I’ve had a fellow on Tinder ask me to send him pictures of me fully clothed smoking a cigarette. I’ve had partners lick and admire my toes during sex. I’ve spoken with a woman who is aroused by sneezing, describing its similarity to an orgasm. I’ve stepped on a human carpet who, since he was a child, has wanted nothing more than to be wrapped in a carpet and stepped on. I have a friend who is aroused by the smell of women’s farts. There are a seemingly endless number of fetishes out there. What do we know about fetishes, and how can we get more comfortable talking about them and exploring them with a partner?
What is a fetish?
Folks with fetishes are aroused by specific objects (underwear, heals), body parts (feet, armpits), body fluids (peeing, pooping, blood), body features (tattoos, heavy people), activities (whipping, car crashes ), a person own behavior (biting fingernails) or the behavior of others (smoking). Although technically, the definition of a fetish is somewhat specific to the above topics, folks use the term colloquially to include other actions like BDSM, group sex, exibitionism, and voyeurism.
Some folks with a fetish are so focused on this one object that they cannot get aroused without thinking about or incorporating their fetish. However, for most folks with a fetish, it is just the spice that makes an encounter more exciting. Including their fetish is unnecessary for arousal.
Research shows that the most common fetishes involve arousal directly related to the human body (feet, toes) or objects closely associated with the body (clothing, etc.). Specifically, it was found that feet were the most common fetish, with 1/7 adults having a fantasy that involved feet. Other common fetishes include body fluids. A study found that 45% of men and 35% percent of women fantasized about spit before, 31% of men and 14% of women fantasized about breast milk, 32% of men and 15% fantasied about urine and 6% of men and 2% of women fantasized about feces.
Of course, there is a significant difference between having a one-off fantasy and having a full-on fetish. Fetishes often take up a significant component of one’s sexual energy. Folks often watch porn related to their fetish, join chat groups related to their fetish, and are more likely to enact their fetish in real life (or at least want to!). However, fantasies are often thoughts that we indulge in thinking about for a bit. Fantasies are more likely to change over time and are less likely to be something that someone would be interested in exploring in real life. Fetishes are more likely to be desires that play a significant role in our sexual desires and behaviours throughout our life.
There used to be a lot of stigma around fetishes, but we are beggning to learn how common fetishes are. For example, a recent study in Montreal found that almost half of folks interviewed were aroused or intrigued by at least one type of fetish. I would assume that the actual number is even higher because this study involved a series of phone interviews. Perhaps not everyone was open to telling the stranger on the other end of the line their deepest darkest desires. In addition, there seems to be a gender difference, where men are significantly more open about having fetishes than women. However, perhaps some of this is due to higher societal acceptance of male sexuality in general.
The media tends to cover the dark side of fetishes instead of exploring how, for the most part, they are healthy and fun to explore consensually. Instead of hearing the positive stories, we tend to only hear about the one guy who licks lady’s feet at the shoe store or exposes themselves without consent. The research shows that kinky people are overall less neurotic, more social, and happier than those who are not kinky. So, for the most part, folks with fetishes are well-adjusted, friendly ordinary people, despite what the media would have you believe.
How do fetishes develop?
Although there is a lot we don’t understand about how fetishes develop, there tend to be some patterns that researchers have discovered. Many fetishes develop through conditioning, early childhood experiences, or our unique biology.
A lot of folks can develop a fetish through conditioning. In conditioning, previously neutral stimuli (like a foot) can become eroticized by pairing it with something spicy. For example, say Billy’s boyfriend wears perfume. When Billy kisses his partner, he gets an erection. The pairing of the smell and the arousal eventually become associated so that Billy gets turned on when he smells the perfume.
Although this conditioning usually develops after several pairings, when someone has an experience during a critical age in sexual development, one significant pairing can be enough to create a fetish. For example, if someone’s first sexual experience is with a woman wearing heels or fishnets: this can be enough to imprint this preference and impact their desires moving forward.
Many folks have childhood experiences that may bring to light a desire that was always there. For example, someone on Reddit shared, “The kids in my neighborhood used to play a game and if you were captured you had to be tied to a tree. Turns out little kids suck at tying knots but I remember fantasizing at a very young age about being inescapably bound. This was also around the time I watched the Hunchback of Notre Dame and the whole Frollo/Esmerelda thing made me feel weird “down there”. Something about a guy wanting you so badly and so fully that he’ll tie you up so that he can use every inch of you as you’re forced to submit helplessly just...yeah.” As you can see in this example, fetish may come to light through childhood experiences. In this case, it is hard to say if the desire was always there or if something about watching that movie or being tied up led a bondage fetish to develop.
