An Expert Explains What People Get Wrong About Fetishes

March 12th 2016

Thor Benson

When you think of sexual fetishes, you might think of people who like feet or who enjoy being tied up. But there's a lot more to the term "fetish" than most people realize.

People joke about how there's a fetish for everything you can imagine. But the most common fetishes people talk about are related to body parts and fluids: hands or toes, or urine or blood.


The 2012 book "A Billion Wicked Thoughts" looked at more than a billion web searches to figure out what people are into sexually. It found that most people are interested in unusual sex acts and scenarios more than they'd likely admit. Unfortunately, the searches were anonymous, so there's no way to know who was looking for what.

One problem in dealing with the topic of fetishes is the term's definition: A fetish is simply a sexual practice that a majority of people don't participate in. They are thereby considered odd or fringe. But complicating that definition is the reality that there are many different flavors of gender and sexuality: What one group considers a fetish might be just regular sex for another.

Jane Ward, an associate professor of gender and sexuality studies at the University of California, Riverside, talked with ATTN: about what's going on in the world of fetishes. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

ATTN: What would you say are the most common fetishes?

JW: I think that's not a question I want to answer, just because one of the points that I make about fetishes is that, because we live in a time and place in which sexual desire is supposed to be oriented towards people of particular genders, ... what people think is the most salient thing about their sexuality is whether they're gay, straight, or bi. That means that any other kind of desire gets called a fetish.

ATTN: And how does that affect the idea of fetish?

JW: Fetish has an association with displacement or something. It's like, "You really desire something else," in that original Freudian conceptualization of the fetish. The fetish object is seen as a substitute or a stand-in for something else. So, I think, sometimes there's a salacious quality around media coverage of fetish: "Look at all of these weird things that weird people are attracted to." But I think we should really think about fetish instead as the leading edge of our human sexuality: that we're growing as a species to be able to imagine new objects of sexual desire.

handcuffed to bed

ATTN: Yeah, it seems like there are some things people would consider fetish-like that others would consider very normal.

JW: That's an excellent point. What's defined as a fetish in the popular imagination is any kind of desire that does not fall within vanilla, same-generational, monogamous, non-power inflicted sex. So for people who don't have sex like that, of course their sexuality and sexual desires feel normal to them, and a straight couple might think anal sex is kinky, where as for a queer couple or people who have been having anal sex for years, that's just kind of a central part of their sex practice. It's part of the main menu.

ATTN: It seems like you're saying the word fetish can almost be weaponized, as in, people could use the word to make certain people seem like "the other."

JW: Yes. Which isn't to say I'm against fetishes. I love fetishes. But I just think we need to have a complicated understanding of them. One person's fetish is another person's main menu item.

ATTN: What are some other big stigmas around fetishes?

JW: For Freud, the fetish was linked to trauma. So Freud believed that the moment that a child saw that their mother did not have a penis, which Freud thought the child would perceive as the mother having been castrated, that moment of trauma and whatever object the child sees at that time makes them fixate on that object to avoid the object of that trauma.

Most people aren't at all familiar with Freud's original theorization of fetish. But I think most people still have this idea that people who are into kink are people who are damaged in some way. If you want to be bound during sex, if you want to engage in some kind of kinky role play, if you're really into SM, then probably something bad happened to you. I think that's one of the very common ways that people are stigmatized.

ATTN: I actually thought coming into this fetishes might be tied to psychological backgrounds, maybe not trauma, but personality traits or something like that.

JW: Yeah, like there's a profile. It's really revealing, because there are other kinds of sexual desire that we would never think that about. You wouldn't say, "What is the psychological profile of somebody who likes oral sex?" People might have asked that question 200 years ago. Or, 100 years ago, there was a lot of stigma around masturbation, like with the Boys Scouts and all of the early manuals about how if you masturbate, hair's going to grow on your palms, and that it's a dirty, horrible thing to do.

In the late 19th century, there were efforts on the part of physicians to classify masturbation as a sexual disorder and to call the masturbator a disordered type. Now, we have normalized masturbation, so the idea you'd be able to pick out in the crowd who masturbates or not, or that you'd be able to assign a psychological profile to people who do or don't, we think it's ridiculous, because we think of that as a normalized behavior. I think all sex practices are like that.

sex shop

ATTN: What do you think is becoming normalized right now? What was taboo 20 or 30 years ago and is relatively normal today?

JW: It's all about the butt, Thor. [laughs] I think anal sex, rimming, fingers in butts, there's just an explosion of pop cultural references in music and so forth to anus-related sex, and I think the more that happens, the more people are going to be comfortable exploring that part of sexuality.

ATTN: What do you think is a sex taboo that's maybe going to be accepted sometime in the future?

JW: That's a good question. I think we're also kind of getting ready to acknowledge that women ejaculate and to have more information about that. For people who've had sex with people with vaginas and G-spots, they'll be more interested in learning the mechanics of that, and maybe we'll start to see more representations of it on TV and film. Right now, there's a lot of it in porn, but not so much in the mainstream, and there's a lot of misinformation in the mainstream. People thinking it's pee and are worried about what it means, and there's shame for women.