Fetishes have been around for centuries — from the Marquis de Sade to Kinky Boots. But fetishes are about much more than shoes and leather.
I am very turned on by raincoats but my wife is not keen. Do you have any advice?
Kind regards, Peter.
Peter* posed this question to an advice column of an online UK women’s magazine and got some handy marital guidance. But what does science have to say about fetishes? How common are they? What causes them? And if your partner doesn’t share your fetish, can science help?
Fetishes are not just about feet and leather.
When it comes to fetishes for body parts, nothing comes near feet and toes in popularity.
In 2007, the biggest ever study of fetishes found that the foot was way more popular than everything else, accounting for almost half of all fetishes.
Blood and other body fluids came a distant second, while tattoos and piercings were a clear minority, with body odour coming in dead last.
But if a penchant for BO seems unexpected, the fetishes for clothes or accessories were nothing short of eclectic.
Shoes and stockings still topped the list, accounting for two thirds of all fetishes.
But people registered sexual preferences for everything from stethoscopes and nappies to pacemakers.
Fetishes are rare — especially in women.
The world isn’t awash with research into fetishes — partly because fetishes are not enough of a problem to warrant funding, and partly because people tend to keep their sexual attraction to raincoats or hearing aids to themselves.
But across the studies that have been done, two things stand out. Fetishes are rare, and they’re almost unheard of in women.
A 1983 study on people diagnosed with sexual fetishism in a large London hospital found only 48 cases over a 20-year period. And of those 48, only one was a woman — a lesbian with a fetish for breasts.
In men who have clinical fetishism, the fetish usually develops at puberty and can vary in strength throughout life.
We don’t know what causes fetishes.
There’s been no shortage of theories — childhood trauma, epilepsy and even Freud’s ‘the foot looks like a penis’ idea — but we really don’t know what causes some people to form strong and lasting sexual attraction to unusual things.
Twenty years ago, neuroscientist V S Ramachandran suggested that foot fetishes might result from accidental cross-wiring in our brains. He based his idea on the map of the brain drawn up by surgeons in the 1930s — Penfield’s Homunculus — which showed that sensations in our feet map onto our brains right next to where sensations from our genitals do.
Associate Professor Michael Farrell from Monash University thinks it’s an appealing idea, but it’s probably a bit of a stretch, because “the maps are quite simplified compared to the reality”.
While there are rough divisions in the brain, they don’t correspond directly or exclusively to a single body part, he said. Our brain logic is definitely on the fuzzy side.
Another idea that was common before the 1960s was that temporal lobe epilepsy was linked with fetishes.
But Professor Mark Cook from Melbourne University says that was largely a result of the studies being done on psychiatric patients who had epilepsy.
“The link disappears once you start excluding people who have an obvious psychiatric diagnosis,” he said.