There is interesting research on how disgust and arousal may be related. When you are aroused, you are less likely to experience disgust. Perhaps because we didn’t have access to showers, and there was a biological imperative to procreate, we have evolved to be less grossed out by all kinds of things when we are aroused. This can help explain that moment after we cum when that we are immediately discussed by whatever porn we were enjoying moments ago. This relationship between arousal and disgust can help explain how folks can become aroused by dirty feet, farts, scat, blood, and other things that we would typically find gross.
There is also a relationship between humiliation and arousal. As someone on Reddit with a scat fetish explains, “I find scat to be unique in a sense that I can relate to from childhood experiences. After much introspection, I can look back too many points of my young to adolescent life where I was humiliated in some way involving scat (shitting my pants in front of people, fascinated with diapers, enduring the repercussions of untreated celiac disease for about 12 years, etc.).” For some, it is an unpleasant or traumatic incident that leads to the development of a fetish. Eroticizing trauma is not unhealthy, and for some it can be a healthy way to move on.
Humans are complex creatures, and fetishes can develop from so many sources. As someone with a pregnancy fetish describes, “It’s just something I always remember wanting. If I go spiritual about it, there may be a connection to my innate desire to be a mother and the feeling of power that goes with creating life. Another important piece of it is that I have fertility issues, so there’s a chance I never will get pregnant, and being able to at least pretend is better than nothing.” It is common for us to reframe or work to regain control over what we can’t change through sexuality and fetishes.
As we saw, foot fetishes are among the most common types of fetishes, and they may develop through a biological mechanism. We have a sensory map in our brains where each part of our body that experiences sensations is represented. It turns out that the genitals and the feet are right beside each other in this sensory map. Therefore, the feet and genitals may become neurologically linked due to slight neural misfiring. In other words, when you think about feet, it may create a feeling of excitement like you would feel with your genitals.
There’s fascinating research exploring this phenomenon with folks who have amputated legs. It turns out that some folks experience a neural rewiring after their amputation, which leads their phantom foot to become sexualized. Perhaps because there was no longer a physical representation of the feet, the sensory representation of both foot and genitals merged, leading folks to experience orgasms through their missing feet!
How to Explore your Fetish
Remember, there is nothing wrong with you for being aroused by ANYTHING. We cannot help our desires, but we can control our behaviors. It is up to you to not be one of those creepy foot lickers and to explore your fetish ethically.
A sure way to find sexual compatibility is to look for folks that share the same desires as you on fetish sites or meetups. However, just because someone doesn’t share the same fetish as you doesn’t mean they won’t be interested in exploring with you. A lot of folks will be turned on by seeing you turned on and may be open to creating that environment for you in several ways. There can also be a quid pro quo relationship with sexuality, where perhaps your partner is willing to explore your fetish with you if you are open to exploring something that turns them on after.
I recommend not sharing your desire during sexual activity. This gives your partner a chance to think about if it is something that they are interested in exploring with you without feeling any pressure to act right away. It is also essential to ask them if they have any unique desires that you could explore with them. If your partner seems receptive, it can be helpful to share examples of how you would like to explore your fetish with a partner. For instance, you could share a video you find exciting. I recommend starting with a minor way to explore the fetish before going balls deep. For example, if you are into pee, perhaps begin by keeping the door open while your partner pees before moving onto a golden shower or something more extreme.
What if your partner doesn’t want to explore your fetish?
If your partner isn’t into your fetish, this doesn’t have to be a deal-breaker. Many folks keep their fetish as something they explore alone and have happy, fulfilling partnerships. Some folks are satisfied with exploring their fetish through fantasy and porn and may not need to engage in real life. Some couples decide that one partner can explore their fetish with other folks who share their excitement. This isn’t the same as an open relationship, so if you are exploring this with a partner, create clear guidelines so nobody gets hurt. Some explore their fetish with sex workers to ensure that level of separation.
Remember, nobody should ever make you feel shame for experiencing sexual excitement. It makes your sex life more interesting. As society shifts towards becoming more sex-positive, there will likely be a shift towards acceptance of all types of fetishes. In the meantime, find sex-positive spaces to explore your fetish. Work on getting comfortable discussing your fetish and normalizing these types of conversations. Happy Exploring 🙂