Happy Valentines Day! Musings on the Nature of “Fetish”
I’m not a huge fan of Valentines Day (for all of the usual reasons) — so rather than taking one of my boys out to an overcrowded “romantic” restaurant on a date and spending a bunch of money on gifts (blargh, no thanks!), I’m spending the evening eating homemade pirogies while the cats fight about who gets to sit on my lap and beg for a piece of my bacon (haha, fat chance, kitties: the bacon is mine!)
Anywhos. In honour of this overly-commercialized pseudo-holiday, I bring you a (gasp!) post about a sexual topic. Fetishes! What they are, why we have them, and a little bit of gender theory on the topic.
As with a most sexual topics, there is a lot of confusion and misinformation and judgmental bullshit to be found floating around the Internet (and in real life, as well). It’s hard to even find a decent definition of what constitutes a “fetish”, so I’ll start this post off with a little bit of a vocabulary list, and some discussion of the term itself.
There are a few different things that people mean when they call something a “fetish”. They may mean fascination. They may mean kink. Or they may actually mean fetish — but I would further define the term into two distinct categories: soft and hard fetishes.
Now, a fascination would be non-sexual in nature. If something fascinates you, it grabs your attention. It’s something that you think about — perhaps even obsess over — often and in great detail. The word “fetish” is sometimes used to describe this behaviour, but it’s not what I’m referring to in this post.
A kink, meanwhile, is something that interests you on a sexual level. It’s fun, it’s exciting, and it falls outside the category of “straight” or “normal” sex (“normal” being, of course, a problematic term, since what is “normal” is culturally influenced and can be endlessly debated — but that’s neither here nor there to this post, really). Anyone who has an active and happy sex life has probably had kinky sex at some point — whether you’ve brought a set of pink, fuzzy handcuffs into the bedroom, blindfolded your partner, whacked them with a riding crop, dressed like a sexy schoolgirl, licked ice cream off their nipples, tried re-enacting a scene from “50 Shades“, or gone full-blown “story of O” with one another, you’ve probably introduced some kink into the bedroom. It may have been exciting, it may have been silly, it may have been a gigantic and horrific failure. In any case, kink is pretty casual (and, yes, entirely “normal” — but that’s a whole other post right there).
In the “true” sense of the word, fetish has referred to a sense of sexual arousal derived from a specific object, situation, non-genital body part, etc. (genitals don’t count, because they’re “supposed” to arouse you).
Webster defines fetish as:
- an object or bodily part whose real or fantasied presence is psychologically necessary for sexual gratification and that is an object of fixation to the extent that it may interfere with complete sexual expression
- any object or nongenital part of the body that causes a habitual erotic response or fixation.
- any object, activity, etc, to which one is excessively or irrationally devoted
- Something, such as an object or a nonsexual part of the body, that arouses sexual desire and may become necessary for sexual gratification.
- a form of sexual desire in which gratification depends to an abnormal degree on some object or item of clothing or part of the body
Obviously there’s some significant deviation between definitions. While Webster defines a fetish as something that is “psychologically necessary for sexual gratification”, other definitions only say that this may become necessary, while still others ignore that aspect entirely. Some definitions refer to the having of a fetish as “abnormal” or “irrational” (again, I must point out that “normal” is a somewhat subjective thing), while others refer only to a “habitual erotic response” and skip the judgmental language.
Added to the confusion is the fact that having a fetish is something that is often pathologised, with psychotherapy, counseling, and behaviour modification techniques being commonly recommended as ways of “curing” a fetishist.
For the purposes of this article, we’ll use the definition that I personally consider to be most correct. In my definition, soft fetishes are those things which are non-sexual in and of themselves (so, not genitals or common erogenous zones) but which cause sexual arousal in the fetishist. Hard fetishes are when that normally non-sexual thing becomes necessary to the fetishist achieving orgasm (or even sexual pleasure of any sort).
Either a soft or a hard fetish may become a source of psychological distress, but neither is (in my non-medical opinion) a disorder all on its own. Having a fetish is not a bad thing, and I think it’s important to remove the negative and judgmental language that has so often surrounded the word.
So! Now that we’ve defined the term, let’s talk a little bit about why, exactly, we have fetishes in the first place.
It has long been supposed by psychoanalysts that fetishes are commonly formed through “imprinting” or “classical conditioning” — often in early childhood, although it can happen in adults as well. The basic theory is that which was illustrated by Pavlov: if, for example, a person who is first developing a sense of their sexuality always masturbates in the shower, they may begin to associate the feeling of an orgasm with the warm water, or with the particular scent of the soap they use, or with the feeling of a porcelain tub.
A particularly striking or traumatic incident may also “imprint” upon a person’s behaviour: if a person’s first sexual experience was particularly negative, for example, they may afterwards find themselves being aroused by shame or violence or pain — or by something much more specific, like the sound of your first lover’s derisive laughter. Non-sexual incidents may also leave their mark upon a person’s sexual desires: having been wrapped up in a blanket by an older sibling & scared by that as a child may result in a mummification fetish, while a person whose favourite babysitter wore a leather jacket may find themselves aroused by leather clothing or objects later in life.
