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Sexual fetishism

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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.

As Freud described it in 1887, sexual fetishes in men are the result of childhood trauma regarding castration anxiety[?]. 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. This is a bone of contention (excuse the pun) for feminists analysing Freud's work, who point out that the observed fetishistic behavior in many women makes Freud's theory untenable.

Although Freud's theory on fetishes may seem peculiar and although Freud's work was based on anecdotal evidence rather than empirical, he was onto 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. [1] (http://story.news.yahoo.com/news?tmpl=story&u=/nm/20030414/hl_nm/sex_rats_dc_1) Sexual conditioning occurred. The sexuality of human beings may similarly be tied to conditioning, and could be explained through sexual fetishism.

This is consistent with the theory that fetishism derives from behavioural imprinting in early childhood.

Common fetishes include fetishes focused on footwear, wigs, body piercing, underclothing or garments made out of specific materials such as rubber, fur, spandex or leather. Transvestic fetishism, the fetish of dressing in the clothes of the opposite sex, is also common.

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 'fetishisism' 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 large sub-genre of pornography exists to serve fetishistic interests, and a corresponding sub-genre of erotica in the form of fetish art[?].

Fetishism in its milder forms merges into the mainstream culture; the vast range of women's shoes available in mainstream shoe shops, most of which are not designed for comfort, demonstrates that low-level shoe fetishism pervades mainstream Western culture, almost without being noticed.

Common varieties of fetishism:

Less common forms of fetishism:

See paraphilia for other rarer or pathological forms of paraphilia.

See also: Krafft-Ebing, Venus in Furs, Fetish photography


  • Deviant Desires: Incredibly Strange Sex, by Katharine Gates, published by Juno Books ISBN 1-890451-03-7

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