What Is a Fetish?

What Is a Fetish?

Are you wondering if you have a fetish or if your partner might have one? While the term fetish has become fairly mainstream (foot fetishes are the most common and openly talked about), 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 it becomes an obsession that interferes with your life or causes undue suffering to you or those around you. For example, the husband who no longer finds himself sexually attracted to his wife's body and instead can only be aroused by the sight of her shoes would be considered to have a problematic fetish.

Fetishes also come in all shapes and sizes, ranging from the foot fetish mentioned above to a penchant for leather, rubber, or 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.

Definition of a Fetish

A sexual or erotic fetish can be defined as 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 fetishest.

Is Fetishism a Disorder?

When does a fetish cross into the territory of being a diagnosable mental disorder? To understand this question, let's first take a look at the diagnostic criteria for Fetishistic Disorder as per the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).

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

  • 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 or other stimulus. You must also have acted on those urges or fantasies in terms of your behavior.
  • The second criterion: The fantasies or urges that you are having have caused you 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:

  • The type of stimulus that you are having urges about
  • The specific body part, if it is a part of the body you are fixated on, such as someone's feet or hair. This is also known as partialism
  • The specific object that you are having urges about (e.g., shoes vs. boots)

So, in order for a fetish to be considered a disorder, it would need to be the most important source of sexual satisfaction for you, it must cause you 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 sexual interest in specific activities or objects that you find enjoyable but that doesn't cause you or anyone else any distress.

Examples of Fetish Objects

What are some examples of specific fetish objects that might be the target of a fetish disorder or simple non-disordered fetish? Below is a list of some targets of fetishes.

  • Sexual interest only in people who are overweight or underweight or of a certain body type
  • Sexual interest only in body modifications such as tattoos or piercings.
  • Sexual interest only when involved in BDSM (Bondage, Discipline, Sadism, and Masochism)
  • Sexual interest only in certain items of clothing such as stockings or skirts or undergarments
  • Sexual interest only in rubber or leather
  • Sexual interest only in footwear or specific kinds of shoes or boots
  • Sexual interest only in certain body parts such as feet (e.g., the classic foot fetish or podophilia), navels, legs, mouth, nails, etc.
  • Sexual interest in certain kinds of hair or in body hair
  • Sexual interest in less common objects such as stethoscopes, pacifiers, or diapers
  • Urophilia or only having sexual interest in activities involving urination
  • Necrophilia or only having sexual interest in dead bodies (e.g., serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer experienced necrophilia)
  • Coprophilia or scatophilia or only having sexual interest in activities involving feces
  • Lactophilia or only having sexual interest in lactating breasts
  • Menophilia or only having sexual interest in activities involving menstrual blood
  • Mucophilia or only having sexual interest in sneezing
  • Sexual interest only in erotic asphyxiation or using choking during sex (or auto-erotic asphyxiation which involves choking oneself)

Theories on the Causes of Fetishism

What are the causes of fetishism? There has not been much research and that which has been conducted has mostly been case studies. However, there are some theories that have been put forth.

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 men to become aroused to objects like boots, suggesting that a fetish is a learned process.

Given that fetishes are rare in females, this also suggests that there may be some unique factor at play in terms of neurological differences between men and women. Much more research is needed in this area to understand how fetishes begin.

Treatments for Fetisishm

How do we treat fetishes? When a fetish is a disorder it can lead to illegal activity, the 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 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. While this tends to work, as you can imagine the effects eventually wear off when the negative stimulus is no longer paired with the fetish.

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, a person is 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 the 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.

Incorporating a Fetish Into Your Relationship

What if you just want to work on making the fetish part of your relationship instead of getting rid of it altogether? For something like a foot fetish, this might mean incorporating foot massage or other enjoyable activities.

However, it is important to agree to time-limited controlled engagement. For example, maybe the fetish is only part of your life on Saturdays and the rest of the week you focus on your whole partner.

Relationship counseling can help you work on improving communication in relation to a fetish that you wish to keep but manage.

A Word From Verywell

Do you or someone you know have a fetish? Is it causing distress in your daily life or is it just an enjoyable part of your relationship? When a fetish crosses the line from a part-time fantasy to a full-time obsession, and you find yourself unable to become sexually interested in anything unless it involves the fetish object or situation, that is when you know you may have a problem.

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 there are solutions and it's not necessary to live with disordered fetishism.

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Article 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.
  1. American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. 5th ed. Washington D.C.: 2013.

  2. Logan P. Victorian Fetishism. Albany: State University of New York Press; 2009.

  3. Darcangelo, S. Fetishism: Psychopathology and Theory. In Laws DR, O'Donohue, WT (eds.). Sexual Deviance: Theory, Assessment, and Treatment, 2nd edition. The Guilford Press. pp. 112–113.

  4. Psychology Today. Fetishistic Disorder.

Additional Reading
  • Firoz K, Nidheesh Sankar V, Rajmohan V, Manoj Kumar G, Raghuram T. Treatment of fetishism with naltrexone: A case reportAsian J Psychiatr. 2014;8:67-68. doi:10.1016/j.ajp.2013.11.006

  • Sexual Paraphilias. Labs.la.utexas.edu. https://labs.la.utexas.edu/mestonlab/sexual-paraphilias/. Published 2020. Accessed August 21, 2020.