Autism

"I Am in Love with Trains"

Some people are attracted to objects like trains, bridges, or walls.

Posted Sep 01, 2020

Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels
Source: Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels

By Dimitria E. Gatzia, Sarah Arnaud & Berit Brogaard

Objectophilia, or Object-Sexuality, is a sexual orientation involving an enduring emotional, romantic or sexual attraction toward specific objects, such as trains, bridges, walls, cars, and words. Erika Eiffel, a self-identified objectophile, describes it as “an orientation just as hetero- and homo-sexuality are orientations of one’s innate sexuality.”

Objectophilia gained its first media attention in 1979, when Eija-Riitta Eklöf, a model-builder who loves structures, married the Berlin Wall. In 2006, Erika Eiffel, who loves bridges, held a similar commitment ceremony with the Eiffel Tower. In 2016, the documentary Off the Rails told the story of Darius McCollum who loves trains.

Loving Objects Is Not a Fetish: It’s a Sexual Orientation

Objectophilia may seem like a fetish, but it’s not. Fetishists use objects exclusively as a means of achieving sexual gratification. Their focus is on the fetish, not the object itself, and the sexual gratification tends to be associated with the feeling of power over the object. As a result, the sexual acts involved in fetishism are characteristically depersonalized and objectified.

While objectophiles do focus on the object and its qualities, their attraction to objects is not purely sexual, depersonalized, objectified, or derived from having a sense of power over the object. It can also be romantic and involve intense emotions.

Fetishism is typically associated with parts of the body (such as feet) or objects that can be worn (such as leather gloves). Objectophilia, by contrast, involves the formation of emotional, romantic or sexual relations with the entire object or several objects. The relations objectophiles form with their objects resemble the sexual relations non-objectophiles form with their human partners.

Objectophilia May Be Linked to Synesthesia

"Synesthesia" is an umbrella term that encompasses a spectrum of fairly rare conditions in which stimulation of one sensory modality or channel (e.g., seeing shapes) elicits an atypical experience in another sensory modality or channel (e.g., seeing colors). For example, some synesthetes attribute personalities to objects. As reported by Smilek et al., (2007), one synesthete described the number 3 as follows “3 is male; definitely male. 3 is such a jerk! He only thinks of himself. He does not care about any other numbers or anything. All he wants is to better himself and he’ll use any sneaky, underhanded means necessary.” 

There are some phenomenological similarities between objectophilia and synesthesia of the kind that attributes a personality to objects. A recent study found a link between objectophilia and grapheme-personalization synesthesia (Simner et al., 2019). However, unlike grapheme-personalization synesthetes who describe graphemes as having human personalities, objectophiles tend to describe their object-partners in terms that are not specifically related to personality, such as terms referring to colors, landscapes, or souls. While synesthesia has been linked to objectophilia, not all objectophiles are synesthetes.

Objectophilia Could Be Linked to Cross-Modal Mental Imagery

Cross-modal mental imagery, which is prevalent among ordinary people, occurs when a stimulus (e.g., a sound) presented in one sensory modality (e.g., vision) elicits a mental image in another modality (e.g., touch). Cross-modal mental imagery involves cross-modal correspondence as opposed to the automatic and consistent pairings that occur in synesthesia. For example, most of us draw associations between high-pitched sounds and small, bright objects (Spence, 2011). Music-color synesthetes, by contrast, tend to experience pairs of stimuli and synesthetic effects. For instance, they may see bright orange when hearing a high-pitched note. The absence of pairs of stimuli and synesthetic effects in ordinary individuals makes cross-modal imagery far more common than synesthesia.

Future studies might reveal that objectophiles have cross-modal imagery that associates objects with certain attractive features.

Autism Can Provide an Explanation for the Attraction to Objects 

Although objectophilia may be tied to synesthesia or cross-modal mental imagery, it is most closely related to autism (or Autism Spectrum Disorder, ASD). Objectophiles have been found to have autistic traits that may explain the attraction they develop towards objects.

Autism (ASD) affects about 1.5 percent of the population (Lyall et al., 2017). One of its main characteristics is an unusual interest and obsession with non-human objects and backgrounds. The other is an unusual pattern of social and communicative behaviors.

