Fetishism in the sexual sense is best defined as the phenomenon of sexual arousal resulting from perceiving some inanimate object, sound, taste, or smell. It is a positive sexual response not to the living object, but to some symbol of that object. In brief, fetishism is a displacement phenomenon. Mankind is much given to reacting toward symbols as though they were what they symbolize. We see nothing strange in reverence stemming from the sight of a crucifix, in pride from the sight of the flag, so we should not be surprised when sexual arousal results from the sight of lace panties.
Like most other human behavior, fetishism is a continuum with a wide range. At one end is the statistically normal situation: a mild to moderate interest in and sexual arousal from the inanimate as it serves to enhance and symbolize sexual gratification. As one progresses toward the opposite end of the range, the moderate interest becomes a strong preference, then a sine qua non, and finally the inanimate becomes a sexual object sufficient in itself. For example, let us take shoe fetishism. One man likes to see women in high-heeled shoes because he has been conditioned to think that the resultant walk is more attractive and also to think that high heels are somehow equated with sexuality. The second man will whistle at a plain girl in high heels but remain silent when an attractive girl in low heels walks past. The third man is impotent in coitus unless the female is wearing high-heeled shoes or unless he holds such shoes in his hand. The fourth man requires no female—he obtains orgasm by looking at and handling the shoes alone.
At what point in this sort of gradient shall we decide that a person be labeled fetishistic? Sexual arousal alone cannot be used as a criterion since, through association, it is commonly encountered at the “mild end” of the scale. Probably the dividing line should be, for practical purposes, at the point when the individual:
Obtains definite and reasonably strong sexual arousal (i.e., enough to cause tumesence) from the fetish item alone.
Disregards an otherwise attractive sexual partner who lacks the fetish item and chooses an otherwise unattractive partner who possesses the item.
3. Begins collecting the fetish item.
Any one of these three criteria should suffice to warrant one’s applying the label “fetishist” to an individual; however, all three usually occur together and not separately.
By this time it should be obvious why we have confined fetishism to the inanimate. To apply the term to a living part of the human body (hair excluded) at once makes a practical definition impossible, as one will appreciate after a little reflection. Would a man who cannot bring himself to have coitus with a female who lacks breasts (through youth or through surgery) be termed a “breast fetishist”? Or can all heterosexual males be said to have a fetish for females? In this way lies confusion. We prefer to limit fetishism to the inanimate, where it constitutes a definable and clear-cut displacement phenomenon. For exaggerated importance given to various parts or configurations of the human anatomy we prefer to use another term—we suggest “partial-ism.” Thus some men may have a fetish for panties, hair, shoes, or other inanimate things which are intimately associated with the body but which may be removed from it, and other men may have a fixation on such things as redheads, huge breasts, thinness, or fatness. As with fetishism, partialism may become a sine qua non (as with a man who is impotent with any female who is not red-headed), but it by definition cannot go further. True, there are rare cases of males who find sexual arousal from amputated portions of the female anatomy, but this should be dealt with as necrophilia and not be allowed to muddy our distinction between fetishism and partialism.
Whereas partialism is limited to the possible variations of the human body, virtually anything can be involved in fetishism. However, the great majority of fetishes are three-dimensional things (as opposed to sounds and smells) and, moreover, are things closely associated with the body: clothing, shoes, or hair.
There is a bit of the clothing fetishist in most males; the use of clothing to enhance feminine sex appeal is so universal in our culture that the clothing itself has taken on a symbolic significance which is effective in causing sexual arousal. The package, one might say, has imparted value to its wrappings; and vice versa, the partially dressed female is more sexually stimulating to most males than the completely nude. This almost axiomatic knowledge is, of course, fully utilized by many individual females and fully exploited by many businesses, particularly those involved in entertainment and in sales promotion.
The erotic effectiveness of female clothing that no one is wearing is in the ordinary male a three-stage associational sequence: sight thoughts of a female arousal. For example, the panties must clothe an imaginary female before arousal can ensue. This intermediate or connecting stage between stimulus and response may be of very brief duration but it is the dividing line between ordinary response and well-developed fetishism.
