On a sunny afternoon last month, I was walking down a crowded, pedestrian stretch of L.A.’s Sunset Boulevard, minding my own business, when suddenly a fire truck appeared. Silent, slow-moving and apparently off-duty, it rounded the corner ahead of me, rolling to a stop with a massive, heaving mechanical sigh.
Freshly waxed and radiating a cherry-red, mirror-like sheen, the truck reflected my own image back at me, taking a snapshot of my awestruck expression. It was shiny enough to catch my background in its frame, too — gazing into its belly, I caught the acronyms “BLM” and “ACAB” spray-painted on a set of plywood boards shuttering the windows of a COVID-shuttered restaurant behind me. It was meta alright, and sickeningly so: The symbolism of the so-called “good” public servants coming to save us from the “bad” ones at the height of last month’s “copageddon” was almost too perfect to bear.
Then, as if everyone on the street were part of some collective being, a slow clap began to build. One by one, we put our hands together, the roar of applause punctuated only by waving hands and grateful cheers. There they were, our boys in red! Our heroes! Our mercifully non-lethal saviors!
Nodding with the self-aware resolution of extremely muscular men who grasp the gravity of their positions just as firmly as they grip their hoses, they accepted our applause and waved back, tipping their helmets at us in salute. It was amazing — we were thanking them, but at the same time, they were also thanking us.
As the truck pulled away, a middle-aged man with his hand over his heart muttered something beside me. “I love those guys,” he said, as if all four Beatles had just blown him a simultaneous kiss. “Isn’t it nice to have first responders who won’t kill you?”
And then, making direct eye contact, he let it rip: “Fuckin’ hot, right?”
Fuckin’ hot, indeed.
Firefighters have been sexy since the country’s first fire engine went blaring down the cobblestones in 1678. And judging by the staggering amount of “hot fireman” lore that’s weaseled its way into our consciousness (and calendars) ever since, their appeal has only intensified. It’s not hard to see why: Fit, capable men and women risking their lives to save lives, property and occasionally, kittens, is selfless, daring and heroic — a trio of qualities that makes them easy to rely on and idolize. As such, firefighting is consistently ranked as one of the “most prestigious” professions, and one of the most well-respected, too. According to a 2016 report by the Nuremberg Institute for Market Decisions, over 80 percent of Americans describe their trust in firefighters as “very high.”
Part of that trust comes from the fact that firefighters have a pleasantly high “save people to shoot people ratio,” but, as many experts have pointed out, it’s also because they — like many other first responders — dress the part. As psychologist and relationship expert Jeanette Raymond explains to YourTango, firemen’s uniforms “may signify that they are able to manage life’s troubles” and that “we can count on them” for “safety and security.” Police are the notable exception to that rule, of course — there’s nothing “safe” or “secure” about a Glock, an overeager trigger finger and an institutionally inflated sense of authority — but as GQ style editor Luke Day points out, there’s still a certain “romantic ideal” to uniformed men because “most men in uniform are heroes.”
That’s an obvious blanket statement that ignores the valor and service of other genders, but as much as I hate to say it, he has a point; it’s the “sexy fireman” that’s captured the hearts of horny America the most, perfectly playing his gender role of the quintessential “manly man.” He’s physical, he’s got tools, he likes to get dirty, he has a big, loud car, he wears baggy pants, he spends all day with a bunch of other men and, most importantly, you need him to help you. There’s no denying that he’s in control, but he escapes authoritarianism by riding the line between tough and tender. Yeah, he’s gruff, but he’ll also show up to your house in four minutes flat to give your miniature pony CPR (or so the stereotype goes).
Because of this, male firefighters often find themselves in the crosshairs of a lot more sexual and romantic advances than other men. “I get hit on a lot by both men and women,” confirms Brendan Loerch, a 33-year-old wildland firefighter in New Mexico. “It’s common even in front of a significant other, and that can be weird for the boyfriends, I’m sure. I’m actually dating a firewoman right now so I decline, but I try to treat the person with respect and say that I appreciate their support of public servants.” Meanwhile a firefighter on Reddit says he gets a lot of CPR jokes from the public — “Do I need to pass out for you to kiss me, or…?” — and that he’s been flashed “multiple times” by grateful women in both big cities and suburbia.
