Archive for gender theory

Why Saying “I’m Not a Feminist” is NEVER an Okay Thing To Do

Posted in Ramblings, Rants with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 4, 2014 by KarenElizabeth

There are a lot of misconceptions about feminism in the world.

There are many different reasons for this, of course.  Feminism is a complicated topic.  It’s hard to look at approximately 50% of the world’s population — women of all races, all nationalities, all ages, all sexual orientations, all income brackets, all political affiliations, all education levels, etc — and define a simple, clear message that everyone can agree upon.  Especially since the advent of 3rd wave feminism, there are countless splinter and “niche” groups working under the greater feminist umbrella, and often working directly at cross-purposes to one another, or talking about completely different topics.  In an age where information is readily accessed with the click of a mouse, we’re faced with an overwhelming glut of information regarding feminism, and very little of it is concise or clear or speaks with a single voice representing all of us.

But when it’s stripped back to the bare essentials, feminism *does* have one simple, easily expressed goal:  gender equality, and the elimination of sexism.  We disagree (sometimes vehemently) on how best to *achieve* that goal, of course, but the goal remains the same for all.  And when you strip it back to that — when you say, “gender equality” instead of “feminism” — there are very few people who’ll argue against it.

And this is why the way we express ourselves about feminism, and the way we self-identify, needs to see some serious change.

If you believe that sexism is a bad thing, and that a person’s gender does not determine their worth, then you’re a feminist.  You may not agree with *every* feminist group (no one does — there are simply too many of them out there) — but you’re a feminist, of some description.  That’s all there is to it.  Saying “I’m not a feminist”, then, is a lie — and worse, it’s hurting feminists (and people) everywhere.

When most people say “I’m not a feminist”, it’s because they’re misguided about what feminism means.  They’ve bought in to a harmful stereotype — the man-hating, (often) lesbian, radical feminist who burns bras, thinks men should be slaves, and considers all penetrative sex to be rape.  This is a stereotype that was created by (and has been largely perpetuated by) the oppressing class, as a way of discrediting the perfectly logical claim that women are people and should be treated as such.  It’s a caricature, designed to make feminists look laughable and ridiculous and unfeminine, and unsexy, and unlovable, and criminal.  So when you characterize all feminists this way, it’s no different than characterizing all Scots as “cheap”, or all Irishmen as “drunks”.  You’re buying in to a bigoted stereotype, rather than learning about the individual people.

And when you buy in to that bigoted stereotype, and say “I’m not a feminist”, you’re also lumping yourself in with the people who actually ARE bigots.  You’re aligning yourself with the people who believe that women’s rights should be taken away so we can go back to the “good old days”.  You’re aligning yourself with sexual predators and rapists who don’t want their victims to have rights or be treated as people.  You’re aligning yourself with the Taliban who shot Malala Yousafzai in the head for wanting an education.

Do you really want to be on the same side as those people?

I’m not saying that you should blindly help any cause that identifies itself as “feminist”.  There’s no “supreme guiding council of feminist elders”, and no peer-review process, to determine the validity of any particular group’s claim to feminism.  There are plenty of self-identified “feminist” groups out there who have views that may not, in fact, be particularly helpful ones.  There are radfem groups who call themselves feminist but believe in the subjugation of men (I happen to strongly dispute their use of the term “feminist”, since by definition any group that advocates sexism is not, in fact, feminist — but that’s an issue that’s still considered up for debate in the broader feminist community).  There are feminist groups who are anti-choice, or who align themselves with religious organizations, or who are sex-worker exclusionary, or trans-exclusionary, or classist/racist/etc in their aims, and I disagree vehemently with all of those things.  And there are many feminist groups advocating for very specific, niche causes that may or may not be relevant to a particular person’s life — for example, a group dedicated to eliminating sexism in the medical profession might have a very good point, but not be relevant to me personally, as I’m an arts worker, not a doctor (dammit, Jim!).  So just calling yourself “feminist” doesn’t make you right, and it’s still important to research the motivations and background of any group you’re looking to join up with or support.

One of the biggest groups who commonly say “I’m not a feminist” are, unfortunately, men.  They’ll say, “I believe in women’s rights and equality, but I can’t be a feminist ’cause I’m a guy”.  And that’s just ridiculously misguided.  Not only is it perfectly possible for a guy to believe in gender equality (thus making him a feminist), it’s supremely important for people who are NOT women, who are NOT a part of the oppressed class, to take up the banner of feminism and make a conscious choice to support feminist aims.  Because it’s the oppressing class (in this case, males) who has the majority of the power — and thus, it’s males who have the most power to change things.  It’s been proven time and again that it’s easier for men (and especially white men) to get top positions at most jobs — they’re the bosses, the ones in charge of salaries, the ones in charge of hiring, and the ones in charge of policy.  They’re the majority of the politicians.  They’re the educators at universities.  They’re the police and the lawyers and the judges who enforce and influence the laws.  So if they’re working with feminist aims in mind (ie, a CEO who implements fair hiring policies, or a politician who fights for women’s reproductive rights), they’re in a position to do much more to help the cause than almost anyone else would be capable of.  They’re the ones who, by and large, have the ability to tip the scales and start the workings of a fair society.