As one would expect, the clothing most often found to be fetish are garments that are in contact with what are considered in our culture the two major sexual areas: the genitalia and the breasts. Thus, clothing fetishism is dominated by lingerie—chiefly panties and brassieres. The clothing fetish items utilized in the entertainment world and “cheesecake” photos—black mesh stockings and opera length gloves, for instance—may be effective for that purpose, but these are too rare to be collected; one does not find them on clotheslines or on one’s female friends. The same is true of various items of garb connected with bondage and sadomasochism. In brief, while there is a highly specialized realm of fetish costume5 that appeals to many more people than is generally realized, for each instance of this there must be many simple lingerie fanciers. Note the collegiate “panty raids.”
We have in our sample ten white males who were convicted for the fetish theft of female clothing (nine cases) and high-heeled shoes. The clothing stolen was in every case lingerie. Stealing from clotheslines was common, but seven of the men had also entered buildings to accomplish their thefts. In this connection it should be noted that clothing fetishists usually prefer garments that have been worn by females. The fetishist cannot ordinarily satisfy himself by purchasing female apparel—it lacks some necessary (essentially magical) erotic feminine quality that only physical contact can provide. The clothesline thieving indicates that no olfactory element need be involved. There exists one other interesting limitation on what is suitable fetish material: the clothing of a relative, spouse, or coital partner is usually not so desirable as the clothing of a less well-known or even strange female.6 This is precisely analogous to the situation that exists with the peepers and exhibitionists who usually do not peep at or exhibit to females they know. It is as though there were some self-imposed masochistic rule preventing the fetishist, peeper, and exhibitionist from using the most easily available and safest modes of behavior. On the other hand, one finds that the transvestite has no objection to wearing new clothes or the clothing of his wife or relatives. Transvestism and fetishism overlap yet are clearly differentiated in many respects.
Our fetish theft cases display certain peculiarities of background. Only one came from a broken home; adjustment to the father was poor but to the mother excellent. Of the nine cases usable in this category (one male had lived only in an orphanage), seven had good relationships with their mothers but only one had a good relationship with his father. Their heterosexual lives were poor in half of die eases—a situation forecast by the number of female companions they recalled having at ages ten to eleven and sixteen to seventeen. At the earlier ages, six of the ten had no female friends and an additional two had only a few. By ages sixteen to seventeen the social picture had improved but little: three had no female companions and five had few. By the time we interviewed these men only four of the ten had ever married, but this is not surprising in view of the age distribution—six were twenty-one to twenty-six inclusive, one was sixteen, two were in their thirties, and one was in his fifties.
Seven of the ten had had homosexual physical contact in postpubescent life, a high figure, and three had rather developed homosexual histories. This emphasis on the homosexual is probably an outgrowth of their heterosexual difficulties and, in some, a confusion about their sex role.
The fetish theft cases also reveal above-average masturbatory frequencies: half had at one time or another definitely high frequencies and none had low frequencies. One male denied any self-masturbation. High masturbation frequencies fit in with the picture of heterosexual deprivation, fetishism, and peeping. Eight of the ten are known to have used female clothing (in one case shoes) for masturbating, and the remaining two may well have done so.
Half of the males had done some peeping, and four of these had fairly extensive peeping histories. Two had also exhibited their genitalia to women other than their sexual partners.
The most interesting finding, in some respects, is that five of the ten may merit the label transvestite, and an additional two revealed transvestite tendencies. None was a well-developed case—they did not appear in public in female garb. Instead they donned female clothing, usually only underclothing, in private. Until we have made a study of transvestism, which we anticipate doing within the next few years, it is difficult to say whether these five fetish theft cases should be regarded as true transvestites. It appears as though sexual arousal was the aim of wearing this fetish, and that these males were not seeking the social role of a female. In brief, the clothes were symbols of sexuality rather than of femininity. This is clear from the preoccupation with lingerie.
Three of the men had had postpubertal sexual contact with animals. In all three the zoophilia seems not merely an inconsequential rural experiment, but rather a part of a highly bizarre and polymorphous sexual life. All three had moderately developed homosexual histories, some transvestism, and unusual behaviorisms.
As a group, the fetish theft individuals were not particularly given to other crime. Only one had been convicted of a physical-contact sex offense, in this instance homosexual contact. In the realm of nonsexual crime there was some incidental burglary that seems to have been the result of opportunism while looking for female clothing.
In terms of mentality this group makes a poor showing. Six of the ten were retarded enough to attract the comment of either the interviewers or the authorities. Of the remaining four, one occasionally behaved in a psychotic fashion and another received an ominous-sounding psychiatric “write-up” (poor reality contact, possibility of overt psychosis, pronounced psychopathic attitudes, etc.) by a psychiatrist who would have written even more vividly had he known the man was involved in scatologic fetishism and coprophagy.
