E T I S H .
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by Susan Block, Ph.D.
Notes for Lectures at Yale University, University of Southern California, the California Graduate Institute, Caltech and on Playboy Radio
The word "fetish" is now quite faddish. We have fetish fashions, fetish games and fetish balls. But what really is a fetish in the classic sense? A fetish is a profound erotic desire for something; it could be a boot, a breast or a burqa. One could also have a fetish for an activity, such as watching, being watched, spanking or being spanked. One can even have a fetish for a concept, like fame, or a feeling, like love. Whatever the fetish object, the fetishist invests in it great power, sometimes great sexual power, sometimes great religious power, sometimes both.
In the classic sense, the sexual fetishist needs the fetish object - or at least, some kind of fantasy of 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 of his or her fetish, 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 on us at a time when we were very impressionable.
But fashion can also be a source of fetishes, and fetishes can be very fashionable. Not all fetishes are in fashion all the time, of course, and the people who struggle most with *fetish guilt,* who worry that they're "weird," are the ones with the unfashionable fetishes. "Am I normal?" is the most common question I get on the air and in my private practice. Many an otherwise healthy fetishist’s entire sense of angst stems from little more than being acutely out of fashion. A typical example would be men who like to wear stockings and heels, but happen to live in the 21st century, as opposed to the 18th century when many manly gentlemen, like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, wore stockings and heels.
What else can be a fetish? Just about anything. But not anything.
Essentially, there are four types of fetish:
Body Part Fetishists worship parts of the human body, like feet, buns, legs, hair, lips, bellybuttons, fingernails, sperm or female ejaculate. Probably the most common body part fetish, at least in America, is the breast fetish. Many an otherwise reasonable man's life virtually revolves around his pursuit of the perfect boob - big or small, but usually big. Most *breast men* snort with denial if someone suggests that their keen interest in women's racks might have something to do with their desire to be tiny infants suckling up to Mommy. But what do they know?
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.
Object Fetishists prefer to be intimate with inanimate objects. Unlike body parts, they are not attached to actual human beings with feelings and personalities that could get in the way of the fetishist's intense erotic adoration and enjoyment. The objects of their desire often function as *surrogates* for corresponding body parts, i.e., the bra instead of the breast, the shoe instead of the foot, the panties instead of the vulva and vagina, the rubber or latex instead of the skin, the dildo instead of the penis. Some common fetish objects include high heels, boots, stockings, pantyhose, panties, leather, rubber, latex, fur (real or fake), corsets, collars and hats.
Object fetishists often become collectors of their favorite fetish objects. They can get into trouble if part of their fetish is to steal other people's things, of course. But object fetishists are usually quite harmless. And they can be as happy playing with their fetish objects as a child playing with toys. Sometimes the fetish object puts the fetishist into a trance state that he can only be released from with orgasm
Many people are possessed by a fetishistic desire for money, which could be considered a combination object/conceptual fetish. In fact, money might be the most popular female fetish, next to love. How is money a fetish? Because many people, especially some women, can't enjoy sex unless they're being paid in some way, or unless they envision a pay-off in the future. If that's not a fetish, I'll eat my high-heeled boot.<
Activity Fetishists love to make things happen. The voyeurs who fetishize watching are what I call "action fetishists," as are the exhibitionists who fetishize being watched. So are oral and anal sex fetishists, obsessive masturbators of every stroke and style, as well as Doms and Dommes and their slaves and maids. There are bondage fetishists who fetishize shackles and gags. There are pain and humiliation fetishists, like Brother Love who visited my show and couldn't get aroused, even though a beautiful porn star was giving him oral sex and wanted to have intercourse with him. He could only attain an erection and ejaculate when he was kicked hard in the balls and given a golden shower.
Feeling or Conceptual Fetishes tend to be more socially acceptable. At least, feeling fetishists don't get caught hoarding shoes. But they are potentially just as compulsive. Adrenaline Junkies fetishize danger. Hopeless Romantics fetishize love. Drama Queens fetishize suffering. Terrorists fetishize violence. Fascists fetishize power. Henry Kissenger once said "Power is the greatest aphrodisiac." For a power fetishist like him, it most certainly is.
Many fetishists are a mix. For instance, an exhibitionist (action fetish) may enjoy being forced (conceptual or feeling fetish) by a mistress to wear her pantyhose (object fetish).
Marriage is the most socially sanctioned fetish of all. Many people won't have sex until they're married. This is so common and acceptable that it's not considered a fetish. But it fits the definition, especially for some women. Marriage fetishists don't feel comfortable having sex without a wedding ring or at least the promise of one. 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 Alfred 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, pioneering German sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld proposed his "theory of partial attractiveness," according to which, sexual attractiveness was the product of the interactionn 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.
In 1927, Freud built upon Ellis' idea that fetishes began in childhood, theorizing that fetishism was the result of early psychological trauma. He wrote about a foot fetishist who, as a little boy, was shocked to learn that his mother had no penis. In fact, he was disturbed to the point of wondering if he might lose his own, developing castration anxiety. Then he discovered his mother's foot. To overcome his fear of losing his manhood, he obsessed about his mother's foot (a penis substitute), and became a foot fetishist.
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, experimentation 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 perky female doctors who are also sisters (throwing a pinch of the incest fetish into the mix here) - 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, Drs 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. 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."
But can your marriage actually 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. Some people 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 - can be 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, psychoanalysis, aversion therapy and medication. The clergy of all the various religions also have their own form of "treatment" or counseling for fetishes that their religion deems improper. None of these methods actually gets rid of a fetish, no matter how undesirable, especially if the fetish stems from childhood or adolescence. But therapy can help to reduce dangerous or embarrassing fetish-related activity. It can also help the fetishist/patient develop a healthier, more positive approach to the fetish.
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, as well as to help him to feel more comfortable expressing his own feelings.
2) Roleplaying various scenarios that involve the fetish. Roleplaying, 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 relationships. 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 award-winning lingerie line.
A fetish can be an awful sexual liability, or it can be a doorway that opens up to an awesome sexual heaven on earth.