Originally, the word fetishism was created in the 19th century to describe the religious admiration of an object as a substitute for a god.

Sexual fetishism was introduced as a scientific term in 1887 by Alfred Binet, and was defined as the sexual admiration of an inanimate object. At that time, fetishism was considered pathological. Gradually the term’s meaning was extended, for example, in 1912 Richard von Krafft-Ebing referred to fetishism as the admiration of body parts. In 1927 Sigmund Freud published his psychoanalytic view of fetishism, which reached non-scientific readers and made the term popular.

So, the basic idea of sexual fetishism is sexual arousal, gratification and satisfaction through an inanimate object or a non-sexual body part, which we refer to as the fetish. But there are still differing definitions of fetishism.

In psychology, fetishism is a paraphilia, a sexual psychological disorder. The clinical diagnosis of fetishism is justified only if the additional criteria of paraphilia are fulfilled, above all only if the affected person suffers or harms other people.

In medical terms, a fetish is a stimulus that is a requirement for sexual arousal to occur. It is also called an ‘exclusive paraphilia’ – exclusive because it is an essential requirement for sexual arousal, excluding any other stimuli. Therefore, a fetishist who can also derive sexual arousal from other more conventional stimuli (such as, kissing, petting, etc) would not necessarily meet the clinical definition of having a fetish because it is not exclusive. This article focuses on sexual arousal by fetish in general (that is, the popular definition of fetish), and not on the clinical definition of fetishism.

In common speech, any fixation on a singular inanimate object, body part or body feature is called fetishism. Here, fetishism is not an illness, but an increasingly common and mostly harmless sexual preference. Today, fetishism is widely spread and has gained a much broader meaning. Often it is used to name any sexual preference that is perceived as unconventional: overweight, race and hair colour are examples of physical features that popularly are considered fetishes.

To summarise this definition: medically, fetishism is a disorder – an unhealthy sexual interest in something inanimate (including clothes) or non-sexual body parts. In this context ‘unhealthy’ means causing medical problems, such as the inability to obtain sexual satisfaction without the help of the fetish. But, today, this is regarded as a medical problem only if it causes the patient to suffer or harms others. If it merely enhances the individual’s sexual pleasure, then it is fairly common and normal by today’s standards.

Psychological explanations

There are many theories about the psychological origins fetishism, but only a few facts. Many fetishists say that they have had fetishistic desires as long as they can remember. Some fetishists can trace back their desire to a specific event. Modern psychology assumes that fetishism is conditioned or imprinted as the result of a traumatic experience.

In 1887, psychologist Alfred Binet introduced the term fetishism, suspecting that it was the pathological result of associations. His argument was that the accidentally simultaneous presentation of a sexual stimulus and an inanimate object led to the object being permanently connected to sexual arousal.

Some neurologists pointed out that fetishism could be the result of neuronal crosslinks between neighbouring regions in the human brain. For example, in 2002 Vilaynur S. Ramachandran pointed out that the region processing sensory input from the feet lies immediately next to the region processing sexual stimulation – possibly an explanation for the foot fetish.

Types of fetishes

Commonly fetishised items are shoes, lingerie, and specific materials such as satin, leather, PVC, rubber or fur. Although these forms of fetishism are the most common, fetishism, like other forms of human sexuality, can be extremely varied and can encompass almost any aspect of human behaviour. Here is our list of the top ten fetishes:

  1. Shoes are commonly fetishised. Usually it is women’s high-heeled shoes or boots that are idolised, while some fetishists prefer more ordinary footwear such as trainers. Particularly attractive to some are extremely high and dangerous-looking heels, perhaps because of sadomasochistic desires and fantasies.
  2. Lingerie, such as satin and lace items, including slips, nightdresses, and underwear are often a fetish stimulus.
  3. Hosiery is another commonly fetishised item of women’s clothes. Some like stockings (either hold-ups or with suspenders) while others prefer pantyhose (tights). Fetishists often have favourite colours or deniers, or specific features such as seams, reinforced toes and heels, or fishnet material. White socks are also a common turn on, presumably because of the association with ‘innocent’ schoolgirls.
  4. Bodywear, such as spandex leggings and leotards are similarly fetishised, as are tight, shiny garments made of leather, rubber, or PVC. The Japanese term ‘zentai’ refers to a spandex suit convering the entire body. For others, tight jeans are the objects of interest.
  5. Leather is another material that is subject to fetish interest by both heterosexuals and homosexuals. It is associated with motorcycling, kinky sex, and leather fashions.
  6. Rubber, PVC and latex are also materials for fetish clothing. These can range from items such as cloaks to thin, tight and shiny clothing. The rubber fetish can be centred on conventionally sexy items such as gowns and skin-tight garments as well as such unlikely items as gas masks.
  7. Uniforms, including police, military and schoolgirl outfits, can also be the focus of a fetish. This is obviously influenced by ideas of domination in the case of authoritarian uniforms and the presumed submissive innocence of the schoolgirl.
  8. Accessories, such as eyeglasses, jewellery and body piercing hardware, which are in close contact with the body, are often the attraction rather than clothes.
  9. Medical procedures and devices, including enemas and orthopaedic equipment can also be the subject of fetish. For example, dental braces, or orthodontic fetishism, is a form of sexual fetishism where a person is sexually aroused or stimulated by the sight or feel of dental braces. They can be aroused by tongue contact with the braces. Some are aroused particularly by the sight of a woman’s tongue touching her braces. This is usually associated with males seeing braces on females, and is probably related to schoolgirl fantasies, as dental braces are unusual on anyone other than teenagers.
  10. Body parts, such as body hair, feet, ankles, navel, neck, hands and fingernails, are also common fetish stimuli. We would not normally include legs, bum, and breasts in this category because attraction to these body parts is so conventional, however it is possible to have an excessive interest in these items that could lead to the medical diagnosis of clinically defined fetishism.