Guest Blog: What do relationship anarchy and total power exchange have in common?

by Tiro

I can never stay in Facebook groups for “alternative relationship styles” like polyamory or relationship anarchy for more than a few weeks before I ragequit, and it’s usually for the same reason: I mention that I’m in a D/s relationship, and I get frustrated when people say it’s impossible for me to live as a slave and still “really” practice relationship anarchy (RA).

After all, the more cogent of these attacks goes, how can you be committed to power exchange in a relationship if you’re also committed to abolishing the structures of power? Doesn’t RA specifically speak against the kind of sexualization of power and obligation that is central to D/s?

RA doesn’t have to be about striving for nobody to have any power over anyone else. In fact, I’d argue that this goal is not only unobtainable in any kind of society, it also fails to take into account the shared reason-giving and obligations that make up material life with any other person involved. What matters, at least as I understand it, is not that nobody has the right to hold anyone else to an obligation, it’s that when we give each other obligations we do so in an explicit, negotiated way. RA isn’t about removing power structures entirely, it’s about only developing power structures that everyone who is affected by them can directly, freely consent to being a part of, and can renegotiate or leave whenever they need to. It’s about starting from the principles of liberation and equality, and making all the ways that power flows in relationships explicit so that everyone can agree to them.

This way of thinking about RA is radical because it takes the idea of power and brings it into the foreground when we negotiate our boundaries within relationships. Power structures are often hidden to those who benefit from them, and painfully clear to those who are oppressed by them. RA rejects this, and pulls power out of the social contexts that allow it to remain hidden and destructive to individuals, relationships, and communities. So does D/s.

Have you noticed how Hollywood’s portrayal of kinky power exchange almost always has an older, male, materially successful Dominant and a younger, female, less successful submissive? Money and status are signifiers of an individual deserving their power and authority within society; that’s why they’re used by lazy directors and authors in content like Secretary and 50 Shades of Grey.

Society explains explicit power dynamics in terms of desert. If you have more money or material resources, if you’re more intelligent, if you have greater access to knowledge, then you deserve an elevated status in society and your power is greater than those below you. You have the power to make decisions and to ensure the outcome of those decisions in a way that others below you don’t, because you’ve earned it. Of course, even a brief glance at the way society is structured shows us that inequality touches our lives before we are even born. Unearned, undeserved wealth and power oozes through society; nobody achieves anything all by themselves.

In a consensual D/s relationship, between masters and slaves or owners and pets, power is not based on access to material resources or on some notion of deserving it through intelligence or hard work. Being a Dominant in a D/s relationship doesn’t require any justification with reference to society’s measures of who deserves to have power, the only conditions Dominants need to satisfy are negotiated with their submissives.

This makes D/s a radical approach to power. Like RA, D/s pulls power away from society’s frameworks, makes it explicit, and sets up new requirements to make the use of power ethical. Consent, negotiation, and mutual care are the key elements of ethical D/s.

Although RA’s goal is to minimize the asymmetry of power across all our relationships, and to dismantle hierarchies that privilege some ways of relating and loving about others, and the goal of total power exchange is to increase asymmetry within clear and consensual limits, both concepts have a lot in common. Both concepts radically deracinate power and provide an example of what life could look like if society stopped relying on the traditional ways of obfuscating and justifying power structures. For that reason, I call myself both a relationship anarchist and a slave: I am committed to destroying the explicit and covert power dynamics within vanilla society, and replacing them with relationships where everyone consents to how power is concentrated, and works towards an ever more mindful way of meshing our lives together.


Source: ncsf

Why Fetish Matters

A fetish illustration by Tom of Finland (Touko Valio Laaksonen 1920-1991)

The avowed goal of this blog is to stop the othering of clients who practice altsex behaviors.  Fetishism is the archetypical altsex issue because it is at the heart of how we define a sexual interest as deviant.  But in discussing fetishism, it is necessary to discuss language because the word reflects not a single concept, but a confluence of many different ideas, and the distinctions between those ideas are what this article will be about.  This leads us into the forest of the social construction of reality, especially that surrounding mental health diagnosis and how altsex clients are encouraged to identify and represent themselves.  That is going to require a great deal of historical context.

In giving this context, I have no illusions that this article will start at *THE BEGINNING*. Conflict over the meaning of symbols is at the heart of the human experience since the beginning of language and has its roots in the genetic legacy of ambivalence that makes fight, freeze, or flight responses adaptive for higher animals.  Stimuli can be perceived in different ways, and therefore take different symbolic meaning depending on their context. Different behavioral choices have differing outcomes, allowing selection to operate.  Social regulation of sexuality is a cultural universal, although there is wide variability in which behaviors are regarded as sexual and which are proscribed.  I have chosen to begin my discussion during the Age of Enlightenment because during that time, scientific and popular discourse replaced Church cannon in the Western tradition.  As such, I realize that this account is likely to under-represent non-western discourses.  I will quote a disproportionate share of 19thand twentieth century white males who held the commanding heights of sexological discourse during that period.

