Fetishes: An Explanation

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What are fetishes?

A working definition of fetish is ‘an object of irrational reverence or obsessive devotion’. Even if we remove the negative adjectives, we can see how fetishes impact our lives.

Though our culture is skittish about them, fetishes just are. They are part of our erotic signatures, much like temperament or humour make up our personalities. Some fetishes are socially condoned, like ‘Blondes have more fun’ or ‘tall dark and handsome’. And of course there is our obsession with large breasts, unquestioned because it is common and culturally sanctioned, but nonetheless qualifies as fetishistic. Less commonplace fetishes, such as ostentatious costuming or the inclusion of titillating objects are much more harshly judged. We are all too quick to confuse ‘different’ with ‘wrong’.

What do we know about them?

We know that males overwhelmingly report fetishistic preferences compared to females. Some statistics range into the 90 to 95 percentile. This is partially due to the interaction of the Y chromosome and the androgen ‘bath’ that male fetuses undergo to differentiate them from the default female model, and partially due to males’ higher testosterone (sex-driving) hormone levels. We also know that fetishes are developed between the ages of about two and ten, with the span between five and eight being most common. It is at this point that the (usually) boy experiences some connection between an object (red satin panties, for instance) and an erotic response (an erection). For some reason, this connection burns deep into the erotic framework for the boy, and remains there throughout the lifespan. It may well be that this initial awareness of erotic response binds with anything available at the moment….much as ducks will imprint on a basketball if that’s what stands in for ‘mother’ during the imprinting period….but research suggests that the moment of recognition is specific, the connection is permanent, and the object is fetishized as erotic regardless of context. In other words, once a strong erotic response is recognized, it is welded to the erotic signature of that individual.

Can a fetish be changed?

It seems that fetishes cannot be changed, though some are more pressing than others. We all have preferences regarding sex….we have individual favourite activities, settings, and patterns. Some of us go weak at the sight of silk stay-up stockings or shiny wing-tip shoes, but do not require these props to become aroused. For others, the fetish object is required to kick start and maintain interest and desire. We do not know why some fetishes imprint deeply and others do not….only that once imprinted, the object remains as a trigger for arousal.

How do fetishes affect us?

Though we hear horrible tales of sadistic sex murderers who require mutilation and torture to guarantee sexual gratification, these examples are sensationalistic and very, very rare. Most fetishes serve only to keep us paying attention to sexual clues. If we’re particularly drawn to women with well-defined calf muscles, or to a certain scent, we’ll notice if these stimuli cross our path. They serve as elements of attraction, and rarely do we need to be concerned about them.

Fetishes can be problematic, however, if they become rigid, which is true about many, many areas of our lives. If we find that we can’t attain orgasm unless, for instance, our girlfriend is lying in a pile of cold spaghetti, we may have difficulty finding sex partners, and of course must become extremely charming and skilful at negotiation just to ask for what we want.

In sum, fetishes can be good for us if we use them to augment our sexual responses and bad for us if they restrict our opportunities to enjoy a wide range of desire-enhancing signals. They can be quirky and fun and exciting, or they can confine us to narrow channels of experience. We cannot choose our fetishes, or even whether or not we have them. We do, however, have some choice in how we use them. Happily, most of us do so with light-hearted appreciation of a particular object or expression that establishes us as capable of heightened response and involvement.