Sexual fetishes and what I learned about them as a treating psychotherapist
The first thing that is worth pointing out – fetishes are clearly not psychological, they are neurological in origin. I’ll explain more about this further down.
Some years ago I logged into my email to find the inbox had been filled with emails about sexual fetishes. There were literally hundreds of them, sent from all over the world. Initially, I was baffled as to why this had happened. On later investigation, I learned that Google had indexed one of my pages at number 1. for the search term “sexual fetish treatment.”
If you are reading this webpage, then the chances are very high that you too have a sexual fetish and are seeking treatment for it. So, I figured I’d write out what I learned during the 18 months of consulting with clients who “suffered from” fetish and paraphilia, talking to experts from the fetish community, and generally researching the topic and unwanted sexual fetish and paraphilia.
My first observation was that all the emails that came through during that time were from men. These were men of all ages and from all parts of the world. There was no distinction between social class, educational level, culture, race, religion or any other socio-cultural factors.
What these socio-cultural factors do affect is the experience of the fetish. For example, a man with a foot fetish in New York is much more likely to find social acceptance than a foot fetishist in Karachi. Plus, the “kink scene” is much more open in northern America than in the Islamic East. It did seem to me that the social backdrop of the culture in which the fetishist lives does play a significant part in how difficult it is to cope with it.
The other thing that stood out was that with only one exception, all these men were heterosexual. In corresponding with the gay man whose fetish was causing him some concern, one thing became very apparent very quickly; finding an expert to whom to refer him was really easy. The gay community has produced a lot of dedicated experts in the area of relationships, sexuality and sexual kinks, fetishes and paraphilias.
This low number of ‘gay-fetishists with a problem` was explained to me by some of the experts I talked to. To paraphrase: coming out as a gay man is a hell of a thing to do, and offer a whole load of emotional and psychological challenges. It’s probably easier today than years before, but it is still quite a thing to do. When entering the “gay scene” these men find levels of acceptance and understanding that often takes them by surprise. When one has “come out of the closet” as a gay man themselves, to then hear another man has a foot fetish, or some strange kink, well, that is barely noticeable by comparison and so the “gay scene” (for want of a better term) is more open-minded and accepting of deviation from the perceived normal range of sexual behaviours.
What I learned is that gay men are no less likely to have fetishes and kinks. It’s just that they are much less likely to be negatively bothered by them.
I’d guess around 90% of all correspondents fetishes reflected childhood themes. Diapers, spanking, toileting were all very common. Two other common themes were that of smoking and feet. What caught my attention here was the exact nature of these fetishes. For most people, the smoking fetish involved a young woman smoking, typically in the 18-24 age bracket. “Like the baby sitter, you used to have?” I’d ask. It wasn’t always the smoking baby sitter, of course, it might have been the older girl next door, a friend’s big sister or some other influence during that critical imprinting period of childhood.
So, things that small children are commonly exposed to are most likely to occur as fetishistic imprints that manifest later on. As one man wrote to me, “Evidently God has a sense of humour. My Fetish? Soiled diapers.”
Here we have what is most likely an imprint taking place for this little girl:
Imprinting is largely down to chance, and one thing I learned is that people can be sexually imprinted on pretty much anything. Name an object and you can be sure that someone somewhere has a fetish for it. For example, here’s one of the more unusual fetishes (warning: not family-friendly, safe for work, or suitable for anyone who doesn’t like bugs):
YouTube has been a gift for so many fetishists, one video you might enjoy is the guy who has a thing for balloons. Whilst so many viewers enjoy the modern-day freak show, the effect for the fetishist is the “thank God, I’m not the only one” effect.
And another feature of fetishes is revealed here. Quite a few of the fetishists that contacted me were like the worm and balloon guys and as a therapist, I recognised the “phobia or fetish” response. These fetishistic objects of desire are also the same category of phobia stimulus for many clients I have seen over the years. I wasn’t the only one to notice this, it was around this time I was asked to consult with a television production company on this exact title, a show called “Fetish or Phobia.” I decline further involvement after meeting the team at the studio and learning just how exploitative these people were. I was sat drinking tea hidden by a very large potted plant and I overheard the TV execs talking derogatorily about their volunteer fetishists. It was pretty unpleasant stuff.
