As a clinical sexologist, I specialize in helping people understand the roots of their sexual fetish and how to manage it either alone or with a partner(s). Over the years, I have come to understand how fetishes start and the reasons why people have them. My client base has been overwhelmingly male and, as such, many of my insights pertain directly to the male experience.
Red nail polish, stilettos, leather—sexual fetishes take many forms. At bottom, a sexual fetish is a straightforward phenomenon. It simply denotes an intense erotic focus on a body part that is not generally associated with sex, or on an inanimate object. Having a fetish is not a problem in itself. It only becomes one when it interferes with a person’s overall wellbeing, their relationships, or negatively affects other important areas of ones life. Of course, there are degrees of intensity when it comes to fetishes and, by extension, degrees of seriousness or even pathology. For my article, I’m going to discuss the basis for mild or moderate sexual fetishism.
The birth of a fetish
How does fetishism develop? One way is through incorporating the object or body part, often through fantasy, in a masturbation sequence in which the reinforcement of orgasm strengthens the fetishistic association. Another possible explanation for the origins of some cases of fetishism looks to childhood. Some children learn to associate sexual arousal with objects (such as a specific type of clothing material, panties or shoes) that belong to an emotionally significant person, such as their parent or older sibling. The process by which this occurs is sometimes called symbolic transformation. In this process, the object of the fetish becomes endowed with the essence of its owner so that the child responds to this object as they might react to the actual person.
Most fetishes begin in puberty. In fact, all of the males I have worked with over the years share a similar origin story. As pubescent males, each had been exposed to an object or an act that they masturbated to on a consistent basis. The timing is significant because of the hormonal fluctuations that mark puberty and its impact on the brain’s sexual mapping or associations between arousal and climax.
Some males felt this association lessened as they grew into their twenties and were even able to find arousal via other stimulation. But at some point, as they aged, the fetish reasserted a hold over their sexual life. It continued to occupy their minds on a daily basis growing stronger as the fantasy grew more clear and consistent. The teenager that continued to need the fetish to get aroused in their teens and twenties became dependent on this form of stimulation to get aroused, making it difficult to have any sexual act without thinking about the fetish or engaging in it.
Subcategories of sexual fetishes:
Humiliation fetish: a person becomes aroused from specific types of humiliation. A few examples: body-part humiliation, public teasing, partner(s) laughing at them, insulting them, cuckolding, chastity, acts of submission, etc. Any act that will cause a rush (dopamine surge) that can trigger arousal as well as an erection. This type of fetish can be somewhat addictive because of the increased dopamine that the body produces.
Stretching, crushing, pulling, pinching, slapping to the body fetish: this type of fetish usually has pain involved with it and can cross over into extreme fetish if it involves too much trauma to the body. An example is a client of mine whose fetish was extreme anal stretching – this eventually led to a prolapsed anus.
Objects: this seems to be the most common fetish as far as mildness but can lead to extremism if the objects become associated with the above fetishes. Some typical fetishistic objects would be stockings, panties, bras, women’s clothing, leather, and some more interesting items such as balloons, rubber bands and even food.
When managing some of the fetishes and the need to be aroused by the fetish, an overwhelming majority of the males came to the conclusion that they wanted a partner(s) to want them, love them, and to be exclusively their own. When the partner(s) engaged in the fetish with them, most males felt loved in the act.
As the fetish became a part of them, tied to their identity as well as their arousal, it becomes apparent a fetish is not something that will go away. By managing their fetishes and making them a mainstream aspect of their lives, most males were able to have stable relationships with their partner(s) and work with their fetishes.
For the males who tried to push their thoughts aside, deny, shame themselves or not act on their fetishes, the results were universally abysmal—none were successful in getting rid of their fetishes. In contrast, when an individual was able to embrace and accept their fetish, understand the limits and boundaries, they had a better time managing it and learned to have fun with it.
Sexology International, like all of our work, is for people of all sexual preferences and all forms of gender expression, including people whose identity is something other than male or female. As such, we like to use gender-neutral pronouns. More recently accepted alternatives include words like “ze” and “hir” or the universal pronoun “they.” Throughout our work, we will be doing our best to use alternative pronouns, such as “they,” whenever gender or plurality is unimportant. In doing so we hope it helps everyone to feel included in the discussion and that it inspires you to think outside of traditional sex and gender binaries.