Not just leather and feet
From the time that we are kids, sex has been shrouded in a kind of taboo mystery. Too often, our knowledge comes from giggled conversations and a rudimentary—if any—sex education class often taught by gym teachers who don’t know a cervix from a crueler.
While the mystery causes excitement over the unknown, it also harbors misinformation and unintentional ignorance. Unfortunately, when we become adults, we retain a lot of these side effects. Forced to seek information through the only viable channels, such as our dumb friends and the adult film industry, our knowledge of sex becomes easily perverted.
Take, for instance, the concept of a fetish. Google the term, and you’ll be confronted with over 105 million sites with names like PenisBot, Fetish Bank, and Hoes.com. In popular use, the term describes any sort of sexual delight that is considered away from the mainstream. Deriving pleasure from urination, pain, high heels or interspecial sexual congress are all examples of what have been described as fetishes. However, the strict definition of fetishism is much more limiting.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders, commonly known as the DSM IV, states that “The paraphilic focus in fetishism involves the use of nonliving objects … The person with fetishism frequently masturbates while holding, rubbing or smelling the fetish object or may ask the sexual partner to wear the object during sexual encounters.” In this form of fetishism, the person makes a direct and necessary connection with the inanimate object as a means of sexual arousal. But this definition represents the extreme end of what N.L. Evans refers to as a continuum.
“You always think of [fetishes] as being really kinky, but in the real world, it’s really about the continuum of preferences,” explains Evans, an instructor of human sexuality at the University of Reno, Nevada.
On one end of the continuum, she says, are the common emotional feelings that we all have toward an object in our lives. A wedding ring or a picture of a loved one are both examples of fetishism. We attach an almost magical and lucky element to the item so that we feel a connection with it. And without it, we feel a little empty.
On the other side of the continuum, fetishism is much more intense, Evans says. “You wouldn’t have sex without it … the object of your fetishism becomes more important than a relationship with someone.”
The objects of fetishism are often items of clothing like underwear, footwear or leather garments. Partialism is a form of fetishism where the object is a specific body part, such as a woman’s foot. Evans is quick to point out the distinction between fetishism and sexual preferences, though. A man may enjoy curvy hips, and a woman may become aroused over large biceps, but there is no necessity in their desires. It’s simply something they find sexually appealing.
While everyone has sexual preferences, only a small percentage of the population engages in fetishism. The term has been manipulated to feed the ignorant mystery that fills our sexual culture. Instead of using it to enlighten and bring knowledge to a subject that many are still ashamed to discuss.