or “Do you really have a sexual fetish?”
by Annalee Newitz
Ever since the term “sexual fetish” was first used over a century ago, there’s been a raging scientific debate over what it means. Why does one person get off on shoes, while another gets off on certain large body parts? Are these erotic feelings signs of illness, or simply preferences that are as inexplicable and harmless as liking spaghetti more than sausage?
Though sexual fetishism started out as a fairly neutral term over a century ago in early psychiatry, it’s become one of the most contested ideas in medicine. Here’s why.
The term “sexual fetish” was first used in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by psychiatrists like Magnus Hirschfeld to describe — in a neutral fashion — the many ways that people experience sexual desire. Specifically, Hirschfeld and his contemporaries defined fetishism as the act of eroticizing any non-living object or body part. It wasn’t a mental illness, but a description of a mental state. However, in a world where wanting even the most ordinary kinds of sex can be difficult and embarrassing, having a fetish could make people neurotic. As a result, psychiatrists like Richard von Krafft-Ebing, author of the influential 1886 book Psychopathia Sexualis, often associated sexual fetishism with mental illness.
Derangements of the Sexual Instinct
Most of the people writing about sexual fetishes before the 1930s were psychiatrists dealing with people who had come to them because they were uncomfortable with their lust for rubber aprons, bondage, fur, machines, and hundreds of other sexytime items that are listed exhaustively in books like Psychopathia Sexualis, Havelock Ellis’Studies in the Psychology of Sex, Wilhelm Stekel’s The Sexual Aberrations, and many early essays of Sigmund Freud. Each of these researchers took a slightly different view on sexual fetishism, though Freud is perhaps most famous for his idea that neuroses can arise when people desire any deviation from heterosexual sex where the penis goes into the vagina and stays there for a reasonable amount of time.
Given that many of their patients were no doubt neurotic, many doctors dealing with sexuality at that time were surprisingly supportive of a variety of sexual choices. Havelock Ellis, who wrote about homosexuality extensively, was in an open marriage with a lesbian and championed women’s right to choose their own sexual paths.
Hirschfeld, who deals with fetishes in his book Derangements of the Sexual Instinct, was perhaps the world’s first gay rights advocate. Through his Institute for Sexual Science in Berlin, he published a number of essays, and made public health films, about how homosexuality was a legitimate lifestyle and not a sickness. You can see excerpts from one of the movies he made, Different from the Others, here. The film depicts a romance between two men, and was made in 1919.
Even Wilhelm Stekel, credited with inventing the term paraphilia for “extreme” sexual fetishes, also noted in his work that there are many “normal” sexual fetishes — including bondage and domination — that are perfectly healthy and that are shared by many people without any detriment to society or themselves.
Though the Nazis destroyed Hirschfeld’s Sexual Sciences Institute, and burned most of the books and art in its collection, the work he had begun was continued in America by researchers like Alfred Kinsey. A zoologist who studied wasps, he turned to studying human sexuality in the 1940s and published two books — dubbed the “Kinsey reports” — which were summations of thousands of interviews he and his research team conducted with Americans about their sex lives. Though Kinsey never advanced any theories about whether fetishes were normal or not, the fact that he presented the whole range of sexual interests (from Missionary position and homosexuality, to piss fetishes and bestiality) from a detached, non-judgmental perspective was fairly remarkable.
Given that so many of the scientists describing sexual fetishes did not consider them to be pathological, how did the term “sexual fetish” come to be so strongly associated with sickness and perversion?
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