‘Fetishizing is the norm for males, not for females’ (Stoller, cited in Steele, 1996). Is there little wonder then that Freud’s later development of Krafft-Ebbing’s definition of fetishism relates almost solely to the male sex?
As a woman, I can safely say that the very idea of even sexually fantasizing about a sole male body part, let alone an article of male clothing, seems highly unimaginative, if not perverse. However, accuse me of being a Marxist defined ‘Commodity Fetishist’ on some level, and I will be lying if I don’t agree. As an avid shoe lover and collector, I do attach a somewhat silly importance to my shoe collection. I fetishize my shoes, meaning that I elevate them to a level above food, shelter and clothing, to put it mildly. Owning a pair of towering Blahnik’s (even a good ol’ high street brand will suffice on my budget!! makes me feel invincible, like the sexiest, most desirable woman on earth. Nevertheless, this raises the question of where comes the difference between sexual and commodity fetishism? Today’s fashion industry only seems to boost the occurrence of putting commodities, especially branded ones, up on a pedestal. For me, commodity fetishism is only an offshoot of sexual fetishism. I can argue that a sexual fetishist, with a special love for corsets or lacy, racy underwear, will often be attracted to only those who wear these types of garments, and in the case of a female, often wear this herself.
Don’t waste your time!
Order your assignment!
These items will be upgraded to a near reverential status in her eyes, and will make her feel like a goddess. Buying anything other than what she deems sexy will not only make her feel useless, but will give root to a deep sense of unsatisfaction, especially of a sexual kind. In that way, she is a commodity fetishist. So, where is the fine line between these two fetish modes? Is it justifiable to indulge in either? Does today’s contemporary fashion world heighten these so called perversions, and so seem to grant its much sought after permission, that the industry will accept you and that it is alright to do this?
In terms of sexual fetishism, the most lasting definition was given by nineteenth century sexologist Richard von Krafft-Ebbing, who defined fetishism as “The Association of Lust with the Idea of Certain Portions of the Female Person, or with Certain Articles of Female Attire” (Ebbing, cited in Steele, 1996). Steele later went on to describe levels of fetishism, with Level 1 being the lowest with a slight preference for certain objects or partners, and Level 4 being the highest, where specific stimuli take the actual place of a sex partner.
Celebrated psychologist Sigmund Freud later developed Ebbing’s definition further, by extending the term ‘fetishism’ to include what he described as ‘castration anxiety’. Castration anxiety describes the terror felt by the male sex when they discover that the women in their life, starting with their mothers, do not have a penis. Freud argues that boys are born thinking that everyone has a penis, females included, but when they realise that females don’t have one, they assume it has been cut off, and therefore, theirs would be cut off too. This leads to a phenomenon know as ‘castration anxiety’.
For Freud, this is the birth point of any kind of fetishism. He claims that most fetishized objects have a certain ‘phallic’ symbolism, and that’s why most fetishists are men, who fantasize over some article of women’s attire. Taking shoes as an example, the stiletto heel of a shoe embodies the ‘phallic’ symbol, which is not exactly emblematic of a penis, but a phallic symbol is a representation of power, specifically sexual power. Men are attracted to women who wear high heels, as subconsciously they accept that the heel is a phallic representation.
This helps to allay their fears about castration, and thus they can drudge up the necessities required to perform and complete a sexual act with a woman. In relating these theories to contemporary fashion, it is evident that today’s fashion industry glorifies fetishist objects and outfits, on the basis that these are sexy, and will spice up anyone’s bedroom life. ‘Kinky’ is now the new ‘common’, due to the fashion industry being such a strong influence on its own. However, it is hard to accept the idea that all people are aware of and influenced by Freud’s theories.
In today’s world, sex and pornography are no more a thing of the past, but an accepted way of life, often thrust in our faces. Be it media, fashion, the internet, taboos are breaking and nowadays if someone is not some sort of sexual deviant, they are perceived as ‘weird’, and ‘close minded’. Medical or psychological connotations of this phenomenon are not taken into account when one indulges in fetishism or pornography. It is considered sexy, glamorous and amorous, and more often than not those are reasons enough for something to become a worldwide, globally accepted and practised occurrence.
