EVOLUTION OF THE PSYCHOLOGY OF FOOT FETISHISM
Sexual Fetishes are irrevocably tied to the “science” of psychology. They have been used as a platform by shrinks to hone their views on human sexuality, since the fields earliest days. Theories on podophilia development vary according to each school of thought in psychology. The differences, however, often have less to do with theory, and more to do with each schools’ attempt to establish their methods as the best approach to study mind and behavior.
Current psychological theories on foot fetishes have evolved gradually through expansion or revision, and many of the original thoughts on fetish development are still relevant today.
Knowing the history and influences of these theories is helpful in understanding them.
The word “fetish” has an interesting pre-psychiatric history. Although the contextual meaning varied over time, it was used primarily by western cultures to describe any object or act thought to hold supernatural power, or be irrationally worshiped by “primitive” or “lower on the evolutionary ladder” societies–basically anyone browner than they were.
For example, in the 15th century ‘fetish’ was used by Portuguese sailors to describe the superstitious charms worn around the necks of west African tribesmen, and later by European world travelers to describe tree marriage traditions in parts of India.
In the last decade of the 19th century, psychologists began to define and classify asexual behaviors. Their choice of the term “fetishism” was indicative of how sexual fetishists were seen.
It’s frequently presented as if there were no stigma attached to them, prior to “the evil” Dr. Sigmund Freud…
which is absolutely inaccurate.
From the beginning of its use, “erotic fetishism” was judged harshly–as a pathologically deviant sexual disorder. This perspective was evident in the earliest psychological writings on them.
Birth of the term “Sexual Fetishism”
After noting a rise in cases of fetishism, psychology experts of the day rushed to establish relevant theories on what they were, and why/how an individual developed them.
The first documented use of the term, in a sexual context, comes from French psychologist Alfred Binet (the IQ test guy). In a scientific journal essay, published in 1888, he suggests the word “fetishism” as the clinical diagnostic term for sexual object fixation.
Binet viewed sexual fetishism to be a sign of weak character–a perversion of degenerates and simple minded men–to him, and the psychology community at large, the word was a perfect fit. :(
“The term fetishist suits quite well, we think, this type of sexual perversion. Theadoration, in these illnesses, for inanimate objects such as night caps or high heels corresponds in every respect to the adoration of the savage or negro for fish bones or shiny pebbles, with the fundamental difference, that in the first case religious adoration is replaced by sexual appetite.” Alfred Binet– ‘Le Fétichisme dans l’amour’
Any perversion prior to this was causally referred to as degeneracy–meaning a hereditary weakness in the family pedigree (nature). Binet purposed a dual-origin theory on fetishism, “environment and hereditary, a chance event in childhood coupled with a degenerate character”. He was the first to officially add environment (nurture) to causation.
This is an important distinction, and the first step toward fetishism shedding the label of insanity.
His most important contribution however, is the assertion that some form of accidental association must occur between a non-sexual object, and arousal, for fetishism to develop. This basic concept continues to be a cornerstone of all (except one) accepted psychological theories on podophilia, and any variation consists of when and why the association occurs.
The Godfather of Psychology.
Richard Krafft-Ebing (Germany) was the worlds leading expert on psychosexual disorders in the early days of psychology. His interests were primarily in legal definitions, and public risk assessments of paraphilias. Krafft-Ebing wrote the first “forensic” text books on sexual disorders, the pinnacle being, “Psychopathia Sexualis: eine Klinisch-Forensische Studie (Sexual Psychopathy: A Clinical-Forensic Study)”. Although it was intended as a reference guide for judges and doctors in cases of a psychological nature, it also became an instant and lasting best-seller. This cemented his influence on how sexual “disorders” (sexuality in general), were seen by experts and the public.
Krafft-Ebing’s most significant impact came from his role as “godfather” of the psych world. His approval was crucial for any theory to be considered credible.
Krafft-Ebing agrees with Binet’s dual-origin theory, but stresses, without the degenerate character the childhood event would be irrelevant. He also finds the impact of accidental association on fetishism development to be an accurate assessment. Ebing points out however, Binet’s theory lacked an explanation of ‘how accidental association in childhood becomes a lifelong, persistent obsession’.
