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Where do fetishes come from?

Updated: Apr 29, 2021

One of the common questions I am asked as a clinical sexologist is: “Where do fetishes come from?” Recently I was interviewed by ABC about the origin of foot fetish. You can view the original article here.

This article is written by Kellie Scott, for Ladies, We Need to Talk.


Nadia has a very specific fetish.

"A baseball cap and it has to be worn backwards," the 40-year-old from Sydney says.

It all started as a teen, when she saw a classmate wearing one while playing footy.

"It just kind of ignited something inside of me."

When Nadia became sexually active, the fetish became more obvious. Seeing a man wearing a backwards cap gave her goosebumps.

"I [would] get chills. I found it really hard to resist."

Knowing how many people have fetishes is difficult to gauge because of the sense of shame some can feel around disclosing sexual behaviour, says Dr Sarah Ashton, a sexologist and psychologist.

But Dr Ashton says there is huge diversity in fetish behavior and preferences.

Not everyone is clear on what makes something a fetish, and we can feel alone with our sexual interests in a society that tends to shame anything outside the "norm".

ABC podcast Ladies We Need to Talk explores where fetishes come from, and why it's OK to have them.

What is a fetish?

A fetish involves arousal to an inanimate object or a specific target, says Dr Ashton.

"Usually a body part that's not a genital, or an object."

As opposed to a preference for something, like clean sheets or chocolate ice cream, a fetish has a stronger connection to sexual arousal.

"There is more reinforcement between the parts of our brain that are involved in arousal and orgasm, and the object or target that you're talking about," Dr Ashton says.

"If you're talking about a preference, then the connection would be weaker."

Dr Ashton commonly hears about fetishes related to clothing, like shoes and stockings, or textures, like PVC and latex.

But she says the list is long: "If you can think of it, then people probably have a fetish of it."

A comprehensive study from 2007 on the prevalence of different fetishes found preferences for body parts or features and for objects usually associated with the body were most common (33 per cent and 30 per cent, respectively).

That was followed by preferences for other people's behaviour (18 per cent), own behaviour (7 per cent), social behaviour (7 per cent) and objects unrelated to the body (5 per cent).

Feet and objects associated with feet were the most common target.

What causes fetishes?

Staying with feet for a moment, why are they such a common fetish target?

Anisa Varasteh, a clinical sexologist based in Adelaide, says that's difficult to determine.

She says fetishes are multi-sensory experiences. And because there are so many different reasons people find certain fetishes arousing (for example, one person might like feet for the visual element, another for what they represent to them) it's hard to say what the origin might be.

But one of the most commonly referenced theories is Pavlovian conditioning.

"One study [on this theory] showed heterosexual men images of boots followed by pictures of naked women," Ms Varasteh says.

"Repeating this process over time, the men showed sexual arousal by just being shown pictures of the boots."

Dr Ashton says fetishes can also be linked to experiences someone has had early in life.

"Because people might first experience some form of arousal early on in their childhood and they are small people, they might be close to feet and there might be some random association between their experience of arousal and feet."

Neen has been into various forms of kink, and the bondage and discipline parts of BDSM for 30 years.

They have a fetish for shoes, which they first noticed at a kink show.

"My first attraction was the costuming, the corsets and the shoes," the 50-year-old says.

"An incredible heel on an attractive person, but non-binary, cisgendered or not, or trans, does something to the shape of a person's body and the way that they stand and how they hold themselves."

For Neen, it's also about the quality and shape of the shoe.

They experienced abuse as a child and used to wonder if this played a role in their fetish.

"I've had moments where I've been really uncomfortable within myself, as to why I might like something.

"[But] as I've grown older and understood myself more, I've understood where the majority of my sexual preference and sexual fetish comes from, or where it's anchored, and I'm really comfortable with it now."

How fetishes can improve sex

Nadia doesn't always ask her sexual partners to wear a backwards cap. But it does intensify sex for her.

"I don't want to say that the baseball cap is not negotiable. For me the idea of the cap is something I like to include, because I find that for me, for whatever reason, it sparks a higher sex drive.

"I'll find that most times it'll be something that can kind of heighten the process. So when I find that I'm really in that moment, I will ask them to wear it just because I think for me it adds another level of intensity."

Some partners have quizzed Nadia on her fetish, while others wear the cap without question.

"They'll see the change in me and they'll kind of get excited by that — even though they don't understand it."

Ms Varasteh says embracing parts of ourselves that we might otherwise push away due to feelings of shame is the first step to integrating them into our lives and "being more functional".

Is it OK to have a fetish?

Fetishes are only harmful if they cause distress to the individual.

That could be classed as fetishistic disorder under the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).

If there are other individuals involved, it's important fetishes are only acted upon with their enthusiastic consent.

Dr Ashton says if it's causing harm to you or other people, you might want support from a sexual health professional to reduce or redirect the arousal.

"For example, if someone has a fetish for denim, and every time they see someone wearing a pair of jeans when they're walking around in public, they become aroused.

"Depending on whether or not you have a vulva or a penis … that could be pretty distressing."

But otherwise, fetishes are healthy and we should encourage people to explore what feels good for them in a way that is safe, says Dr Ashton.

"We live in a culture that doesn't really speak much about fetish and that tends to shame anything that's outside of the spectrum of what is perceived as normal.

"But really what we know about sex and sexuality and things that people find arousing is that there's just so much diversity."

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