A fetish, more specifically a sexual fetish, is a sexual fixation on a body part, bodily fluids, inanimate objects, or specific activities. The object of one’s erotic fascination is considered a fetish; the individual who experiences the fetish is known as a fetishist.
In modern clinical language, sexual fetishism still only refers to a focused sexual interest on body parts and nonliving things, but a sexual fixation on certain activities is included in the colloquial definition. When the fixation is on a specific body part (e.g. butt, breasts, feet, hands, etc.) that elicits an attraction equal or greater to the genitals, it can be even more specifically classified as partialism.
Etymology and History
The word fetish finds its roots in the Latin facticius ("artificial") and facere ("to make”), which yielded the Portuguese feitiço (“spell”). By the 17th century, it was adopted in French as fétiche, to refer to an inanimate object worshiped for its sacred or supernatural power, or because it is believed to house a supernatural being, such as a talisman or amulet. In either iteration, this object becomes a physical point of fixation or fascination as well as a storehouse of potential power.
The first time the term was attributed to a quality of erotic value, power, or response in a nonliving object of desire was in 1887.
Fetish versus Kink
The words fetish and kink are sometimes used interchangeably, however they are not fully synonymous.
A fetish is a point of sexual fixation, often necessary to the indivdual’s sexual satisfaction and gratification. Kink is an umbrella term that includes an array of alternative relationship dynamics, sexual preferences, activities, and fantasies. Alternative in this case refers to anything that is the opposite of vanilla sex (i.e the current, stereotypical “normal” expression of sex).
What one considers kink is subjective. For some, experimenting with spanking, roleplay, or a threesome will be extremely kinky in the context of their preferences, while others may engage in BDSM relationships, bondage techniques like shibari, or boundary-pushing edge play.
The main point of differentiation is that kink is not inherently sexual. While kink activities can yield consistent erotic responses, not all kink play is sexual for all people. In this way, all fetishes can be a form of kink but not all kinks are fetishes.
Types of Common Fetish Objects
Arguably any body part or trait, nonliving object, or specific activity could become a fetish for someone. However, there are some fetishes that seem to be more prevalent than others. Common examples of fetish objects include:
Body part-related fetishes:
- Podophilia: sexual interest in feet
- Crurophilia: sexual interest in legs
- Trichophilia: Sexual interest in certain kinds of hair or in body hair in general. Also known as Hair Partialism.
- Stigmatophilia: sexual interest in body modifications like piercings or tattoos
Clothing, material, and object-related fetishes:
- Clothing or Garment fetishism: sexual interest in certain items of clothing
- Underwear fetishism: sexual itnerest in undergarment items such as hosiery, lingerie, skirts, or suits
- Sexual interest in certain materials such as leather, latex, PVC, or rubber
- Sexual interest in footwear or specific kinds of shoes or boots
- Object fetishism: sexual interest in less common objects such as diapers, stethoscopes, pacifiers
- Voyeurism: when sexual pleasure is dervied in observing others. If the individual being observed is unaware or disapproving of this observation, this behavior breaches consent boundaries and is considered a form of sexual asault.
- Exhibitionism: sexual pleasure is derived in being observed by others, often in a state of nudity or while engaged in sexual activity. If the exhibitionist exposes themself to their audience with the audience’s permission, like in the case of “flashing” (i.e. exposing one’s nakedness in public), this behavior breaches consent boundaries and is considered a form of sexual asault.
- Cuckolding: When a man dervies sexual pleasure in his partner engaging in sexual acitivty with another man. In some cases, the man is present when the permitted and simulated “infidelity” occurs in order to watch it in action. Also known, especially in porn, as Hotwifing.
- Cross-dressing: sexual interest in subverting gender norms through the clothing one wears
Fetishes involving bodily secretions, excretions, and other physiological processes:
- Menophilia: sexual interest in activities involving menstrual blood
- Maiesiophilia or maieusophoria: sexual interest in pregnant people and their bodies
- Lactophilia: sexual interest in lactating breasts
- Mucophilia: sexual interest in sneezing
- Urophilia: sexual interest in activities involving urination
- Eproctophilia: having sexual interest in flatulence, or farting
- Coprophilia or scatophilia: sexual interest in feces and activities involving them
Fetish as Sexual Disorder
Historically, fetishes were seen as exclsively as sexual perversions, disorders, or pathologies. However, like other sexuality related concepts and behaviors that were once considered unhealthy deviancy (e.g. homosexuality), the modern perception of feitshes has evolved.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) currently lists paraphilias as a class of sexual disorders. By their definition, a paraphilia is “a sexual deviation where sexual arousal is obtained from a consistent pattern of inappropriate responses to objects or people, and in which the behaviors associated with the feelings are distressing and dysfunctional.”
A fetish is not inherently bad and can be part of healthy sexual expression, fantasy exploration, and relationships. It is only considered a disorder when it causes physical or mental distress to the individual, affects their quality of life, or breaches the consent boundaries of another.
Fetishization is the act of making a person an object of sexual desire based on an aspect of their identity, such as race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, body composition, or a disability.
To fetishize someone is to disregard their humanity and reduce them to a mere aspect of their identity, rendering them more an object or nonliving thing than a person. Fetishization is often conflated with personal preferences, which are often based on stereotypes and continue to reinforce them. This reinforcement can be harmful and disempowering to entire marginalized groups of people. Fetishization can happen from outside a marginalized group as well as within it.