Is Sexual Attraction to Objects ‘Kinkiness’ or Disorder? All You Wanted to Know about Fetishism

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Let's Talk Sex

Sex may permeate our popular culture, but conversations about it are still associated with stigma and shame in Indian households. As a result, most individuals dealing with sexual health issues or trying to find information about sex often resort to unverified online sources or follow the unscientific advice of their friends.

To address the widespread misinformation about sex, is running this weekly sex column, titled ‘Let’s Talk Sex’, every Friday. We hope to initiate conversations about sex through this column and address sexual health issues with scientific insight and nuance.

The column is being written by Sexologist Prof (Dr) Saransh Jain. In today’s column Dr Jain explains fetishism and when should one consider it a disorder.

When many people hear the word ‘fetish’, they imagine things like shoes or undergarments. A fascination for shoes or bags is not the only way to describe fetishism.

The term fetishism originates from the Portuguese word feitico, which means “obsessive fascination”. Most people find particular non-genital bodily features attractive, indicating that some level of fetishism is a normal feature of human sexuality. However, fetishistic arousal may become a problem when it interferes with normal sexual or social functioning, or when sexual arousal is impossible without the fetish object.

Fetishistic disorder is an intense sexual attraction to either inanimate objects or to body parts not traditionally viewed as sexual, coupled with ‘clinically significant’ distress or impairment.

Fetishism is more common in men than women. A diagnosis of fetishistic disorder is needed if there is accompanying personal distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning as a result of the fetish. People who identify as fetishists but do not report associated clinical impairment would be considered to have a fetish but not fetishistic disorder.

A fetishistic disorder is a condition in which there is a persistent and repetitive use of or dependence on non-living objects (such as undergarments or high-heeled shoes) or a highly specific focus on a body part (most often non-genital, such as feet) to reach sexual arousal. Only through the use of this object, or focus on this body part, can the individual obtain sexual gratification.

Common fetish objects include undergarments, footwear, gloves, rubber articles and leather clothing. Body parts associated with fetishistic disorder include feet, toes and hair. It is common for the fetish to include both inanimate objects and body parts (e.g., socks and feet). For some, merely a picture of the fetish object may cause arousal, though many with a fetish prefer (or require) the actual object in order to achieve arousal. The fetishist usually holds, rubs, tastes or smells the fetish object for sexual gratification or asks their partner to wear the object during sexual encounters.

Causes of Fetishism

Paraphilias such as fetishistic disorder typically have an onset during puberty, but fetishes can also develop before adolescence. No cause for fetishistic disorder has been conclusively established.

Some theorists believe that fetishism develops from early childhood experiences, in which the object was associated with a particularly powerful form of sexual arousal or gratification. Other learning theorists focus on later childhood and adolescence and the conditioning associated with masturbation and puberty.

Symptoms of Fetishism

The sexual acts of fetishistic people are characteristically focused almost exclusively on the fetish object or the body part. In many cases, a person with fetishistic disorder can only get sexually aroused and reach orgasm when the fetish object is being used, often leading to a feeling of intense shame or distress about their inability to experience arousal through “typical” stimuli. In other instances, a sexual response may occur without the fetish, but at a diminished level, which may cause shame or lead to stress in a relationship.

Diagnostic criteria for fetishistic disorder includes:

• For a period of at least six months, the person has recurrent, intense, sexually arousing fantasies, urges or behaviours involving non-living objects (such as female undergarments and shoes) or a highly specific focus on non-genital body part(s).

• The fantasies, sexual urges or behaviours cause significant distress or impair social, occupational or personal functioning.

• The fetish objects are not articles of clothing used in cross-dressing and are not designed for tactile genital stimulation, such as a vibrator.

Can Fetishistic Disorder be Treated?

Fetishistic fantasies are common and in many cases, harmless. They should only be treated as a disorder when they cause distress or impair a person’s ability to function normally in day-to-day life. Fetishistic disorder tends to fluctuate in intensity and frequency of urges or behaviour over the course of a person’s life. As a result, effective treatment is usually long-term.

Although there is no particular treatment, successful approaches have included various forms of therapies, including medication therapy such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRIs) or androgen deprivation therapy. Some prescription medication may also help reduce the compulsive thinking associated with fetishistic disorder. This allows a patient to concentrate on counselling with fewer distractions.

Kinkiness or Disorder?

The line separating kinkiness and disorder is not always straight. Sometimes, someone with a fetish may feel uncomfortable because they believe their attraction to objects is abnormal; however, this response does not mean they necessarily have a disorder.

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