How Are Fetishes Formed?

Having a fetish has long been viewed as a negative thing, with fetishists frequently being accused of perversion and deviance (as if those things are necessarily bad!) and of creeping people out and crossing boundaries in pursuit of gratification. However, now, in the post-Fifty Shades of Grey era, kinks and fetishes seem to be more popular and more acceptable than ever – some recent studies have found that as much as 75 percent of the population has at least one non-standard sexual interest. It’s a great time to be a kinkster!

That said, confusion about fetishes is still rampant in the media and in the world more broadly. Sex researcher Justin Lehmiller says, of the multitude of intriguing subtopics he could address in the realm of sexual psychology, fetishes are one of the most common he’s asked about. Many people’s interest is particularly piqued by the question of where fetishes come from, which can sometimes feel just as mysterious as “What is the meaning of life?” To shed some light on this complex issue, here are several different theories on the origins of kinks and fetishes...

“Born this way”

Some people steadfastly argue that their fetish is – to quote spanking fetishist Jillian Keenan – “innate, unchosen and lifelong.” There’s little (if any) evidence of this, because you can’t exactly poll babies about their erotic triggers. Although some people do claim their children seem to have “fetishes,” they are likely just projecting adult sexuality onto the sometimes-incomprehensible behavior of babies and toddlers.

Some scientists say certain personality traits can predispose some people to developing fetishes, though that’s not quite the same thing as coming out of the womb already obsessed with rubber or feet. Given that most of our early-childhood memories are blurry or forgotten entirely, it seems likelier that many fetishes are formed due to...

Childhood experiences

Many fetishists trace their fetish back to some formative moment (or series of moments) in childhood that forever associated their fated fixation with erotic feelings. They might cite, for example, a mother’s penchant for wearing silk and satin clothing, or an afternoon spent watching a classmate crush bugs under her boots. Children’s brains are spongily neuroplastic, so it’s easy for a one-off experience to become encoded in one’s sexual psychology, especially if the experience is accompanied by strong emotions and/or physiological arousal.

That said, it can sometimes be difficult to discern whether a fetishist’s “lightbulb moment” in childhood actually created their fetish or just reinforced it. For example, a hypnosis fetishist who becomes erotically entranced by Jafar’s staff during a childhood viewing of Aladdin might identify that as the event that triggered their kink, but why did it excite them so much in the first place if that kink wasn’t already present in their neurological wiring? Regardless of how fetishes might be formed in childhood, they are usually strengthened over time by…

Classical conditioning

This psychological tool, famously pioneered by Ivan Pavlov, involves connecting a particular stimulus to a particular reaction through repeated pairing of the two. Pavlov managed to make dogs drool at the sound of a bell by associating that sound in their minds with mealtime; by the same token, you can (inadvertently or on purpose) induce a fetish by forming and strengthening associations in the brain between an initially non-erotic stimulus and an arousal response.

A 1966 study, highly ahead of its time, demonstrated this effect by showing men pictures of boots, followed by pictures of nude women. Over time, the men grew to associate the boots with arousal strongly enough that they soon became aroused by the sight of the boots alone. Another study, in 1999, spurred the same effect with a photo of a jar of pennies. While these “artificially induced” fetishes may not be as intense as the more innate kind, it’s fascinating to know that we theoretically have such great power over our own sexual psyches.

Neural proximity

A brain researcher named V.S. Ramachandran published a paper in 1994 that revolutionized the science of fetish formation. He argued that foot fetishes might be a function of “cross-talk” between the areas of the brain responsible for sensation in the genitals and in the feet. While this doesn’t necessarily explain foot fetishes that are more visually focused than tactile – for example, people who are never happier than when they’re staring at a pair of feet parading around in stockings and high heels – it does offer a potential explanation for why foot fetishes are so much more common than, say, hand fetishes or ear fetishes.

The theory that fetishes have a physical location in the brain was further strengthened by a strange case in 1954. An epileptic man had had a fetish for safety pins for as long as he could remember. He had part of his temporal lobe surgically removed as treatment for his epileptic fits, and found afterward that his fetish had entirely disappeared. Further research into fetish psychology is needed, and case studies like this are evidence that there’s a lot we still don’t understand about how sexual fixations function in the brain.

In conclusion...

While it is interesting to unpack the potential sources of your kinks, ultimately it can be a stigmatizing and unhelpful question. BDSM-savvy psychotherapist Margaret Nichols, Ph.D. confirms that her work “has comforted and guided many people… and harmed many others.” In the early days of the gay rights movement, for example, there was much speculation about how one “became” gay, the implication being that if we could figure out the origins of queerness, we could avoid it ourselves or even breed it out altogether. Homophobia is still alive and well, but much of its discourse has shifted away from sleuthing out the “cause” of various sexual orientations, because we now understand that these are largely inborn. In the same way, it’s not always terribly useful to pick apart the catalysts of your kinks – at a certain point, it’s probably best to just accept them and see where they lead you.