A feature of phobia treatment I have seen over the years is how sometimes the phobic object becomes like an obsession. More than one arachnophobe has been successfully cured only to go on to begin a sizable tarantula collection, and so on. What was once a thing of which to be afraid, this can quickly become an obsession. There does seem to be a relationship between fetishes and phobias.
So, to summarise what we have so far:
- all fetishists contacting me were men
- all but one were heterosexual
- they were of all ages
- most fetishes followed common childhood themes
- most fetishistic stimuli for this group were also common negative stimulus amongst my phobic clients
Relative prevalence of different fetishes
Three macroareas were devised: body, objects and behaviors. These were further subdivided to describe, in broad terms preferences for (the examples in parentheses come from our data):
- A part or feature of the body (e.g., feet or overweight individuals), including body modifications (e.g., tattoos).
- An object usually experienced in association with the body (e.g., shoes or headphones).
- An object not usually associated with the body (e.g., dirty dishes, candles).
- An event involving only inanimate objects (we found no examples).
- A person’s own behavior (e.g., biting fingernails).
- A behavior of other persons (e.g., smoking or fighting).
- A behavior or situation requiring an interaction with others (e.g., domination or humiliation role play).
More here: https://www.nature.com/articles/3901547
The Specific Nature of a Fetish
One thing that began to emerge was the precision of the experience. For a foot fetishist, there was a perfect foot. There would be specific criteria which would exist within a range of acceptability, but there was a peak perfection in terms of what these criteria might be. One man had a foot fetish. He was black and married to an [very] attractive black lady. The problem was, that his fetish was for white men’s feet.
This is where it can get confusing for the lay-person. He wasn’t gay, nor was he interested in the man who owned the feet, it was just the feet he was interested in.
His wife asked me, “Is he gay? Does he not love me?” I explained that he did indeed love her and that she was very much perfect except for one small flaw. She had the wrong feet.
Of course, the perfect white male foot was of a specific size, specific skin tone, and so on. Unable to readily explore his fetish, he had to accept the next best thing, and that was to be found in the classified ads on Craigslist.
This got me thinking about my own fetishes, of which I had none. But I did realise I had bit of a thing for brown hair. It’s a very specific shade of brown, one shade off either way and this didn’t light up that relevant part of my brain. It had to be a very specific shade. After realising this, I noticed that my favorite furniture was all of this shade of brown, but I’d never noticed this before consciously. I also hadn’t really noticed before that there was such a thing in my life as “favorite furniture.”
More normal sexual attractions work this way, we all have our preferences of what lights us up. But this isn’t always the deciding factor of with whom, or how, we have sex. It’s just a preference or an idealised notion of our perfect partner.
Fetishes of objects such as balloons that do not require a sexual partner are much easier to control and turn into the perfect fetish experience. The problem with people is that they come as a complete package. Many people have had a sexual partner who was just incredible, everything connected and worked so well, it was just a shame that the relationship with, or the personality of, that person didn’t really work out so well. Many people marry their perfect person to whom they relate really well, but the sexual side of things is always just a bit vanilla, and some people have a dreadful relationship but yet appear to be really into each other sexually, it’s what keeps them together.
Men with fetishes are driven by a much more powerful urge and need than would be considered “normal” or average. To try to deny the fetishistic need and live “normally” is just too difficult for them. As someone explained to me [paraphrased], “imagine you have a preference for slim blonde ‘girly’ women, but you are only ever able to date and sleep with overweight masculine women to whom you have no attraction. You can have sex, you can even have kinky, but you can’t have the fulfillment that you so desperately need.”
Listen to the specificity by which this man describes the perfect balloon “necking” and burst:
It Isn’t Psychological. Imprinting and Neurology
Our brains undergo various imprinting stages through childhood. Experimental imprinting has been well documented since the days of Konrad Lorenz imprinting newly hatched geese on objects and including himself. Imprinting has been demonstrated to be standard across the animal kingdom, and humans are no different. We imprint early on what is “mother”, we imprint on our baseline of “normal behaviour” of the species and at different stages, throughout childhood, we imprint sexually. This is where we develop our “type” or preferences (i.e. big breasts, long legs, musculature, etc) and there may be many factors that need to combine to create the imprint.
