Now that the taboo on sexuality is loosening its grip, a whole new world of kinky playtime is opening up to the mainstream.
Kinks and fetishes – terms that until fairly recently held connotations of depravity and mental illness, have become exciting options for exploration in the bedroom.
Embracing a range of sexual experiences is generally a fantastic trend that can help so many release their deep-rooted shame of being ‘abnormal’, and even prevent that shame from taking root in the first place. We’ve even become so relaxed about sexual deviations from straight, vanilla sex that we casually talk about our fetishes with friends and are even eager to share our preferences openly on dating apps for all to see.
This added transparency isn’t a bad thing in and of itself, but it is showing us some disturbing things that are worth exploring. It is showing us how our internalized views of the world (including misogyny, racism, and just about any ism you can think of) manifest in our sexual preferences.
What is a fetish?
A fetish is a form of sexual desire in which gratification is strongly linked to a particular object or activity or a part of the body other than the sexual organs. For those whose fetish has reached a distressing or dysfunctional level, it becomes a disorder/paraphilia.
For most people who casually discuss their fetishes openly, it probably hasn’t reached that level and may never. Most people use the word fetish to describe a non-human object or non-sex organ body part that they find really sexy. We all get turned on by things that aren’t just genitals or the specific person you want to hook up with. We are sensual beings and generally very horny. We get turned on by a lot of things and that’s pretty typical human behavior.
By and large, these non-clinical “fetishes” aren’t hurting anyone simply by existing or being indulged in. Most of the time, it’s just a fun additional quirk to your sex life that may stay constant or fade away over time. Satin gloves, leather straps, and an appreciation for the beauty of feet can all be indulged in a way that doesn’t hurt anyone.
Fetish vs Fetishization
While it may be possible to indulge in certain fetishes without causing harm, fetishization, by contrast, is inherently harmful. With a fetish, one is attaching sexual gratification to an object, but with fetishization, one is objectifying an aspect of their partner and attaching sexual gratification to that trait. It is inherently dehumanizing.
With fetishization, rather than opening up to your partner about a weird little obsession you have for some object and sharing that weirdness with the person you genuinely care for your partner’s identity is the weird little obsession that gets you off and you don’t really care too much about them as a person.
Sharing that you’re “really into Latinas” isn’t you opening up and being vulnerable with your partner, it’s you revealing that this isn’t a partnership at all.
This isn’t to say that fetishes are always totally harmless. Depending on how you indulge in or repress your fetishes, they can also be very dehumanizing and damaging to others. Sexuality is tricky and it’s not as easy as creating binary rules to determine whether or not you’re doing the “right” thing.
But I’m going to try to tease out the complexity so you can have a helping hand in determining whether or not you might be harming others and what to do about it.
Celebrating vs Fetishizing
Now, there is a big difference between celebrating aspects of one’s identity and fetishizing those aspects.
Celebrating someone’s queerness or blackness or age or whatever is great! Often times we are oppressed by these categories and flipping the script can feel very empowering. These celebrations can be rooted in feeling united with a group and sharing certain characteristics, or they can be rooted in defying the limiting expectations of these categories. Celebrating identity is about seeing the person and recognizing how they came to be so amazing.
Fetishizing an identity isn’t about who we are, but about what we represent.
Rather than getting to know someone and how they specifically relate to their identity, we skip that step and place them on a pedestal for reasons that may not have anything to do with that person. Like assuming that all blonde women are innocent and feminine, perhaps even virginal. Sometimes this can lead to strong feelings of betrayal if we discover the object of our affection isn’t living up to our preconceived ideas.
Fetishizing a group of people can seem positive because you ADORE them. You’re OBSESSED with how wonderful they are. How could that be a bad thing?
The bad thing is that you’re reducing someone to a generic idea of a category they belong to while refusing to see the unique differences of that person in particular. You’re also placing them on a pedestal that prevents true intimacy from emerging. And then dumping a huge weight of expectations for them to live up to.
Pedestals can be fun, absolutely, but if you’re kept there against your will, they become very lonely. How can one feel loved and accepted, when they’re never seen for who they truly are?
