What Is a Sexual Fetish?

From the WebMD Archives

While you might like the sight of your partner in a pair of high heels during sex, that doesn’t necessarily mean you have a shoe fetish.

A fetish is sexual excitement in response to an object or body part that’s not typically sexual, such as shoes or feet. They’re more common in men.

Many people with fetishes must have the object of their attraction at hand or be fantasizing about it, alone or with a partner, in order to become sexually aroused, get an erection, and have an orgasm.

A person with a fetish might masturbate while they hold, smell, rub, or taste the object. Or they might ask their partner to wear it or use it during sex.

Most Common Fetishes

People can “fetishize” almost anything.

There are many web sites about lots of fetish interests, says Richard Krueger, MD, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University. “Anything you could imagine.”

According to a study, the most common fetishes involve body parts, such as feet, or body features, such as obesity, piercings, or tattoos. The feet are by far the most common. Body fluid, body size, and hair fetishes aren’t far behind.

After body parts comes things you wear. The same study put clothes worn on the hips and legs, such as stockings and skirts, at the top of the list. Footwear, then underwear, ranked closely behind.

Fetishes that involve the feel of a certain material, often leather or rubber, are also common. Some people like dressing themselves and their partner in furry animal costumes.

Where Do Fetishes Come From?

Sexual behavior experts don't agree on the causes. Some people can trace their attraction back to early childhood, before they were aware of their sexuality.

A fetish can also come from seeing inappropriate sexual behavior during childhood or from sexual abuse, says Kenneth Rosenberg, MD. He's a psychiatry professor at Weill Cornell Medical College.

Are Fetishes OK?

A sexual fetish is not a disorder by definition, but it can reach that level if it causes intense, lasting distress.

Continued

“Whether somebody is doing this by themselves or with a partner, if they’re happy with it, then it’s not an issue," Krueger says, as long as it causes pleasure and no one is being forced to take part.

“My patients come to me because they feel it’s a problem,” Rosenberg says. “Their behaviors are not interesting, fun, or even sexy. They are not simply experimenting with novel means of sexual expression. They are desperate, compulsive, and sometimes so distressed by their behaviors that suicide is a consideration.”

When it's a disorder, it feels out of control. Someone might disappear from work or home to practice their fetish in secret. This fascination could also keep them from doing their job. 

“A physician could have a foot fetish, for example, and spend a large amount of time and attention on his patients’ feet,” Krueger says.

People with these disorders might also steal to get the object of their desire. Often, they can’t have meaningful sexual relationships with other people. They might prefer to have time alone with their object, even when they're in a relationship with another person.

“If your partner said, ‘Wear a pair of sexy shoes tonight,' you’d probably say, ‘Why not?’ But if your partner said, ‘You can sleep in the other room, just leave me your shoes,’ that would be a problem,” Rosenberg says.

Standard treatment includes medication and talk therapy with a psychiatrist or counselor.

Still, some fetishes can be harmless. A recent study on “adult baby/diaper lovers” found that among nearly 1,800 men and 140 women who report having this fetish, most said they were "comfortable" with their fetish and that it wasn't a problem.

The same can be said of people who enjoy bondage, discipline or domination, sadism, and masochism, commonly known as “BDSM,” Rosenberg says. As long as everyone agrees, then chances are “no one’s getting hurt in a way that is extreme or permanent, and everyone’s happy with what’s happening.”

WebMD Feature Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on January 27, 2015

Sources

SOURCES:

Scorolli, C. International Journal of Impotence Research, published online Feb. 15, 2007.

American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th ed. (DSM-5). American Psychiatric Association, 2013.

Hawkinson, K. Archives of Sexual Behavior, published online Jan. 29, 2014.

Richard Krueger, MD, associate clinical professor, Columbia University, N.Y.

Kenneth Rosenberg, MD, clinical associate professor, Weill Cornell Medical College, N.Y.

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