Most fetishists I asked about this knew exactly where their fetish came from. It might be that they fancied the attractive young baby sitter, who made them feel special, and sat them on their knee, and smoked a cigarette. It’s not surprising that so many people used to have a spanking fetish developed when spanking was more fashionable (and legal) for children. It often involves the arousing components of exposure of the buttocks and genital area as trousers are pulled down, an element of humiliation, and of course, the spanking itself may not actually hurt as the parent may be conscious to only deliver a token spank so as not to actually injure the child. Whilst some children may have had their play interrupted and thus rage at the humiliation and punishment, other children may know what is coming and actually giggle and remain in a playful mindset through the entire spanking episode.
As awareness has increased in adult sexual exploitation of children, “grooming”, and the problem of the sexualisation of children through cultural events such as toddler beauty pageants and suchlike, the discussion of the sexual nature of children has become muddied, problematic, and turned into a blanketed taboo. Yet many of us remember only too well our own innocent sexual acting out, strange urges, “kiss chase”, “doctors and nurses” and other games that provided opportunities for getting touchy-feely with each other.
A child who has limited access to other children and playmates may be forced to direct his attentions elsewhere, these attentions may be towards adult company or objects. And with this redirected attention, sexual imprinting a greater probability of occurring outside of the normal range of types.
During this time of being indexed at number 1 by Google, I had an interesting experience on a train on my way back from London. A well dressed and charming man sat opposite me asked to have a look at my watch. Actually what he said was, “That is a very fine watch, sir, may I take a look.” From the little I had experienced this guy, I intuited that he had good social skills and was undoubtedly a “charmer” who was able to get people to comply with his requirements. What he wasn’t able to hide was his shallow breathing, something of which as a hypnotherapist I am very observant. Breathing patterns are an excellent indicator of stress, arousal, trance levels, and so forth.
“Fetish for watches?” I asked, and he dropped his outreached arm.
“Straps actually” he replied, and for the next 20 minutes, we discussed his curious fetish. It was during this conversion that I learned about “fetishistic supply.” To cut a long story very short, this man had an obsession with how the watch strap sat on the wrist and his “high” would come from testing the snugness of the fit by inserting his finger between the strap and the wrist.
It would have been really difficult for him to get people to comply with this if he were a weird man in a flasher-mac, so he learned from a very early age to be able to charm people. He ran an antique business, was very successful, and attended a lot of social functions. He operated well in the world of social politics.
Now contrast this with the lonely child who developed a fixation for sniffing his big sister’s panties. This is a behaviour that risks significant condemnation if he were to be caught, and in order to procure his fetishistic supply, he needs to be more devious as so to avoid negative consequences. However, were he to have been less lonely as a child and in possession of greater social skills, then it would have been much easier for him to acquire co-operation for his fetishistic supply. Sadly for such individuals, they may resort to theft from washing lines, sneaking entry into people’s bedrooms or property (especially when a university, changing rooms, or at halls of residence), and rapidly alienate themselves from normal society.
This is where a fetish can turn paraphilia. A strong urge to procure fetishistic supply combined with a deteriorating state of mental, emotional, psychological, and social well-being, then we can arrive at a desperate individual whose entire life revolves around procuring fetishistic supply and maintaining the desperate secrecy.
Now, when seeing it from this angle, it is easy to write almost sympathetically. But if it is my 16-year-old daughter who has had her room invaded and underwear stolen by the neighbourhood pervert, then I may indeed take a very different and somewhat more hostile perspective.
But anyway, here’s the point I am getting to. Fetishists with good social skills and able to procure fetishistic supply will mix as a normal member of society, some may even wear their fetish shamelessly as a badge of pride. The “we will not be shamed” motif raised by so many civil rights groups is an excellent attitude, as most noticeably demonstrated by Gay Pride and the early “gender benders” of the 1980’s (cue: Boy George, Marilyn, Divine, etc). Other fetishists are not so lucky, they may not have developed the confidence or social skills necessary, they may be very sensitive and/or shy. Now for most people with these personality deficits, as they grow older and develop mature relationships they develop and they adapt. But the shy fetishist is driven by a secret of which he is ashamed and he may increasingly withdraw and be marginalised by society.