Another group that commonly denies feminism is people of colour.  This is a more problematic issue — people of colour are already a part of an oppressed class, whether they are female or male or anything in-between.  They’re already fighting for fair wages, fair representation, and fair application of the law.  And many feminist groups are, unfortunately, very whitewashed.  Because it’s white people who have traditionally had more education & wealth, it’s white women who largely spearheaded the early feminist movements, and it’s white women who have remained at the forefront.  Many feminist groups are blatantly racist (or at least racially insensitive), and when you bring religion into the equation (people of colour are traditionally more attached to their faith, for a variety of reasons not worth going into here), it gets even more difficult — many feminist groups actively attack religious organizations, without regard to the people who worship that particular god, and this can be a massive turn-off for otherwise pro-gender-equality types.  And because feminism has historically been white, it’s difficult for people of colour to break that barrier — too many, already exhausted from spending a lifetime being oppressed for the colour of their skin, walk into a feminist meeting only to see a sea of white faces and no one who looks remotely like themselves, and they feel automatically excluded.  It’s hard to blame people for feeling that way.  In the end, though, we’ll never be able to make feminism more POC-friendly without having some people of colour standing in those rooms.  Some are going to have to break down those barriers, and walk into those rooms full of white faces, and decide they’re going to stay.  And those of us who *are* white need to recognize this difficulty, and welcome such people with open arms, so that more of them will feel comfortable saying “I’m a feminist”.

What I find, personally, the most painful, are those women who believe that identifying as feminist will make them seem unattractive.  They’re victims of fear — fear of being hated, fear of being spurned, fear of being alone.  These are the people who media depictions of feminists are directly attacking, and directly oppressing.  I just want to take those women and say, “It’s okay! What they said on TV was a lie — you can be a feminist and still be beautiful, and feminine, and a stay-at-home-mom, and people will still love you”.  And they tell me that they’re “not as strong” as I am, or that they “don’t belong”.  And that’s so wrong, because you don’t have to be an exception — or an exceptional person — to be a feminist.  You just have to believe in equality.

In most media depictions, it’s the loudest and most strident voices who get the most airtime.  These are the people who are easy to pick out of a crowd, and they give entertainment and good sound bites.  They’re also the people who are easiest to ridicule and discredit.  So we need more of the “normal” people, the ones with perfectly rational and moderate views (the ones that the majority of us espouse) to stand up and say clearly, “I’m a feminist”.  We need to drown out those radical voices, and get voices of reason to be standing at the forefront.  Because until we can “normalize” feminism, it’s never going to be fully successful.

And it really should be perfectly “normal” to believe that all people should have equal rights, right?

What is “Real Beauty”, Anyway?

Posted in Ramblings, Rants with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 17, 2013 by KarenElizabeth

My social media network has been alive, these past few days, with two things:  the Boston Marathon Explosions, and Dove’s latest advertising campaign.

There’s not much I can say about Boston that hasn’t already been said.  It horrifies me that people can plan & commit such acts of violence.  It scares me that we still, a couple of days later, have no idea who did it, or where and when they might strike again.  I’m afraid of the what the political fallout will be, since if it truly was a terror attack on American soil … well, we have Afghanistan and Iraq and the past 12 years to tell us what can happen as a result of that.

So instead, I’ll talk about the other thing that’s been bugging the hell out of me for the past few days:  Dove’ “real beauty sketches” campaign.


For those unfamiliar with the campaign (although seriously, have you been living under a rock all week?  This thing is showing up everywhere right now), Dove marketing people hired a police sketch artist to do a series of drawings.  In the sketch on the left, you see a woman as described by herself.  On the right you see the same woman as described by a random stranger.  The point of the exercise (besides selling Dove products — I’ll get into that later) is ostensibly to show women that we are our own harshest critics & that other people see more beauty in us than we do in ourselves.

Most of my issues with the campaign have been covered quite eloquently by tumblr user Jazz in her post on the subject.  Jazz’s post, too, has been making the rounds on social media, so this may not be the first you’re seeing of it (I shared it via my Facebook page yesterday).  I agree with the points that she has made, and definitely suggest that you go and read what she has to say.  I’ll reiterate a few of the main points, and add some new ones of my own.