Firefighters are so sought after, in fact, that many of them keep their profession under wraps on dating apps, as it calls too much attention. Also, some say the whole “firefighter fetishization” thing can be off-putting — it reduces them down to a set of pecs in a uniform and invites people to make sweeping judgments about their nature without actually knowing them.
Because of this, the aforementioned Reddit firefighter writes that he doesn’t count the times he’s hit on in uniform; he can tell the person’s not into him and instead just the fact that he’s wearing a 75-pound, flame-resistant suit. When he’s off-duty and “in the streets,” it’s much easier to sort out suitors who want him for his humanity from those who just want his fire hose.
Some like the attention, of course, but others, like Loerch, find it odd. “I think citizens project a hero onto us because people want some security thinking there are heroes to come save them,” he says. “That’s nice, but we’re just people doing a job.”
Still, he gets the appeal. “Firefighters have to be VERY fit,” he continues, explaining that anything less than a day filled with an eight-mile run and a couple hundred crunches, pull-ups and push-ups feels like a dud. “That adds another layer to the aspect of public service and helping and saving others. Some women and men are attracted to the idea that we’re there to help — it’s the whole damsel in distress stereotype.”
It’s not just a stereotype, though — it’s an entire industry. There’s a whole consumer culture surrounding the hot firefighter trope, with goods like sexy calendars, Halloween costumes and even special, fire-focused panties raking in millions for the “sex sells” crowd. There are also entire legions of fireman strippers, a healthy cadre of firefighter pornographers who put out fires with their “big hoses” and, of course, a whole multiverse of authors who churn out firefighter erotica like well-oiled machines. In the anthology Smokin’ Hot Firemen: Erotic Romance Stories for Women, one entry tells the tale of a “daring smoke-jumper parachuting into the hot zone of a forest fire then setting his girlfriend ablaze with erotic heat.” In Scorcher: Pounded in the Firehouse, Renee, a woman who spends her time “getting in shape,” meets a “breathtaking firefighter who makes her blood race.” Hot Fire Burning: An Alpha Firefighter Romance tells the story of a fire that “pales in comparison to the fire that burns between our two leads” and, well, you get the picture.
This, says another redditor, is actually pretty funny considering that most of his firefighter colleagues are “mid-30+s, balding and quite, umm… portly.” Not that it matters — when it comes to our hard-ons for heroes, we’re far more interested in their capacity to protect us than we are their declining testosterone and adorably human paunch. To wit, multiple studies have shown that both men and women are more likely to swipe right and give out their numbers to firefighters than they are to the general public. Looks notwithstanding, one study found that 21.7 percent of straight women would gleefully accept a date with a fireman, while only 8.3 percent would do the same for a random male civilian. There’s even a fireman-specific dating site where firefans go to find the soot-covered first responder of their dreams.
But firefighters’ everlasting appeal has taken on a decidedly weightier significance as of late. As cops continue to murder, maim and break the same laws they’ve sworn to enforce, firefighters, their natural rivals, have started to look extra mouthwatering, catching the attention of horny America not for their deltoids or duties, but because unlike police, they probably won’t kill you.
The fact that we’re living in an age where not getting murdered counts as a “pro” on some sort of collective fuckability list is truly a sign of the times, but it’s also one that’s gotten a lot of attention recently. Memes surrounding the hotness and value of firefighters compared to cops have been slowly taking over the internet, and its citizens appear to have assigned each with a set of traits that represent how they act on the streets.
All of this is exciting — but not surprising — to Sam, a 32-year-old firefighter erotica enthusiast whose fetish for firemen has “truly exploded” over the past month. “The ‘hero’ archetype has always been fap-worthy,” he says. “And firefighters have always been seen as heroes in the truest sense of the word. Cops are supposed to be ‘heroes’ too, but clearly, that’s not exactly the case. So, given what’s happening with police right now, it would make sense that more people are paying attention to firefighters in that special, sexy way — they’re who makes them feel safe. They ‘protect and serve’ far better than police.”
