Find your fetish

Fetishes are often sensationalized by the media, but many are more common than you think

Many common fetishes include leather, feet, hair and clothing.
Many common fetishes include leather, feet, hair and clothing.

Originally a term used to describe religious artifacts believed to have magical powers, “fetish” took on a sexual connotation in the 19th century. But despite the change, much of the word’s original meaning remains.

Sexual fetishists fix special value or attention on an object—whether part of the body or something inanimate—as a source of their sexual pleasure, essentially giving that object heightened sexual power.

In an e-mail to the Journal, Caroline Pukall, assistant professor of psychology, said fetishism can be consensual or non-consensual.

“Fetishism, transvestism, sadism and masochism are consensual in that they do not infringe on others’ rights as they are acted on alone and/or with a willing partner,” she said. “Voyeurism, exhibitionism and pedophilia are non-consensual as they involve unwilling participants/those who cannot consent.”

Pukall said fetishism is a type of paraphelia—meaning beyond usual love.

“Fetishism is when a person becomes aroused by an object, such as rubber, leather or footwear, that is not considered to be sexual,” she said.

Fetishism can also involve partialism, when a specific part of a human body is fetishized at the expense of the rest of the person, Pukall said.

“Most people have a kind of fetish,” she said. “It’s an attraction to certain things. It’s when the object of the fetish takes on a spiritual connection, an almost magical or mystical quality. The object becomes key to the emotional and erotic gratification. Without that key, there will be a lot missing.”

Some people need to be around the part of the body or object that is fetishized, Pukall said, while others can be away from it and still experience sexual gratification.

Although it’s difficult to determine where a person’s fetish derives from, Pukall said there tends to be a link between something in childhood or adolescence and the object of their desire.

“Fantasy behaviours become honed in adolescence,” she said. “The object associated with sexual arousal becomes engrained in their minds. It’s possible they transfer these sexual compulsions onto an object … but it is difficult to know if this is actually the case.”

Pukall said fetishes often become chronic and are difficult to break free from.

“Trying to break the cycle is very difficult,” she said. “In order to come to terms with it, the person needs to broaden what they’re aroused to. If they break that connection entirely, it may kill their sexual response or cause them to become depressed.”

But very few people reveal their fetish to their partner, Pukall said.

“It’s mostly a private activity they do on their own,” she said. “Partners may be very unhappy because they’re not being attended to in other ways.”

Pukall said sometimes a person doesn’t realize they have a fetish but will realize it after they become sexually involved because the fetish will be the sole focus of the sexual activity.

Meg, ArtSci ’10, said she doesn’t know anyone who is open about their fetishes.

“It’s a closet issue,” she said. “Fetishes are kind of looked down on so a lot of people wouldn’t be open about them anyway.”

Meg, who asked that her last name be withheld to maintain her privacy, said she has a fetish for giving oral sex.

“Imagining a cock gets me off,” she said. “I’d have issues with getting off if I was with a woman. I enjoy sucking and touching them and I spend a lot of time focused on it.”

Meg said she isn’t sure if her fetish came from a specific point in her life, but she said she feels focusing on her partner, rather than herself, is more comfortable for her.

“I don’t have to deal with me because I’m focusing on the other person,” she said. “It makes the relationship easier because I can give pleasure to them and focus on his penis instead of actual sex. They receive pleasure, I receive pleasure and it sort of just built from that.”

Meg said she doesn’t see anything wrong with her fetish because it’s something a lot of other people think about.

“It’s perceived as the norm,” she said. “It’s not a taboo thing. If it was a more taboo fetish, I’d feel bad about it but I think it’s pretty normal.”

Meg said for people with more taboo fetishes, hiding them could be just as detrimental as hiding their sexuality.

“We still live in a society that frowns upon sexual behaviour,” she said. “So the person may feel bad about it even though they shouldn’t.”

She said people should embrace what they find pleasure in and ignore the media’s negative portrayal of them.

“It may be weird but it’s unique about you and if you can find someone to participate with you, all the better, because if they’re doing it as well, it can’t be that taboo.”

Kat Heintzman, MA ’09 and internal education director of the Sexual Health and Resource Centre said it’s difficult to say how many fetishists there are or what demographics they are most popular in.

“The only numbers we have are from those who go to psychologists,” Heintzman said. “Others don’t go for psychiatric help because they don’t consider it to be a problem.”

Heintzman said a lot of fetishes are considered deviant by society in a way that is unnecessarily stigmatizing.

“Because we live in such a sex-negative society, not a lot of people will come forward,” Heintzman said.

But Heintzman said what mass culture interprets as being a fetish may not be construed as such by those who practice it.

“Lots of people who engage in fisting say it’s not kinky, it’s just sex.”

Heintzman added that bondage is considered both kinky and fetishistic—most people experiment with it at some point in their life—where kink refers to the actions, such as spanking and fetish refers to the infusion of erotic symbolism.

“BDSM is interesting,” Heintzman said. “It looks like there is a dichotomy of top and bottom or submissive and dominant. Outsiders see the person in the ‘dominant’ position acting as the person in control, but the person tied down had a lot of negotiation before and articulated desires. The submissive has a word to call the scene to a halt. Though it may appear that someone is engaged in something that is humiliating, to get to that point the person has had to articulate desire in the face of societal pressure and has been able to voice a sexual agency and power.”

Heintzman said some fetishes, such as foot fetishes and transvestism, are sensationalized in the media, which is why they are discussed more. But anything can be a fetish, even balloons.

“It’s hard to say how fetishes come about,” Heintzman said. “We live in a culture that sends us all kinds of erotic imagery. Some of it we absorb and some of it we don’t.” University can be a setting that facilitates sexual experimentation, which could provide avenues to explore fetishes, Heintzman said, adding that although fetishes may be discovered at university, that isn’t their real origin.

Some fetishists take the angle that they were born with the fetish, Heintzman said, while others take another route.

“They take the more radical claim,” Heintzman said. “They say ‘There is nothing wrong with what I’m doing. I’m aroused and happy and choose to act on it.’”

Heintzman said the morals attached to sexuality, especially non-normative sexuality, can alter the way fetishes are viewed.

“More important than how someone became interested with sexual practices is how they are working towards a community where those choices are respected and not pathologized.”

—With files from Sierra Yanush

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