The meaning of fetish, and the history of fetishism is intimately bound up with the history of things.  Things as things, people as things, and even parts of people as things.  One of the insights you get from this study is that Freud was right.  If sex isn’t about everything, it surely is about something a great deal broader than the immediacy of procreation.  It throws into stark relief the fact that whether we have sexual feelings, or even sexual fixations on things is a different idea that whether we treat our sexual partners very well.  So this lecture is not just an attack on othering our clients, but also an attack on the sex negative idea that having fetishistic attractions is inherently devaluing or less than intimate with other human partners.  Those are separate ideas that can, but might not necessarily co-occur.

The Invention of Sexual Fetishes.

16th Century Benin bronze head. 
Originally representatives of dead family members used in ancestor worship,
these became popular trade goods with the Portuguese

A lucky three-legged frog Japanese netsuke circa 1910.  This fetish was carried to bring good fortune.
Photo by the author

The term ‘fetish’ was originally coined from anthropology and meant to convey an object or symbol that was believed by its resident culture to possess magical or spiritual powers.  Fetish is a concept with colonial overtones, in that the objects of tribal cultures were regarded as fetishes because they lacked magical powers while similar Western cultural symbols were not so regarded.  The term first came into use as the Portuguese traders encountered Western African cultural artifacts in their 16th century explorations down the coast of that continent in hopes of gratifying their commercial fetishes for the silk, gems, gold and spices of the Far East without having to deal with their commercial competitors and middlemen, the Turks.

Alfred Binet (1857-1911) French Associationist and a father of modern Psychology
This idea that something was thought to be magical but really was not was preserved when the term was ported over to psychology and medicine by the intellectual progenitors of learning theory, the associationists, in the late 19th century as modern sexology was just getting its feet on the ground.  The leading associationist of his day, and a founding father of modern psychology was the Frenchman Alfred Binet, the developer of what would later be called the Stanford Binet Intelligence Test.  Fetishes offered Binet an interesting theoretical opportunity to explain how chance association might cause someone to learn that something was sexy when it wasn’t clearly instrumental for that purpose.  If a person had a chance idea, or mental association, with a sexually irrelevant object, such as boot, while otherwise excited or aroused, he might come to permanently associate the idea of boots with sexual arousal.  Just as deliberate study could cause someone to learn a language or skill, one could learn to become sexually attracted to something or someone.  A fetish was just unfortunate learning as a result of chance experience.  This also conformed to Christian notions of the day that held the undisciplined mind was prone to temptation and evil influence, so the concept was an easy sell to a public unfamiliar with psychological concepts.  All of this was advanced well before Ivan Pavlov won the 1904 Nobel Prize in physiology that established the field of classical conditioning.

Richard von Krafft-Ebing (1840-1902) Austrian Sexologist
This idea was expropriated by Richard von Krafft-Ebing in his classic work, Psychopathia Sexualis (1886), and yoked into service explaining his idea of the perversions of sexual desire away from their obvious biological purpose of procreation as had been revolutionarily advanced in Charles Darwin’s narrative-changing work, the Origin of Species, (1859).  Krafft-Ebing’s reasoning specified that the symptoms of problem sexual behavior were best classified with respect to their relation to the obvious purpose of sexual procreation.  Anything which interfered or redirected sexual desire away from sexual procreation was a medical disorder, rather than a moral failing.  Any poor wretch who came to Krafft-Ebing complaining that he was obsessed with lady’s boots but could not arrange to impregnate his wife was suffering from fetishism.  It may well be that in an age where women didn’t bare their ankles, a well-turned boot was mildly arousing, but if you were so over-the-moon about boots that you couldn’t commit intromission, this was clearly a redirection or perversion of the sexual desire from its evolutionary purpose.  While Krafft-Ebing was intent on confronting the religious moralism of how sexual deviance was viewed in his time, his theory preserved social stigma by suggesting that sexual variations were mental disorders.  After all, who wanted to be viewed as someone too diseased to consummate procreative sexual relations?  Krafft-Ebing was encouraging replacement of the concept of moral degeneracy with the idea of evolutionary or medical degeneracy.

Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880) French novelist
It is not mere happy coincidence that this happened in the middle of the industrial revolution, and industry was creating a cornucopia of consumer goods.  For anyone seeking a modern deconstruction of the relation between industry and sexuality, I recommend Gustave Flaubert’s novel Madame Bovary (1857) who’s protagonist is led to her destruction by the erosion of the values of country life under the twin late 19thcentury onslaughts of greater social mobility and consumerism.  Despite a persistent narrative among later medical and psychoanalytic writers insisting that almost all fetishists are male, Flaubert and his later critics insist that Emma Bovary is proof that women can be fetishists, too.  Indeed, Emma Bovary is the archetypical fetishist, too lost in the objectifications of the trappings of the lush life to care about others, the commercial equivalent of Krafft-Ebings’ later sexual theory.  And Flaubert tautly draws our attention to the great problem poses by the second industrial revolution:  objectification, and he uses commercial fetishism as his argument.

