The Mainstreaming of Sexual Perversion
What is your favorite fetish? What’s your weirdest, wildest sexual fantasy? What really turns you on? And what would it take for you to play it out, not only at home or with a consensual partner, but to go for it in a public setting?
On Sunday, September 29th, San Francisco celebrated the 30th anniversary of the Folsom Street Fair, the world’s largest assembly of sexual fetishists, deviants of all strips and their admirers. Between 350,000 and 400,000 gay and straight leather and other fetishists met to celebrate sexual deviance.
The festivities stretched over 13 city blocks and featured some 200 exhibitor booths selling fetish gear and toys for every fantasy, including an enhanced erotic artists’ area; there were also a live music stage, two dance areas spinning popular tunes and a designated – adults only — public play area. Perhaps most revealing, the Fair got corporate support from Marriott Marquis Hotel (owned by the Mormons) and American Airlines, among many others. It raised a reported $625,000 for charity. Fetishism is now mainstream.
With a slight chuckle, the clinical sexologist and resident sex expert at Adam and Eve, a leading sex paraphernalia company, Kathleen Van Kirk, PhD – aka “DrKat” – acknowledges the concept of the fetish has been significantly watered down over the last couple of decades. “Clinically speaking, it was long a negative term,” she points out. “Today, fetishism is just about anything people do involving risqué sex; it’s become part of the normal sexual spectrum of behavior for many people.”
She does warn that fetishism still troubles a good number of people, often leading them to seek treatment. For example, she’s treated men who are into wearing woman’s underwear but are afraid to acknowledge it to their wives. “Shame,” DrKat points out, “is a sign of personal distress and is about something more telling.” For these people, she adds, “a sexual obsession is imprinted as an erotic template that causes the person discomfort and – worst case – leads them to inflict physical or emotional pain on another.” The goal of therapy, she stresses, “is to generally enable a person to accept his/her sexual feelings and integrate them into a fulfilling sexual life.”
DrKat stresses that for many Americans today, especially millennials, fetishes of all sorts have been integrated into their lifestyle culture. “Old fashion s&m, b&d, shoes and foot fetishes are part of self expression,” she observes. “The fetish is part of today’s lifestyle.”
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In 2009, the writer Kris Saknussemm identified the following ten oh-so 21st century American fetishes:
* Acrotomophilia/apotemnophilia — attraction to amputees and the fascination with being an amputee.
* Agalmatophilia — arousal by statues, mannequins, dolls and effigies.
* Arachibutyrophilia — attraction to peanut butter (lots of it) and an allergy to it.
* Catoptrophilia — unusual titillation in the presence of mirrors.
* Chremastistophilia — excitement at being robbed or held up.
* Eremophilia — arousal within deserted places.
* Formicophilia — obsession with very small creatures like insects.
* Macrophilia — attraction to giants, especially domination by giant women.
* Melophilia — erotic worship of music.
* Pogonophilia — fixation on bearded men; could this explain the Boston Red Sox phenomenon?
One can only wonder how many – if any – people have one of these sexual fixations and derive psycho-erotic pleasure from such experiences.
The Kinsey Institute refers to the fetish as “a strong sexual preoccupation with an object, material or body part.” Fetishism is no longer considered a psychiatric disorder, further mainstreamed by the recently released Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), the psychiatry bible. It differentiates between a “paraphilic disorder” and “atypical sexual interests” based upon when people: (i) “feel personal distress about their interests, not mere distress resulting from society’s disapproval; [and] (ii) have a sexual desire or behavior that involves another person’s psychological distress, injury, or death, or a desire for sexual behaviors involving unwilling persons or persons unable to give legal consent.” Going further, two psychologists, R.F. Baumeister and J. L. Butler, have reconceived fetishism as “deviance without pathology.”
Times were different in the early ‘80s when the Folsom Fair was launched. The wild hedonism that marked the late-‘70s was about to confront the specter of AIDS, a curse beginning to take its toll on the city, the nation and the world. Today, in an era of “safe sex,” it’s almost impossible to imagine San Francisco’s – and America’s — pre-AIDS radical sex scene. Gayle Rubin, an anthropologist of sexuality and women’s studies at the University of Michigan, documented an event that took place on March 21, 1980. As she reported, it was “the first time significant numbers of kinky gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, and heterosexuals partied together in the Bay Area.”
At the first inklings of what would become the AIDS epidemic, hardcore leather and fetishist activists, many living in the city’s deserted SoMa district, fashioned a new social culture embracing sexual perversion. Drawing from the sex clubs, bars and local community organizations, the Folsom Fair was launched during a period of increasing sexual terror.