Current empirical evidence indicates that objectophiles have significantly higher autistic traits compared to controls on every Autism Spectrum Quotient factor and especially on the social skills factor (Baron-Cohen et al., 2001). One study found a significant difference between objectophiles and controls, with 13 out of 34 objectophiles having an official diagnosis of autism but none of the 88 controls (Simner et al., 2019). 

Autism is also characterized by hyper-emotionality and hyper-perception, making the world particularly overwhelming to people with autism (Markram et al., 2007). Autistic individuals tend to feel overwhelmed by social stimuli and social cues. Avoidance of social interactions is one of the possible mechanisms that autistic people use to grapple with the effects of hyper-perception. The hyper-tactile sensitivity that characterizes autism could also contribute to the avoidance of social interactions at the romantic and sexual levels. Such hypersensitivity could reinforce the overwhelming aspect of social life and give it a higher level of complexity. Indeed, many objectophiles report not having any romantic or sexual relationships with other humans and express no desire to do so.

In addition to being overwhelming, the social world lacks its salience for autistic people. What makes the social world so automatically apprehended for neurotypicals is an innate preference for social and emotional cues. These cues are detected through abilities developed in early childhood such as the capacity to direct one’s gaze toward social stimuli and to detect other people’s gaze prior to other types of stimuli (Frazier et al., 2017). Alterations in gaze direction and detection are common among autistic individuals. Objectophiles share the same early diminished interest for social interactions. 

While the descriptions and definitions of autism have drastically changed over time, one common feature that has remained constant is the attachment autistic individuals have to objects. The preference for interacting with objects, and their tendency to direct their attention toward non-human features could be what causes their typical love-hate relationships with objects. Inclinations to interact with things can be correlated with different types of feelings such as curiosity, love, jealousy, and hate. Interactions with objects can thus come not only from positive but also from negative affective components. Interestingly, objectophiles also tend to have a love-hate relationship with objects. 

The autistic traits found in the description of ASD (namely, the particularities in social and communication behaviors, and restricted and repetitive activities and interests) are far better candidates than synesthesia or cross-modal correspondence for being determinants of the particular relationship objectophiles have with objects.

Sexual orientations that do not conform to the prevailing heterosexual paradigm tend to be treated as socially unacceptable, or "fetishes." Giving objectophilia more visibility in scientific research may thus be able to enhance our overall understanding of this phenomenon and potentially eliminate commonly held prejudicial attitudes.

References

Baron-Cohen, S., Wheelwright, S., Skinner, R., Martin, J. & Clubley, E. (2001). The Autism- Spectrum Quotient (AQ): Evidence from Asperger Syndrome/High-Functioning Autism, Males and Females, Scientists and Mathematicians. J. Autism Dev. Disord., 31, 5–17.

Frazier, T. W., Strauss, M., Klingemier, E. W., Zetzer, E. E., Hardan, A. Y., Eng, C., & Youngstrom, E. A. (2017). A Meta-Analysis of Gaze Differences to Social and Nonsocial Information Between Individuals With and Without Autism. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 56(7), 546-555.

Lyall, K., Croen, L., Daniels, J., Fallin, M. D., Ladd-Acosta, C., Lee, B. K., … Volk, H. (2017). The changing epidemiology of autism spectrum disorders. Annual Review of Public Health, 38, 81–102.

Markram, H., Rinaldi, T., & Markram, K. (2007). The Intense World Syndrome – an Alternative Hypothesis for Autism. Frontiers in Neuroscience, 1(1), 77–96.

Simner, J., Hughes, J. E. A., Sagiv, N. (2019). Objectum sexuality: a sexual orientation linked with autism and synaesthesia. Nature: Scientific Reports, 9, 19874. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-019-56449-0.

Smilek, D., Malcolmson, K. A., Carriere, J. S. A., Eller, M., Kwan, D., & Reynolds, M. (2007). When “3” is a Jerk and “E” is a King: Personifying Inanimate Objects in Synesthesia. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 19: 981-992.

Spence, C. (2011) Crossmodal correspondences: a tutorial review. Atten. Percept. Psychophys. 73(4): 971-995. doi: 10.3758/s13414-010-0073-7)