It’s just a preference
Many of us find ourselves especially attracted to specific categories of people. It’s really not that uncommon. But rather than think deeply about why that may be, we often just say it’s our preference and leave it at that.
With the systemic and deliberate hyper-sexualization of black men, for example, we begin to associate the category ‘black men’ with well-developed muscles, extreme height, and big dicks. We’ve developed a false idea of what it means to be a black man based on strategic choices in the representation of black men in the mainstream media (and porn).
This stereotype serves to uphold the idea that black men are built for hard (slave) labor and have voracious sexual appetites which leads to a heightened willingness to see them as sexual predators. In short, fetishizing black men directly contributes to their ongoing oppression. And the same goes for any other ethnicity-based fetishes.
Porn categories train our minds to dehumanize partners
If you check out the major porn streaming sites, you’re likely to be given a list of categories with which you are meant to navigate the videos. Common categories are Mature, Teen, MILF, Ebony, Lesbian, BBW, and Transgender. Now, there are many reasons why it might be useful to be able to find videos using these demographics. For one, you may want to find performers that share a resemblance with yourself, or whoever it is that you like.
More often than not, videos in these categories are playing up harmful stereotypes. Sure, we know it’s not reality, but what we watch does affect us and even the most critical thinkers will find themselves reinforcing associations over time on an unconscious level.
Fetishes are typically formed through the experiential pairing of the object of desire with sexual gratification. When we pair sexual gratification with identity characteristics, especially when these characteristics are portrayed in simplistic, stereotyped ways, we set the stage for fetishization.
Harms of Fetishization
Treating a sex partner as anything other than a complex, lovable human being worthy of dignity and respect causes harm.
When you start to fetishize an entire group of people, you stop seeing them as unique, complex, lovable human beings. They become a category to you. With their category comes a whole list of attributes that may or may not be accurate, but that you’ve assumed to be true, like subservience in Asian women or spirituality in Indian men.
When you’re seeing people in terms of categories rather than as complex beings, it’s a hell of a lot easier to disrespect and even abuse them. Given the underlying assumptions of some of these fetishized categories, we may believe that our harmful actions are welcomed or even enjoyed. These assumptions can even undermine equality with real-life consequences beyond the bedroom like in the aforementioned example with black men.
Ultimately, there are countless harms that can be done when you make assumptions about a person based on broad categories, especially when you then act on those assumptions.
Challenging your brain & moving forward
We used to think that brains stayed pretty much the same once they finished developing in their 20s. Over the years, it has become clear that brains are a lot more malleable than we thought and with some effort and patience, one can overcome unhelpful patterns of thinking. But how?
Well, often we fetishize groups of people when we are exposed to a unified representation of that group, especially when that representation is simplified. The best way to challenge this rigid thinking is to seek out a wide variety of complex examples that challenge these “types”. Do you personally know many people in your category of choice? How well do you know them? Do you read books, watch movies or listen to podcasts from varying perspectives within this category?
Diversity of representation has really improved over the years. If you find yourself thinking “x people are so y”, ask yourself why you think that. Challenge yourself to find examples of real people who defy that belief. Don’t beat yourself up too much either. Oftentimes, these stereotypes are very carefully constructed and delivered to us in subtle ways that shape our thinking slowly over time.
If you have a strong preference for a particular category of people, ask yourself why that might be. Are you looking for a particular power dynamic? What do you associate with that category? Opening yourself up to the possibility of finding those desirable qualities in unexpected packages might be the first step.
Yes, fetishization is dehumanizing and alarming, but it’s not that uncommon. There are reasons why we do it and it’s not necessarily entirely our fault.
Our brains take mental shortcuts all the time and we need them in order to function in our highly stimulating world. If we stay curious about ourselves & others, we can use our fetishes to discover more about our psyches, our biases, and the world around us.
Remember, what we resist persists. If you notice that you’ve developed a harmful fetish, don’t ignore it. Use it as a guide to better understand the conditioning you’ve been exposed to and to help deconstruct it.
We have a great capacity for change if we are motivated to evolve.