by Russell J. Stambaugh
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 canon 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 nineteenth and 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.
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 sixteenth 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.
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 nineteenth 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.
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. Those interested in a more detailed discussion of Krafft-Ebing’s thinking can find it here:Richard Frieherr von Krafft-Ebing (1840-1902)
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 19th century 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-Ebing’s 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. …
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