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) Austrian neurologist and father of  psychoanalysis
Sigmund Freud would build on the foundation laid by von Krafft-Ebing, when the father of psychoanalysis took up sexuality in 1905 in his famous Three Contributions to the Theory of Sexuality.  Therein he declared that “every sexual aim has an object.”  Fetishism occurred when the object of that sexual aim was an object in the world, rather than the partners’ genitals.   Freud thought that libido became attached to various aims and objects through the incomplete resolution of biological needs during the process of infantile psychological development.  In his developmental theories, he outlines these as feeding (the oral phase), toilette training (the anal and phallic phases), finally culminating in adolescence, sexual awareness becoming conscious, and properly focused on the genitals of the opposite sex partner.  For Freud, everyone had some unresolved needs from their development, so healthy individuals would have some oral, anal, or phallic interests even when they attained genital and procreative maturity.  But serious conflicts would lead to with inhibition of sexual desire expressed in neurosis, or excessive sexual fixation through perversion, in which healthy sexual expression was impossible but pregenital behavior was expressed. 

Note this exposition of Freudian theory modifies Krafft-Ebing’s explanation of fetishism and all sexuality in several important ways.  For Krafft-Ebing, sex is behavior, and deviant behavior that is incompatible with procreation is proof of genetic degeneracy.  For Freud, sexuality is unconscious motivation.  So Krafft-Ebing would consider someone who really liked boots a lot but had satisfactory relations with his wife as not having a fetish.  But Freud, who would agree that such a person was not ill, would regard interest in boots as fetishistic even though he would agree that it might not be pathological.  But it would still be infantile and regressive, since genital sexuality was firmly focused on higher generative purposes.  In his Three Contributions to a Theory of Sexuality (1905), Freud reframed Krafft-Ebings descriptions of sexual behavior as abnormal and degenerate into a conflict theory.   At the price of ‘normalizing’ people’s sexual variations, Freud preserved the idea that they were somehow less than optimal, and he universalized them.  Look in the unconscious, suggested Dr Freud, and you will find weird stuff about everyone because that is what the unconscious is:  the hidden socially unacceptable ideas that we all bury in the process of making a somewhat successful adjustment to sociocultural demands of our communities.

Freud’s role of sexuality as underlying motivation also had profound implications for the idea of what an object was.  For Krafft-Ebing and Flaubert, an object was a thing in the world that was not instrumental for sex.  In Freud’s use, the object was the mental target of the sexual aim.  Freud was working on a psycho-biological theory that explained human psychology in mental terms.  In the brain, everything was symbolic.  This allowed him to see the oral, anal, phallic or genital implications of anything, but it also meant his objects were not material.  They were the objects of grammarians, not physical items in the real world.  In “The Interpretation of Dreams”, Freud’s tour de force interpreting his own dreams, he suggested universal meanings of many different symbols, such as lightning, flying and guns are phallic symbols.  However, the meaning of symbols becomes complicated as their cultural and individualistic context varies.  White is associated with mourning in some cultures, black in others.  Boots could be seen as oral if you were intent on kissing them, anal if you considered them as protection of the feet from feces-filled Victorian streets, or phallic if you were primarily focused on the height of the heels or focused on how yours was better than theirs.  Depending upon and individuals’ associations, that boot fixation could represent a great variety of different things.  And since most of these were at least partially repressed and socially uncomfortable, Freud actually served to spread stigma almost as much as he was able to moderate it.  However, Freud greatly succeeded in furthering the medicalization of sexual variation that Krafft-Ebing had begun.

As complicated as all of this psychoanalytic reasoning was, it constituted a tremendous advance in the great log jam of theoretical discourse that organized late 19th century psychology:  the nature-nurture conflict.  The associationists’ and later, the learning theorists’ and behaviorists’ position was that fetishism constituted learned behavior.  Anyone who happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time could have a powerful experience that caused a fixation of boots.  The Krafft-Ebing position was that some inherent genetic inferiority led to libido becoming attached to same sex partners, boots, or thwarted it entirely with sex dysfunction.  Freud showed that variant sexual outlets were a part of everyone sexual make up, and whether it manifest in observable symptoms was primarily the result of conflict between the desire for impulse expression and the wish for social conformity.  This success was part of where he got the street cred to remain the most important voice in sexology for 40 years.

