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Origins of the Fetish

( Originally Published 1957 )

More than any other sexual deviations, the fetishisms appear to be traceable to "accidents" of the past. They seem to point backward, for their meaning, toward various kinds of episodes in which the sexual impulse somehow became bound up with the circumstances or secondary details of an exciting erotic experience.

At an early age, so the fairly typical account runs, a youth is sexually aroused, perhaps for the first time, by a partner who wears, let us say, shoes of a distinctive and noticeable kind, perhaps with high heels and a lustrous finish. Thereupon, be-cause of the vivid setting of this impression, shoes of this kind become a potent sexual stimulus (by "association"); they be-come a "requirement" of sexual interest. Only when his partner wears them does he become fully excited. Without them he may be but weakly arousable, or even impotent. His "taste," in sexual preference, is now fixed by this event of the past. It is as if he were forced to relive it, in a sense, with each otherwise new sex experience.

This account is widely found in discussions of fetishism. A psychiatric authority states: "The choice of the fetish depends upon the impression which is accidentally associated with the first genital excitement. While in the average individual this accidental association leaves no trace, in the fetishist the impression and the excitation form an indissoluble combination, so that the first invariably brings about the second." Others believe that the peculiarity "is always found to be a result of early experiences and sometimes may be seen to be largely of the nature of a conditioned reflex." Kretschmer, with reference to the fetish value of velvet, states, ". . . we can occasionally prove that the erotic attraction of velvet remained permanently fixed owing to the fact that the first powerful stirring of the awakening sexual impulse was aroused through the chance sitting on a velvet cushion." He cites the case of a boy of five, who was once sexually excited when clothed in his sister's nightdress. The experience had a "directive influence" upon the adult sexual impulse, the wearing of women's clothing continuing to arouse strong excitement.

Many such examples have been given. It is not to be denied that fetishisms seem very well suited to interpretations of this kind, and in view of the probably vivid impressions of a first sex experience. The explanation has been or may be questioned, however, on several grounds. While the linkage of the sexual impulse to an incidental detail may tell us why the fetishist responds as he does, the failure of normal sexual stimuli to interest him is left unaccounted for. The weakness or absence of this interest is often stressed in the case records. This may even go so far as repulsion, and Freud has stated that aversion to the female genitalia "is never lacking in any fetishist."The question then remains how the sexual impulse was first aroused at the time of the experience in which it is supposed to have become attached to the fetish object.

Again, the capacity for "conditioning" being common to both sexes, a further question is raised by the reported low frequency of fetishism among women. While the findings do not fully agree on this, Fenichel thinks that "female fetishists are very rare, at least much rarer than male ones," and Ellis commented on the "great rarity of fully developed fetishism in woman."

It has often been further objected that abnormal fetishisms should be much more common than they appear to be, if they are truly a product of the kind of incidents suggested. It would seem that a great many persons must have had experiences that provided a setting for the formation of fetishisms without thereby suffering a lasting deviation of sexual interest.

Moll has pointed out that the early experiences assumed to create fetishisms are, in most cases, a "pure supposition." (59) Even when we can be sure that sexual excitement at one time occurred in the presence of the fetish-to-be, it is still a question, in his opinion, whether the connection between them might not be the reverse of the one proposed. That is, whether an abnormal sexual disposition may not at outset be a factor in so peculiar a response to experience. He thinks that chance incidents would not suffice, moreover, to account for the persistence of fetishisms throughout the whole of life.

In many cases it is fairly easy to imagine a situation in which an object might become a fetish by "association" with the stimuli that normally arouse the sexual impulse. There are, on the other hand, occasional features of the abnormal forms of this deviation that offer difficulties. For example, its uncontrollably compulsive character; the fact that, in some cases the fetish is, in itself, devoid of all sexual meaning, and, again, the fact that certain fetishisms, such as those centering upon the feet and shoes, occur with relatively high frequency. The writer has elsewhere dealt with this problem.

Freud offered a widely different account of fetishism. At the root of it, in his view, is a fear of castration: "Probably no male human being is spared the shock of threatened castration at the sight of the female genitals." The fetish itself stands for the penis, and takes the latter's place, as it were, as a defense against the horror of castration. Fetishism is thus a way of denying the condition of castration. It is a means of over-coming castration anxiety. It is an attempt to deny the lack of a penis in woman. Fenichel sums up the "unconscious reasoning" as follows: " `The thought that there are human beings without a penis, and that I might myself be one of them, makes it impossible for me to grant myself sexual excitement. But now I see here a symbol of a penis in woman; that helps me shut out my fear, and thus I can permit myself to be sexually excited.' "

It is obvious that many fetish objects lack any resemblance to a penis. Freud concedes that it is not always possible to explain the origin of the fetish, and thinks that it may be "constitutionally determined." Havelock Ellis studied the deviations and concluded that some of them resulted from a "neuropathic sensitiveness" to certain impressions. Bleuler thought that they developed only on a psychopathic basis and were probably related to weak sexuality. (Hirschfeld, also, felt that a constitutional factor played a part, and Binet found in heredity the soil from which these strange preferences came, although it did not, he believed, determine the actual direction of fetish interest.

No one has seriously proposed that the specific character of a fetish may be traced to sexual "constitution," although Ellis, struck by the wide extent of foot fetishism, suggests that it "represents the rare development of an inborn germ." One way of thinking of the constitutional factor centers on what Freud calls the "adhesiveness" of sexual interest. This is its tendency to become tightly bound to the impressions received in early life. These early impressions are assumed to have greater strength than later ones. The fetishist, like the neurotic, is thus regarded as in a sense "enslaved" by the effects of long-past events of his erotic career. The basis of this persistence, Freud concedes, is "completely unknown to us."

Little can be said about the way in which genital-sexual and amorous fetishism are related. There is some evidence that the two responses may have the same object, as illustrated in the cases reviewed above. Any parts of the body except the genitals, it appears, may be a stimulus to normal amorous, or sex-aesthetic attraction. Many of the abnormal fetishisms are sensual reactions to details of these areas.

As to the origins of normal sexual preferences ("normal fetishisms" ), no reason appears why we cannot suppose that most people, and perhaps all, have a degree of specialized responsiveness to certain aesthetic patterns, just as people artistically gifted are regarded as having such responsiveness to forms, colors, and musical sounds. Responses to sex-aesthetic patterns may exhibit individuality, as do those of the artist, e.g., Turner's to landscapes, or, of a different variety, Audubon's to birds. That all human beings are, apart from experience, identical in every form of sex-aesthetic sensibility seems as unlikely as that they are identical in any other respect.

The views of Schopenhauer, Binet, and Guyon, and of Reik, Revesz, and Szondi (71) show the extreme variety of modern interpretations of sexual choice. The very popular account of choice in terms of mother and father "images" (the "family romance") appears not only to lack evidence to support it, but seems best fitted, as we have suggested, to a kind of love that is not the amorous emotion with which this book is concerned.

The studies that have shown the "mating of similars" have helped us to picture the setting in which choice occurs, but it is clear that much more than this is needed.

In his recognition of "two kinds of sex" and in his emphasis on the aesthetic origin of the amorous emotion, Binet's findings are in harmony with the conclusions of many others, and with the observation that "the love-thoughts of men have always been a perpetual meditation on beauty." Sexual love is, before all else, as so many have pronounced it, an emotion bound up with a choice. In suggesting a linkage between the outstanding feature of normal amorousness and the most extreme forms of eccentric sexual interest, his study points toward what may be a major unity of sex psychology as well as a possible key to the choice problem.

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