|MadSci Network: Medicine|
Hi Andy :) There are 70 groups listed under alt.sex.fetish, 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 research. 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 play-therapy. 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 :) References: (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): 713-725. (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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