Skip to main content

Our Limited Understanding of the Fetish

The lack of insightful scientific information on what drives fetishes points toward a loosening of restrictions and a widening of what defines "normal."
  • Author:
  • Updated:

In the year 486 C.E., St. Augustine published the book The City of God. In it, he continued his lifelong sermon about how sex is gross and sinful, this time theorizing how the sexual act would go if Adam and Eve hadn't mucked everything up. "In Paradise, it would have been possible to beget offspring without foul sexual passion," he writes. "The sexual organs would have been stimulated into necessary activity by will-power alone, just as the will controls other organs."

While his stance on sex isn't particularly progressive, dude has got a point: Our sexual organs are not really in our control. Some folks want women, some want men, some want both, and some want videos of bugs being crushed. Realistically, if you can dream it up, it's probably someone else's fetish.

What drives them? Does "the literature" have anything substantive to say about this?


While "abnormal sexuality" is a moving target throughout the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders editions—DSM-I classified it as anything outside of heterosexual sex; DSM-II allowed it as a "non-psychotic mental disorder"; DSM-III funneled the concept into the word "paraphilia"; subsequent editions drew a line between sexual activity and disorder. The one thing that's remained relatively consistent is the definition of "fetishism" in terms of sexuality: It is the employment of "inanimate objects as a source of sexual satisfaction."

Richard von Krafft-Ebing. (Photo: Public Domain)

Richard von Krafft-Ebing. (Photo: Public Domain)

This has been the case since 1886, when German psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing published Psychopathia Sexualis, the first look at abnormal sexual behavior. (That is, abnormal by Krafft-Ebing's definition: meaning any sexual contact that's not part of the procreative act.) By the the time he died in 1902, Krafft-Ebing had released 12 editions of his work—if you want to make a bad joke, surely there's one about "a fetish for fetishes" in there somewhere—during which he examined 238 case studies, tackling everything from Jack the Ripper to the necrophiliac French sergeant Francois Bertrand.

Now, 113 years later, we must know a whole lot more about what causes our wide range of sexual fetishes, right? I posed the "why" question to Anders Agmo, a professor of psychology at the Arctic University of Norway and author of Functional and Dysfunctional Sexual Behavior: A Synthesis of Neuroscience and Comparative Psychology.

"That's a horrible [question], because I don't think there is any answer," says Agmo, with a laugh. "There are case studies, lots of case studies. But they are contradictory and very difficult to interpret."

The brain is a popular place to pin the blame, mostly due to the potential for crossed signals. Last year, Japanese researchers determined that an "underwear fetish" is possibly the result of decreased blood flow to the brain. And there's a theory that foot fetishists are the result of an anatomical quirk where our sensors for foot/toe sensation are located directly next to where our brain picks up sensations from our genitals. (Another theory that totally makes sense is that foot fetishes come from a response to sexually transmitted disease epidemics; people have adapted a lust for attractive feet as a way to analyze a potential partner's cleanliness and, therefore, the likelihood they'll pass on a disease.)

But, still: These particular fetishes make up only a small piece of the ever-expanding and squishy pie of the world's sexual fetishes. What's going on in our systems to allow for them at all?

One distinct possibility—that is to say, what Agmo and most other psychologists agree is happening, but without substantial proof—is that fetishes are a kind of conditioned behavior. We end up having a really tremendous sexual experience on a train, and maybe we're more apt to choose Amtrak on our next cross-country trip. "In principle, any object can activate the [sexual] systems within the brain," Agmo says. For this reason, there's a belief that fetishes can also be unlearned. "You can unlearn anything, so why not fetishism?"

As far as when this conditioning could possibly occur? That's up for grabs. "You would expect that you would need the sex hormones to be sensitive to this kind of sexual stimuli, so it would be after puberty," Agmo says."“But it's usually when people consider [a fetish] is bad and they seek help, they're already well grown up. So, no one has studied how this fetishism is developing."

It's here where the story should end, seeing as there's not really science backing up anything going on in the brain in terms of why. But that lack of research is also interesting. Science has theories and studies on everything, so I asked Agmo why this blind spot seems to exist. The reason is statistics. According to Agmo, only two to three percent—roughly—of people are aroused by inanimate objects and consider it a problem. "As long as it's not considered a problem to individuals, no one cares about it," he says.

It's that last bit that's most telling in terms of our evolving social constructs. Even though we don't have many answers, the paucity of them shows just how far we are from St. Augustine's judgmental finger-wag or even Kraft-Ebbing's exclusive definition of what constitutes "normal" sex. The great majority of those with fetishes don't feel as if it's a problem that needs to be analyzed and studied. The lack of information points toward a loosening of sexual restrictions and a widening of what defines "normal." You now have the ability to—if I may use the worst phrase ever constructed in the English language—"let your freak flag fly."

Unfortunately, our freedoms are not particularly great for science. "Sorry for this meager answer, we just don't have any explanation," Agmo says. "It's very embarrassing actually."