Sexual fetishism, first described as such by Sigmund Freud though the concept and certainly the activity is quite ancient, is a form of paraphilia where the object of affection is a specific inanimate object or part of a person's body. The term arose from fetishism, the general concept of an object having supernatural powers, or an object created by humans that has power over other humans. Marx also used the term in a quite separate way.
Freud's early theories
As Freud described it in 1887, sexual fetishes in men are the result of childhood trauma regarding castration anxiety. According to this theory, a boy curious to see his mother's penis averts his eyes in horror when he discovers his mother has no penis. The inanimate object on which the boy focuses when he averts his eyes becomes the fetishized object. Later in life, the fetishized object must be present in order for the man to complete orgasm. Within this framework, men are capable of having sexual fetishes, while women are incapable -- something which makes this a falsifiable theory. This is a point of contention for feminists analysing Freud's work, who point out that the observed fetishistic behavior in many women makes Freud's theory untenable. Despite such flaws which may make it unpalatable at the present, the theory was taken seriously when conceived.
Modern theories of fetishism
Although Freud's theory on fetishes may seem peculiar and was based on anecdotal evidence rather than empirical, he had discovered a critical aspect of human sexuality: the relationship between human orgasms and conditioning. Ongoing studies make this relationship more clear. For example, in a study published by Dr. Lique M. Coolen on April 14, 2003 at an Experimental Biology conference in San Diego, California, male rats accustomed to having sex in a particular cage will have elevations of "pleasure-inducing chemicals in the brain" simply from being in the particular cage, even if a female or a female scent are not present. Sexual conditioning occurred. It has been hypothesized that human sexuality may similarly be tied to conditioning, and this may explain the phenomenon of sexual fetishism.
This is consistent with the theory that fetishism derives from behavioural imprinting in early childhood, a phenomenon which is not only supported by anecdotal evidence in humans, but can be demonstrated experimentally in animals.
It is also hypothesized that the modern world provides many opportunities for superstimulus based on objects that both mimic and exaggerate natural stimuli.
Common fetishes include fetishes focused on footwear, wigs, body piercing, underclothing or garments made out of specific materials such as rubber, fur, spandex, leather, or nylon. Transvestic fetishism, the fetish of dressing in the clothes of the opposite sex, is also common. Some clothing materials are fetishized by a small number of people, perhaps on the basis that the material forms a "second skin" that acts as a fetishistic surrogate for the wearer's own skin. The most common forms of this are spandex fetishism and rubber fetishism, in which the fabric is both stretchy and shiny, exaggerating some of the aspects of human skin.
Other fetishistic attachments can be to specific parts of the body, such as head or body hair, legs, feet or breasts, rather than to the person as an individual. This might explain foot binding in China prior to 1911 and breast implants in the contemporary United States.
In this regard, there can be said to be a degree of fetishistic arousal in most normal individuals who respond to particular bodily features as sign of attractiveness. However fetishistic arousal is generally considered to be a problem when it interferes with normal sexual or social functioning. Sometimes the term 'fetishism' is used only for those cases where non-fetishist sexual arousal is impossible.
Although these forms of fetishism are the most common, fetishism, like other forms of human sexuality, can be extremely varied and can encompass almost any aspect of human behaviour.
A number of sub-genres of pornography exist to serve fetishistic interests, with corresponding erotica in the form of fetish art.
References and further reading
- Valerie Steele, Fetish: Fashion, Sex, and Power, Oxford University Press, 1995. ISBN 0195090446
- Larry Utley, Autumn Carey-Adamme, Fetish Fashion: Undressing the Corset, Green Candy Press, 2002. ISBN 1931160066
- Katharine Gates, Deviant Desires: Incredibly Strange Sex, published by Juno Books ISBN 1-890451-03-7
- Brenda Love, The Encyclopedia of Unusual Sex Practices, published by Barricade Books, 1994, ISBN 1569800111
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