Fetishism is a mental disorder in which a person (almost always a male) becomes intensely aroused sexually by inanimate (nonliving) objects for at least a six-month period. Typical fetishes involve objects worn by women, such as underwear, stockings, shoes, and boots. In order to be classified with the mental disorder of fetishism, a man must have much difficulty functioning sexually without the object and/or must spend a great deal of time and effort trying to experience the fetish either directly or through fantasy. He typically masturbates while touching the object or may insist that his partner wear the object while having sex. A case described by Spitzer, et al. (1994) illustrates these characteristics:
A 32-year-old, single, male, free-lance photographer presented with the chief complaint of “abnormal sex drive.” The patient related that although he was somewhat sexually attracted by women, he was far more attracted by “their panties.” … His first ejaculation occurred at 13 via masturbation to fantasies of women wearing panties. He masturbated into his older sister’s panties, which he had stolen without her knowledge. … The pattern of masturbating into women’s underwear [which he usually stole out of the bedrooms of friends or others] had been his preferred method of achieving sexual excitement and orgasm from adolescence until the present. (p. 247)
This attractive and very successful man did not like to date “nice women” because he feared that they would not understand his deviant desires. He preferred sex with prostitutes, whom he paid to wear underwear. On those rare occasions when he engaged in sexual activity with a woman not wearing panties, he had difficulty becoming or staying sexually aroused.
What caused this man to give up the possibility of having romantic relationships with women? Why did he have this unusual sexual desire? Sigmund Freud stated that fetishism and other sexual disorders are caused by negative events experienced during early childhood. It certainly seems plausible that these disorders are caused, in part, by negative childhood experiences. Perhaps during their childhoods, men who later develop fetishism learned to become intensely sexually aroused by objects that typically are not the focus of sexual activity. For example, men with fetishism often become very excited sexually by female clothing: it seems possible that they learned to respond this way after becoming sexually aroused by a woman dressed in revealing clothes. The case study above supports this hypothesis: the man recalled becoming sexually aroused at about the age of seven when he saw partially nude women wearing underwear in a pornographic magazine. Thus, it may be that men who develop fetishism first experienced the fetish when sexually aroused by an attractive woman and then, later, became sexually aroused by the fetish alone because it reminded them of the experience. This sexual response to the fetish could have become stronger if they fantasized about the woman while touching or rubbing the fetish while masturbating. In this way, the fetish itself may eventually have become the primary focus of their sexual interest.
At first glance, this learning theory of fetishism seems plausible. In fact, a milder version of it probably explains the success of the lingerie and cologne industries: humans easily learn to become sexually aroused by visual and olfactory stimuli that have been paired with sexually attractive people. But then we might ask, if it is so easy for humans to learn to become sexually aroused by such stimuli, why do so few women develop fetishism? Women also experience sexually attractive people wearing particular items of clothing or particular scents, and there is no reason to think that they would not learn to become as sexually aroused by these sensations as men seem to be. So why do women rarely develop fetishism?
Furthermore, why do males of closely related primate species sometimes express fetishistic behaviors? According to Epstein (1987), for example:
The endowing of an object with … [erotic associations] has been noted in a zoo-dwelling chimpanzee … who displayed sexual arousal toward one specific object, a rubber boot…. The chimpanzee quickly approached, gazed at the boot and handled it. [His] penis became erect and [he] touched [it] to the boot. Shortly thereafter, manual self-stimulation and ejaculation occurred. The ejaculate was then consumed. This response was said to be invariable and occurred whether the boot was worn by a keeper or simply placed in the cage. (pp. 143-144)
Almost all these behaviors (except perhaps for the consumption of ejaculate) are similar to those a human male with a boot fetish typically would exhibit. In fact, Epstein noted that, just “as did the chimpanzee, the human takes the object in his hands or even rubs it with his penis” (p. 146). Can we explain the chimpanzee’s “fetishism” in terms of learning theory? Has this chimpanzee observed attractive female chimpanzees wearing boots? Of course not. But perhaps earlier in life, the chimpanzee became sexually aroused by human boot-wearing female keepers and, because of these experiences, learned to become sexually aroused by their boots alone.
But why would males of two closely related primate species (humans and chimpanzees) learn similar deviant sexual behaviors? Is there something about the evolutionary history of higher primates that causes males of this order to easily learn to associate inanimate objects with sexually desirable females? The fact that the same fetish can be learned in a closely related primate species suggests that there exists an ancestral species common to both humans and chimps that exhibited a similar type of learning. We know that the evolutionary lineages of modern chimpanzees and humans diverged 5-6 million years ago (Oldham, Horvath, & Geschwind, 2006; see “Unraveling Where Chimp And Human Brains Diverge”) — an extremely short period of time in evolutionary terms. Furthermore, a recent study (see Orwant, 2005, for a summary) mapped the 3 billion bits of genetic information that make up the chimpanzee’s genome and found that chimpanzees and humans share almost 99% of their genetic information.
There may be something in the common ancestry of chimpanzees and humans that explains the similarity between the two species in fetishistic behavior. The male chimpanzee’s fetishism described in the quoted passage above supports an evolutionary theory of fetishism. The theory is this:
During the evolution of higher primates, males evolved a tendency to become easily and intensely sexually aroused by females. When aroused, primate males readily learn to associate females with any environmental cues (such as smells) that reliably signal their presence. In the future, these environmental cues quickly arouse the males, which motivates them to seek mating opportunities. In the case of fetishism, something in this process goes wrong, causing primate males to focus on the associated environmental cues almost to the exclusion of the females.
Just in case you’re thinking that the chimpanzee example can be ignored because of its uniqueness, let’s look at the case of a male guinea baboon in the same zoo: “Upon seeing a boot, the baboon approaches, chatters his teeth, touches and smells it” and then develops an erection (p. 144). You now may be wondering what was going on at this zoo to produce two cases of boot fetishism in two different species. Whatever the explanation, it may involve learning; and what is learned from an individual’s experiences depends upon biological factors that are products of the species’ evolution history (see Section X). The scientific study of learning in humans and other animals began within a field called experimental psychology, which is the subject of the next section.
Study Questions for Section 4-3
- What is fetishism?
- What are typical fetishes for human males?
- According to Sigmund Freud, what causes fetishistic behaviors to develop?
- What is the learning theory of fetishism that is described in this section?
- Based on what you have read and learned so far in this course, why do you think that men develop fetishism much more easily than do women?
- Why might males from species closely related to humans develop fetishism?