Often, fashion system plays a pivotal role in defining who or what a person is. ‘You are what you wear’ is the norm of the day. One can argue that on a conscious level people accept that items like leather, corsets and heels etc (popular fetish items) are sexy, and thus they are so popular. On the other hand, can you also assume that on an extremely subconscious level (what Freud describes as the basest, the superego), everyone is a fetishist and these objects are so popular because they are a safe and accepted mode of displaying your basest instincts? This draws the question of what is ‘sexy’.
Where lays the boundary between ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ sexual behaviour and attraction? Most people are not even aware of the fact that they may be fetishists of some sort. Often times, most people shy away from accepting this fact about themselves, because fetishism though considered ‘cool’ only internally, is still a condemned sexual perversion on the outside, and no one wants to be labelled a pervert. However, I often wonder if people consciously act the way they do when it comes to their shopping habits only to fulfil their fetishist instincts and desires that exist on a subconscious level.
Freud also introduced another theory, that of the ‘Phallic Woman’. She is the woman who embodies eternal and complete phallic symbolism, either covertly or overtly, depending on the man looking at her. However, Freud’s interpretation and subsequent explanation of this is not sufficient. He leaves a lot to desire by actually discounting a woman’s craving or point of view in this theory. Ideally, it is only applicable to men, as genetically, women do not have penises.
Even in the case of men, it has been said that ‘If the penis were a phallic symbol, men would not need…neckties or medals. ‘ (Steele, Pg 17, 1996) For men, neckties, medals, fast cars, guns etc hold a deep sense of phallic symbolism. This does not mean they want a woman to wear or own these, but on a certain level, this can explain the male obsession with fast cars, high powered guns and fashionable accessories. Also taking into account the 60’s and 70’s, that were a transformation period for men’s fashion, and fetish fashion was often considered ‘common’ in this period.
Rock and roll singers and all male rock bands glorified and added a much needed dose of glam and dangerous rebellion to menswear. No longer were men wearing leather, or boots and chains with spikes considered weird. This surge of popularity in fetish fashion has carried on till date, with the result of it becoming a much more accepted form of dressing today. As I mentioned earlier, the fashion industry being as strong an influence on its own has indeed been a major, if not the sole player in bringing about this revolution.
It is said that ‘In particular, the illicit iconography of sexual fetishism was…. exhumed from the boudoir, closet, and the pornographic film and placed on the street. ‘ (Steele, Pg 37, 1996). Adding to this experience was the Grand Dame of fetish fashion, designer Vivienne Westwood. By opening a store on King’s Road called ‘SEX’, which sold all forms of bondage, rubberwear, leather and bizarre shows, Westwood claimed that her main raison d’etre for opening the store was though ‘bondage clothes were ostensibly restrictive, but when you put them on they gave you a feeling of freedom. (Westwood, cited in Steele, 1996) Though not introduced by Freud of Krafft-Ebbing, another theory as to why fetish fashion is so popular today, especially with women (though our motivation is different) is the concept of the ‘bad girl’ and ‘power dressing’. Fetish fashion often incorporates aspects of dominatrix gear, and therefore can be perceived as a ‘wicked’ offshoot of power dressing. The ‘bad girl’ image, a rebellious, open minded, care-a-damn woman appeals to most of us.
Designer Betsey Johnson was a pivotal player in spear heading this image, showcasing a fashion show in the 80’s at the Mudd Club, featuring ‘bad girls’ dressed in leather behind bars. The rise of Capitalism in recent years has also played a large role in the rise of popularity and acceptance in fetish inspired fashions. The fashion industry (in my opinion, for want of any of their own original ideas) plagiarised many fascinating items from the fetishist’s wardrobe.
Small/niche manufacturers that catered to ‘kinky’ people were no longer left exclusive, as trendsetters transferred their own style and personality to these outfits, which were then adopted by famous designers. Mass market and high street brands quickly followed suit, not wanting to miss out on their piece of the new in vogue pie that was fetish inspired fashion. This string of events was not limited to clothes, but included shoes, of which heeled shoes are a foremost player in today’s world of fetish fashion. Freud’s phallocentric theories of phallic symbolism are captured and explained best through a simple pair of high heeled shoes.
