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Fetishism: Love of the Special

by Gert Hekma in Lifestyle & Fashion , 09 september 2013

Dit artikel is ook in het Nederlands beschikbaar

Why is it that the term fetishism still evokes sniggers? And why is it that psychiatrists and most people still think it is a pathological abnormality? Gert Hekma explains the image and argues in favor of a society that is more open to fetishism.

Fetish is a concept from the world of religion: a magical object. According to scientists from the early days of anthropology, “primitive tribes” were animistic and believed that nature was spirited. Fetishes were their first gods. Karl Marx did not use the concept because of its religious meaning, but to describe the economic value of products that were appropriated by capitalists with the exploitation of workers. The man behind the intelligence test, Alfred Binet, used it in 1888 for objects with a sexual value in his essay “Le fétichisme dans l’amour.” He distinguished three fetish categories: body parts, objects, and psychological qualities.

The first category was about breasts, buttocks, hair or feet, and the second one about fabrics or clothes, such as aprons, uniforms, underwear, silk or leather. The last category contains masculinity or femininity, servility or religiosity. More categories could be added, for example situations (tropical beach, prison, back seat) or acts (ejaculation, chasing, kissing, playing about). Combinations of fetishes will also be common: master, leather, cage.

Binet also distinguished between small and large fetishism, which ran parallel to the difference between perversion and perversity. Small fetishism is a nice addition to “normal sex,” for example the love bite. Large fetishism is about “obsession”: the fetish has become the goal, which according to the sexologists of those days should be coitus. It was pathological, a disease that, according to Binet, had a degenerative basis – not progress, but evolution in the wrong direction. Insanity, alcoholism, perversion: it went from generation to generation, from bad to worse. To him and the psychiatrists who followed in his footsteps, fetishism was a mental disorder, just like any other perversion such as sadomasochism, paedophilia or exhibitionism.

Persistent Abnormality

By now, more than a century has passed. Psychiatrists got stuck in the past with their evaluation of the perversions, that are now called paraphilia (besides love), and still consider erotic variation a pathological abnormality. Only homosexuality was removed from their list of abnormalities in 1973. Only then they recognized that, other than in a straight relationship, there are more ways to find pleasure in sex.

All other forms, such as masochism, fetishism and bestiality, did not receive any recognition. This still holds true to this date, and is making people suffer unnecessarily. For most sexual variations, the things that applied to homosexuality in those days also apply: they are not mental disorders, do not cause inherent suffering, and hardly ever take place at the expense of a third person. So why hinder people enjoying such pleasures? My theory on fetishism is simple.

Sex is pleasure, and sexual preferences are much more diverse than labeling them under “gay” or “straight.” People do not love men and/or women, but special features, qualities and objects: they all have their own fetishes. We are all fetishists.
Those who say they love men, should be more specific: a certain age group, class, education, features such as thin or stocky, hair, muscular or not, buttocks, sexual acts, such as by hand, oral or anal, with or without toys, and in what situation. This also holds true for most of the regular fetishes, such as vagina’s, penises, coitus and mouths, and for the more exotic ones, such as strangling and cannibalism. Special interests, for example being a slave, do not need a specific execution, but can be re-enacted, perhaps on the edge of what is real.

Love and Sex

We all formed this romantic ideal with that one, true love, with whom it will work out in harmony and for a longer period of time. But unfortunately, this is often not the case in real life. We link sex to love, and if there is a certain chemistry, as well as the approval of parents and friends, we put our faith in our relationship completely.

Many people will be deceived. This may be because expectations of the relationship or characters are different, or precisely because fetishes do not match at all. One of the partners is promiscuous or likes sadomasochism, while the other partner likes regular sex. Sexual fetishes are too important and too different to leave them to coincidence when entering into a relationship. When the difference is too big, many people think they can make a deal by playing along with their partner’s fetish. But that is not how it works. A masochist, for example, needs a sadist for pleasure. And someone who does not share this preference for SM is hardly ever the right partner.

Sexual Citizenship

Because many fetishes are still on the list of mental disorders, there is work to be done to enjoy its pleasures. It is important that people learn to talk and be open about it. There is shame to overcome. And the easiest way to do that is in a collective process – speaking about fetishes is part of a sexual culture that hardly exists in The Netherlands, or anywhere else for that matter.

A lot of people say that they like sexual freedom, or that they live in a liberal and tolerant country. But when it comes to concrete sexual practices and fantasies, being tolerant is much more difficult. And this hinders more familiarity with sexual variations.

Gay emancipation has led to more openness about sexual preferences. This openness should also apply to sexual emancipation in general, including erotic variation. The way I see it, sex and fetishism should be approached as sports. You do it if you feel like it, and otherwise you don’t. And you learn about it as part of a better understanding of yourself and of others you will encounter. Because fetishism is not a private matter in the bedroom and mysterious actions behind closed curtains, but a matter of public culture and sexual citizenship.



In the New Issue of Gay News, 323, July 2018

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