Fetishes. Turn-ons. Kinks and fantasies. Once only spoken about on Channel 4 documentaries or in the embarrassed whisper used to buy Canesten. But our sexual act-itude is changing. One in three of us has practiced an ‘unusual sexual interest’ such as fetishism or voyeurism, according to a 2016 study, while almost half expressed an interest in doing so. Dating chat among girlfriends is now daring to divulge more detail than how we split the bill: it’s not uncommon to know someone’s university, profession and secret fetish for peeing.
“Niche porn and the availability of diverse sexual partners due to dating/hook-up apps is allowing more people to gain confidence in exploring their fetishes – and in learning new ones,” confirms Dr Chris Donaghue, Doctor of Clinical Sexology and author of Sex Outside the Lines.
But what even is a fetish, and why do they tend to be so… niche? Feet, latex, trees? (For real: it’s called Dendrophilia and we dread to think about the splinters). Here’s the science behind the strangest brain/bits algorithm of all.
Do you have a kink or a fetish?
There is a difference, but both are healthy, reassures (the fabulously named) Dr Tiger Devore, a sex therapist specialising in fetish lifestyles. “Kink usually involves sexual practice with another person, while fetish is about the object or activity – not the other person,” he explains. And those feelings about the object run deep: “Fantasising while in contact with the object (shoe, lingerie, doll) can actually be enough to orgasm.”
Turn-ons develop early
The walls of your teenage bedroom may have screamed boy-band obsession, but it’s the more subtle sightings that can subconsciously trigger a fetish. “During the flood of hormones in puberty, momentary exposure to any number of visual or sensory stimuli – the flash of lace under a woman’s blouse, the sharp clack of a heel on the concrete – can get stuck in a person’s sexual turn-on ritual for the rest of their lives,” reveals Devore. One study, which focused on unravelling a 30-year-old man’s sexual fetish, traced its origins back to when he was just five or six. It’s thought that some fetishes develop in response to childhood trauma, when we start associating a specific object (a teddy, say) with comfort.
Men are more prone to fetishes
“Men are more turned on by what they see – women more by what they hear – so visual stimuli ‘gets stuck’ as sexualised much more easily in the male brain,” explains Devore. Just one reason* why he might be more into your feet than you are his (*besides the smell of his trainers). Devore seconds that, even in 2017, the foot fetish is still very much A Thing. “Shoes still have a high place of cost and status in our society, while feet have scent, sensitivity, thin soft skin, lots of different parts. There is a lot of sexual turn-on in those aspects.” Once the association between object and arousal is conditioned, it’s hard to break. Research in rats found that when rats were trained to mate while wearing a jacket, they found it harder to ejaculate without wearing one. And, yes, a rat jacket is a little coat for rats.
Fetishes are usually niche
When analysing online porn searches, “It’s the minority that search for ‘married partner sex missionary style with love’. Most want more colourful behaviours,” confirms Donaghue. “The most popular fetishes right now are cuckolding (a man watching his wife have sex with another man), group sex, sex with transgender individuals, and pee.” Wondering why toilet stuff is hot? One theory is that our disgust impulse weakens when we’re highly aroused, changing our perception of things. Shame the enthusiasm doesn’t apply when the loo needs cleaning, right?
The turn-on of the future is a ‘screen fetish’
“We are moving towards people having ‘screen fetishes’, where sexual communication on the screen is preferred over actual conversation or personal contact,” shares Devore. But he doesn’t think this electronic revolution will destroy sex as we know it – rather continue to broaden out our sexual boundaries. “I now have two generations of patients that had their first sexual experiences through internet hook-ups, and learned about sex exclusively through internet porn. Today, the boundaries of what is acceptable sexually are far wider than they were for people in the 80s.”