Time was when the sexual fetish was shrouded in shame and secrecy. The fetishist, went the thinking, was a lonely guy who favored raincoats, frequented adult bookstores and took in flicks at the Pussycat Theater.
That has changed in the last two decades, say sexologists and psychologists. Fetishists have come out, as it were, propelled by popular culture, fetishistic couture, fetish conferences, shops devoted to erotica and innumerable sex self-help books. Then there is the proliferation of Web sites dedicated to everything from foot fetishes to plushophilia (a sexual attraction to plush toys).
"Fetishes were underground 15 or 20 years ago," said Herb Samuels, a clinical sexologist and chairman of the natural applied sciences at La Guardia Community College in Long Island City, N.Y. "With the advent of AIDS and HIV, promiscuity was out and couples began looking for new ways to keep their sex lives fresh--marking the beginning of a resurgence of fetishes. Fetishes are simply talked about more, and the more you talk about something, there will be more social tolerance."
Tickling and foot fetishists have always been around, said Samuels, but people are just more open about them today than they used to be. Fashion designers have exploited the fetishistic by turning out black leather outfits on the runways that would have been seen only at S&M clubs decades ago, he added.
Fetishes have even made it to prime-time, having been incorporated in story lines of "Ally McBeal." The show's character, Richard Fish, has a fetish for women's wattles (the fleshy area where neck meets chin); his law partner on the show has tried spanking his girlfriend.
According to experts, a fetish is an object or body part that a person must focus on to become aroused and, in extreme cases, to achieve sexual satisfaction. But the term has evolved from its original meaning to include some sexual behaviors, such as spanking, said psychologists. There is a distinction between extreme fetishists, who replace a sexual partner with an object (such as Chuck Jones, the publicist for Marla Maples who admitted to having a "sexual relationship" with her shoes) and people who simply use a fetish to liven things up.
"More and more Americans experiment with fetishistic behavior, although it's technically not a fetish," said Dennis Sugrue, a clinical psychologist in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., and president of the American Assn. of Sex Educators, Counselors and Therapists. "People are more willing to experiment with bondage and other things."
There is much debate about how a fetish develops. A fetish usually takes root in childhood, between the ages of 8 and 12, mostly in boys. One theory is that a fetish develops when an object and sexual arousal take place simultaneously or when contact with an object causes sexual arousal, said Sugrue. Arousal and the object are paired in the mind of the child and reinforced through repeated encounters, leading to a fetish.
Recent evidence suggests that neuro-chemical abnormalities in the brain cause the most extreme forms of fetishistic behavior and may be able to be "corrected" with medication.
But most fetishists are not looking for a cure or for insights. "Once you gain insight into why you are doing it, the excitement surrounding it tends to wane," said Samuels, referring to a theory of the late Robert Stoller, a UCLA psychiatrist. "It is almost like seeing sausage made; once you know what is in it, you don't want to eat it."
While psychologists agree that far more men than women have fetishes, some note that more women are engaging in fetishistic behavior. "We are finding from clinical observations that some women are interested in new variations of sexuality, and it includes experimenting with light bondage . . . which gives them the opportunity to experiment with roles," said Sugrue. Many psychologists agree that extreme fetishism is symptomatic of a deep fear of intimacy. Fetishizing or "partializing" a body is a way of focusing on the object instead of the person and is an erotic form of hatred and aggression, Stoller wrote in "Observing the Erotic Imagination" (Yale University Press, 1985).
John Ross, a clinical professor of psychology at Columbia University, said he finds the theory apt. "I see extreme fetishes in men who have been traumatized, and they are working out the trauma in the fetishistic activity," said Ross.
While some fetishes are pathological and even dangerous--arousal over snuff films and car accidents, for example--there are some fetishes that are perfectly harmless. As Samuels put it: "If you want to be spanked and tied up and you have a willing partner, who am I to say you shouldn't do that?"
Birds & Bees is a weekly column on relationships and sexuality. Kathleen Kelleher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.