E T I S H . 1
by Dr. Susan Block
Suzy's Lecture Notes on
First, let’s define our terms. What is a fetish? A fetish is a thing - a boot, a breast, a burqa - or an action - watching, being watching, spanking, being spanked – or a concept – fame, money, love - that the fetishist invests with great power, sometimes with great sexual power, sometimes with great religious power, sometimes both.
In the classic sense, the fetishist requires the fetish object in order to have sex. Psychologists call this a "paraphilia." The male needs the fetish object to get an erection. For the female, sexual arousal and fetishism are always a little more mysterious and difficult to pinpoint. Let’s just say the female fetishist needs the fetish object to enjoy sex.
Male or female, the fetishist objectifies, glorifies
and downright deifies the object, body part, behavior or concept, above
and beyond any mere human being. Take the foot
fetishist. For him--or her, but usually him--a beautiful foot is the
Foot of the Goddess. In fact, the foot itself is the Goddess.
For the leather fetishist, the smell, look and feel of leather is just
heavenly, intoxicating, powerful. Then there are the pain fetishists,
the martyrs, the bad boys and naughty girls who crave being punished,
restrained, tied up, spanked, sometimes even tortured. Often, they fetishize
childhood. Many of our fetishes stem from early childhood or adolescence.
They seem to have come from intense, often traumatic personal experiences
that left an impression when we were very impressionable.
What else can be a fetish? Just about anything. What do you think of when you hear the word “fetish” ? What images come to your mind? Do you have a fetish? Do you know someone who does? Do they enjoy their fetish, or do they have problems with it, or maybe a little bit of both?
The exaltation of the female bosom as a sex symbol, as
opposed to a maternal image, is pervasive in our society, making it one
of the most acceptable contemporary fetishes, so ubiquitous it’s
barely considered a fetish. Yet it is a fetish, since breasts are far
more essential to nurturing than to sex. And therein lies the infantile
origin of the breast fetish. That deep need we all have for deep nurturance.
Sustenance. Comfort. Food. The breast is food, after all. It is that unique
part of a woman’s body that actually creates food, the milk of life
and love - and fetishes.
Freud was definitely onto something when he came up with the powerful
notion of “penis envy;” he just attributed it to the wrong
gender. For the most part, guys are the ones worrying about how their
own penis measures up size-wise with other guys. It's one of the oldest
male sex hang-ups in the book, buttressed by principles of evolution (human
penises are much bigger proportionately than our cousin primates). These
days, it is intensified by porn which tends to show men with monster-size
cocks, holding many male viewers in a fetishistic phallic thrall. Most
male penis fetishists are bisexual, but that doesn't mean they want romantic
relationships with men. They tend to be disinterested in all other aspects
of the male body (which is why they are sometimes drawn to transsexuals
or she-males), but they are obsessed with the phalluses of other men.
Sometimes they want to play with or receive the penis themselves; sometimes
they just like to look at well-endowed men having sex with women. Many
men feel extremely ambivalent about their penis fetish; it arouses them,
but deeply shames them because they fear that it means they are *gay.*
So many men are so ashamed of their penis fetish that the penis, especially
the erect penis, is the most taboo human body part in society. Essentially,
the only place we can look at erect cocks is in hardcore porn. This fact
is one of the secret reasons for porn’s gargantuan success.
So what happens if and when the thrill is gone? Different people in different cultures have different ways of working it out. Some marriage fetishists get divorced and then get married again, and again and again. Or if they’re in Utah, they sometimes don’t even get the divorce; they just get married again. Or they stay married and have affairs. But marriage can certainly be a fetish. It can also be The Anti-Fetish. That is, many fetishists feel they absolutely cannot enjoy their fetish with the person to whom they are married.
Theories of Sexual Fetishism
But back to the classics: bondage, sadism, masochism, transvestitism, psychrocism (that’s being aroused by the cold). The origin of fetish terms like these lies in the works of 19th century psychologists Alred Binet, Havelock Ellis and, perhaps especially, Richard von Krafft-Ebing. In his Psychopathia Sexualis of 1885, Krafft-Ebing was the first doctor to recognize the difficulty of drawing the line between fetish and "normal" sex when he said most lovers engage in "horseplay...just for fun" and that doesn't make them sado-masochists.
In 1920, German sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld proposed his "theory of partial attractiveness," according to which, sexual attractiveness was the product of the interaction of various factors within an individual. He argued that nearly everyone had special interests that could be considered "healthy fetishes," while only a small percentage of the population obsessed about one thing enough to be considered a paraphiliac fetishist.
In 1927, Freud built upon Ellis' idea that fetishes began in childhood, theorizing that fetishism was the result of early psychological trauma. He wrote that when a foot fetishist was a boy, he would have been shocked to learn that his mother had no penis, and disturbed to the point of wondering if he might lose his own. Then he discovered his mother's foot. To overcome the resulting castration anxiety he obsessed about her foot (a penis substitute), thus becoming a foot fetishist.
