People with fetishes have a sexual attraction to inanimate, non-living objects or non-genital body parts. Any body part can become a fetish, including feet, hair, and noses.
Most object fetishes tend to be clothing items, such as stockings, latex gloves, and raincoats.
Although fetishism was once thought to be rare, this has been challenged by recent research. A survey of 1,040 Canadians found 26% of participants had engaged in some form of fetish activity at least once.
As a fetish researcher, I’m often asked if fetishism can ever be healthy. The simple answer is yes. While fetishism was once perceived as a mental illness, this is no longer the case.
According to the current diagnostic and statistical manual used to classify mental health disorders (DSM-5), a fetish is only considered a disorder in the rare instances when the fetish causes “significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning”. This means the majority of people with a fetish don’t have a mental illness.
Despite fetishism no longer being perceived as an illness, my research has found people often describe those with fetishes as “unhealthy”, “sick” or “crazy”. This false belief is problematic for those with fetishes, as it can result in stigma and discrimination.
So if fetishism is not unhealthy, why do so many people think it is? The answer to this may lie in the myths that surround fetishism.
Myth #1: people with fetishes are dangerous
As part of my PhD research, I asked 230 people to describe fictional characters with fetishes, based on manufactured scenarios. The participants frequently described the characters as “dangerous”, “creepy”, or “perverted”.
But the DSM-5 states that among sexual offenders with a paraphilia (that is, a non-conventional sexual interest), fetishism is relatively uncommon. A paraphilia that would be more common among sex offenders is voyeurism involving observing an unsuspecting and non-consenting person.
Because of the stigma associated with fetishism, most people who have a fetish hide it. These people, for whom fetishes constitute part of a healthy sexual relationship, don’t come to public attention.
What does come to people’s attention are the extreme cases of fetishism that involve criminal behaviour. For example, the serial killer Jerry Brudos, who had a shoe and foot fetish, killed four women between 1968-1969. Brudos’ case was well-documented in the media and he became known as “The Shoe Fetish Slayer”. His story has recently been depicted in the Netflix series, Mindhunter.
Although rare, these cases foster the myth that those with fetishes are dangerous sexual predators.
Myth #2: people with fetishes need their fetish to have sex
It has often been thought that those with fetishes have a disorder because they cannot perform sexually when their fetish is absent. But my research suggests most people with fetishes do routinely engage in sexual acts without their fetish, and enjoy conventional intercourse.
However, we found people with fetishes often preferred sex involving it:
I can enjoy sex very much without the involvement of rubber household gloves […] 40–50% of our sexual activity involves no clothing/items/toys at all.
[Satin] material enhances the activity. So without the [satin] material sexual activities score an eight, with the material it scores an 11 out of ten.
Myth #3: people with fetishes don’t want or need relationships
In 1912, the prominent sex researcher Havelock Ellis suggested those with fetishes “are predisposed to isolation from the outset, for it would seem to be on a basis of excessive shyness and timidity that the manifestations of erotic symbolism [fetishism] are most likely to develop”.
In other words, he believed people develop fetishes because they’re extremely shy and don’t know how to relate to other people. But this idea is based on the assumption that people with fetishes don’t have relationships and fetish sex is largely focused on solitary masturbation.From shutterstock.com
In one study of people with fetishes, we found over half of participants were in intimate partner relationships. Further, over three-quarters preferred fetish sex involving their partner or another person.
i [sic] personally love to wear latex but if my partner does as well even better!!!
If I’m with a girlfriend, I like to see her dressed in a satin chemise […] I love the way the smooth slinkiness of satin accentuates te [sic] curves and shape of the body, and the shiny reflective element makes satin a turn on visually.
Myth #4: fetishism seems strange, so it must be sick
The main reason fetishism is often considered to be a mental illness is because at one stage, all sexual interests considered to be “strange” were believed to be unhealthy. In 1968, according to the DSM-2, a sexual interest was a mental illness if the sex was “bizarre”.
Because of this definition of healthy sexuality, any form of sexuality that was not considered “normal” was seen as a mental disorder until 1994 (even homosexuality was considered to be a mental illness until 1973).
In recent years, what is seen as unhealthy sex has changed drastically. There has been a recognition that just because a sexual interest is not appealing to everyone, this doesn’t make it a mental disorder, and does not mean the individual is sick. There are many different types and ways of expressing sexuality.
As long as the sex is consensual, and does not cause harm to oneself or others, there’s no reason to suspect it’s unhealthy.
Read more: Health Check: how often do people have sex?
Giselle Rees does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
Authors: Giselle Rees, Psychology Doctoral Candidate, Macquarie University