What Is Fetishism?

Author: Mistress Michelle Peters © 2003

Used With Permission Of The Author(S)

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The word fetish is derived from the Latin root faticus, which was first used to describe an amulet or similar object of religious veneration. The word later went through transformation to the Portuguese felico, brought home by adventurers who encountered these primitive symbols during their voyages to Africa and other parts of the ancient Roman empire.

Today, we have come to use fetishism in sexual connotations. Webster defines it as ``the compulsive use of some object or part of the body as a stimulus in course of attainment of sexual gratification.'' Otherwise it has come to be recognised as a form of sex objectry, wherein it a non-sexual item or part of the body that is not generally thought to be of a sex nature, causes sexual arousal. Primitive peoples have long been known to revere certain objects that they believe to possess supernatural power. Very often, this object may have been nothing more than a stone, a tree, or a particular geographic locale. Anthropologists generally believe that many of the more sophisticated relics of these civilisations, such as the statues On Easter Island, the totems of Micronesia and Polynesia, the great temples of the Mayan empire, to be an extension of this Pygmalion like totem of idolatry.
However, the word as used today takes on a much mote secular meaning. It is interesting that man's first experiences with fetishism come from a religious origin. Whether it is found among the so-called `heathen' form, or the `enlightened' modern religions, various totems and idols are widely utilised in the worship of the supernatural powers. Even in religions that originally banned such idolatry, most specifically the Christian religion, we find many statues and ornaments taking on roles of' significance in the process of worship. It is not surprising then, when we find the sexual fetishist to oftentimes he a fear or guilt-ridden individual, in as much as religion has long been man's way of dealing with his fears of the unknown. The donning of masks in ceremonies to ward off evil spirits may seem to be a very primitive act to moderns. But one need not look far to find that even such an advanced religion as Christianity has incorporated much of this superstitious ritual into its ceremonial ranks. The masques of Mardi Gras, the garish costumes of Brazil's folk lore Carnival, the pre-Lenten festivals of the Bavarians, are not essentially different from the ancient rituals of the Druids or even the `pagan' rites of certain Indonesian and African tribes. A CBS Television presentation, The Haunted West , produced by National Geographic, depicted an Iconic adaptation of Christianity and the ancient religions of a certain North American Indian tribe, the Yaquis. In an annual ceremony, the tribesmen enact an ancient ritual in which black-garbed evil spirits are driven off by other members of the tribe dressed in various animal heads and carrying other objects of' magic. While such rites are fairly common among many groups of peoples around the world, the ceremony of the Yaquis has a certain curiosity about it.

The Catholic missionaries of the 16th and 17th centuries who attempted to convert the Indians and take away their various pagan symbols' succeeded, in the ultimate sense, only adding some of their own symbols to that of the Yaquis. Therefore, today the ancient ritual finds the black-hooded evil spirits being led by a demon called `Judas.' while the good spirits represent the embodiment of Jesus. At the conclusion of the ceremony, the black garbs are tossed on a bonfire at the feet of an effigy of Judas, which is hung from the primary symbol of Christianity at the cross. It is hardly surprising that contemporary Fetishism is linked with religion in its more primitive forms. Professor Magnus Hirshfield, President of the World league for Sexual Reform, believes that just as fetishism first denoted magic, idols, and other objects of reverence, so too is sexual fetishism a specific form of erotic idolatry. Erotic fetishism then, makes an idol out of the physical or mental qualities of a person, and even of objects that have some connection with that person. It is when a particular element of' the beloved's physique, or an object associated with him or her, becomes so predominantly pronounced as to obscure their beloved as a totality that we come into the realm of truly pathological fetishism. Most people in love are in a sense, fetishist about their devotion to the loved one, and quite often are especially fond of some attribute such as the loved one's hair for instance. But the true fetishist may become so obsessed with the hair, that is completely dominates the reality of the situation, and in some cases may actually become more important, in a sexual sense, than the loved ones themselves, of all manifestations of so-called `deviant' or `abnormal sexual behaviour, fetishism may he the most common. However, at the same time it may be the most widely misunderstood. This may be due, at least in part, to the fact that most forms of fetishism are quite normal. It is usually only those individuals who are pathologically fetishist, such as the man who steals women's undergarments from clotheslines, who receive attention, attention that is usually misunderstood and adverse. And yet, as most doctors today are willing to concede, the line between what is normal behaviour, and what is not, is in constant flux, not an easily discernible case of black-and-white.