While the idea that we need to focus less on our flaws and think more positively of ourselves is a good one, the overall message of the campaign falls far short of the mark from a feminist perspective.

As Jazz points out in her post, the majority of the participants are white women, with light hair & eyes.  They are young (probably all under 40), slim, and conform to a very conventional standard of beauty.  There are women of colour in the campaign, but in the video they see very little face time, and none of them are featured in the extra interviews available on the website.  This is the standard of beauty that we are always shown by the cosmetics industry:  young, white, and slim.  For a campaign that claims to break boundaries, it’s very much inside the box.

Why not feature some people who are NOT conventionally beautiful?  Someone significantly overweight, or in their 80s, or with very obvious scars/birthmarks/other “deformities” on their face, or with very “ethnic” features (even the women of colour shown in the video are people with relatively neutral features).  Why not show a man, or a transgendered person?  Why is beauty something only for cisgendered women?

Just as important are the descriptive words being used in the video.  The “negative” terms that women are using to describe their own features are things like “fat, rounder face”, “freckles”, “40 and starting to get crow’s feet”, “thin lips”, “tired looking”, “big jaw”.  While the sketches revealed that the majority of the participants were overly focused on these “negative” aspects, the video did nothing to destroy the perception that these are “bad” traits … and this is incredibly sad, because for the most part these are not “bad” things.  A rounder face or thinner lips or a wider jawline may not be what’s popular in the media right now,  but if it’s the shape you were born with then there’s nothing you can do about it, and you should feel beautiful even if you’re not like what you see in make-up ads, because beauty comes in all shapes.  Freckles and crows’ feet and tiredness: that’s all just life.  None of us look airbrushed; the life we’ve lived is going to show on our faces, and we should LOVE that, not feel pressured to cover it up.

While the video tries to be uplifting, it’s still delivering a hurtful message to women who don’t fit that conventional standard of beauty.  Someone who honestly looks more like the sketches on the left might come away actually feeling worse about themselves, because they’ve been reminded yet again that they’re not thin and white and young.

Perhaps the most troubling thing said in the whole video is this, though:

[Beauty] impacts the choices and the friends we make, the jobs we go out for, they way we treat our children, it impacts everything. It couldn’t be more critical to your happiness.

Because if you’re female, the most important thing is to be beautiful.  It doesn’t matter how skilled you are; how intelligent; how kind; how loving and giving and wonderful.  If you’re not beautiful, you’re a second-class woman.  There’s something “critical” missing from your life, and you cannot be happy without it.  You can’t even be a good person and treat others (your children, even!) right if you’re not beautiful and don’t believe that you are beautiful.

That’s right.  If you’re ugly, you’re a bad person.  If you doubt yourself, you’re going to treat other people wrong and your life will suck because of it.  Thanx, Dove.  Thanx for reminding us all that the most important part of being female is being aesthetically pleasing.

And of course, when it comes right down to it, that *is* what Dove is trying to sell you.  They want you to buy their beauty products and their moisturizers.  They want you to buy their “pro*age” lotion to get rid of those crow’s feet, and their “colour care” shampoo to keep your dye-job shiny and “natural” looking.  They want you to shave off all your body hair, smell like a flower garden, and cover up your “flaws”, just like any other cosmetics company.  So they need you to believe that you ARE flawed, and that you need products to make you better.  It is, in the end, marketing.  And advertisers discovered long ago that the way to make you buy a product, is to make you feel as though you’re not as good without it.

If I were to redo this campaign, I’d rather see them focus on things that aren’t traditionally beautiful. I want to see someone’s scars being complimented as a sign of strength, or their round “overweight” belly being loved for its soft warmth, or their adorable freckles being complimented rather than showing this constant quest for “clear” skin. I want beauty to be about more than just cisgendered women.  I want to love people for their bald patches and their places where there’s too much hair and for their stretch marks and their crooked teeth and their beautiful asymmetry.  I want people to meet up in darkened rooms where they can’t see each other at all, and can only use talk & touch without sight to tell them what they’re supposed to be thinking and feeling. I want to be truly colourblind, and blind to gender, and blind to sexual orientation, and blind to traditional ideas of “beauty”. I’m kind of an idealist that way.

Happy Valentines Day! Musings on the Nature of “Fetish”

Posted in Ramblings with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 14, 2013 by KarenElizabeth

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.

Collar & leash fetish (model: me; photographer: blurred photography)

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.

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

Other dictionary definitions include:

  • 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.

Or is it?

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!