Sex Question Friday: Why Do Some People Have Fetishes?

Woman wearing a black latex outfit with fishnet stockings and carrying a whip

Every Friday on the blog, I answer sex questions submitted to me by actual college students. This week, we’re talking about fetishes. Fetishes refer to cases where an individual’s sexual desires and behaviors hinge upon a specific object, such as shoes or feet. Contrary to popular belief, having a fetish isn't necessarily problematic. It only becomes a problem when desire for this object creates persistent personal distress (in other words, a fetish isn't considered a clinical "problem" unless the individual is bothered by it or finds that it interferes with their ability to develop and maintain relationships). People can have fetishes for virtually anything, from the conventional (e.g., silk panties and leather boots) to the unusual (e.g., dirt and cars). It is perhaps no surprise that the most common question people have about fetishes is how they develop in the first place, hence the following question submitted by a reader:

"Why do some people develop strange fetishes?"

There are several different schools of thought on this issue, but the explanation that has received the most attention suggests that fetishes develop from learned associations between a certain object and sexual pleasure. To illustrate this point, let’s consider an example reported in an actual research paper of someone describing their first encounter with a fetish object:

“I was home alone and saw my uncle’s new penny loafers. I went over and started smelling the fresh new leather scent and kissing and licking them. It turned me on so much that I actually ejaculated…and have been turned on [by them] ever since.” [1]

In this case, the presentation of a novel object (leather loafers) created arousal in the individual, which he psychologically interpreted as being sexual in nature. It appears that this single event was so powerful that it instilled in him a lifelong sexual association with this object. Of course, not all fetishes develop so quickly. Some people might require repeated pairings of the object with pleasure to develop such an association. However, you get the idea from this example—fetishism is something that we seem to acquire through experience and learning.

A related way fetishes can develop is through a process of classical conditioning. To the extent that a specific object repeatedly appears just before we experience sexual arousal, we may eventually come to see that object as a cue for sexual arousal in the future such that every time we see that object, we get turned on. This idea was demonstrated in a fascinating experiment conducted in the 1960s.

In this study, heterosexual male participants were hooked up to a penile plethysmograph, a device that measures how sexually aroused a man is based upon the amount of blood flowing into his penis [2]. Participants were then repeatedly shown images of boots (a non-arousing stimulus to most heterosexual guys), immediately followed by images of sexy naked women (an arousing stimulus to most heterosexual guys). After repeatedly showing the men boots followed by nudes, the men eventually started showing arousal in response to the boots alone! Thus, the experimenter was able to successfully condition a mild boot fetish into the participants. A more recent study replicated this effect using an image of a jar of pennies (something that is not sexual at all) instead of boots, which goes to show that you really can develop a fetish for almost anything [3].

Learning theory thus provides a rather simple and intuitive explanation for the origin of fetishes. While it is not the only possible theory regarding why fetishism exists, it has the strongest body of research supporting it and suggests that all fetishes, regardless of how unusual they are, may develop as a result of the same underlying process.   

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[1] Weinberg, M. S., Williams, C. J., & Calhan, C. (1995). "If the shoe fits...": Exploring male homosexual foot fetishism. The Journal of Sex Research, 32, 17–27. doi: 10.1080/00224499509551770

[2] Rachman, S. (1966). Sexual fetishism: An experimental analogue. Psychological Record, 16, 293-296.

[3] Plaud J. J., & Martini, J. R. (1999). The respondent conditioning of male sexual arousal. Behavior Modification, 23, 254-268. doi: 10.1177/0145445599232004

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