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The Psychology of Sexual Choice

( Originally Published 1957 )

Sexual Attraction as a Fetish

THE MOST INTERESTING feature of human sex behavior is, perhaps, the phenomenon of sudden, strong, and seemingly unaccountable attractions to particular persons. A view, differing widely from the foregoing, both of the sexual emotion and of what makes the love-choice, may now be presented. It was first proposed by the French psychologist, Alfred Binet. (2) It offers, at outset, familiar features in regarding the amorous reaction as a sexual experience, and the kinds of attraction that induce it as aesthetic. As against those who have seen it as a mark of instability or of nervous illness, Binet regards it as a normal emotion, but finds the key to its meaning in a certain type of sexual abnormality. Love is linked, he believes, with the peculiar attractions known as "fetishisms."

This term refers to forms of sexual behavior in which, most commonly, the chief and perhaps exclusive object of interest is a part of the body, or a characteristic of behavior, or an article of clothing, of persons of the opposite sex. This interest is expressed in extraordinary fascination with the body part, or with the piece of clothing, and in the impulse to possess, to fondle, and to caress it, frequently accompanied by some degree of genital excitement. The object, or "fetish," may be the sole stimulus to sexual arousal, its bearer being without interest. Thus, "... for me, the girl does not exist; what attracts me is her beautiful hair." Many fetishisms center upon traits that are familiar enough in the sphere of normal sexual preferences. Just as, ordinarily, the eyes, hands, hair, or feet may be points of attraction, ". . . so, in the pathological domain, the same portions of the body become the sole objects of sexual interest." The abnormality lies as much in the failure of the usual stimuli to arouse response as in the extraordinary power of some single detail. The disorder is one of defect as well as of excess.

Binet was mainly concerned with borderland cases of this peculiar kind of sexual attraction, lying somewhere between the normal and the abnormal. Although the extreme cases may impress the layman as "monstrosities," the germs of these peculiarities are everywhere, he tells us. We need only to observe in order to see them, and we will be surprised to learn how common they are. Everyone, he thinks, is to some degree a fetishist in sexual interest. We all have our special susceptibilities. In the familiar and quite normal preference for certain colorings of eyes and hair, for certain statures and figures, we see the beginnings. There is a minor as well as a major fetishism. It is when highly exaggerated sexual importance is attached to a "secondary and insignificant detail" that we approach the major form. When, he suggests, an attraction forces someone to sacrifice all considerations of age, of fortune, of physical and moral suitability because of fascination by some trait which most people would ordinarily regard as of small importance, the degree of sexual deviation would be considered rather serious. The minor fetishisms are not always conspicuous; they do not lead to such extravagances as the cutting off, in a crowded street, of a lock of hair, or the theft of feminine underclothing from a hotel room, but we may find in them the key to many otherwise strange and puzzling infatuations, and of marriages that astonish everyone, as when a man of distinction and intelligence unites with a woman without youth, beauty, spirit, or any other of the commonly desired qualities.

Binet gives two examples of the linkage between minor and major fetishisms: "M.R.," a male, prefers, above everything else in the opposite sex, a beautiful hand. The effect of a prolonged contemplation of such a hand is sexual beyond question, since it may arouse an erection. The hands of men, of children, and of aged persons do not affect him, and hands that are wrinkled and shriveled, or that lack the color of health, are distasteful to him. If a woman is wearing gloves, it is for him as if she were veiled. To "embrace" a beautiful hand is his greatest pleasure, and he never forgets the contours of such a hand, even after a brief view. He pretends to a knowledge of palm reading as an excuse for examining women's hands. In this he is always to some extent "deceived," since the hand, when scrutinized, is always inferior to the image he has formed of it. (We are all familiar, Binet remarks, with this superiority of imagination over reality; never does a woman appear as beautiful to us as in our reveries.)

A notable feature of this case is that the fetish, while the main source of attraction, is not the only sexual interest. "M.R." is sensitive, as well, to beauty of face and to grace of figure, and is greatly pained by the disharmony of an ugly woman with an attractive hand. The sight of a photographed or painted hand, or of a plaster model does not affect him; ". . . it is woman he loves, and woman alone."

It is of further interest that "M.R." clearly recalls that well before puberty he was interested in the hands of his friends. This interest was not sexual at first, but became so gradually as he matured. The feminine hand then became much more stimulating than the masculine. It is also notable that this peculiar attraction vanishes following exhaustive sexual intercourse, to reappear after a period of abstinence.