Now, three decades later in San Francisco, male and female — and everything in between — join with gay and straight leather and other fetishists at the rollicking Folsom Fair. But it is only the most visible example of America’s changing sexual scene. This new sexual scene has both public and private dimensions, each reinforcing and pushing the limits of the other.
On the public level, a growing number of gatherings of fetishistic and other formally illicit sexual practices are taking place across the country. Besides Folsom, they include Hedofest (Washington, TX), Couples Choice (Eagle Nest, NM), the Orlando International (Orlando, FL) and Life Style West (Las Vegas), a four-night extravaganza for heterosexuals. Gay-centric but hetero-friendly events include, in addition to Folsom, the Key West Fantasy Fest, the International Leatherman (Chicago) and the Mid-Atlantic Leather Association (Washington, DC).
On the private level, more and more Americans — individuals, couples and groups — are engaging in an ever-greater range of sexual practices, often incorporating previously identified deviant sex practices, fetishes. And they are doing so with little of the sense of personal shame, social stigma, police harassment or incarceration common throughout the nation’s past.
For decades, shoppers – i.e., mostly men, often dubbed the “raincoat crowd” – slinked into XXX-rated shops in a down-market part of town to purchase sex-related products, whether a vibrator, costume or porn movie. Those days are over.
Today, sexual fetishism has been rebranded as “sexual wellness” and is a $15 billion enterprise. The enormous popularity of E. L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey, with its bondage and s&m play (and soon to be a Hollywood release), is even on sale at Walmart. Fetishism has become the new, all-American past time.
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Robert Stoller, a noted psychiatrist and leading sex theorist of the 1960s-1980s, once famously observed, “a fetish is a story masquerading as an object.” What is your favorite sexual fetish? And what story does it tell? As the fetish has been incorporated into the marketplace, has it lost its power to tell a story? Answers to these questions define America’s 21st century sexual culture.
Richard von Krafft-Ebing Ebing, author of famous 1886 treatise, Psychopathia Sexualis, was the first to acknowledge that both men and women were drawn to the sexual fetish. He sought to identify an underlying, physiological factor to explain nearly all perversions, including anesthesia (i.e., absence of sexual instinct), bestiality, capnolagnia (i.e., sexual arousal from watching others smoke), frottism (i.e., a male placing or rubbing his genitals against a woman or other eroticized entity), homosexuality and lesbianism, lust murder, pedophilia as well as sadism and masochism (tendencies he named).
He was particularly interested in how people sexualized specific body parts and secretions. For men, these included a woman’s foot, either simply naked, for licking, or a lame or disfigured foot; licking a female’s vagina or anus; drinking the urine of a woman or a child; or “using a girl’s drawers and sniffing her excreta.” Among women, the body parts and secretions that had a particular sexual attraction including the anus (i.e., homoerotic licking of a female lover’s), menstrual blood (i.e., drinking) and inanimate objects (e.g., a whip).
At this year’s Folsom Street Fair, the Sunday gala was the culmination of a weeklong fetish festival. Fetish events ranged from a tattoo and piercing get-together; a gear party for those into underwear, leather, rubber/neoprene, spandex, sports and construction outfits, and military and police uniforms; and a BDSM gala featuring suspension bondage, CBT, electro play, impact play and flogging. A warning accompanied many of these gatherings: “No street clothes or colognes/fragrances please.”
Sigmund Freud visited the U.S. only once, in 1909, to give his now-legendary Clark University lectures. A few years earlier, he published “Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality.” In it, he observes: “No other variation of the sexual instinct that borders on the pathological can lay so much claim to our interest as [fetishism], such is the peculiarity of the phenomena to which it gives rise.”
For Freud, the mystery of the fetish involves “… the normal sexual object [being] replaced by another which bears some relations to it, but is entirely unsuited to serve the normal sexual aim.” He clarifies: “What is substituted for the sexual object is some part of the body (such as the foot or hair) which is in general very much inappropriate for sexual purposes, or some inanimate object which bears an assignable relation to the person whom it replaces and preferably to that person’s sexuality (i.e., a piece of clothing or underlinen).”
The modern concept of the fetish emerged during the late-19th century in an attempt to classify and control a mounting wave of unacceptable sexual behavior that accompanied urbanization and industrialization. It combined a medical diagnosis with a moral judgment and a legal determination, becoming a cornerstone assumption of modern Western – and particularly American — notions of social values and individual normality.
For more than a century, the notion of fetish served as a powerful force in the regulation of sexual desire. Over the last several decades, however, the fetish – along with the concept of perversion — has disappeared from professional and popular discourse. Revolutions in psychiatry, jurisprudence and popular culture removed nearly all sense of the immoral and illegal from the notion of perversion, rendering it a lifestyle, sometimes referred to as kink or “spicy sex.” Like communism of yesteryear, the fetish has become an endangered species.