What Is a Fetish?

what is a fetish

Verywell / Jiaqi Zhou

What Is a Fetish?

Fetish:

A fetish is an inanimate object or non-sexual part of the body that arouses sexual desire.

The term fetish has become fairly mainstream. For example, foot fetishes are the most common and openly talked about. However, people's understanding of what constitutes a fetish and when it becomes a problem has lagged behind.

The truth is that a fetish is only a problem when the fixation interferes with your life or causes undue suffering to you or those around you. An example of this might be a person who is no longer sexually attracted to their partner and can only be aroused by the sight of a fetish object.

Fetishes come in all shapes and sizes, ranging from the foot fetish mentioned above to a penchant for leather, rubber, or certain aspects of BDSM practices.

However, it's not so much the content of the fetish that should be cause for concern; rather, it's when that fetish takes over a person's life and affects their relationships that they are considered problematic.

It is also important to recognize that while the word fetish is sometimes used interchangeably with kink, the two are not the same.

What is a Kink?

A kink refers to a non-standard or unconventional sexual practice or fantasy. It is a broad term to refer to sexual interests outside of what is often considered "vanilla" sex, where a fetish involves a sexual fixation that a person requires to find sex pleasurable.

Types of Fetishes

There are a number of examples of specific fetish objects that might be the target of a fetish disorder or simple non-disordered fetish. Common categories these fetishes might fall into include:

Body Parts

  • Certain body parts, such as feet (foot fetish or podophilia), navels, legs, mouth, nails, etc.
  • Certain kinds of hair or body hair

Body Features or Fluids

  • Body modifications such as tattoos or piercings.
  • Urophilia (sexual interest in activities involving urination)
  • Coprophilia or scatophilia (activities involving feces)
  • Lactophilia (lactating breasts)
  • Menophilia (activities involving menstrual blood)
  • Mucophilia (sexual interest in sneezing)

Clothing or Materials

  • Certain items of clothing such as stockings or skirts, or undergarments
  • Rubber or leather
  • Footwear or specific kinds of shoes or boots

Non-Sexual Objects

  • Less common objects such as stethoscopes, pacifiers, or diapers
  • Necrophilia or only having sexual interest in dead bodies

Why People Have Fetishes

There has not been much research to explore why fetishes develop. However, some theories have been suggested. Biological, cultural, emotional, and social factors may all play a role.

French psychologist Alfred Binet was the first to use the term fetish in an erotic context in 1887. At the time, it was suspected that fetishes took hold through an arousing experience with an object during childhood.

Indeed, research has shown that it is possible to condition people to become aroused by objects like boots, suggesting that a fetish is a learned process.

Fetishes are thought to be less common in women, which might suggest that there are unique factors regarding biological differences between men and women. However, it is important to note that much more research is needed in this area to understand how fetishes begin, who is more likely to have them, and how they influence behavior.

Some research has indicated that people who report having fetishes are more likely to use drugs and alcohol and experience lower levels of life satisfaction.

When Is a Fetish a Problem?

A sexual or erotic fetish can be defined as an extreme sexual fixation on an object or body part. The object of the fixation is called the fetish, and the person with the fetish is called a fetishist.

There is a clear distinction between fetishism and fetishistic disorder, a condition recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5-TR).

The DSM-5 lists three criteria for this disorder, which falls into the category of paraphilic disorders (others in this category include voyeuristic and exhibitionistic disorders).

  • The first criterion: Over a six-month period, you must have experienced sexual urges that were focused on a non-genital body part or a non-living object. This must be manifested by fantasies, urges, or behaviors.
  • The second criterion: The fantasies, urges, or behaviors that you are having have caused you significant distress or impaired your ability to go about your daily life.
  • The third criterion: The object cannot be clothing that you use for cross dressing and it cannot be a stimulation device like a vibrator. So, feeling urges to dress in women's clothes or to use a vibrator does not constitute a fetish.

The DSM-5 also has specifiers for the disorder, which are ways of further narrowing down the specifics of what you are experiencing. These include the following:

  • Whether the arousal is to a specific body part, such as someone's feet or hair. This is also known as partialism.
  • Whether the arousal is to non-living objects such as shoes or undergarments.

For a fetish to be considered a disorder, it must cause you significant distress in some manner, and it must have lasted at least six months.

On the other hand, if these criteria are not met, then a fetish can simply refer to what we mean by this in layman's terms—that is, having a sexual interest in specific activities or objects that you find enjoyable but that don't cause you or anyone else any distress.

Treatments for Fetisishm

When a fetish is a disorder, it can lead to illegal activity, loss of interest in usual sexual activities, and poor relationships. In these cases, treatment for the fetish is warranted to reduce reliance on the fetish and increase interest in acceptable stimuli.

Below are the typical treatments that may be used.

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) methods such as aversion therapy, orgasmic reconditioning, and covert conditioning may be used for fetishes.

  • In aversion therapy, thoughts of the fetish are paired with an aversive stimulus, such as an electric shock.
  • During covert sensitization, a person engages in a fantasy about the fetish and then imagines some negative outcome, such as their whole family walking in while they are engaged in the fetish. However, this is only one example; the negative outcome would vary depending on what the person finds most negative and/or humiliating.
  • During orgasmic reconditioning, people are asked to switch their thoughts about the fetish to something more acceptable (like their partner) just before orgasm. It's believed that this will reinforce acceptable sexual interest.

Psychodynamic Therapy

Given the fact that there are theories that fetishes originate in some connection during childhood, it's not surprising that some therapists may use psychodynamic techniques to work with the unconscious when unraveling fetishes.

Medication

Medications such as antiandrogens (to lower sex drive and reduce sexual fantasies) and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) (to improve mood) may be used for disordered fetishes. However, some medications can have significant side effects that must be considered.

Recap

Treatment for fetishistic disorder depends on the needs of the individual, but may involve the use of different forms of psychotherapy (such as CBT or psychodynamic therapy, medications, or a combination of the two.

Incorporating a Fetish Into Your Relationship

Some couples may find that they want to work on making the fetish part of their relationship instead of getting rid of it altogether. For something like a foot fetish, this might mean incorporating foot massage or other enjoyable activities into your sexual relationship.

However, others may want to agree to have this be a time-limited aspect of their sexual engagement. For example, a couple might decide to only participate in the fetish on certain days of the week or for special occasions.

Relationship counseling or couples therapy can help couples work on improving communication about a fetish that they want to keep but manage as part of their relationship.

A Word From Verywell

A fetish might become a problem if it crosses the line from a part-time fantasy to a full-time obsession. A common sign to watch for is being unable to become sexually interested in anything unless it involves the fetish object or situation.

If you are struggling, it's important to reach out for help, no matter how embarrassing that may feel. In particular, if you are the spouse or partner of someone with a destructive fetish that is ruining your relationship, know that help is available.

8 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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Additional Reading

By Arlin Cuncic
Arlin Cuncic, MA, is the author of "Therapy in Focus: What to Expect from CBT for Social Anxiety Disorder" and "7 Weeks to Reduce Anxiety."