As I said earlier, being an avid shoe lover and collector myself, does that make me a shoe fetishist as well? Is Freud’s crazy theory about ‘castration anxiety’ applicable to me too? Why can’t I just say that I love sexy shoes? I love heels, I love the bright pumps with tiny detailing in the front, I love Louboutin inspired shoes with a red underside. Do I sound like an obsessed fetishist? Or can it be said that I know the power I wield when I wear a pair of sexy heels, particularly the power I wield over men.
Most women know about this ‘power’, and maybe so it can be argued that this is our equivalent interpretation to a sexually powerful and significant ‘phallic’ symbol. On the other hand, not every woman gets it into her head to go and shop for heels only because that means she can be the epitome of a phallic symbol, and thus snare any man who she wants and dispel his silly fears about castration. Maybe women just don’t know the ramifications of this symbolism, or maybe they simply don’t know that this is what it is called?
Nevertheless, phallic symbolism or not, every woman is aware of the concept of the ‘Male Gaze’, not to mention because we are subjected to it all the time. Men love to look at women, and women love being looked at. Most men love women who wear heels, though I can’t say for sure that they would get sexually aroused only by heel toting women. Most men would also not comprehend the concept of Freud’s castration anxiety, and even if they did, they would never agree or admit (whatever the case may be) that this fear of castration and subsequent replacement of the phallic symbol is the reason why women with heels turn them on.
There is another paradigm that can be put to use here. When a woman wears heels, there is a subtle, but totally noticeable shift in her body. To put it most effectively: ‘ The bones in my ankles cracked,…and my Achilles tendon bent backward…Hobbling down the avenue, I became acutely aware of…my body. My breasts jutted forward, while my back was severely arched. My ass felt bigger than a Buick, and my thighs, or rather my flanks, swung back and forth like a couple of sides of beef…Are these shoes disempowering? Do they enslave us? Are we rendered helpless by wearing them? The answer is yes! Yes! Of course!
What other point would there be in wearing them? ‘ (Magnuson, cited in Steele,1996). To any normal person, this sounds horrendous, but is it not obvious as to its effect on the men who look at us? Feminists would argue that maybe this dehumanises women, but then again, women are very much aware of this happening. We are not called the fairer sex for nothing. Every woman, regardless of her IQ level, knows the power of a heel. To massage a man’s ego it is important to make him feel all knowing and all dominant, while we act as damsels in distress, unable to even walk unaided thanks to our torturous heels.
Every man is attracted to a ‘helpless woman’, though we aren’t actually helpless, just pretending to be. The irony here is that women and men play this mating game, knowing of the implications associated with it. Some may call this reverse psychology, and some may just call us ‘bitches’, but at the end of the day, everyone knows it works, and we definitely don’t need to be thanking Freud for this! No sane woman would want a cabinet full of phallic symbols, and no man (homosexuals exempted) in his right mind would want a woman who reminds him of a sexually charged penis.
One can’t say Freud is completely wrong or inaccurate here, but he definitely does fail to take into account context, and also the fact that his theories are of a day and age which we consider prehistoric today. On an ending note, these debates can be disputed over for time immemorial. Everything is subjective, different people think differently. Clearly, Krafft-Ebbing and Freud can not be discounted as mighty contributors in this discussion, but to give them absolute and complete credit would also be wrong.
These theories fail to take into account what today’s world is like, that what was considered taboo those days is routine life today. Never would have one thought in the 1800s that the fashion industry would be such an authority, exerting influence over masses, the economy, social structure etc. Social, psychological and cultural corollary are not taken into account today. However, it is necessary to at least credit these big thinkers with introducing us to these concepts, their contents and details.
Without that, I would not be writing this paper, and nor would this phenomenon known as ‘fetishism’ be endowed with the duality of positive or negative, accepted or unaccepted, normal or abnormal and psychologically /sexually deviant or just plain cool. BIBLIOGRAPHY BOOKS: 1) Steele, V- Fetish: Fashion, Sex and Power, 1996, Oxford University Press Inc, United States of America. THE WEB: 1) www. archive. org/stream/psychopathiasexu00krafuoft 2) www. victorianweb. org/science/freud/develop. html 3) www. answers. com/topic/castration-complex 4) www. bad. eserver. org/issues/1998/41/wray. html