Up with smoke
Cigarettes and sex have had a long, casual relationship.
For a few very secretive men, that relationship is considerably more intimate
by Michelle Chihara
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
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
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-
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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."