Since human behavior stems from a great complexity of causes, many forgotten or never recognized, it is remarkable that in eight of the ten cases one can dimly discern the origin of the fetish—perhaps not the ultimate origin, but enough for one to trace most of the etiology.
Case 1. At the age of puberty when sex first entered this male’s life he was a “mother’s boy” who did not get along with his father and who had no female playmates. He first noticed sexual arousal from feeling and smelling his mother’s lingerie. This later developed into fetish theft and transvestism.
Case 2. No data.
Case 3. At eighteen this male began to steal the underclothes of males and females with whom he had had sexual contact. These served as mementoes and as masturbatory stimuli. Later he began stealing clothing of strangers purely for fetish reasons.
Case 4. This male at age thirteen peeped at his sister undressing, whereupon sexual arousal and clothing became associated in his mind. He began to take her clothes to wear secretly at night. Later from fifteen to eighteen he stole the clothes of others, continuing this up to age twenty-five, at which time he was imprisoned for the fourth time for fetish theft.
Case 5. While sexually aroused by peeping at age fourteen he happened to see hanging nearby on a clothesline panties which he took and used for masturbating. This satisfactory experience was repeated, and panties became fetish items for him.
Case 6. Here the origins are vague. The male recalls that at age six he was greatly impressed by a motion picture in which a male and female were tied back-to-back. The female was able to escape by getting her feet out of her high-heeled shoes (the phrase “wiggle shoes off” was recorded, but we cannot be sure this verb was the subject’s). In the following days he often re-enacted this scene with a baby sitter: here we have physical contact with a female, some exertion, and shoes involved. Then around puberty he saw a partially undressed adult female neighbor whose high-heeled shoes he then stole and used for masturbation. A full-fledged shoe fetish developed.
Case 7. The older sisters of this male were given preferential treatment. At age six he dressed in their clothes in some vague hope of gaining more parental love by this symbolic change of sex. This sort of transvestism, later confined to secretly wearing lingerie under male garb, led to fetish theft and continued transvestism in adult life.
Case 8. There are no data here other than that fetish theft began before puberty.
Case 9. The underlying elements are unknown in this case, but the first overt behavior is clearly reported. At age seventeen (during a lengthy hiatus in his coital activity) he accidentally witnessed two girls next door undressing. A few days later he went into their house and stole their undergarments and hid them. This developed into a pattern of regular fetish theft.
Case 10. In this sixteen-year-old with an IQ of 74 the matter seems one of vague association between emerging heterosexual urges and lingerie. After examining the lingerie advertisements in catalogues he stole and wore similar garments.
In this rather confused picture of the fetish theft cases one can see certain salient features:
Underdeveloped heterosexual life. This was presaged by the lack of female playmates and perhaps by the tendency to be a “mother’s boy.” Mild mental retardation was a handicap to sociosexual adjustment in six cases.
Displacement and compensatory behavior. In some cases, at least, the high masturbation frequencies, the homosexuality, peeping, and the fetishism seem a consequence of the unsatisfactory heterosexual life. Of the three males who were married at the time of the fetish theft, two had markedly reduced rates of marital coitus.
The early linkage between the fetish object and sexual arousal. In the majority of cases the subjects reported fetish origins either before or reasonably near puberty (not more than three or four years removed).
Lastly, one cannot escape the feeling that for these men the die was cast early in life, that the underdevelopment of heterosexuality, the polymorphic sexual behavior, and all the rest are consequent symptoms, not causes. The seeds of fetishism and transvestism took root in already prepared soil, and the symbol began to achieve its importance too readily. Many boys see their mothers’ lingerie, many glimpse their sisters or other female relatives undressing, others have peeped—yet they do not develop fetishism. There must be the coincidence of early awareness of sexual arousal in connection with the fetish item so that the two are associated; following this there must be some imperfection in the development of sociosexual life which encourages the fetishism to grow in a compensatory way. There are probably many males who experienced the above-mentioned coincidence, but whose incipient fetishism remained underdeveloped because of their subsequent adequate sex lives. Similarly, there are many males who have had unsatisfactory sociosexual lives who did not develop fetishism, since the necessary association phenomenon was weak or absent. This does not preclude the de novo development of fetishism in an adult (such cases have been noted in other studies), but some extreme and usually traumatic experience seems necessary in such adult cases.