In his ever-pleasurable Savage Love iPhone app, the internationally-syndicated sex advice columnist Dan Savage reprinted a question from a woman whose boyfriend "enjoys wearing women's clothing and acting like a submissive woman when we have sex." The woman told Dan: "Nothing gets him off more. We have only just started exploring his fetish in the past year because he has been ashamed of it all his life. I have encouraged him so far and now we have a couple hundred dollars' worth of sexy women's clothing that fits him. Last night he asked me if he could wear a latex mask of a woman's face during sex."
As one can see, Dan’s reader termed her boyfriend’s proclivities “his fetish,” but as Dan implied in his response, the boyfriend’s interests may be more like a sexual orientation. What’s the difference? In sex research and in clinical psychology, “fetish” usually refers to an object (like a particular article of clothing) or substance (like latex) that an individual finds particularly sexually arousing. By contrast, a sexual orientation is more about how we are wired to interact (or not) sexually with others.
Out of curiosity, I asked Ray Blanchard, a sex researcher, clinical psychologist, and professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto, his thoughts on this reader’s boyfriend. Ray and I actually met over the sexual orientation possibly at issue here, namely autogynephilia, when I wrote a history of a controversy over autogynephilia. Autogynephilila refers to a sexual orientation in which a biological heterosexual male is sexually aroused to the idea of being or becoming a woman. Ray responded:
Fetishes are traditionally classified under three headings: items of clothing (e.g., shoes, panties), particular materials (e.g., rubber, spandex, silk, fur), and non-genital parts of the body (e.g., feet). The last type is sometimes called partialism. I had to stop and think a bit before I answered your question of whether the use of latex masks of women’s faces were fetishes, because I think the boundary of what is a fetish is a little blurry, even though the traditional definition specifies them as physical objects.
Ray went on:
The case of Dan’s reader’s boyfriend partly illustrates why I found it necessary, over 20 years ago, to replace the term transvestism with the broader term autogynephilia. Then, as now, the typical psychiatric definition of transvestism focused in a very concrete way on men’s sexual arousal from wearing, or changing into, women’s apparel. The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, for example, defines transvestism as “recurrent, intense sexually arousing fantasies, sexual urges, or behaviors involving cross-dressing.” By the end of the 1980s, I was becoming increasingly convinced that, at least for some men, the idea of being a woman was central to their erotic excitement, and that the specific objects they used to symbolize their femininity were secondary and interchangeable.
In other words, Ray found that these practices looked a lot more like a sexual orientation than a case of fetishism—of arousal to particular substances or objects. Further proof?
There are occasional men whose masturbation fantasies of themselves as women are limited to the idea of having a woman’s body and do not involve the thought of women’s clothes at all. I therefore coined the term autogynephilia from Greek roots meaning “love of oneself as a woman” and defined it as a male’s propensity to be erotically aroused by the thought or image of himself as a woman. The most common autogynephilic fantasy is that of having a woman’s breasts, but fantasies of having a vulva or a feminine face are also common.
But can desire to wear a latex mask of a woman’s face constitute a fetish? Writes Ray:
On balance, probably yes for most people who use them. The site maskon.com has numerous videos and still photos of individuals, presumably men, wearing latex masks of women’s faces. The wearers are always fully dressed and wigged as woman, so the erotic arousal value of the mask appears to derive at least partly from the autogynephilic fantasy of being a woman (or being like a woman) and not completely from the physical properties of the mask as an object.
On the other hand, there is little on the site to suggest that a latex mask is simply a short-cut to passing in public as a biological female—or even an aid to typical autogynephilic sexual fantasies. The effect is strikingly artificial (as Kerry, the owner of maskon notes in her guest advice to Dan’s reader) and most men could do a better job of passing as women by shaving closely, plucking their eyebrows, and using makeup. It is possible that some autogynephilic men might experiment with latex masks before contemplating more permanent, expensive, and time-consuming procedures such as electrolysis, but masks would probably be a transitional phase for them. The material on maskon.com suggests that the men who habitually use latex masks in their cross-dressing have a particular kind of erotic fantasy of themselves as women—as exaggerated, stylized, cartoon-like women. Indeed, the site features photos of men masked as women and dressed as Batgirl and Spider Woman.
There is nothing in the concept of autogynephilia to require that a man be sexually aroused at the idea of himself as a real woman. I once co-authored a case report on a man who was sexually aroused at the idea of being a kind of cartoon dog. So there is nothing to stop a man from being sexually aroused at the idea of being a kind of cartoon woman. Of course, most autogynephilic men are erotically aroused at the idea of being a flesh-and-blood woman, not a stylized woman. Some will become transsexual, undergoing expensive full facial reconstruction surgery to make their faces look as realistically feminine as possible.
If you want to read more about why Ray Blanchard came to see autogynephilia as a phenomenon deserving of a more appropriate name than “transvestic fetishism,” read this paper. Compelling first-person accounts of autogynephilia are available at the Autogynephilia Portal, and in psychiatrist Alice/Richard Novic's thoughtful autobiography, Alice in Genderland. Physician-researcher (and self-identified autogynephile) Anne Lawrence considers autogynephilia as a form of romantic love in this downloadable paper.
This post originally appeared on the author’s personal website on January 18, 2011. It is republished here with permission.