Imagine being in a totally sexually fixated state. Only instead of a person, your irresistible attraction involves an object or behavior.

Known as fetishes, people are often incredibly amused by their unconventional nature. But having a fetish can be emotionally and erotically gratifying in many respects, turning any judgment into a case of “who’s laughing now?”

So well-known is the foot fetish that it’s gone from laughable to a wholesome kink of sorts. Still an exploration of what it entails and why it exists can cause discomfort, which is why it’s remained so cryptic. Few are brave enough to unlock the mysteries of the foot fetish. Are you?

The word “fetish” originally had nothing to do with sex. Derived from the Portuguese word fetich, Old World Portuguese explorers used the term to describe any religious artifact regarded by tribal cultures as having magical powers. It was in the 19th Century that “fetish” started being used to describe something that sexually excites an individual.

Fetishes, in general, are one of the most misunderstood sexual attractions. The case of the foot fetish is a classic example of this. It’s actually not a fetish -- it's a case of partialism. Partialism is a situation where a person has exclusive attraction to a body part.

A fetish, on the other hand, is a situation where an individual has learned to attach sexual significance to an object or behavior that is in large part not considered erotic in nature. The most common fetish objects are shoes, undergarments, and items made of rubber, plastic, or leather.

In many cases, it’s the touch and/or odor of an object that’s more of a turn-on than the object itself. So a foot fetish is sometimes more about the smell of feet than just the feet themselves. Yet, as explained in the “Handbook of Clinical Sexuality for Mental Health Professionals,” fetishes involving body odors tend to be met with revulsion. So it’s safer and more socially acceptable for the fetish to focus on the foot in its entirety.

We don’t know a lot about how a person develops a fetish or why. We’ve been at a loss to explain how a person can develop emotional, and even spiritual, responses to an inanimate object of desire. Some academics hold that fetishes are just one more natural aspects of being human. Having a fetish has been likened to the obsessive fascination and enthusiasm some people have in collecting baseball cards.

Others have suggested early childhood events are the cause, particularly those involving sexual shaming. A foot fetish may, for example, develop when a child, made incredibly embarrassed for seeing a woman’s naked breast, diverts his eyes to her foot, which later becomes the foot fetish.

Another theory is that early life events shape one’s sexual identity, for example a baby may sniff someone’s feet while crawling and thus become permanently fixated on feet as an adult. The experience, locked in the brain, becomes one of attempting to seek out the same sensations from that experience.

It’s important to understand that most fetishes are harmless. While we hear about the occasional fetish gone wrong, for example a fetishist who steals their sexual amulet, most cases are not so extreme. Furthermore, plenty of people with fetishes can have gratifying sex lives without use of their sexual charm of choice.

In cases where a fetish is incorporated into sex, it can be argued that the adventure, entertainment, and easier arousal factor can heighten the experience. Lovers may even bond in sharing the fetish experience and any sensations unique to such. Given the vulnerability one feels in sharing their fetish, a partner’s reaction that it’s “no big deal” can make lovers feel closer as well.

Cases where fetishes become a problem include a person relying upon the object for sexual excitement, release, or satisfaction. Such an obsession should be of concern since it’s a potential sign that the individual is unable to cope in a healthy, intimate sexual relationship. Fearing rejection, the person prefers the fetish for being safe and non-threatening. Some fetishists can also have trouble attaining orgasm without the fetish.

Most fetish cases are not so extreme, however. Plenty of fetishists can have satisfying sexual experiences without their fetish being present or acted out. While there’s no evidence that fetishes can be cured, a fetishist can work with a sex therapist to become sexually enticed by other things and basically keep the fetish in check.

To some degree, many people have mild fetishes, as in they have favored sex acts or enhancements. But these often go undetected, since most people don’t realize that they have them. So what is yours?

Dr. Yvonne K. Fulbright is a sex educator, relationship expert, columnist and founder of Sexuality Source Inc. She is the author of several books including, "Touch Me There! A Hands-On Guide to Your Orgasmic Hot Spots."

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