Because the mind is such a complex thing, it’s hard to determine what will “imprint” (and how), and what will not. Two people may go through the exact same experience, and one will come out with a fetish while the other doesn’t, or each will come out with a completely different fetish. And since some of these events happen while we are young children, they’re not always remembered or reported by fetish-having adults.
Transitional objects and behaviours are also commonly thought to be a source of fetishes: a thumb-sucker may grow up to have a particular penchant for fellatio, while a child who clung to their teddy bear may fetishize the feeling of faux fur on their skin.
But there are other, more subtle (and less understood) factors at work, here. One widely publicized study indicates that there has historically been a rise in the popularity of foot fetishes during times of widespread outbreaks of STIs. Does something as abstract as a fear of disease encourage us to fetishize? Are we really that logical about it?
There’s also a theory out there that certain personality types are more prone to developing fetishes: introverts are more likely than extroverts because they are shy and tend to be more self-reliant (so they seek ways to find self-gratification, rather than seeking “normal” sexual relationships). And people of high intelligence are also supposed to be more prone to fetishizing, possibly because “normal” sex is not challenging enough (like the child who acts out in class because they are bored), or perhaps just because of a tendency to overthink and obsess over minute details.
As with many sexual topics, there is a somewhat depressing lack of information and scientific fact out there to be discussed: much data is self-reported, and many of the conclusions commonly presented are nothing more than untested hypotheses. It has been shown in a few studies that classical conditioning can work to produce a soft fetish response in men (women haven’t been studied), but that’s about as far as it has ever been taken.
Which brings me to my next point: gender. Discussions about fetishes tend to be very gendered affairs: there’s a perception out there that it’s men who primarily have fetishes (especially hard fetishes), while women are not prone to such things. I don’t think that this is an accurate perception at all.
I think that the idea that fetishes (or even sex in general) are more of a “guy thing” is largely learned, not a hard-wired part of the “man-brain”. A big part of this has to do with the difference in the way our society treats male and female pleasure.
From childhood, men are more encouraged to explore their sexuality. Self-gratification, masturbation, and exploration of kink & fetish are very taboo for young women, not as much so for young men (this has to do with the slut/stud divide: where men who are sexually aware & active are seen as virile and masculine, while females in the same situation are seen as dirty and deviant). So during those formative years when some of our base sexual desires are being discovered and wired into our brains, males are being encouraged (and even pressured) by their peers and by media and by society in general to explore and to touch themselves and to find their sexual side. Females, conversely, are being told that touching themselves is dirty, that sex is scary and dangerous, and that only bad people are interested in sex. This leads to males, as a general thing, having a greater variety of experiences during those formative years, because they feel a freedom that females do not. A young woman learning to touch and explore her body is likely to keep it very private, and unless she has a great deal of unsupervised freedom in her life she’ll be unlikely to introduce a lot of outside elements into her masturbation habits. Young males, on the other hand, are somewhat encouraged to just go ahead and stick their bits into anything with a hole of approximately the right size.
Psychologically, it’s much more likely that a hard fetish will develop young. So the greater prevalence of hard fetishes among males likely has a lot to do with the age at which sexual exploration begins to be encouraged.
On another level, male gratification is seen in mainstream media (and thus by society in general) as the ultimate goal of sexual activity. It’s rare to see any portrayal of sex where the man does not “get off” — and it’s rare to see portrayals of sex where the activity continues after his orgasm has been achieved. The “male gaze” is also a factor, here: since we are almost always intended to identify with a white, hetero, male protagonist, we are most concerned with seeing him get what he wants. And that attitude is reinforced even in places that are more sex-positive for females: women’s magazines may tout the newest vibrator as the best way to achieve your own pleasure, but they still carry articles about how to “please your man” in overwhelming abundance (even though most men report being happy with their sex lives). Women exist in supporting roles. Women are taught that achieving orgasm is difficult & rare, that it’s okay to “fake it”, and that it’s expected (and even virtuous – gross!) for a female to not enjoy sex as much as a male does (or at all). What this means is that a man who has a hard fetish (or even a soft fetish that makes achieving arousal easier) will continue to explore that, because erection and ejaculation are seen as being very important elements of masculinity. A man who cannot orgasm is “broken”: there is something terribly wrong with him. The stigma against erectile dysfunction and the fear of being “unmanned” will likely overcome any shame that might arise from unusual masturbatory habits. Women, on the other hand, may discover a fetishistic behaviour at some point in their journey of sexual exploration, only to shun and deny it as “shameful” and “deviant” (see earlier comment on the “slut/stud divide”). It’s less likely to become part of a normal masturbatory routine (and, of course, repeating the same fetishistic behaviour on a regular basis is one of the things that can turn a soft fetish into a hard one). It may remain as an occasional “guilty pleasure”, but it’s likely something that she’ll keep limited and private.