Freeing him from this shame is key to his liberation.
So, from a therapeutic position we need to consider:
- the background psychology that pre-existed, or existed independently from the fetish
- the consequences of the fetish upon psychology, the primary, secondary and tertiary adaptations that take place.
- the legal and social acceptability of the fetish.
How Sexual Fetishes Come into Existence
Fetishes are an integral part of sexuality for many people. Some are into BDSM, others are into “scat” or “watersports.” Some like to wear dog masks. But where do these fetishes come from? With the help of some classical and modern theories from sociology, Gender Studies, Human-Animal-Studies and Queer Theory I try to understand how sexual fetishes come into existence. The main theory: Fetishes are an unintentional “byproduct” of socialization, of the social construction of reality. They form an “anti-habitus” and offer relieve from biopower. They are formed where society constructs something as taboo, as danger, as forbidden.
Full text can be found here: https://www.orgysmic.com/single-post/The-Origins-of-BDSM-Exhibitionism-and-Piss-Sex
Social Acceptability of a Fetish
Many people are familiar with the weird Japanese porn that often gets shared on the internet. Vomiting and octopuses are the most common things that tend to get shared mostly for their shock value. Meanwhile, I remember from the early days of the internet it was the more extreme “German porn” that got shared which seemed to involve a lot of horses and an awful lot of poop.
But whilst people enjoy the shock value of this material, the reality is that someone somewhere will have a genuine fetish for it.
Discussion of this in a family context would be problematic, but cousin John’s fixation on women with big breasts will be well known, especially when the latest big breasted girlfriend is invited over for Christmas dinner. It doesn’t take much for people to spot the pattern.
A gentleman’s fetish for spanking, stockings and bunny girls has a social place, or niche, within the greater society. But weird uncle Eric’s fixation for puking Japanese girls and horses cock is much more difficult to place and is also much more difficult to understand.
“Curing” the Fetish
I tried everything. I failed. I genuinely do not know if it is possible to get rid of a fetish, I am doubtful that it is.
This work opened up a number of variables with regard to the intended outcomes of treatment.
Outcome #1. Removing the fetish.
Outcome #2. Removing the shame and distress associated with the fetish and facilitating adaption and incorporation of the fetish into mainstream life.
The clients were all requesting option #1. The “fetish community” clearly advocated option #2 and this does seem sensible and possibly the best way forward. See: Fetish Treatment: There seems to be a problem. (link opens in new window)
Of course, this is all well and good when the fetish doesn’t involve poop or women sitting on your face. In these scenarios, then the lifestyle of the individual might need to change. Fetish clubs might be great for the leather queens, but what about our middle-class businessman with a soiled diaper fetish? He’s not the sort of guy who can say to his wife, “Bye Luv, I’m just popping over to the Torture Garden for a poop session.” It’s easy for a convert to say, “well, he should try it, he’ll be happier that way” but we don’t get to make the lifestyle choices for other people, not everything is so easy in real life.
Most people just want to be “normal.”
Please don’t comment, “well what is normal anyway, you fascist?” This is just stupidity talking.
This opens up option #3.
Outcome #3. Abstinence.
This one sucks, but for some people will be the only thing to do. I was going to write that Catholic priests manage sexual abstinence but then I thought about the sheer extent of the paedophilic and sexual abuse that is so prevalent in the Catholic church. So that one clearly didn’t work out so well.
I don’t know how well abstinence will work. Many of the fetishists that contacted me had never actually engaged in the fetish, mostly owing to the shame and/or lack of suitable opportunity, so I’m not sure how well this would work. Perhaps people can offer their thoughts in the comments section below.
All feedback (good bad and otherwise) gratefully received. Please offer any tips and hints about how to handle fetishes, success stories etc.
Are you an expert in treating fetishes and paraphilias? If so then do please post your details below.
Safe spaces such as fetish clubs and events, also please post your detail below.