What Is In a Fetish?

Watch this video on why we have sexual fetishes from Dr. Jenn Gunsaullus and Dr. Neil Cannon

What’s the first word that comes to your mind when you hear the word “fetish”?

For many of you, that word is probably “foot,” or perhaps something that is worn over the feet (e.g., stockings, boots). One of the reasons for this is likely because when fetishes make an appearance in pop culture, feet and shoes are usually the focus of attention.

Research has found that, by and large, feet are typically the single most common fetish object, a pattern of behavior known as podophilia.

However, feet are far from the only thing that people can develop fetishes for.

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In a recent study [1], researchers examined the content of nearly 400 online sex discussion boards that used the word “fetish” in either their name or description. As a result, this should not be viewed as a study about fetishes in the clinical sense, but rather a more general study about the kinds of things that Internet users find to be sexually arousing.

Most of the groups focused on a single topic, most commonly a part of the body or an object associated with the body. Of the groups focused on body parts, nearly half focused on feet or toes (see what I mean about feet being the most popular fetish object?).

  • About 1 in 10 focused on bodily fluids, such as urine (urophilia), menstrual blood (menophilia), or breast milk (lactaphilia).
  • Another 1 in 10 focused on body size or shape, such as a preference for persons with short stature (nanophilia) or those who are obese. Somewhat less common were fetishes for hair (trichophilia), bellybuttons (alvinophilia), and lips or teeth (odontophilia).
  • The rarest fetishes (representing less than 1% of groups each) were for body hair (including a fetish for pubic hair, known as pubephilia), fingernails or toenails, and body odors (including a fetish for the scent of dirty or soiled undergarments, known as mysophilia).

Of the fetish groups that focused on objects associated with the body:

  • Fully one-third was focused on footwear (e.g., shoes, boots)
  • Another third focused on clothing associated with the legs or buttocks (e.g., skirts, stockings)
  • The remaining third consisted of fetishes for underwear or panties, full-body costumes (e.g., “furries”), or jackets/coats.
  • Less than 1% expressed fetishes for the following objects: stethoscopes, wristwatches, diapers, hearing aids, catheters, and pace-makers.

You may find some of these objects surprising (especially pace-makers), but this isn’t the first study to report that some people have fetishes for various pieces of medical equipment.

As you can see, human beings are capable of becoming sexually aroused by virtually anything, consistent with Sigmund Freud's famous claim that we are "polymorphously perverse." So where do some of the more unusual interests come from? Psychologists believe that fetishes are largely learned through classical and operant conditioning processes (Read more about the origin of fetishes).

One final note on fetishes--having a fetish or another unusual sexual interest does not mean that there’s anything inherently wrong with you. It has taken a while, but psychiatrists and psychologists have increasingly come to recognize that fetishes and other paraphilias do not necessarily represent disordered behavior unless they cause personal distress or result in harm to others. (Read more about this.)

[1] Scorolli, C., Ghirlanda, S., Enquist, M., Zattoni, S., & Jannini, E. A. (2007). Relative prevalence of different fetishes. International Journal of Impotence Research, 19, 432-4372

About The Author

Justin lehmiller
Dr. Justin J. Lehmiller
Dr. Justin J. Lehmiller is a social psychologist, relationship researcher, and sex columnist living and working in Boston, Massachusetts. He has published over 20 scholarly works, including articles in some of the leading scientific journals on sex and relationships. His research has been featured prominently in numerous media outlets, including Psychology Today, The Globe and Mail, Men’s Health, The Sunday Times, and the National Geographic Channel. Dr. Lehmiller writes a column entitled Lusting, Loving, and Leaving on the Science of Relationships website, as well as a sexuality and relationships blog at Lehmiller.com, follow him on Twitter and Facebook.
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