Freud was a great collector of archeological artifacts.  Most of these were removed to Hampstead in 1938.  These were left behind and are now on exhibit in his old office in Vienna.
Photo by the author, 2015
But that authority was used only sparingly to destigmatize sexual preferences.  Freud’s career was mainly spent in defense of the Oedipus Complex, and such criticism as he made of Western society’s squeamishness about sex was much more focused on attacking repression than in defending sexual expression itself.  In order to sell the Oedipus complex, the pre-oedipal impulses were presented as regressive, and never added up to viewing a fetish as a healthy sublimation that made genital sex more fun and stimulating.   As a though experiment, try reframing your sexual fantasies such that procreation and only procreation is the ultimate erotic reward!  Note also that if I tried this thought experiment back in 1900, it might well have failed.  In a world where it was state policy to support fertility, in a western world characterized by state policy supporting fertility, anxiety about the changing role of women, and crashing head long towards a catastrophic test of national dominance that was World War I, you might have answered my mental question very differently.  Birth problems, the health challenges of corsetry and childhood diseases made reproduction a much less safe and precious bet than it is today in the day of increased but incomplete gender equality, zero population growth, effective birth control, and global climate change.

The prevailing Freudian view honored the clinical reality of the very limited number of clients who were seen were anxious about their ability to attract and satisfy mates, or their fears of breaking the law.  In 1983, when I did and exhaustive search of the psychoanalytic literature on paraphilias, there was only a single article about a possible case of female fetishism, and that was much disputed.  When Robert Stoller wrote a book about a possible case in the 1970s, the conclusion was that the ‘sexuality’ in that case was really a symptom of personality disorder.  All the women partners of men who did kinky behaviors were regarded as with prostitutes or excessively psychologically dependent on men and weren’t ‘really’ perverse!

Magnus Hirschfeld (1868-1935) German physician)

Another dissenter from the general agreement that perversion of sexual interest from reproduction must be pathological was Magnus Hirschfeld, a name now little-known outside of sexology and gay advocacy.  In addition to establishing the first western organization for the study of sex, Intitut für Sexualwissenschaft, Hirschfeld was a prominent early advocate for public acceptance of homosexuality.  His court testimony in a huge German scandal about homosexuality in the German military in the 1890’s attracted the attention of antisemitic groups and eventually led to the destruction of his institute.  Hirschfeld thought that fetishistic behavior was common and little cause for concern.  His concept of partialism, the eroticization of human anatomy other than the penis and vagina, was an attempt to normalize the diversity of erotic interests.  This idea partially caught on, and it is technically proper to refer to foot fetishism as foot partialism today.  Although he never attained the public influence of Sigmund Freud, Hirschfeld did recruit Richard von Krafft-Ebing to Hirschfeld’a alliance of prominent figures who supported the decriminalization of homosexuality before the former died in 1902.  Freud, however demurred.  Hirschfeld died in 1936, and Freud in 1939, but neither escaped the reaction from Nazism to scientific thinking about sexuality.  The Nazi’s destroyed Hirschfeld’s Institute in their first book burning in 1933, obliterating the best library of sexology writings then assembled.  Later, Freud would be forced to flee Austria due to Anschluss, the political reunification of Germany and Austria under the Nazis in 1938.

The legacy of Krafft-Ebing’s and Freud’s work is that fetishism was a sexual perversion and retained much of the social stigma that it had prevailed from moral and religious authorities but was found to be ubiquitous in its manifestations in everyday life.  From bordello culture, to the stage and the new medium of cinema, to the nose are of American bombers in world War II, fetishist sensibilities were everywhere despite the scant clinical attention it required in the clinical office.
Setting the Stage for Fetish Culture:

Illustration of  a whipping device used in 18th century English bordello culture.
Prior to World War II there was no significant aboveground kink subculture.  Various forms of sensation play, what Krafft-Ebing termed sadism and masochism, has existed since prehistoric times and often manifested in religious practices such as penance, flagellation, and use of celices.  Starting in the 18th century, practices we recognize as modern kink existed in bordello culture.  With the rise of industrialization, women became capable of working outside the home and it has been estimated that as many as 25% of working women in mid-nineteenth century urban women augmented industrial wages with sex work at one point in their careers.  Some of this was surely kinky. 

Robert Bienvenue has shown in his doctoral dissertation that American kink arose as an underground phenomenon after World War I as kink enthusiasts turned to theatrical costume designers to make sexual costumes and kinky apparatus they had seen in sadomasochistic illustrations.  Early retailers, borrowing from the practices for mail order brides, devised contact lists and remail services for customers who were searching for willing partners to use their equipment, and a lively trade developed in underground photography.  Borrowing from the publicity machines of the burgeoning motion picture industry, these theatrical supply businesses also dealt in erotic photographs catering to their fetish inclined customers.  The aboveground tip of this iceberg was books featuring faux accounts using medicalized tropes exposing the bizarre practices of sadomasochistic lesbians or crossdressing men, dwelling on the lurid details of these unsavory practices for salacious readers.   The modern send up of this is the character The Criminologist – An Expert in A Rocky Horror Picture Show.   In the guise of medical treatises, the publishers were able to avoid censorship.
World War II led to four massive changes in western society that dramatically reshaped the social context in which sexual variation and fetishism were understood.