And that leads me into my next point: it’s easier for women to hide a fetish. Because males are expected to achieve erection and ejaculation during a sexual encounter, while women are permitted (and sometimes even expected) to just “lie still and think of England”, a man can’t hide it if he has a hard fetish. If he can’t get it up without a particular object being involved, he’ll have to share that information with his partner, or face being the guy who can’t please a woman and isn’t a “real man”. A woman might be seen as “frigid” if she doesn’t respond to sexual activity, but that’s not nearly as much of a negative thing.
Men are also traditionally seen as the “leaders” in heterosexual sex. Men are supposed to “take the reins” and be “dominant” and “assertive” about what they want in bed. Since femininity is associated with passivity and being quiet and all of that nonsense, men are likely to feel more freedom in bringing up a fetish (even a soft one), because they feel “in charge” of the situation and are used to asking for what they want. Women have to deal with a much greater fear of rejection in this sort of a situation, and are under some pressure to not appear “sluttish” by demanding things that will please them in bed.
As a final thing, I’d like to talk a little bit about how and why fetishes — both soft and hard — are so often seen as a negative thing.
Like many sexual activities, proclivities, and preferences, fetishes have spent a lot of time being demonized. It is only very recently that fetishes and paraphilias have begun to be redefined. Until the last decade, simply having a fetish of any sort was enough for a person to be defined as mentally ill! Of course, it was only in the mid 70s that homosexuality was taken off the list of mental illnesses, so this is a problem that extends way beyond just the fetish and kink worlds. Our understanding of human psychology is overall kind of crappy, and we need to work on that.
But back to the topic at hand. Society’s general disdain for sexual acts (especially those which are not a part of the status quo) is only partially to blame, here, because even within the kink community there is something of a negative stigma attached to certain fetishes — and to hard fetishes in particular.
What it boils down to is that fetishes have an inherent selfishness to them — especially if it’s a fetish that your partner does not share. If you must involve (for example) shoes in some way in order to get off, it limits your sex life in some regard and puts a burden on your partner(s) with regards to how they can express their own sexuality. Depending on how generous you are as a lover (are you willing to put aside your fetish on some days and forgo your own pleasure just so that they don’t need to worry about it?), this can quickly put a strain on a couple’s sex life.
Soft fetishes are somewhat less problematic, because they don’t need to be dealt with in all sexual activities, but there is still a “you want me to do what?” factor. Some generosity on the part of a non-fetish-having lover is required, or the fetish-haver will likely feel unfulfilled and unhappy that their fetish is never acknowledged or appreciated. But the fetish-haver must be understanding as well — they have to recognize that their partner doesn’t share this desire and that it might seem “icky” or off-putting.
Depending on the fetish, it may be something that comes up only occasionally, or it may be something that is constantly being brought up as a factor. Having a fetish for boys in dresses, for example, is something that you can explore occasionally and then put back into the closet in-between times, to be brought out at your convenience. You’re not going to encounter boys in dresses very often in your day-to-day life (or in your regularly scheduled sex life), so it’s something that can be, at least sometimes, ignored. A shoe fetish, though: almost everybody wears shoes. You’re going to see those all the time, on all sorts of people. It can become something distracting and can cause jealousy — if your partner knows about your fetish, they may find themselves second-guessing the relationship every time you compliment a friend’s footwear. And a foot fetish can be even worse: it’s not like your partner can leave their feet out of it when you’re having sexy-times together, so it’s easy for them to start feeling as though you focus WAY too much on their feet and not enough on the rest of them. Unless you are a very sensitive and communicative person, it’s easy to leave someone feeling objectified and undervalued in this situation.
Of course, a part of the problem comes from the fact that fetishes have been marginalized for so long. There’s a lack of information, and a lot of the information that is readily available (especially with the Internet) is not particularly accurate (like with most things to do with sex, porn is almost never the place to look for an accurate depiction). Until we start accepting that fetishes can be a part of a “normal”, healthy sex life, they’re always going to be viewed with disgust and distrust. The recent changes to the psychological definitions of fetishes have been a step in the right direction, and therapists (especially those who specialize in sexual issues) are becoming more knowledgeable about the subject, but that knowledge has yet to filter down to the general public. Finding out that your partner has a fetish can be intimidating, and we’ve not yet developed many resources for helping with that. But hopefully my blog post adds something to the discussion!
If you are looking for resources & support with regards to fetishes (your own or a partner’s), here are some links that might be helpful — or just leave a comment below and I’m happy to offer whatever advice I can!
- An overview of what fetishes are from Kinsey Confidential
- Links from the Kinsey Institute to more information about sexual fetishes and paraphilias
- The WebMD sexual health community (you can search to find threads posted by others about their fetishes or their partner’s fetishes, or you can post your own questions for discussion)
- FetLife (large, worldwide online fetish community – requires membership, but has forums and groups for a huge variety of topics)
- You can also search locally for therapists or doctors who specialize in dealing with issues of sexual health — they’ll have lots of answers for you!