What is a Fetish?
A short piece on defining sexual fetishes.
Pictured: Freud (my nemesis).
You may have noticed I didn’t post an essay in July. I’m on the final stretch of finishing my PhD and, subsequently, my workload has gone up and my energy levels have gone down. Until I complete my PhD in October/November I’ll be posting more casual thoughts and micro-essays that don’t require the research of longer pieces. If you’d like to keep up with me elsewhere you can find me on Twitter.
This micro-essay comes out of a discussion I had with journalist Jack King, which was quoted in his piece for The Face about football kit fetishes.
What is a Fetish?
When Jack asked me what I thought the difference between fetishes and kinks were, I was initially stumped. I certainly use the words to mean different things, but when confronted with explain how and why I used them, I was at an impasse: I found I had been using them based solely on vibes without really questioning how or why.
After some thought, I answered that while there are certainly overlaps in the two categories, fetish is generally more geared towards objects or tangible things while kink concerns power dynamics and relationships. Or at least, that is how I use the words and the meanings I give them.
To me, examples of fetishes might include deriving sexual pleasure from seeing or touching feet, wearing latex, drinking piss, or wearing a dog collar. Kink, on the other hand, can encompass fetish but is primarily about relationships - the classic dominant/submissive relationship is an example of this, but there are many different kinds of kink-based relationships such as pup/owner, findom/paypig, and master/slave. Nearly all kink is about power, and fetish can be part of that - being 'forced' to drink someone's piss, kiss their feet, or wear a dog collar, for example. Fetish, however, does not have to be innately about power dynamics.
In Freudian terms, fetishes are about object worship and, as much as I dislike the majority of Freud’s work, our cultural understanding of fetish is heavily derived from his writing. In his 1927 essay ‘Fetishism’, Freud describes how a fetish is an object that replaces the mother’s penis, writing that “the fetish is a substitute for the woman’s (the mother’s) penis that the little boy once believed in and - for reasons familiar to us - does not want to give up.” Men fuck shoes, according to Freud, because they lean on their mother’s shoes when looking up her skirt and realising she does not have a penis, and therefore the shoe or foot becomes a manifestation of his protection from castration, a symbolic dick.
There are many flaws in this analysis (sorry to Freud, it sucks!), not least that it does not explain why women have as many fetishes as men, or how every fetish can be subsumed into a castration anxiety. Like all of Freud’s work, it is also reliant on cis and hetero norms. However, while Freud’s argument is flawed, his work has heavily influenced our cultural understandings of fetish as sexual object worship.
If we go back further than Freud, according to the OED the word fetish first came to popularity as a colonial term for religious or sacred objects used by the indigenous peoples of the Guinea coast and the neighbouring regions. Through the late 1700s and into the 1800s, the term fetish was primarily used to disparage the religious objects of colonised or otherwise invaded peoples as primitive, and it was only in the 1900s that it began to refer to a sexual object alongside the rise of sexology as a scientific field.
The first recorded use of fetish as a sexual term in the OED comes in 1901 by American psychologist J. M. Balwin in the Dictionary of Philosophy and Psychology, who defines a fetish as the following:
In certain perversions of the sexual instinct, the person, part of the body, or particular object belonging to the person by whom the impulse is excited, is called the fetich [sic] of the patient.
Baldwin’s definition of sexual fetish is wider the Freud’s, encompassing the potential of a person exciting someone’s arousal as well as a body part or object. Freud, however, focusses solely on the body part or object, often conflating the two (as seen in his writing on shoes and feet, where the two are treated as interchangeable fetish objects).
Our conception of fetish today is largely reliant on Freud’s definition of a sexual object, even if we rarely think of fetishes as emblems of castration anxiety. The fetish can be a carabiner on a butch lesbian’s belt, the leather boots of a dom top daddy, or the silk stockings of a femme - fetish is no longer the sole domain of straight men into feet and shoes, but we nonetheless still understand sexual objects through Freud’s long cultural shadow.
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