Changes coinciding with World War II:

1)    The death of Freud broadened psychoanalytic discourse.
2)    The huge numbers of citizens under arms provoked changes in mental health care. 
3)    World War II fostered the development of computers and of survey technology. 
4)    Large number of men and women were thrown together in wartime work groups and were bonded by intense experiences in a single-gendered environment.
5)    Expansion of the economy in wartime led to increased material wealth and availability of consumer goods.

Was Britain’s civil defense plan a reaction to huge airborne fetishes from World War I?
Freud died of mouth cancer in the first weeks of World War II.  His daughter, Anna took over as President of the International Psychoanalytic Association.  Anna was interested in children, and in defense mechanisms, and in the immediate post war years psychoanalysis broadened its theoretical scope.  Because Britain had suffered the world’s first strategic air campaign; bombing by hydrogen-filled zeppelin’s in World War I, the British government developed the world’s most comprehensive civil defense program.  In 1940, this included banishing all British children from the urban areas that were expected to be the focus of strategic air attack.  This proved fortunate, as starting in August of 1940 and continuing through late 1944, British cities were the focus of intensive German air attacks.  Although many children were saved by these measures, when the war was over, a great many were found to be suffering mental health problems attended these separations and losses.  Psychoanalysis stopped studying childhood development primarily though the reports of adult patients and started looking at children directly.  This resulted in the British school of object relations whose founding mother was child analyst Melanie Klein and would soon give rise to modern attachment theory through the work of John Bowlby.  Psychoanalysis also focused less on trying to explain all psychic development on individualistic terms and framed its hypotheses in increasing interpersonal terms.  And attention turned from focus of the murky operation of the unconscious and started to look at conscious processes and ego functions that had previously been the province of experimental psychology.
One of the most important developments was D W Winnicott’s idea that fetishes served the same function as teddy bears.  Children soothed themselves as their development took them outside of the orbit of maternal security.  Blankets, stuffed animals and dolls served to provide something to love that the child could take with them when parental support was not around.  Perhaps fetishes served to sooth anxieties that arose over the aggression and separation fears provoked by sexuality?   Unlike Freud’s theory that fetishes were a reassurance against castration anxiety – an exclusively male preoccupation, Winnicott’s theory suggested that girls and women might have fetishes too.

Is a teddy bear a lot like a fetish? 
D W winnicott said they accomplished the same purpose psychologically!
Britain was not the only country that suffered the privations of World War II.  In the US, the need for psychiatric services for 16 million citizens under arms led to the invention of clinical psychology and clinical social work as the massive personnel needs of the military absorbed physicians who previously dominated the provision of talk therapy.  In my first year of graduate school in clinical psychology, The University of Michigan Clinical Psych Program used up its last VA training grant.  But in the interim, psychology stopped being restricted to attitude and personality testing and started to train full spectrum mental health providers.  With this change mental health began to face challenges that it become more based upon scientific evidence.

A major manifestation of that reform was military’s need for a systematic system for the classification of mental disorders.  In 1952, the brother of the famous American psychoanalyst Karl Menninger, General William Menninger was assigned the task of creating a standardized diagnostic system.  Under the influence of psychoanalysis, a great number of different diagnostic systems had developed.  Menninger reviewed over 100 of these prior to mobilizing the American Psychiatric Association to create the first Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the Mental Disorders or DSM.  It was fifty mimeographed pages and sold for 50 cents.  It listed Krafft-Ebing’s system including fetishism, as ‘sexual deviations’ without providing any behavioral descriptions.  The military was mainly interested in who was too ill to serve, who was malingering, and who they would prefer not to recruit in the first place.  Their main sexual concern had to do with homosexuality.  With the exception of homosexuality, which was removed in the transition to DSM -III, the list from 1952 is pretty much the same list as is in DSM – 5 which was last revised in 2013 and I will discuss in detail later.

Although it would be some years before the use of computers would advance survey research, this provided great impetus to psychology to become a data-driven science.   The first modern computer, ENIAC, was developed by the University of Michigan for the military during World War II to save the extravagant personnel costs in creating artillery firing tables.   The largely female workforce of ‘computers’ was replaced by a delicate and finicky machine that was mainly comprised of vacuum tubes.  It kept overheating and shorting out when moths, which were attracted to the tubes, burned up and shorted out exposed wiring.  This led to the term computer bugs.  But computers would provide the capacity to analyze large data sets and transform social science, among many other things.
The first use of survey methodology was done by Karl Marx, who is more famous for the invention of communist ideology.  He used them to predict election results by doing political poling in his resident district in London in the mid-nineteenth century.  The end of World War II saw the U. S military repurposing survey technology to evaluate the effectiveness of strategic bombing.  The survey experts used in the US Strategic Bombing Survey were then absorbed by the major university-based survey organizations, including the Institute for Social Research, North American Opinion Research Center, and Stanford Research Institute. 

