Girl On The Net | Contributing Writer | Friday, 15 January 2016

International Fetish Day: What Is It Like To Have A Fetish?

It's International Fetish Day! But What's It Like To Have A Sexual Fetish?

The Debrief: We have a fairly narrow definition of kink in the mainstream - the reality is we're years away from accepting everyone's particular fetish

When I was young, someone told me that a 'fetish' was something that you needed in order to get off. Not just 'I quite fancy a spanking' but 'I cannot come unless I'm squealing over a hot guy's knee.' A kink, on the other hand, was a desire more like the casual need for a coffee. You fancy it, but you'll get by without if there's only tea on offer. It's not true, of course: as I grew up I realised not only that there are more nuances of desire than any individual could imagine without the internet, but that society still hasn't lost the urge to crush fetish into a neat and labelled box. 

Today is International Fetish Day, and I wanted to get some better answers to these questions – what exactly is a fetish? How do you know if you have one? And what are we doing right or wrong for fetishists in society? 

Dr Jamie F. Lawson is a Research Fellow at Durham University's Department of Anthropology, and an expert in human sexuality. He goes by @drlawson on Twitter, and he's currently researching pup play (a fetish in which some people take on the roles of dogs and others their handlers or trainers). I asked him whether it's possible to define 'fetish', and how it differs from kink.

'Classically fetish and kink were slightly different things: a kink is a strong sexual attraction to a particular set of practices, or costume, or set of power relationships, sensations etc. A 'sexual fetish' was originally used to refer to an object that someone was sexually aroused by. High heels, or women's handkerchiefs or feet. These days, the two terms are used pretty much interchangeably; people have 'fetishes' for rubber, or leather or lace (materials) or for spanking or rimming or whatever (practices). We could argue over whether a given sexual preference is a fetish or not, but I doubt many would disagree that a fetish is, if not interchangeable with, then a subcategory of 'kink'.

'Now, to your definition... "something you need in order to get off". That throws up an awful lot of interesting ideas. One of the major things we can learn from kink is that 'getting off' (presumably meaning orgasm) is not the driving motivation between all forms of kink. In many BDSM scenes, for example, genitals may not even be involved. What kink exposes, is that people can get up to all sorts of interesting and different things, involving all sorts of bits of the body, and still call it 'sex'.'

How do we treat fetishes in society? 

We have a fairly narrow definition of kink in the mainstream – when someone references a 'kinky' party it's usually accompanied by pictures of whips and leather. This is great news for people like me, for whom consensual power exchange and pain form a central part of their kink, but we're still light years away from a happy place for everyone. 

As a sex blogger, I regularly host guest blogs from people who want to talk about their fetishes – explaining what's hot for them about a particular thing. One of my anonymous guest bloggers, whose kink was macrophilia (fantasies about giants and giantesses) explained that even within kinky circles he feels somehow 'other.'

'I love the kink community, but I see it like a homeless guy watching a family Christmas through a window, desperately wishing it could be my home but wondering deep down if I’d ever be good enough to go in.'

He's not the only one for whom kink is both a pleasure and a pain. There's a very distinct divide between the way people talk to me about 'mainstream' (for want of a better word) fetishes, and those with more niche tastes. Another guest blogger, who wrote a beautiful and candid piece about his plushophilia – love of stuffed animals, explained that: 

'I still remember with vivid clarity the years of self-doubt which being a plushophile has caused. I constantly asked myself why I wasn’t like everyone else, whether or not I was a paedophile, or a psychopath, or whether I would one day have sex with a real animal. For the record, real animals do nothing for me.'

He's had a difficult time with partners who've felt jealous of his cuddly animal companions, and struggled with reactions from others too. When I asked what message he'd give to people who were coming to the idea of plushophilia for the first time, he explained: 

'I'd like people to know that having a fetish or kink is as real and meaningful to us as their gender preferences may be to them, and that fetishes come in as many flavours as wardrobes do.'

But on what basis does society judge fetish more strongly than any other sexual preference? Even as we become more accepting of kinks like BDSM, there still seems to be a strong urge to place fetish in categories labelled either 'acceptable' or not. Dr Lawson gave an explanation that might make us think differently.

'Kink' seems most usefully to be described by what it is not; which is the sex that society 'expects' or encourages people to have: penis in vagina sex between a man and a women, ideally married, in a bed, with the man on top. This is sex that produces babies and it's the sex that, since the 18th Century, European culture has been utterly obsessed with. *Anything* that disconnects sex from reproduction is target for societal disapproval: gay/lesbian sex, sex outside of marriage, sex outside, sex with objects, sex by yourself, sex with more than one person, contraception, abortion... the list goes on and, of course, includes 'kink', because the focus of kink is on the production of pleasure, not babies. The idea that sex is pleasurable is so antithetical to what our society 'wants' from us that it is bound up with intense feelings of shame, particularly, but not exclusively, for women, whose sex life has been very carefully and aggressively policed for centuries.

