Survival of the Fetish
A brief overview of bizarre sexual behaviours
Posted Jan 07, 2014
Historically, partialism was viewed as synonymous with sexual fetishism. However, Dr. Kafka noted that there is a “diagnostic separation of partialism (intense, persistent, and ‘exclusive’ sexual arousal to a non-genital body part) from fetishism (intense and persistent sexual arousal to non-living objects, including some body products)”. Although I accept this very subtle difference, I essentially view partialism and fetishism as one and the same. In the 2008 book Sexual Deviance: Theory, Assessment and Treatment, Dr Judith Milner and colleagues noted that:
“In ‘partialism’, the paraphilic focus is on some part of the partner’s body, such as the hands, legs, feet, breasts, buttocks, or hair. Partialism appears to overlap with morphophilia, which is defined as a focus on one or more body characteristics of one’s sexual partner…it is unclear whether these two categories are unique paraphilias or different names for the same paraphilia. Historically, some authors (e.g., Berest, 1971; Wise, 1985) have included partialism as part of the general definition of fetishism, which once included both parts of bodies and nonliving objects (e.g., shoes, underwear, skirts, gloves). Again, however, the [DSM] criteria for fetishism indicate that the focus must involve the ‘use of nonliving objects’, which eliminates body parts from meeting this criterion”.
Furthermore, it is sometimes difficult to draw the line between normal and paraphilic behaviours. Dr Kafka pointed out that fetishes can be “non-clinical manifestations of a normal spectrum of eroticization or clinical disorders causing significant interpersonal difficulties.” The etiology of fetishes is also complicated by the fact that empirical research such as that by Dr Chris Gosselin and Dr Glenn Wilson that some fetishists report their behaviour is relaxing rather than arousing (such as some from of fetishistic transvestism).
Psychological research has shown that many fetishes appear to be the result of early imprinting and conditioning experiences in childhood or adolescence (for instance, where sexual excitement and/or orgasm is paired with non-sexual objects or body parts) or as a consequence of strong traumatic, emotional and/or physical experience. Fetishes may in part be influenced by rejection of the opposite sex and/or by youthful arousal being channelled elsewhere (deliberately or accidentally). Some children have been said to associate sexual arousal with objects that belong to an emotionally significant person like a mother or older sister and is known as symbolic transformation. However, there is also evidence that some fetishes have more biological origins such as those people whose fetish results from conditions such as temporal lobe epilepsy.
Empirical research by Gosselin and Wilson has also indicated that the most prevalent body fetishes are for feet, hands, and hair, and that the most prevalent fetish objects are shoes, gloves, and (soiled) underwear. However, there may be differences in relation to sexual orientation. Most fetishism research concerns heterosexual men who have fetishistic desires for feminine items such as high-heeled shoes, lingerie, and hosiery. Among homosexual men, the fetishistic objects tend to be highly masculine.
As with many other sexual disorders, there is very little reliable epidemiological data for fetishism. In a study from the 1950s, only 0.1% of 4,000 patients in private practice were recorded as having fetishism as a primary problem. Another study carried out among 561 non-incarcerated sex offenders (and all paraphiliacs) by Dr Gene Abel and colleagues in 1998 reported that only 3.4% were diagnosed with fetishism. Another study (1992) led by Dr Gene Abel investigated the comorbidity rates of various paraphilic behaviors in a group of 859 male paraphiliacs. Of the 859 subjects, only 12 were diagnosed with fetishism as either a primary or a secondary diagnosis. In a recent review of fetishism by Dr. Shauna Darcangelo noted that fetishism, transvestic fetishism, and homosexuality have often been linked. Darcangelo’s review also noted that fetishism has also been linked with other psychiatric behaviors including kleptomania, borderline personality disorder, obsessive-compulsive personality, and attention-deficit /hyperactivity disorders.
• First, the identified groups that dealt with sexual topics and discarded groups that used ‘fetish’ in a non-sexual context (e.g., fetish for a rock band).
• Secondly, they excluded groups that used ‘fetish’ to deny that the group was about sex (e.g., a support group for pregnant women stated explicitly that the group did not discuss ‘pregnancy fetish’).
• Thirdly, some groups were excluded because the sexual nature of the topic could not be established with confidence (e.g., there was no description text of what the fetish was).
• Fourthly, groups were excluded if the group discussed ‘sex’ or ‘fetishism’ generically and therefore couldn’t be categorized.
• Fifthly, groups that had no identified members were excluded
Following the application of the inclusion and exclusion criteria, 381 fetish discussion groups were left for analysis. The average number of posts per month within the groups was over 4,000 that included over 150,000 members. The authors argued that figure was inflated, because many fetishists would be subscribed to more than one group. It was estimated (very conservatively in the authors’ opinion), that their sample size comprised at least 5000 fetishists (but was likely to be a lot more). The authors devised a classification scheme whereby fetish preference was assigned to one or more categories. Three main categories were: body, objects and behaviors, and then further sub-divided to describe a:
• Part or feature of the body (e.g., feet, fat people) and body modifications (e.g., tattoos).
• Object associated with some part of the body (e.g., shoes).
• Object not associated with some part of the body (e.g., candles).
• Person’s own behavior (e.g., biting fingernails).
• Behavior of other persons (e.g., smoking).
• Behavior requiring interaction with others (e.g., humiliation role-play).
From this brief overview it’s evident that research is biased towards small-scale studies with biased samples. Therefore, as Dr Shauna Darcangelo concludes in her recent literature review, in order to increase the understanding surrounding fetishistic behavior, future empirical research needs to focus on large, population-based, representative samples.
References and further reading
Abel, G.G., Becker, J.V., Mittelman, M., Cunningham-Rathner, J., Rouleau, J.L. & Murphy, W.D. (1988). Multiple paraphilic diagnoses among sex offenders. Bulletin of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, 16, 153-168.
Abel, G. G., & Osborn, C. A. (1992). The paraphilias: The extent and nature of sexually deviant and criminal behavior. Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 15, 675-687.
Chalkley, A.J. & Powell, G.E. (1983). The clinical description of forty-eight cases of sexual fetishism. British Journal of Psychiatry, 142, 292–295.
Curren, D. (1954). Sexual perversion. Practitioner, 172, 440-445.
Darcangelo, S. (2008). Fetishism: Psychopathology and Theory. In Laws, D.R. & O’Donohue, W.T. (Eds.), Sexual Deviance: Theory, Assessment and Treatment (Second Edition) (pp.108-118). New York: Guildford Press.
Gosselin, C. & Wilson, G. (1980). Sexual variations. London: Faber & Faber.
Kafka, M. (2010). The DSM diagnostic criteria for fetishism. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 39, 357–362.
Kafka, M. P. (2010). The DSM diagnostic criteria for paraphilia not otherwise specified. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 39(2), 373-376.
Milner, J. S., & Dopke, C. A. (1997). Paraphilia not otherwise specified: Psychopathology and theory. In D. R. Laws & W. O’Donohue (Eds.), Sexual deviance: Theory, assessment, and Treatment (pp. 393-423). New York: Guilford Press.
Scorolli, C., Ghirlanda, S., Enquist, M., Zattoni, S. & Jannini, E.A. (2007). Relative prevalence of different fetishes. International Journal of Impotence Research, 19, 432-437.
Wiederman, M.W. (2003). Paraphilia and fetishism. The Family Journal, 11, 315-321.
Wilson, G. & Gosselin, C. (1980). Personality characteristics of fetishists, transvestites and sadomasochists. Personality and Individual Differences, 1, 289–295.