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THE STRANGEST SPECIES

Head Over Heels in Love

September 30, 1996|KATHLEEN KELLEHER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In "The Sex Life of the Foot & Shoe," an amorous podophile gushes: "You can cut off all the women of the world at the ankles. Give me the part from the ankles down and you can have all the rest."

What is it about feet anyway?

* Call girl Sherry Rowlands told the world that Dick Morris, campaign advisor to presidents, loved to suck her toes.

* A San Dimas man, posing as a massage student, recently offered free foot rubs to three women and a girl, segueing into toe-sucking. (He faces battery charges).

* Marla Maples' former publicist, Chuck Jones, sniffed, licked and had a "sexual relationship" with some of the 78 shoes he rustled from her closet in 1994.

* A few years ago, a Canadian immigration officer asked large-footed men to doff their shoes (purportedly to accurately record their height) then photographed their feet.

Forget perfectly shaped breasts and exquisitely cut abdominal muscles, for some folks the foot is the sexiest part of the human body. There are even organizations for those whose libido bone is happily connected to the foot bone. But when the affair of the sole obsessive interferes with conventional sex, say, or leads to assault or theft, it's time for a closer look.

While several species get around on more feet than us (pity the podophile centipede), psychologists and biologists say humans appear to be the only species who have paraphilia, defined as "an abnormal condition in which erotic feelings are excited by a nonsexual object."

No one knows how common foot fetishism is (funding to research such things is, ahem, scarce), but psychologists say it's generally a guy thing, though shared by both heterosexual and gay men.

Exactly what causes it is the subject of widespread speculation. Sexperts suggest hormonal or chromosomal abnormalities, childhood sex abuse or the interruption of infant-mother bonding.

"We don't know why men are attracted to the female breast or why women are attracted to men's butts, but my feeling is when we figure that out it will explain men who love women's shoes and feet," says Charles Moser, an internist and professor of sexology at the Institute for the Advanced Study of Human Sexuality in San Francisco.

"If you think about the things that fetishists are fond of in our society, it is breasts, buttocks, underwear--things that are not accessible in everyday life."

Says Fred Berlin, founder of the Sexual Disorders Clinic at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, "Sometimes we find biological reasons, hormone abnormalities in the brain. Some sexual behavior is linked to trauma. Clinically, I recall one case of a man who was repeatedly abused by a baby sitter who would rub his genitals with her feet. I've seen some women who were beaten as children who were turned on by masochistic sex."

Whatever disruption occurs in the normal development of sexual impulses, it likely happens at a very early age, says John Money, professor emeritus at Johns Hopkins University. "If, as a 2-year-old, you are too obsessed with your mother's lady friends' feet and you are punished for it, what usually happens is it does a flip-flop and becomes rewarding and positive."

Early childhood neglect and abuse also appear to be a link to paraphilia.

"It is a highly theoretical possibility that fetishes develop in babies who don't get enough skin contact," says Money, who adds that out of 30 patients he works with who were severely abused as children, half are paraphiliacs. "Anything that abuses the trust of a child in a parent can interrupt sexological brain function, crossing the wires in the brain."

Such interruptions in mother-child contact, offers James Weinrich, adjunct professor of psychiatry at UC San Diego, may cause children, who spend a large part of their early lives crawling among big feet, to bond with objects in place of mother. "They may imprint on rubber diapers--a big fetish--the fur of a teddy bear, or feet."

*

Not all fetishists are looking for a cure. Doug Gaines of Cleveland, a self-described gay man and foot fetishist, founded the Foot Fraternity about 14 years ago and says it has 4,000 members. Heterosexuals began calling and he started a group for straight foot lovers seeking solemates, called The Foot Fetish and Fantasy Society.

Certainly the eroticization of the foot is ancient, as is adorning the feet to draw a suitor's eye. Like modern women, the women of ancient Greece and Egypt wore torturously high heels and platforms. Chopines, platforms ranging in height from 6 inches to 30 inches, were worn by 15th century Venetian courtesans (and eventually outlawed as unsafe after women kept toppling over).

For a thousand years, Chinese women underwent the brutal tradition of foot binding to comply with what was considered an ideal of beauty: a foot that could fit inside a man's mouth," writes William A. Rossi in "The Sex Life of the Foot & Shoe" (Wordsworth Editions, 1989). In some cultures, the exposure of a woman's feet was more embarrassing than the showing of her genitals.

Modern society and fashion certainly plays into the foot fetishist's fantasies. With the exception of the Birkenstock (a foot man's cold shower), many women festoon their feet in elaborately designed shoes that sexualize the foot as lustily as erotic undergarments.

"If there is a [sexually emphasized] part of the body other than the genitals and breasts, it is the feet," says Helen Fisher, a Rutgers University anthropologist.

"Our society features feet as a sexual stimulant. Women really show off their feet as a sexual organ and quite consciously. When a woman has a date at night and has to go straight from work, the one thing she changes is her shoes."

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