The word “fetish” is commonly bandied about today and applied to anyone who takes pleasure in what might be considered a deviant sexual practice. To be a “fetishist” is to harbour some secret, desire or obsession whose expression must take a form that is outlandish, unhealthy or even “wrong” by the standards of “normal” people, but the usage of the word “fetish” is skewed by personal bias; its deeper meaning is lost. What does it actually mean to have a fetish?
Etymologically speaking, a “fetish” refers to a totem or effigy to which mystical or religious properties are assigned. It’s an icon of power or a symbol with a specific significance. It can also apply to anything which has been elevated to a position of importance, making an obsession with good grades, a preoccupation with looking neat and clean and even a memento from a lost loved one are all fetishes in their own right.
If we are to speak of “fetish” in a sexual sense however, then the “fetish” is “any object or non-genital part of the body that causes a habitual erotic response or fixation.” In this sense, a fetish is not necessarily deviant in any way, but can be as mundane as a preference for stockings, corsets, body hair or beautiful feet. Certainly this definition may extend to what are commonly thought of as more deviant sexual practices, but to be a fetishist is not to automatically be a monster of kink.
The “fetish” can also be thought of as a means of catharsis. Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek in particular discusses the fetish as a means of simultaneously acknowledging and dealing with something unpleasant, and pretending that it doesn’t exist. A past trauma may engender in one a liking for pleasure-pain, whilst a feeling of low self-worth might for another, lead to an interest in sexual power-play. To automatically think of a fetish as unwholesome and the fetishist as unhealthy for having it is unfair, as the reasons for what any given person delights in often very human indeed.
Those who practice purely “vanilla” sex are few and far between, and arguably we all hold our own fetishes – be it for dressing up, dressing down, or simply enjoying a particular act or role. It’s far more common than you’d imagine! And if sales and downloads are anything to go by, fetish is by far becoming the norm in the contemporary culture of sexual exploration.
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