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This episode is sponsored by the online mental health service  I love working with their therapists on my personal challenges and I love that they increase accessibility to professional care for you. 


What causes fetishes?  Why are some people really into rubber?  How does someone get off dressed like an adult baby?  I'm Dr. Lindsey Doe, clinical sexologist, doctor of human sexuality, and host of this sex curious show.  Let me sexplain.

Fetish is sexual attraction to an inanimate object or body part.  Think feet, clothing, rubber, leather, urine, feces.  I'm not talking about fondness for these things or a preference for them, but a requirement for the object of desire to be present in fantasy or reality in order to achieve sexual gratification.  Can't get it up or get it off without fill in the blank.  

Diversity is one explanation.  We all get turned on by different stimuli, simple.  In the words of prominent sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld, "The number of fetishes is unlimited.  From head to toe, there is not a single spot on the body and from hats to shoes, there is no fold in a garment that cannot trigger a fetishistic pleasure."  Maybe people are just creative.  

Another possible cause of fetishes is divergent thinking.  Divergent thinkers are curious.  They come up with a question like "why is my penis getting hard?" and then they start exploring possible solutions, unlike convergent thinkers who stick to facts.  In an article published by the British Society for Phenomenology, Frank Schalow proposes that fantasy must be coupled with "in carnality or embodiment".  So essentially, divergent thinkers in their far reaching imaginations develop fetishes as a reference point for reality, kind of like the totem in Inception.  Balloons, glasses, dolls.  You know where you hope this train will take you, but you can't know for sure, yet it doesn't matter.  

One of the most widely known hypotheses is that fetishes are caused by early childhood conditioning.  Operant conditioning, that the inanimate object or body part strengthens sexual arousal.  For example, plushophilia, arousal from stuffed animals.  If a person rubs their genitals on a toy and it feels good, all soft and squishy.  This can positively reinforce doing it again, again, and again.  Voila, a fetish for plushies may ensue.  Classical conditioning is when something typically non-sexual is paired with something arousing enough times that the non-arousing thing becomes a trigger for the arousal all on its own.  Take for example eproctophilia, a fetish for flatulence.  Pffft.  Let's say a person masturbates and gets aroused.  They fart and they don't get aroused.  Then they masturbate and they fart at the same time.  The arousal from the masturbating is paired with the farting until eventually, when they fart separate from masturbating, they ejaculate in their pants.  

Potentially conditioning of this kind can create such a powerful connection that the person can't come without farting.  Fart noises, fart smells, etc.  JG Pfaus and colleagues saw a version of this known as somatosensory conditioning in rats.  They put half of their male rats in jackets for them to have sex in and half went without jackets.  They repeated, jacket sex, no jacket sex.  Repeat, repeat, then they tested the rats' sexual performance.  Rats who had sex without jackets and were tested without them got on no problem, same with rats wearing jackets tested with jackets on, and even those who started without jackets but wore jackets during the testing.  However, the rats sex trained with jackets who didn't wear jackets during the test were noticeably less likely to seek out sex or ejaculate.

I wonder if fetishes aren't the result of behaviors that served the species we evolved from but are now less practical.  Vestigial explanation.  I was recently told that newborn puppies aren't very hard to clean up after because the mother stimulates them by licking their genitals and anus to expel urine and feces into her mouth.  How does this relate?  There's a fetish around urine called urolagnia, and one for feces called coprophilia.  Maybe fetishes like these are vestigial.  Maybe at one point in our evolution, poop and pee were closely related to genital and anal stimulation for hygiene or nutrition, but they aren't now.  

Maybe fetishes are caused by a genetic mutation that re-activates the part of the genome to express a biological drive to ingest urine.  There are actually many hypotheses that suggest fetishes have a biological origin.  Cortical homunculus or cortex man, is a map of how the brain manages the body.  The genitals are next to the feet, so if there's any overlap or crossover in these areas, you may develop a foot fetish.  

Then there's the older brother hypothesis.  Researchers studied 200 heterosexual men and found paraphilias, atypical attractions, including fetishes, were more likely in men who "had a significantly greater number of older brothers".  This is often attributed to the effect successive male offspring have on the mother's hormones.  John Money, a sexologist who studied sexual and gender identity, believed that fetishes are caused by "vandalized" regions of one's "Lovemap".  According to Money, each of us has a blueprint of our ideal erotic scenario.  If something distorts it, like abuse or arousal from a non-sexual childhood experience, it could lead to a fetish.

Compensation proposes that fetishes are formed when people can't access traditional outlets for sexual arousal because of self-doubt, shame, embarrassment, and/or fear, they miss out on socially acceptable sexual gratification and compensate by getting off with inanimate objects that won't intimidate or reject them.  

This reminds me of crush fetishism, or sexual arousal from crushing objects like insects, (?~5:16), cake, lizards.  If I didn't have a partner to play with, I can imagine it would be really satisfying to smash frosting around with a dildo.  No negotiating, no game playing, just unadulterated sticky sex.  Not animals, though.  Crush ice.  Make tea.  

One explanation for fetishes that I haven't found in the literature but hypothesize could cause them is ironic rebound or ironic process theory.  Generally, this refers to how the more we try to suppress the thought, the more likely it is to persist.  Don't think of a pink elephant or a white bear, and then all you can think of is the elephant or the bear.  If we're raised not to touch mommy's fancy dresses  or wear her high heel shoes, doesn't it become the one thing we can't resist doing the most?  

Transvestic fetishism, one of the most common fetishes there is, refers to sexual arousal from wearing the clothes traditionally associated with another gender for pleasure.  Maybe this is ironic rebound, maybe imitation.  Emulating someone or something that's familiar, attractive, or beneficial in some way.  

There are other suspected causes for people having fetishes.  Hirschfeld's theory of partial attractiveness, Freud's Oedipus complex, Winnicott's theory of transitional objects, that the things we associate with becoming an adult are what we sexually get aroused by.  Adult diaper lovers would point to comfort, making messes, and controlling humiliation.  Mm?  

There isn't conclusive data on any of these explanations.  I'd postulate a combination of some of them.  It could be that fetishes are as natural as appetite and that actual deviations from the norm is the obsession with limiting sexual desire and expression.  Stay curious.  

BetterHelp has licensed counselors and therapists who can help you unpack your sexuality, fetishes or otherwise.  I recommend that if you're struggling with something for more than 6 months, and it's causing you distress, affecting your job, relationships, or personal well-being, it is time to ask for help.  When you sign up at, you'll be matched with a counselor certified by their state's board to provide therapy and counseling by phone, video, calls, e-mails, or text messages to clients all over the world.  If you find that they're a great match, awesome.  If not, or you aren't sure, you can click 'change counselor' and this time, BetterHelp will show you multiple pros you can choose from.  There's financial aid if cost is a burden, but the most you'll be charged is $65 per week, and this includes group webinar sessions for bonus help on topics like relationships and overcoming anxiety.  BetterHelp is not a crisis line.  If you are in crisis, I've linked to more appropriate resources in the description.


(burp)  Got it.