People who have sexual fetishes are turned on by the erotic use of inanimate, non-sexual objects. Most commonly, that means things like boots, shoes, or stockings, though people can develop fetishes for pretty much anything you can think of. If you've ever heard of Rule 34 of the Internet ("if it exists, there is porn for it"), well, this is why.
Once thought to be rare, psychologists now know that sexual fetishes are fairly common. For example, a recent study published in the Journal of Sex Research involving more than 1,000 Canadian adults found that nearly half (44.5 percent) expressed the desire to engage in fetishistic behavior, while just over one-quarter (26.3 percent) had actually done it at some point in the past.
Given how common fetish fantasies and behaviors are, sex scientists have begun to devote more attention to them, and this research is starting to challenge some of the most widely held assumptions about their nature.
For example, it has long been thought that, for people with fetishes, their sexual arousal hinges on the presence of a certain object during sexual activity. In other words, fetishists may find it hard to become—or stay—aroused and to enjoy sex unless their desired object is present.
However, a new set of studies published earlier this year in the International Journal of Sexual Health reveals that most fetishists say they still enjoy sex, even without their fetish object. Though they find fetish activities to be more sexually satisfying than non-fetish sex, they still think non-fetish sex is pretty damn good.
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In other words, rather than thinking about fetishes as fixations in which a certain object becomes essential for sexual arousal and pleasure, fetishes should instead be thought of as preferences for specific objects that enhance sex. To be fair, there are some people who do become fixated on their fetish objects; however, they appear to be the exception rather than the rule.
Another common assumption about fetishes is that they largely involve solitary sexual activities, such as masturbating while looking at, sniffing, or touching one's desired object. In other words, fetishes have long been thought to center around the interaction between one person and their desired object, with other people not really being necessary to the equation.
However, new research published in the journal Psychology and Sexuality challenges this stereotype as well. In two studies of self-identified fetishists recruited online, researchers found that a majority of them said they had engaged in partnered fetish activities and, further, that most of them preferred to engage in such activities with a partner as opposed to doing it alone.
Fetishists appear to have pretty specific preferences for who their partner is, too. People with fetishes don't seek generic partners; instead, these folks seem to have pretty strong ideas about who they want to practice their desired activities with.
For example, just over 1 in 5 fetishists said their preferred partner is someone they are currently in a romantic relationship with, usually their wife or girlfriend, considering that most fetishists are men. In addition, most of them specified that their fetish partner must be of a certain gender, and many specified a certain age and/or level of attractiveness. The importance of having a partner with specific characteristics is highlighted in this quote from one of the participants: "The object and the wearer are NOT entirely disconnected: I mean that household gloves, worn by an ugly woman or girl will have no effect on me. So it's not just the glove by itself that is attractive to me, the wearer is equally important."
In other words, fetishistic desires can't necessarily be fulfilled by just anyone. There has to be just the right connection between the fetish object and one's sex partner.
It's also worth noting that, in both of the studies presented in the new Psychology & Sexuality paper, a majority of participants were currently in relationships, and most said that they had engaged in fetish activities with a committed partner before. This challenges yet another stereotype about fetishists: that their sexual desires make them incapable of establishing and/or maintaining romantic relationships.
Together, what all of these findings tell us is that much of what we think we know about fetishes is wrong. Having a fetish doesn't necessarily mean that you have an exclusive attraction to a specific object that prevents you from enjoying partnered activities and non-fetish sex or that makes relationships impossible. In fact, there seems to be an inherently interpersonal component to most fetishes and, most people who have them seem to enjoy a wide range of sexual activities. Bottom line: fetishists have more dynamic sex and love lives than most of us give them credit for.
Justin Lehmiller is the Director of the social psychology program at Ball State University, a faculty affiliate of The Kinsey Institute, and author of the blog Sex and Psychology. Follow him on Twitter @JustinLehmiller.
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