One of the first proponents of broadening the use of survey methods like this was Alfred Kinsey and he discovered that the diversity of human sexual behavior was far broader than psychoanalysis or behaviorism had heretofore identified.  Although clinicians knew from their consulting rooms that fetishism was very rare, Kinsey discovered fetish-like interests were very common.  Both the clinicians and Kinsey were correct.  Unless a fetish was causing a painful marital problem or legal difficulty, people seldom consulted a clinician about them.  But Alfred Kinsey and Hugh Hefner, the movie publicity business and the United States Army Air Corps bomber’s nose art had demonstrated that fairly specific sexual interests were widespread and intensely felt. The resolution of this discrepancy would define the struggle for sexual acceptance for the next 70 years.

The final development of World War II was a change in how the public recognized and represented sexual variation.  Its first manifestations were underground, but gradually became more salient in the media and public life.  It started with the facts of warfare that same-gendered groups were thrown together by war and encouraged to bond to form effective work and combat groups.  This was true for Rosy the Riveter as well as for G I Joe.  Lacking access to the opposite sex, many of these people recognized a desire for same sex partners.   Add to that the risk of sudden death, and the illusions of conventional cis-gendered and heterosexual conventionality began to fray at the edges.  Although the prevailing environment of social conservatism following World War II masked it, many people in these conditions satisfied their desire for affection, touch and love with members of their own genders.  The gay motorcycle clubs that were pioneering practitioners of sadomasochism existed before World War II, but greatly expanded as servicemen mustered out.  This led to the rise in the gay sadomasochistic motorcycle clubs that gave rise to modern Leathersex.
Large single gendered communities didn’t just result in increased same sex attraction, but also fostered the development of gender-based values. World War II also resulted in a general accepatance of pin up culture as heterosexual men relied on movie stills and pinup girls as substitutes for unavailable personal companionship.  Bomber nose art is testimony to these erotic arts. This enabled Hugh Hefner to started Playboy magazine to cater to those tastes after the war was over.  Soon there was a thriving above-ground discourse among partialists who preferred legs, asses and breasts, the reigning pinup idioms.

Throughout the interwar period, psychoanalysis dominated the discourse about mental health.  Because Freud marketed psychoanalysis as a broader social theory that should inform education, law, child rearing and sexual relations, it greatly facilitated public discussion of sexual themes.  The rise of pinup culture, Playboy Magazine, and the underground kink culture led to repressive reaction.  Just as the changing roles of women in the 19thcentury and Darwinism led to obsessions with physical and moral hygiene; radio, comic book and movies led to moral crusades against these media.    In 1934, Hollywood adopted the Hays Code which governed pictures until 1968, the Comics Code in 1954, and of special interest in this essay, the Kefauver Hearings on Juvenile Delinquency and prosecution of Irving and Paula Klaw in 1958.  This, incidentally, led to my first encounter with fetish illustration, when Time magazine covered the Klaw’s testimony before Kefauver’s commission.  A major part of Klaw’s businesses, Movie Star News and Nutrix Publications catered to photographs and illustrations catering to kink interests.  The most famous of his talents was Betty Page.  Klaw also had a stable of illustrators who augmented their income from work for Marvel and DC Comics with fetish work including Eric Stanton, Gene Bilbrew, Ruiz and Steve Ditko.  This body of work is probably responsible for the term ‘fetish’ becoming synonymous with kink when the stigma associated with kink was too great to refer to it as sadomasochism.  Indeed, the stigma was sufficiently great that when Alfred Kinsey conducted his pioneering work on American Sexual Behavior in the 1940’s, his team did not ask directly about sadomasochistic behavior., and instead substituted interest in sadomasochistic stories.  12% of his women and 24% of his men reported liking such stories, but he did not ask about whether they preferred identifying with the dominant or submissive roles depicted in such erotica.   Kinsey research relied on a snowball sample to get respondents, leading to valid criticism that he risked over counting outlier sexual interests.  However, it would take until 1994 for the first survey of American sexual behavior that employed a representative sample of Americans.  It would take until Herbenick et all in 20i7 before a broad spectrum of variant behavior was investigated with representative sampling techniques that might accurate describe US variant practices.  By the time Herbenick and her team did this, however, the term fetishism was in enough dispute that she did not ask about it directly.