'Kink, then, is very closely aligned with 'queer', which can be defined (to the extent that you can define queer as anything) as an intellectual position that seeks to actively challenge the centrality of reproduction in narratives about sex. The view that 'sex is primarily reproductive' is called heteronormativity, and has been at the core of the oppression of non-heterosexual people, women and ethnic minorities for a long, long time.

'Now then, here's a fun bit: if heterosexual, heteronormative sex is reproductive, then very few people are actually having it. People tend to have much more sex than they have babies, after all. Any sex which is had 'for pleasure' is queer, by definition... which means that most sex and most people is/are queer in some way.'

Perhaps it's more helpful for us to think in terms of non-reproductive sex rather than of specific fetishes? After all, most of our sex is had for pleasure rather than babies, and in the UK it's less common for people to care what the church thinks than to assess their own sexual activity based on a different code. I've often been given the rule of thumb that sexual behaviour should be 'safe, sane and consensual', and it seems plenty of kinksters still use this as a guide. Meet Chris and Jojo, who run the Twitter account @QuietlyKinky. For them group sex is a huge turn-on, although they both class desires within that (loving the smell of armpits, squirting, etc) as 'kinks' too:

'We are a very fluid couple when it comes to the subject of sex and we see all sex as a fun and natural thing to do. When you tell people you are part of a couple that enjoys having sex with others they tend to be quite shocked. 'How does that work?' 'Don't you get jealous?' We vehemently take the stand that as long as sex is between adults, is practiced safely and is entirely consensual then go for it!'

But how do we translate this message to a mainstream media that's still dragging hundreds of years of 'sex for reproduction' history behind it? Perhaps the answer comes not from highlighting how 'unusual' a particular fetish is, but recognising how unusual it is to frown on any sex that's non-reproductive at all. 

How do you know if you have a fetish? 

Chris and JoJo explained that in the course of their explorations, many people approach them for advice about their own fetishes. 'The conversation often begins with them asking us not to think they are weird,' they explain. That's true for me as well – I get many people approaching me off the back of my writing to ask 'please don't think I'm weird, but I like this' – where 'this' might be shoes, or lace panties, or pony play: anything a tabloid would clutch their pearls over. 

As Dr Lawson explains, the draw begins for most people when they're quite young, but that doesn't mean that kinks or fetishes can't emerge at a later date. 

'Classically, fetishes emerge in childhood, and people tend to be quite aware that they find a particular object or material attractive. Being so turned on by a pair of shoes that you want to masturbate with/over them is a fairly clear signal that you have a shoe (or possibly foot) fetish. Kinks more broadly can emerge over the course of a life, either because they develop over time, or because people had no idea they could get so turned on by something. People seem either to always know that they have a kink (e.g. "I always knew I wanted to tie a woman up") or to discover it (e.g. "he slipped the pup hood over my head and I felt my own pupils dilate").'

So whether you're exploring something you've been drawn to for a while, or you have a new fascination that you'd like to learn more about, you're definitely not alone. What you might find, though, is that you come up against criticism for your non-reproductive sexual quirk. It would be easy for me, as a sex writer, to tell you to embrace your fetishes and damn the consequences. But in reality fetish is still a tricky topic – no matter how accepting your social group, as a society we're still hampered by old-fashioned heteronormative views on sex. 

So what should you do? Finding the right space in which to talk about it sounds like a great start. The macrophilia fetishist I spoke to found a creative and supportive outlet in fetish forums, where others with similar interests could chat (and occasionally have rows about which photoshopped pictured counted as 'proper' giantess porn). International Fetish Day itself began in protest against the 2009 'extreme pornography' laws, and is an attempt by BDSM fetishists to erode some of the knee-jerk judgmental reactions to their kinks. Dr Lawson explains that connection to other kinky people seems key in developing a healthy relationship to a set of desires. 

If you're looking for public or media acceptance of any fetish, there may still be a way to go. But given that we've come a long way since 'reproductive sex' was the only acceptable game in town, a world where everyone's consensual fetishes are accepted is probably closer than you think. 

Like this? You might also be interested in:

How To Dress Up For Your Boyfriend Without Feeling Like A Dick

Reddit Users Imagine Which Sexual Fetishes Would Exist In The Harry Potter Universe

'Only Three Spanks?!' We Took Some Kinksters To Watch Fifty Shades of Grey

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Tags: Sex Ed