What’s in a fetish?

When I first entered “the scene,” if we can call it that, I found I was not only snowballing through my own sexual liberation, I was also wading through a butt-tonne of terms.

The first one that struck me was FETISH. I will never forget the moment when I was talking to some friends about my somewhat alternative attitudes towards sex and relationships. Before I knew it, I was asked:

“So, does that mean you have…like…a fetish or whatever?”

This further prodding into what turns me on did leave me wondering: Are most people misusing the term fetish, and does it actually matter?

I’ve always assumed fetish referred to a sexual obsession with an object or body part. I imagined the person with the foot fetish, jerking off in their basement over toenail clippings and photos of feet, chaffing themselves with peppermint footcreams and starting every conservations with “Can I suck your toes?” Of course I DO NOT think like this now.

Whilst I’m sure many other people in the world hold onto a disturbing view of what a fetish is, the term itself does seem to be evolving. Colloquially, I would argue that people use the term fetish as a way of saying what turns them on. I’ve listened to friends tell me the fetishes they have, but quickly realised I seemd to be translating in my head. When someone said fetish, I simply began to hear: “something I really enjoy is X,” “Y really turns me on,” “I’m really enjoying Z.” You get the idea.

My previous assumptions considered,  when I went poking about to find a solid definition, I came across the DSM* and I wasn’t surprised that ‘fetishism’ is classed as a mental illness.  The DSM highlights that a fetish is finding sexual arousal in a typically non-sexual thing and having experiencing mental distress because of this. Yet, even with the clear note that “mental distress” is where the problem lies, there are still many people out there who enjoy things that are considered atypically arousing and have no distress about this. Is this still a fetish, because the things they desire may not present as typically desirable or sexually arousing? Similarly, there are people who enjoy things and body parts that fall into that ‘typically arousing’ category, but are painstakingly obsessed or distressed about this. If someone is obsessed by breasts (a body part that is sexually mainstream in its desirability) to the point it impacts their day to day functioning, does it become a fetish?

Do you feel tangled up trying to follow this logic? I do.

I think this is an example of attitudes changing and the need for the vocabulary we use to evolve with it. Just like ‘queer’ was reclaimed as a positive term (not long after homosexuality as a mental illness was removed from the DSM) perhaps we are on the cusp of an evolving sexual language, which is far more inclusive of those “atypical” desires.


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