For modern definitions, and to narrow the scope of true fetishism for the purposes of this work, we shall consider the clinical forms of fetishism in their more pronounced forms. That is to get back to Webster, any form of sexual expression in which some inanimate object of particular non-sexual portion of the body is substituted for the genitalia of the love object, leading to an erotic response. One of the first great authorities on sexual aberrations, Dr. Richard von Krafft-Ebing, recognised fetishist behaviour in his work, Psychopathia Sexualis. He explained that, within certain physiological limitations, the pronounced preference for a certain portion of the anatomy of a person of the opposite sex may attain great psychological importance. This was one of the first attempts to realise the similarities between object fetishism, that is inanimate fetishism, and fetishism in which a particular portion of the body is utilized, animate fetishism, oftentimes to the point where it becomes object like itself.
Such early researchers as Krafft-Ebing and Binet were instrumental in establishing fetishism as a sexual aberration, and both, as with the feelings of the day, were rather harsh in their treatment of the subject. This is largely due to the fact that up until that time, psychological problems had remained Iargely unexplored, so the early researchers, from Freud on down, were inclined towards viewing everything from a medical standpoint. The moral indignations of the Victorian era also forced them to keep a more clinical attitude towards the subject. And yet, modern psychology owes a great deal to these pioneers who helped define the various syndromes of psychopathology.

What the modern psychiatrist may regard as normal is quite different from what was regarded as the norm at that time. Practically anything that deviated from genital-genital heterosexual lovemaking was morally condemned. Even in today's more relaxed moral atmosphere, we bear the stigma of antiquated laws that reflect the morality of the 19th century. Fortunately many states are beginning to follow the flow of human events, such as the legislature of Illinois did when they struck down most of the old laws regulating sex, contending that whatever two consenting adults did within the privacy of their own homes was their own business. Despite the many advances the recent sexual revolution in the United States has wrought, there is still much disagreement among many of my own colleagues concerning sexual phenomenon. Unfortunately many psychiatrists and psychologists still cling to the outdated laws of researchers who, while recognising the profound contributions made by the Freudians, realise the benefits of progress made during the past several decades, and try to apply this knowledge to their work without imposing their own moralities upon it.

Generally speaking modern sexual researchers now tend to view most cases of fetishism to fall into a category they label `partialism.' This is usually reserved for the vast majority of fetishistic incidence in which, for instance, a person may show a definite preference for a particular portion of a loved ones body, but wherein this is not of an overwhelmingly obsessive nature and the attraction is utilised as an embellishment to the coital act itself. It is only in the cases of the deeply pathologically disturbed, such as fetishists who steal clothing and make no contact with a person of the other sex, where intensive treatment is usually advised. While many fetishists or partiailsts) may require some form of professional help in overcoming their peculiarity the vast majority are usually able to function in an improved sexual capacity, incorporating their behaviour into their lives, once they develop an understanding of their neurosis.

Fetishism along with most sexual aberrations usually is a result of conditioning in early Iife. Of course the true results of such conditioning does not take place until sometime during puberty, a time where the individual may come to associate the fetish with pleasure. At the same time, it is likely that they will begin to recognise themselves as being somewhat `different' than their peers. In classic cases, those that develop into pathological proportions, most psychologists agree that the individual will begin to become more introverted regarding his fetishistic behaviour, the guilt feelings beginning to overwhelm the person often leading to antisocial behavioural characteristics. While as stated before, fetishism is usually a male domain, a recent article in the April, 1973 issue of Forum, concedes that a young woman may begin to develop a form of partialism during adolescence. The article goes on to point out that fetishism is closely akin in development to many other sexual aberrations, and in fact may be incorporated into another form of deviation such as sadomasochism or homosexuality. Thus, it is not unusual to find a homosexual with a fixation for leather that likes to he beaten before sex with his partner. More often, however, we find people incorporating fetishism into a somewhat more conventional framework.
Human sexual development is a vastly complicated process compared to that of most animals. And for such a complex social animal, it brings with it a great many built-in anxieties, as we tend to learn rather than inherit many of our behavioural patterns. Consequently, human adult sexual behaviour is far more variable than that of any other animal. Unlike us the sexual behaviour of other animals is generally turned on by a simple lock and key basis activated by signals from the opposite sex. These are acquired in infancy by a high-speed learning system we call `imprinting.' Once an animal has been imprinted with the mating signal of the appropriate partner, its response to this signal is immediate from that moment on. But where humans are concerned, not only do we differ between cultures, in as much as what attributes we find attractive, but we also differ within these cultures themselves.
A large number of individuals are not only able to respond to sexual signals which may leave others cold, but some actually need them not to respond at all, which brings us into the realm of fetishism. In fact, if a human responds in a lock and key manner towards sexuality, towards one signal imprint, it is more than likely to he an unusual one. Just how or why a certain child will pick up on a particular fascination with a portion of the body, or an object, is open to much conjecture. However, most psychologists do agree that the development of a fetish is unique, as a general rule, in each individual, but there is no graphic distinction in fetish development between sexes.