The modern sexual world has blossomed more fully in the garden of Hirschfeld's ideas that fetishism can be normal and harmlessly enjoyable. Nowadays, the word "fetish" is so trendy, it's almost meaningless. It usually is used to mean "sexual interest," not the classical paraphiliac fetishist who absolutely cannot perform or enjoy sex without incorporating the fetish. Now, all kinds of people go to Fetish Balls, dress up in corsets, leather, latex, 8-inch heels, pointy toed boots and other trappings of fetish fashion. Here we are leaving the psychologically disordered realm of paraphilias and entering the much wider world of sexual orientation and preference. Nevertheless, you can certainly meet a dangerous paraphiliac at a fetish ball, just as you can meet a sociopath in your friendly neighborhood bar.
A couple years ago, I was on Discovery Health Channel's "Berman & Berman Show" - which is very hot if you've got a fetish for sexy female doctors who are also sisters (throwing in a hint of the incest fetish there) - and the subject was fetishes. Their most urgent question was (surprise, surprise): Is this normal? Can true diehard fetishists have "normal" sex lives? I was tempted to say, "No, Doctors Berman & Berman, your exhibitionist-voyeur fetish that you expose through your own teasterama TV show is NOT normal; it's perverse, and you need intensive treatment now. So get down on your knees, buns in the air, and suck my high-heeled sandals." I was wearing these very fetishistic leopard print 5-inch-heeled sandals. But I didn't say that; I'm just not sadistic enough. Besides, I kind of like the Bermans. They've got a sexy little Sister Act going on. So I told them the truth, "Yes, fetishists can have what we call normal lives… Just incorporate the fetish into your life in a positive way."
Can your marriage benefit by exploring your fetish? Well, it usually beats the alternative, i.e., repressing it so that one of you runs into the arms of a lover or over the knee of a dominatrix. Exploring fetishes is risky business, like any great adventure. But I've seen many couples do very well with it, especially if they are intelligent and communicative. I’ve even seen some who resolve their issues with rage, peacefully and relatively safely by channeling their violent impulses through playing responsible S&M games together. It can even help to reduce domestic violence... It's the Bonobo Way.
Well, the way I explore fetishes, it’s the Bonobo Way. But that's not always the way. Our current administration seems to have a fetish for torture – nonconsensual torture. Of course, this is very dangerous, to you, to your victim, to the country, to the world - and not good clean fetish fun. "Dubyaism." as I define it, is a fetish for dark, deadly activity, accompanied by a sick, frat-boy sense of humor. Not that these types of fetishistic torture - dominance & submission, sensory deprivation, being forced to wear hoods - aren’t erotic when performed consensually. The key is consensuality. Or, to use less clinical terms: The key is love and respect for the other person as a human being.
Yet part of the whole idea – and the fun – of fetish is to dehumanize your partner, making him or her into a sex object, a role in your fantasies, a god or goddess, a slave or captive, a student or teacher. That why a healthy fetish-filled life balances this intensive fantasy play with a strong recognition of the humanity of your partner.
Can you become addicted to a fetish? Of course! Anything pleasurable in life can be addictive. The best things in life are addictive. One key question is: Does your fetish enhance your life or make it more difficult?
There are a variety of "treatments" for difficult fetishes, including cognitive therapy, aversion therapy, psychoanalysis and medication. I would even count counciling by a clergyperson to be a form of fetish therapy. None of these methods actually gets rid of a fetish, no matter how undesirable. But they can help to reduce dangerous or embarrassing fetish-related activity.
My own brand of "fetish therapy" involves three main areas of work:
1) Talking about the fetish. Like psychoanalysis, therapist and patient talk about the origins of the fetish in the patient's early and later life, its manifestations in dreams and fantasies, and positive and negative forms of expression in the patient's real life. Though the work is primarily focused on the patient, of course, it may also involve the therapist sharing his or her own experiences with the fetish to help the patient gain greater insight.
2) Roleplaying various scenarios that involve the fetish. Roleplaying, whether over the telephone or in person, helps both the therapist and the patient to learn more about the fetish through mentally and physically stimulating exploration and play. This can be very pleasurable for the patient, it can be painful or a combination of pleasure and pain. These sexual psychodramas may lead to the goal of #3, but they can be valuable experiences in and of themselves. The goal is the journey.
3) Channeling fetishistic urges into positive actions. If there is a goal of fetish therapy, it is to learn to channel obsessive fetishistic desires into behaviors and activities that are not likely to harm the patient or others, and may even be beneficial in ways that go beyond scratching the itch of the fetish. "Harm" can range from physically hurting oneself or others to damaging a relationship. Benefit can range from enjoying simple, basic, relatively guilt-free, sexual release in the midst of exciting fetishistic activity to developing deeper connections with one's significant other to creating works of art. Thus, a panty fetishist might go from stealing his friend's sister's panties to buying his own to sharing panties with a girlfriend to designing his own lingerie line.
A fetish can be a liability in one's sex life, or it can be a doorway that opens up to wonderful things.
If you are interested in pursuing fetish
therapy, in person or over the telephone, you can get more information
when you call my office at 213.749.1330 or 1.866.289.7068.
Dr. Suzy lectures on Fetishes at University of Southern California (USC). For info, call 213.749.1330.
Does John J. Rigas have a bondage fetish?