated with greater self-esteem and greater life satisfaction," the website says. Experts don't know if this benefit within furry culture attracts victims of bullying but it could contribute to helping bullying victims heal.
Strike explains it this way: "When they put on the fur suit and they become somebody else, it is very liberating. You've sort of left behind that human person with all those inhibitions and problems. You become this kind of free spirit. You become somebody else who you're not the rest of the time."
The fandom tends to be shy, Plante says. Costumes make it easier to socialize "without fear of being judged."
Bottom line: Research shows that for the most part, they may be more "normal" than you think. "The interesting part of the story is just how surprisingly normal furries can be despite having a strange hobby," says Plante.
The future looks bright for the furry fandom. Plante estimates the fandom is between 100,000 and 1 million people — and growing. "I don't think it will ever become mainstream, because it's an unusual hobby to have. But I think as time goes on, it will be normalized in the way 'Star Trek' and 'Star Wars' fans became normalized, in the way 'Lord of the Rings' fans became normalized."
If normalization does come via movies, Stansfield hopes technology will pave the way for it by making it cheaper and easier for furries to make Hollywood-quality films.
"The turning point will be when we get to the level where a fan can make a Pixar movie in their garage," he says. "When that happens, more and more of the entertainment community is going to notice."