Every Friday on the blog, I answer people’s questions about sex, love, and relationships. This week’s question comes from a reader who was curious about the origin of sexual fetishes:
“Are we born with fetishes or are they things that we learn and develop throughout our lives?”
Good question! Over the years, I have heard many people claim that fetishes and other unusual sexual interests must be inborn because these urges tend to emerge very early in life and people feel that they do not have any choice or conscious control in the matter (much like sexual orientation). However, I personally don’t buy the idea that people are “born with” very specific and highly unique sexual interests in things like rubber, pantyhose, or feet, and I’m not aware of any research to suggest that this is likely to be the case. Scientists have not identified a foot fetish gene, or a gene for any other fetish for that matter--and although I can't say with any certainty if they ever will, I wouldn't hold my breath. Instead, I would argue that a person is more likely to be born with a generalized predisposition to developing fetishes, as opposed to being born with a specific fetish. Also, regardless of one’s predispositions, some research suggests that fetishes can potentially be learned by just about anyone under the right circumstances.
First, as far as predispositions go, research has revealed that certain personality traits are linked to fetishes. For instance, men with unusual sexual interests, including fetishes, tend to score higher on measures of introversion (i.e., shyness) and neuroticism (i.e., emotional instability) than men without such interests . To be perfectly clear, this is not to say that these men have psychological problems or disorders—indeed, their scores on these personality measures still fall within the normal range and they are not comparable to those of clinical patients. Rather, they simply have elevated scores on these personality traits. And elevated levels of these traits could potentially lay the groundwork for an unusual sexual interest to emerge, for instance, by leading to difficulties establishing and maintaining sexual and romantic relationships.
Although personality is undoubtedly influenced by environmental factors, several studies have suggested that a number of personality traits are heritable to some degree. So, to the extent that individuals are born with tendencies toward certain personality traits (e.g., greater introversion), that could explain why some people are more likely to develop fetishes than others. Of course, some might also look at the research and argue that perhaps fetishes precede personality--to me, that doesn't seem as plausible, but we can't rule it out and we need more research to address it.
Second, several studies have found that fetishes may originate through learning processes, such as classical conditioning. As discussed in a previous article on this site, when a neutral stimulus (e.g., boots) is repeatedly paired with an arousing stimulus (e.g., nude images), that previously neutral stimulus can eventually become a cue for sexual arousal. Studies with non-clinical samples have found that it is possible to condition mild fetishes in participants for a variety of objects when strict conditioning principles are applied.
So, to answer your question, it does not seem be the case that people are born with specific fetishes. Instead, the prevailing thought is that fetishes tend to be learned behaviors. Although these behaviors are often learned very early in life, it is possible for fetishes to develop later on. And while it would seem to be the case that virtually anyone can learn a fetish, certain people may have predispositions that make them more likely to develop fetishes than others.
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 Wilson, G. D., & Gosselin, C. (1980). Personality characteristics of fetishists, transvestites and sadomasochists. Personality and Individual Differences, 1(3), 289-295.
Image Credit: iStockphoto.com
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