The behavior of another fetishist, "M.L.," is further advanced toward the major form. The fetish here consists of the costumes, "half native, half fanciful," worn at one time by Italians serving as models in nineteenth-century Paris. The sight of such a costume is sexually exciting. The peculiarity dates from an incident of his sixteenth year when he was greatly affected at the sight of some strikingly beautiful Italian girls in a setting in which the colorfulness of their garments was vividly accented. From this time on his interest was fixed. Arrived at full maturity, "Mi.," now a "grave magistrate," experiences an indescribable pleasure at sight of an Italian woman in costume, and cannot resist following her. Although she may lack youthfulness and charm, he is "all trembling with emotion." The fetish is the costume and not its wearer; we are told that any woman so dressed has this effect on him. On the other hand, the costume alone, e.g., hung upon a hook, does not excite him, evoking only a very moderate pleasure. It has never occurred to him to purchase such a costume in order to enjoy it at leisure. The fetish must be animated by the female figure.

This man's indifference to the person who wears the costume may be seen as a step toward those cases in which the fetish exerts its attraction quite independently of its bearer. This final independence is illustrated in the "lover" of white aprons, whose obsession is devoid of all feminine associations and coloring, who loves an apron "in and for itself," who cannot see one drying in the sun or displayed in a store without wanting it, and who has at his home a pile of stolen aprons.

Other students have observed the milder types of this deviation pointed out by Binet. Eugene Kahn states that ". . . between the little and the great fetishism there are all imaginable transitional stages." (53) A series of cases might be arranged in which the hair, for example, and at the beginning, was simply an outstanding feature of attraction. Next would come cases in which the hair was the primary attraction, the person himself (or herself) being a mere accessory. The series would end, finally, in cases in which the hair, as above illustrated, was the exclusive source of interest, the individual being altogether superfluous. Havelock Ellis, in particular, has expressed the idea of such a series. In most subdued form the fetish is only first in appeal among several facets of sexual charm. At a further point it is "the one arresting and attracting character" in an individual who must, nonetheless, have other assets. Then the latter demand vanishes, and even repellant qualities will be tolerated in the bearer of the fetish. Finally, the bearer himself vanishes and only an "abstract symbol" remains.

Following Binet, Krafft-Ebing believed that "The germ of sexual love is probably to be found in the individual charm (fetich) with which persons of opposite sex sway each other." Love attachments are to be regarded, not as the effect of mysterious affinities, but as rooted nearly always, he thinks, in distinctive characteristics; ". . . the nature of the fetich varies with the personality of the individual, thus arousing the oddest sympathies or antipathies." Fetishism is normal so long as some essential feature of the attractive person is involved, and so long as the emotion it arouses embraces the entire personality of this person.

Among those who have thoroughly studied the fetishisms, Magnus Hirschfeld considers ". . . the special attraction which certain shapes and qualities exert over the majority of human beings, as the essential principle which lies at the base of all individual choice in love." He finds the variety of such "shapes and qualities" to be very great. "In sex attraction, even minute individual factors may play a part; the manner of smiling, carriage, the shape of the head, gesture and gait. The most unexpected, the most fantastic elements may assume erotic significance. No flight of imagination could conjure up the in-finite diversity of the factors that contribute to, or determine, attraction in love." Preferences for coloring are exceedingly frequent, he finds; other preferences, more specialized, are found only in a minority of people, while still others occur "only in some few human beings."

The eyes are rich in fetish potential, since they vary not only in color and brightness, but in size, spacing, and angle, in contour of brow and in length of lash. The manner of walking, Hirschfeld observes, is a fetish "of the highest degree." The importance of voice quality has often been noted. Binet cites an incident, communicated to him by Dumas, and used by the latter in one of his novels, in which an acquaintance of his was seized with a "veritable ecstacy" at the sound of the voice of a person who at the moment was not visible. The fascination of this "talisman" led quickly to a lasting attachment. A. A. Brill offers an illustration in the same context:

I can mention the case of a man who fell in love with a woman solely on account of her voice. It was in the old days, when one did not have to pay a nickel to ask the telephone operator for the time, when one could talk ad libitum to the telephone girl. This man accidentally discovered the operator's charming voice, and he then continually called her just to hear her talk. In time he met her and finally married her. I know that it was mainly her voice which attracted him; he confessed to me that when he first met her he was disappointed in her looks. But the voice still enchanted him. I can also tell of a physician who married a singer only because of her wonderful contralto voice. He was erotically fascinated by the voice until she died of influenza after fourteen years of a happy married existence. This doctor called on me a few years ago to discuss with me his peculiar behavior. He told me that although his wife had been in her grave for years, she indirectly still afforded him a good outlet, through a number of phonograph records of her voice.

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