MadSci Network: Medicine

Re: Why do humans have fetishisms as a part of their their sexual behaviour?

Date: Sun Dec 10 21:25:55 2000
Posted By: Chris Atherton, Grad student
Area of science: Medicine
ID: 974392591.Me

Hi Andy :)

There are 70 groups listed under, from agriculture to x-men. 
So you can see the scope of this area of sexual behaviour is pretty broad…

At a very basic level, you can divide up theories about fetishistic 
behaviour into psychological theories and biological theories:

Psychological:  Classic Freudian theory
This is probably the loudest voice in the literature; there are several 
journals of Psychoanalytic (Freudian) theory that regularly publish 
research related to fetishism.  Freud's original theory was that fetishism 
in men stems from 'castration anxiety' while in women it derives from 
'penis envy' (you can read more about these in most general textbooks of 
Psychology).  Although Freud was quite vague about how you actually arrive 
at having a specific fetish, he theorised that forming an abnormal 
attraction for a particular thing or activity enabled one to overcome the 
trauma of the 'missing' sex organ and re-enable some kind of sexual 
behaviour.  Some studies of masochistic behaviour (1) put forward the idea 
that exposure to dysfunctional parenting at a young age can predispose 
people to expect or carry out similar treatment in later life.  The key 
word here is 'dysfunctional' - the overriding theme in Freudian 
interpretations of fetishism is that such behaviour is basically wrong.

More recent, neo-Freudian theory has expanded the meaning of 'fetish' to 
the point where it is no longer just about sexual behaviour; one author(2) 
has suggested that fetishism is at one end of a continuum that includes 
endowing objects with magical properties and creating rituals, claiming 
that it's all about using an externalised, 'magical' item to control the 
individual's level of anxiety.  Related to this is the more recent 
suggestion (3) that eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia nervosa, 
particularly in women, may stem from using food-fetishism as a means to 
exert control over one's life.

Freudian theory is, I think, less fashionable now and personally I don't 
really agree with it.  But read the literature and see what you think for 
yourself :)

Psychological: Behaviourist (Conditioning) theory
The conditioning of conditioning was pioneered by Pavlov at the end of the 
last century and taken further by Skinner in the 1960s.  Conditioning is 
when a particular behaviour or experience is reinforced - that is, you 
receive some kind of reward - and so come to associate the 
behaviour/experience with reward even if that reward is no longer given.  
So in a fetish context, if as a child you were once physically punished and 
at the same time felt sexually excited (a coincidental reward, since sexual 
excitation is pleasurable), then later physical punishment might make you 
sexually excited again _by_association_.  A survey of homosexual and 
bisexual male foot-fetishists (4) found that the majority had their first 
fetishistic experience during puberty and that it was almost always a very 
positive experience, which supports the idea of reward as reinforcement.  
Incidentally the researchers also tried to assess 'personality type' of the 
men in the survey, but did not come up with a typical 'profile', suggesting 
that personality traits (thought to be hard-wired early in life) are not a 
factor in fetishistic behaviour but rather that it is the result of 
personal experience.  This point seems to be a bone of contention in fetish 

Biological/Biochemical theories
It is possible (although I can't find any research that says so) that for 
certain individuals, the nervous system is 'hard-wired' to interpret pain 
signals as being pleasurable.  If this sounds far-fetched, a very mild 
example is fizzy drinks, like Coke™: the 'fizzing' sensation is in fact 
very low-level of stimulation of pain receptors in your mouth.  Back at the 
more extreme end of the scale, pain can result in a kind of exhilaration 
which releases 'endorphins' (feel-good chemicals which you can get from all 
sorts of things like exercise, sex, and chocolate) into the nervous system. 
 These will make you feel great right then and there, but they will also 
act as reinforcement to strengthen the association in your mind between the 
painful activity and the (usually sexual) pleasure so that the next time 
you experience such pleasure you may associate it with pain (presumably if 
the pain is not then present, you may seek it out or imagine it).  

So perhaps you should consider a combination of theories - biological and 
psychological.  Traditional Freudian theory is harder to incorporate in any 
joint theory because it does not really acknowledge any biological input.  

Several papers suggest that fetishistic behaviour can co-occur with 
depression or other psychiatric conditions (5).  Some have demonstrated 
'cures' using drugs such as fluoxetine [i.e. Prozac, which can be effective 
in treating depression or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)], which 
suggests an organic (physiochemical) component to fetishism and has been 
used to argue that fetishim is a variant of OCD.  However most cures are 
usually effected using drug treatment in combination with some kind of 
psychotherapy.  This does imply that the cause of fetishistic behaviour is 
not just chemical but also psychological in nature.  

Another possibility is that fetishistic behaviour reprents the extreme end 
of the normal scale of human sexual behaviour.  Many people involved in 
sado-masochistic activities claim just to enjoy either relinquishing or 
assuming complete power over their own bodies, for example, and do not see 
it as being in any way abnormal or dysfunctional.  Others acknowledge that 
there are guilt issues for which they feel the need to be 'punished' during 
sadomasochistic play, which enables them to continue normally with the rest 
of their lives.  Perhaps this type of activity may be viewed as a kind of 

I'm not sure what the Darwinian implications of fetishistic behaviour are. 
 The underlying message in the research that I've read is that fetishistic 
behaviour functions as an aid to, not instead of, normal 'reproductive' 
sex.  I suppose from the Darwinian point of view, anything that assists 
reproduction could be considered a good thing!

I hope this has answered your questions :)


(1)   Weiss, J: Bondage fantasies and beating fantasies.  Psychoanalytic 
Quarterly. 1998 Oct; Vol 67(4): 626-644.
(2)   Nersessian, E :  A cat as fetish: A contribution to the theory of 
fetishism.  International Journal of Psychoanalysis. 1998 Aug; Vol 79(4): 
(3)  Gamman, L, & Makinen, M:  Female fetishism. New York, NY, USA: New 
York University Press. (1995). ix, 236 pp.

(4)   Weinberg, MS; Williams, CJ & Calhan, C:  "If the shoe fits . . .": 
Exploring male homosexual foot fetishism. Journal of Sex Research. 1995; 
Vol 32(1): 17-27.
(5)  Lorefice,LS: Fluoxetine treatment of a fetish. Journal of Clinical 
Psychiatry. 1991 Jan; Vol 52(1): 41.

This last reference gives an overview of the various different theories - 
psychological, sociological  and biological, about fetishism:

Fetishism: Psychopathology and theory. Chapter in Sexual deviance: Theory, 
assessment, and treatment. Laws, D. Richard (Ed); O'Donohue, William T. 
(Ed). Publ. The Guilford Press, New York, USA.

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