The term "fetishism" was coined in the late 1800s. It originates from the Portuguese word feitico, which means "obsessive fascination".  There is a degree of fetishistic arousal in most normal individuals who find particular bodily features attractive. However, fetishistic arousal is generally considered a problem when it interferes with normal sexual or social functioning and where sexual arousal is impossible without the fetish object.

Fetishism is characterized as a disorder when there is a pathological assignment of sexual fixation, fantasies or behaviors toward an inanimate object -- frequently an item of clothing -- such as underclothing or a high-heeled shoe -- or to nongenital body parts -- such as the foot. Only through use of this object can the individual obtain sexual gratification. The fetishist usually holds, rubs or smells the fetish object for sexual gratification or asks their partner to wear the object during sexual encounters. Fetishism is a more common occurrence in males, and the causes are not clearly known.  Fetishism falls under the general category of paraphilias, abnormal or unnatural sexual attractions.

Inanimate object fetishes can be categorized into two types: form fetishes and media fetishes. In a form fetish, the object and its shape are important, such as high-heeled shoes. In a media fetish, the material of the object is important, such as silk or leather. Inanimate object fetishists often collect the object of their favor. In some cases, the fetishism is severe enough to inspire the fetishist to acquire objects of his desire through theft or assault. Fetishists smell, rub or handle these objects while masturbating or ask their sex partners to wear the objects; male fetishists may be unable to get erections without the presence of the objects. Nearly all fetishists are male, though some women also exhibit fetishism.

Aside from those listed above, other common objects used by fetishists are panties, bras, slips, stockings, other intimate apparel, footwear and gloves. Common materials other than those listed above also include rubber and fur. For some, merely a picture of the fetish object may arise the fetishists, though most prefer or require the actual object. It is not about the person who has worn the object, rather it is about the object itself. Examples of animate fetish objects include hair, legs and buttocks.

Fetishism excludes cross-dressing and objects specially designed for sexual use such as vibrators and dildos.

Fetishism. Last reviewed 12/31/1969
  • National Institutes of Health
  • National Library of Medicine
  • Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition
  • PsychNet-UK