Fetish Culture:

A sea change in the discourse about fetishism began in the wake of the social changes in the early 1960’s and early 1970s.  With the publication of the first edition of The Joy of Sex, a new attitude was articulated by Alex Comfort, PhD.  Instead of a disabling obsession that made healthy intimacy impossible, in The Joy of Sex most fetishistic interests that took advantage of human evolutionary tendencies to find analogue of our potential sexual partners ‘sexual releasers’.  He compared these interests to tying an effective fishing fly in trout fishing.  These releasers were not the sexual object itself, just analogous to a brightly colored fly that was not a salmon’s natural food, but looked enough like them to provoke a response.  Lingerie, super skin such as leather, PVC, and latex, or exaggerated sexual features such as wasp-waisted corsets or high heeled shoes made sexual response easy and it is efficient to use them to turn your partner on.  In so doing, Comfort implicitly rejected the idea that most variant interests were pre-Oedipal substitutes.  His entry under disabling fetishes reads a lot like a modern description of an anxiety disorder.  This was no accident, Comfort wrote and extensive section on bondage in much the same spirit, emphasizing it’s ability to delay and intensify gratification rather than emphasizing its transgressive or dangerous aspects.  I would assert that The Joy of Sex constituted the implicit transition of the idea that a fetish might just be a sexual preference, rather than a mental illness.

By the 1960s and 1970s, the fight between sexually expressive and repressive trend in western culture had escalated into the ‘culture wars’.  The birth control pill proved a much more efficient and reliable method than IUDs and barrier methods, and the hedonism in popular culture increased.  In 1972, the first heterosexual kink groups started to meet above ground, and gay crossdressers launched to Stonewall Riots.  Thereafter, there was an explicit gay advocacy movement in the US.  Hippies advocated for free love, and communes sprang up practicing alternative lifestyles.  America has had a long history of such experiments starting in the early nineteenth century, but after the comparative conventionality of the 1950s, a new wave of experimentation followed.  In 1972, the first two above ground kink groups started to meet.  The Til Eulenspiegel Society (TES) began in New York in a church basement.  Named after a mythic German trickster with a scatological and masochistic imagination, TES was devoted to the outward celebration of masochism.  On the West Coast, The Society of Janus began as a pansexual organization that embraced people from a wide variety of sexual orientations and kink practices.  Both continue to meet today joined by a huge proliferation of local groups.  These are the Coalition Partners who are represented on the NCSF Board of Directors.

The rise of a kink above ground subculture in the face of severe social stigma gave rise to the invention of consent culture.  Worried that no one would feel safe to come to kink social groups, advocates struggled to present kinky lifestyle as acceptable enough for novices to investigate.  In 1983, having identified that the chief reasons interested people had for avoiding S&M was that it seemed dangerous to deliver yourself up to someone who might be crazy, dangerous and intent on harming you, david stein invented the slogan Safe, Sane and Consensual. Long before usegroups or the internet this slogan went viral among the kinky social groups and remains a rallying cry to this day.  In 1988, Operation Spanner, a Scotland Yard prosecution of gay sadomasochists, provided publicity to the idea of sexual consent when the men convicted of allowing their partners to pierce and whip them appealed their convictions all the way to the House of Lords (the British functional equivalent of the US Supreme Court) and their convictions were upheld.  During this fight, the Spanner trust was established to raise money for the defense, and this proved to be the model for many kink advocacy organizations such as NCSF and Woodhull Foundation.  The Spanner case ended in defeat in 1995 when the EU Court of Human Rights ruled that Britain had every right to prohibit its citizens from consenting to assault, but that did not stop development of the consent discourse in kink.  Now, kink subcultures have much to teach the general society about consent in the age of high college sexual assault statistics and #metoo.

The Assaults on the DSM:

The struggle to fight stigma in kink mirrors and lags the struggle to fight stigma on homosexuality.  The mimeographed ink on the original DSM was scarcely dry when the challenge began to remove homosexuality.  In 1954, Christopher Isherwood, author of the Berlin Diaries and noteworthy Hollywood screenwriter challenged his neighbor, UCLA research psychologist Evelyn Hooker, to design a study to challenge the idea that homosexuality was pathological.  Psychoanalysis rose to the defense of pathologizing homosexuality, arguing that psychological testing based on ego psychology could diagnose homosexuals from psychological test protocols. Hooker collected these data, and intelligence testing on 50 gay and 50 heterosexual mails and farmed out the transcriptions to three of the best testing experts in the business.  In 1956 she published her results, all three of her experts had proved unable to sort the gay subjects from the straight ones, and the homosexuals did not show more psychopathology or lesser intelligence on the tests than their straight counterparts.  She would go on to win an American Psychological Association award for this work in the early 1960s and fuel a movement within the American Psychiatric Association among closeted gay psychiatrists.  This movement gained steam after the American Astronomer Frank Kameny came out and started to formally confront the psychiatrists and this accelerated after the Stonewall riots in Greenwich Village in 1969.  In 1972, the American Psychiatric Association published a version of DSM – II that stopped mandating that all homosexuality was a disease.
In 1980, the American Psychiatric Associated fundamentally revised DSM – III, and did away with its heretofore psychoanalytic system and instead relied upon a nosology that was based on detailed descriptions of observable symptoms.  The new system was subjected to assessment of the ability of different raters to make the same diagnoses and passed.  Since this edition, psychiatric diagnosis in the United States has been based on this requirement that whatever a mental disorder might be, mental health practitioners should be able to describe its symptoms the same way.  While the new diagnostic symptom remained vulnerable to disputes about what these observed behaviors might mean, it was a huge improvement over psychodynamic constructs which different diagnosticians might not be able to articulate consistently.  At his time, Homosexuality was removed from the “Psychosexual disorders: section altogether except for “Ego Dystonic Homosexuality for people who felt their homosexual feels or behaviors were in intense conflict with their identity.   Most homosexuality had been de-pathologized.