What is of primary importance is whether the individual desires something on his own body or on another person? Generally, those who become involved with their own body, even when it involves an object such as, for instance, a dress, are not classified as fetishists per se, but might become homosexual, or in the instance of those who like to wear garments oft he opposite sex, transvestites. The true fetishist wishes to view the fetish object upon the person of the opposite sex. A true transvestite sees the objects clothing, as an extension of his own body, where the fetishist merely wants to bring the object of worship into closer contact with his body.

Fetishes, as a rule, are of a very isolated and individual nature. For example, a person with a shoe fetish may not become sexually excited by all shoes, but rather by shoes of a particular style, colour or shape. In fact, the fetishist may be so drawn towards a person wearing the exact replica of his fantasies that the personality of the person wearing the object is of secondary importance to him. A tremendous amount of psychological research has been done on the symbols both usual and unusual that crop up in human sexual behaviour in an attempt to better classify the various forms of fetishism. Many symbols are universal, and do not fall into the category of fetishism, evidenced by such things as pinup girls, whose charms are chosen to appeal to a large range of men. Others, those that might end up filed under `fetishism.' are not so obvious.

Whatever the fetish object, psychologists tend to classify them in two categories either animate, or inanimate. Of course, there is often the case where the two emphases combine: for example, a foot fetishist will often worship certain footwear. In still other cases, certain fabric fetishists will become excited only when it is combined with a certain area of fetishist will enact these rituals in situations involving the combination of tight clothing, psychological threats helplessness and so on, overtones of bondage and sadomasochism often being closely akin to the fetish.
When Krafft-Ebing first described fetishes in the 19th century, he mentioned only silk, fur, velvet and feathers, in addition to parts of the body. But with the invention of rubber and plastic’ upon which more modern babies were often laid, there later appeared rubber and plastic fetishists. One favourite is leather, especially with those who combine their fetishism with sadomasochism, its menacing and constricting qualities exciting to those who associate sexual pleasure with pain. It is interesting to note that clothing that is in current fetishist vogue is usually about one generation out of date. Panties, girdles, corsets and long black stockings that were popular in the 1940's are quite popular today, but we can only speculate what our children may he turned on by when they reach adulthood.

Pantyhose? In this work, I will attempt to illustrate some of the more prevalent forms of fetishism that I have encountered in my practice over the years. In a work of this length it is impossible to categorise all the various forms of fetishism, as the fetish is a very individualized aberration. However, there are more common forms, and through the study of some of these, we should be able to come away with a more enlightened view of the subject we are, as a society, generally taking a more liberated view towards sexual matters these days. It is hoped that greater understanding of various human peculiarities can come about through studies such as this one. Not long ago, oral-genital foreplay, which occurs in most mammals, was also regarded as an immoral act. Fetishism too can he used in the structure of lovemaking between man and woman, provided it is pleasing to both. It is only when normal sexual relations take a back seat to it, where a person’s partialism becomes pathological, that fetishism may need treatment. Why some people imprint so strongly still isn't clear. Freud probably came close in believing it was due to intense persistence of childhood anxieties, which need displacement. But variety in human sex play is necessary, If we looked upon something an alien race was doing to this planet, we wouldn't be so much inclined to find out if it was normal, but what the activity was doing. Provided it brings pleasure, rather that bringing, as it so unfortunately often does, guilt and anxiety, even the many forms of fetishism can be harnessed into a happy form of adult sexual release.



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