Running through a quick side-by-side comparison of police and firefighters, that much appears to be true. As ex-cop Seth W. Stoughton explains in an article for The Atlantic, police are trained to believe that civilians are dangerous and that they’re at risk, creating a naturally adversarial relationship with the public that underlies their gratuitous use of excessive force and brutality. Firefighters, on the other hand, are taught that the dangers they face on the job are environmental, not human. The enemy they’re trained to defeat is fire, so when the alarms go off and it’s time for action, politics and personal beliefs usually take a back seat to protection and preservation. As Loerch explains, he, and most of his fellow firefighters, would “rather save life than make the decision to take one.”
They’re also not authorized to carry guns or fight, a key fact that might explain why few people have been killed by a firefighter on duty (though deadly collisions with fire engines aren’t uncommon). As Loerch says, “We don’t need those things to feel tough.”
Their inability to make legal arrests factors in, too. Without the option to target certain groups and protect others — firefighters who work on structures often arrive on the scene without any idea who’s living or working there — it would be difficult to enforce their biases, even if they tried.
Though, to be clear, some of them do try. In a New York Times article about the systemic racism that exists in firefighting, Addington Stewart, a firefighter and the president of the International Association of Black Professional Firefighters, writes about a noose that was found dangling above photos of a Black fireman in a Florida firehouse. “In our profession, that garish expression of racism was unfortunately not an anomaly,” he says, citing several other examples like a volunteer fireman in Ohio who said on Facebook that he’d “rather save a dog than an African American.”
Similarly, in an article about how firefighters might serve as models for police reform for The Conversation, sociologist and firefighter researcher Roscoe Scarborough recalls that many firemen he studied used racial slurs like “Speedy Gonzalezes” to characterize minorities who called them for help. He also recounts how, during downtime, their “favorite pastime” was to watch Family Feud and “shout answers at the television that draw on racial stereotypes, like ‘watermelon’ or ‘grape drink.’”
“It would be unusual to hear one of the guys condemn a racist, classist or sexist joke,” he writes, explaining that the overwhelmingly white and male firefighting “brotherhood” is just as prone to the same biases and shortcomings conveyed by traditional masculinity as any other group. Similar musings can be found on Reddit, with one ex-firefighter calling his department a bunch of “extremely racist Trump cocksuckers” and “toxic people with a hive mentality who can’t think for themselves.”
That characterization obviously isn’t true for every firefighter, but amidst all this “sexy firefighter” talk, you could easily argue that it’s just as important to hear about the “bad apples” in the country’s “most prestigious profession” as it is in it’s least respectable one. That, says Sam, is exactly why we invent imaginary heroes to fantasize about in the first place. “Few real people are actually as chiseled, good-natured and actively anti-racist as we want them to be,” he says. “Even if they are, there’s probably something else terribly wrong with them that puts their ‘hero’ status on the line.” Maybe they kiss their mother on the lips, he says. Maybe they like Dave Matthews. Whatever it is, it reminds us that heroes are only heroes so long as they don’t annoy us — or covertly oppress us — as well as the people we love.
Admittedly, a realization like that is little ammo against the “hot firefighter” archetype, the likes of which appear to be reinforced every time a fireman or -woman stops a wildfire from consuming a neighborhood or saves a kitten from a tree. That’s the part of them that civilians get to see, after all. As Scarborough points out, the firefighters’ personal and political beliefs rarely translate into public service, and “the same firefighters who vociferously engage in prejudicial banter around the firehouse dash to the engine, demand exceptional firemanship from themselves and their peers, and risk their lives on scene.” The nature of the call, not the demographics of the neighborhood or the race of the victim, “shape the type and speed of the response.” If only we could say the same for cops.
But for people like Miya, a 28-year-old firefighter aficionado in Rhode Island, that discrepancy is precisely what makes the “sexy firefighter” more of a reality than porn-store parody. “There’s just nothing complicated about someone who puts out fires,” she explains. “Cops have so much more opportunity for corruption or skeeziness. They’re too authoritarian to be hot. Dating one would be like dating an annoying dad who yells at you for ‘showing cleavage,’ while a fireman would probably tell you that the ‘shirt looks beautiful and brings out the eyes mama gave ya.’”
Plus, she continues, most cops are “unfit and can’t carry you over their shoulders with one arm.” Their uniforms also need a “tailor/design upgrade that won’t shorten the torso and legs.” Her suggestion? “Maybe a Yeezy collab.”
Until then, she says, it’s smoking-hot, soot-covered, five-alarm, ab-encrusted, kitten-loving, loin-burning, fireman all the way.