What is sexual fetishism?

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Sexual fetishes are intense sexual fixations on an inanimate object or body part generally regarded as asexual to the point where the individual cannot be aroused without the object or normal sexual and societal functioning is affected.
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One definition of fetish is an object, often created by people, believed to have magical or supernatural powers. In the late fifteenth century, Europeans wore charms or amulets described as fetishes. However, in modern psychology, a fetish is an inanimate object or body part that is the subject of intense sexual fantasies or urges and is necessary for the individual to obtain sexual satisfaction. As a paraphilia (a sexual deviation or perversion), fetishism requires the fetishist’s attention to be focused not on the sexual partner but in a depersonalized manner on the object.

Fetishes are usually divided into two groups: form fetishes, in which the form and shape of the object (such as a pair of shoes or boots) are of utmost importance for arousal, and media fetishes, in which great significance is attached to the material (such as leather or lace) from which the fetish is made. Common fetishes include a person clad in black garters, stockings, and high-heeled shoes; a swatch of fabric, possibly soft or silky; and an object that has been worn. Fetish objects include corsets, diapers, gloves, rubber, spandex, furry items, and food. Typical fetish body parts are feet, legs, hair, and navels. Some fetishists are aroused by infantilism, pregnancy, or amputated limbs.

Causes and Treatments

The term sexual fetishism was coined by French psychiatrist Alfred Binet, whose most famous accomplishment was the development of a standardized test for intelligence. Binet described sexual fetishism as an individual’s sexual attraction to a nonhuman object and offered his theory of associations to explain it. He believed fetishism to result from the accidental pairing of sexual sensation with an object that thereafter would be an object of arousal; however, he never explained clearly how this pairing could last a lifetime.

Another theory regarding fetishism was advanced in the 1950s by Donald Winnicott, who pursued the belief that fetishism may have originated in childhood, with a small cuddly object given by a mother to her infant child. This object, known as a transitional object, recalled the mother and assumed a huge significance in the child’s life, particularly in the mother’s absence. Winnicott reasoned that because the object brought the pleasant mother-child relationship to mind, it may have become a fetish object in the child’s adult life.

Efforts to explain sexual fetishism recalled classical conditioning, advanced by Russian physiologist Ivan Petrovich Pavlov in the early 1900s. In his study of digestion, for which he was awarded a Nobel Prize, he noticed that his dogs began to salivate when the attendant who regularly fed them entered the room. After a bell was repeatedly rung just before the attendant brought the food, the dogs soon began to salivate at the sound of the bell. This form of conditioning, in which the neutral stimulus (bell) is substituted for the unconditioned stimulus (food), results in a conditioned response (salivation).

Although classical conditioning seemed to be a plausible explanation for fetishism, it failed to mesh with Binet’s idea that an initial pairing of sensation with the object would continue throughout the individual’s life. One theory concerning the genesis of fetishism included imprinting, in which a young child fixes its attention on the first person in its experience and establishes a lifelong behavior pattern. Another theory was directed toward adolescence and conditioning associated with masturbation.

One modern theory arises from the fact that more men, historically, have been fetishists than women. It has been put forward that men, if influenced by their mothers, may feel shame or guilt when confronted by their own desires. Therefore, if dogged by these feelings, men might prefer to focus on an object or body part, rather than risk rejection or failure with a sexual partner.

Treatment or control of fetishism usually involves counseling, hypnosis, and prescription medications. Behavioral conditioning, usually aversive conditioning, is frequently used in the treatment of paraphiliacs. Negative stimuli such as thoughts of pain, foul odors, or “inappropriate images” are administered during moments of arousal and are designed to produce an association of pain with fetishism, eventually causing a painful response to fetishistic desires.


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