Being kinky is the new normal

BODY LANGUAGE

Say the word “fetish” and most people think of feet. And with good reason: the obsession, sexual or otherwise, with those appendages is one of the most common fetishes. Foot fetishists, however, are not called footists; they are podorists, a far less sexy title than that reserved for people turned on by pubic hair – furverts.

A fetish is an object or bodily part whose real or imagined presence is psychologically necessary for sexual gratification, but the word has other applications. It can mean having a strong or unusual need or desire for almost anything, which makes most of us fetishists in one way or another – whether that need is fulfilled by constantly customising your kombi or having to buy the latest effects pedal for your guitar (known among musicians as GAS – “gear acquisition syndrome”).

“Fetish” can also refer to a charm believed to embody magical powers. The roots of this meaning are derogatory and arose from early anthropologists’ studies of West Africans, in particular, demonising their supposedly arbitrary attachment to religious effigies – though, of course, Christians clung to their crucifixes, sacraments and Bibles.

Through all these interpretations runs the thread of magic: somehow, something – whether it is a stone Venus that elicits reverence or a latex suit that produces arousal – has been imbued with a special meaning.

There are thousands of sexual fetishes, but nowadays we are generally less ashamed about having them. And, thanks to the internet, you can find others with matching tastes far more easily than before.

Fetishes can morph over time or even disappear entirely if you manage to crack their code. Like fetishes, paraphilias – “atypical” sexual practices – are believed by some people to arise from the association of two disparate stimuli early in one’s psychological development; though they can also arise from traumatic experiences.

“Like allergies,” forensic Professor Anil Aggrawal says, “sexual arousal may occur from anything under the sun, including the sun.”

Aggrawal compiled a list of 547 paraphilia in his 2008 book Forensic and Medico-Legal Aspects of Sexual Crimes and Unusual Sexual Practices.

The names of some unusual sexual turn-ons are fairly well known, such as necrophilia (having sex with corpses); others, such as autassassinophilia (being turned on by life-threatening situations), are not.


Let’s try applying the list to local life. Some South Africans are used to being robbed; others are stimulated by it (chremastisophilia). If the only way you can get it up is to rape (biastophilia), you have a problem.

Mercifully, not all paraphilias are tasteless. I don’t think it’s at all strange to get off on poetry (metrophilia), and most of us don’t mind a wee bit of pictophilia (arousal from erotic art or pornography). Like many men (and women), I find buttocks erotic: why even call that pygophilia? And I love watching my partner sleep: does that mean I have somnophilia? If learning is exciting (sophophilia), then bring it on.

Neuroscientist Ogi Ogas argues that the terms “fetish” and “paraphilia” should not exist at all because they are derogatory and imply mental disorder. He suggests the more neutral term “sexual interests”.

Ogas and his team did extensive internet analysis, examining millions of tags, ratings and hits on porn and erotic sites, and came to the conclusion that “scholarly and popular catalogues of paraphilia bore little resemblance to reality; the online behavioural data simply did not match clinical accounts”.

“Psychiatry’s historical treatment of homosexuality [until 1987, ‘ego-dystonic homosexuality’ was considered a paraphilia] remains a chilling precedent,” writes Ogas. “The discomfort we all feel towards ‘reprogramming’ homosexual brains to become heterosexual should make us hesitant to designate any sexual interest as a paraphilia.”

The American writer Jillian Keenan says the latest edition of the psychiatrists’ reference bible, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, now in its fifth edition (DSM V), only diagnoses sexual masochism, sadism, transvestism and the like as paraphilic disorders if the person feels distress about their interest. “Simply put, the DSM V says that happy kinksters don’t have a mental disorder. But unhappy kinksters do.”

DSM V diagnoses have far-reaching consequences for sexual minorities because, besides the prejudices they help feed, they can influence employment decisions, child custody proceedings, security clearances and health insurance coverage. She concludes that the continued presence of paraphilias in the DSM V is “redundant, unscientific, unnecessary”.

Paraphilic classifications appear to have become unwanted paraphernalia. And if your fetish is tall, ageing blondes in polished horse-riding gear, and it doesn’t hurt you or them (we’re talking light whipping here), why bother giving it a name?

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Derek Davey
Derek Davey

Derek Davey is a sub-editor in the Mail & Guardian’s supplements department who occasionally puts pen to paper. He has irons in many metaphysical fires – music, mantras, mortality and mustaches.

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