Kink was not so fortunate.  Under the leadership of John Money, old terms like ‘sexual deviation’ and ‘sexual perversion’, which were severely stigmatizing, were replaced with ‘paraphilias’, a strange chimera of mixed Latin and Greek that best translated as unusual loves.  The new DSM – III included statistics, including data that showed all paraphilias constituted about .06% of the entire validation sample of mental health diagnoses.  On the other hand, sexual sadism, sexual masochism, fetishism, transvestism, pedophilia, exhibitionism, voyeurism, and zoophilia were all mental disorders if they were repeatedly preferred or exclusive means of obtaining sexual satisfaction or intense sexual phantasies.

Little was changed in that diagnostic system, with the exception that homosexuality was dropped altogether about a decade later.  In the later 1990’s , Race Bannon, one of the founding activists who started the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom, recruited Bay area  internist Charles Moser to start advocacy efforts within the American Psychiatric Association to accomplish for kink the kind of work that had been accomplished by Hooker and Kameny for homosexuality.
In a series of 20 papers, Moser and his collaborators deconstructed the diagnostic concept behind the DSMs.   They claimed that the concept of paraphilia was fuzzy, the theoretical work justifying it was not based on science, that it was discriminatory to the kink community and the category did more harm in stigmatizing sexual preference as illness than it did good in the rare occasion it gave access to treatment that was genuinely needed..  Furthermore, with no agreed upon eitiology and no proof of effevtive treatment, it did not make sense to justify inclusion of these diagnoses for access to unproven treatments.

Based upon the DSM – IV paraphilias criteria, Christian Joyal and Julie Carpentier conducted a representative sample of the Quebeçoise population and gathered the following data:

Men: 60%
Women: 35%
Men: 06%
Women: 03%
Men: 40%
Women: 48%
Men: 34%
Women: 31%
Men: 09%
Women: 05%
Men: 19%
Women: 28%
Men: 07%
Women: 06%
Sex with a child
Men: 01%
Women: 00%
Note that, after years of psychoanalytic papers in which fetishism is the exclusive province of male psychology, more Quebçoises women than men report engaging in at least one fetishistic behavior in their lifetimes.  No one disputes that the classic example of Krafft-Ebing’s of a male who cannot procreate because he is too erotically attracted to boots is a rarity today as it was then and was in 1980 when paraphilias of all types didn’t constitute even one in one hundred psychiatric diagnoses.   But today about 44% of Quebeçoise’s think they have done a fetishistic behavior!

Because of these assaults, The American Psychiatric Association in 2013 in an attempt to preserve the diagnostic concept of concept of paraphilia, provided language for paraphilias to be regarded as mental disorders only when, in the opinion of the clinician, they caused significant life stress or impairment, or were nonconsensual.  That story is better summarized in the following EITHT articles:   Note that the paraphilias review got more public commentary that any section of the DSM except that devoted to autism spectrum disorders.  A great deal of the input was from attorneys and forensic clinicians who required the concept in court, and from advocacy groups.

My colleague Susan Wright, in an article documented a corresponding decline 75% in custody matters in which kinky people and their attorneys requested NCSF assistance following these 2013 changes.  I will conclude on a less optimistic note:  since Donald Trump’s campaign for President, we have seen corresponding increase in local actions against meeting of our member groups, and in assaults on kinky people.

Take Aways:

What might readers conclude from this story:
1)    The meaning of terms like ‘fetish’ is a moving target.  This article maps some of the changes in its interpretive significance, but is itself only a snap shot of recent history, and that significance will continue to evolve.
2)    That the problem of othering Is endemic, and as we chose new ways to try to level social differences, we are continually creating new ones, and these are obstacles to good care.
3)    That the meaning of what we do as professionals is subject to the same forces, and we will be subjected to changing contexts analogous to these but also different from them.
4)    That it is impossible to fully convey the significance of these terms without discussing the social context in which they arose.
5)    Knowing the history of one’s profession is important in coping with those, even if we find portions of the story boring alienating, and less than flattering.

©Russell J Stambaugh, PhD, Ann Arbor, April 2019 All rights reserved.

Source: elephant