This question became a point of contention between the different schools of psychology, as did the question, ‘what type of childhood event spawns fetishism’. There have been several competing theories over the years, and to this day are highly debated issues.
British psychologist Havelock Ellis thought he’d found the answers to both questions.
Ellis is often referenced for his work on gay, gender, and transgender identity. He wrote the first English language medical text book on homosexuality, “Sexual Inversions”. For the era he lived in, Ellis was an open-minded guy on sexuality. He was an admitted Urolagniac, who remained impotent and a virgin until the age of 60. His own experiences made him less judgmental of perceived perversions of the day. . .
perhaps too much sometimes.
Ellis analyzed 21 gay couples, seven of whom were “cross-generational relationships” (pedophiles! gross), he concluded homosexuality was similar, in most aspects, to heterosexuality. Ellis refused to label the acts and emotions, which emerged in those relationships, as criminal or pathological. He believed perversions were only variations of normal sexual behavior.
In the decades that followed, Ellis applied those views to his theories on fetish development; believing a fetishist and a homosexual were psychologically similar.
Already Psychology case studies were demonstrating that a podophiliac’s interest in feet begins before puberty. This, combined with the acceptance that during certain developmental stages, a child is highly susceptible to creating lifelong attachments and behavioral habits, gives the basis for Ellis’ fetishism theories.
While Ellis agrees with Binet and Krafft-Ebbing on the nurture/nature aspect, which he calls “the seed and the soil,” he makes several distinctions which will give foundation to future theories on podophilia.
In his theory of erotic symbolism, Ellis noted some fetishists replace the “whole” person, in favor of an individual body part or object, which he believed led to detached and depersonalized sexual relations. He also asserted, fetishists generally have an “over-connected” relationship to their mothers, and proposed the radical idea that very young children have erotic emotions (again gross!). He believed these childhood awakenings enabled the early sexual displacement required for fetishism to develop.
Ellis’ ideas set the stage for Freud’s theories on fetishism.
Psychoanalysis — “The Castration Complex”
Freud’s psychoanalysis teaches: all human behavior is controlled by deep rooted mysteries in the unconscious–usually stemming from early childhood, the mother, and the penis (Freud didn’t care much about a woman’s mind). He believed “deviant” sexual behavior was the result of stifling the libido (psychosexual energy), or the repression of the id by the super-ego.
Freud did not accept that fetishes were biologically caused–neither a degeneracy (genetic), nor pathological (caused by disease). He considered them a type of neurosis. This enabled a permanent break in labeling fetishism as an inherited insanity or psychosis.
Freud’s fetishism theories incorporated both accidental association, which he called random association, and Ellis’ theory that very young children have erotic emotions.
He pushed the “over-connected to mom” aspect further with his Oedipus complex theory, which states in part. . .
A boy has an innate desire to have sex with his mother until the latency stage begins, and fears his father will harm him for this desire.
In his 1927 essay, “Fetishism,” Freud asserted that fetishes are caused by a traumatic childhood event–specifically, a boy’s personal confrontation with the castration complex. When the child discovers mom doesn’t have a penis, he fears losing his–possibly as punishment by dad. This creates intense anxiety in the child, who then chooses a safe substitute for the missing penis (maternal phallus), often feet to sooth his fears.
Sounds a little out-there. . . :|
However, consider the castration complex from a figurative perspective: Freud noted, as Ellis before him, many men with foot fetishes were socially awkward and under-socialized youths. He was the first to directly address the connection between fetishism, and male submission (a common coupling, although not an absolute).
According to Freud: when a shy or repressed boy enters puberty, and is unable to engage the true source of his attraction, he displaces the arousal to something that feels safe, i.e., the feet.
A five year old boy’s overbearing mother has him massage her feet, while she criticizes him or his father. Years later, as puberty begins, the boy is excessively uncomfortable around girls; rather than looking in their eyes, or at their breasts, he stares at their feet. They become a safe substitute for his sexual desires.
So, if Freud’s theory is taken as a metaphorical fear of castration (perhaps described more accurately as fear of emasculation), it could be said that a man develops fetishism from anxiety of rejection, or fear of women. . .
not mom’s missing dick.
Many of Freud’s techniques continue to be used, even though he failed to prove a single theory, or achieve any success with his patients. He was also disingenuous with case studies, using unfounded logic to reach predetermined conclusions, and believed observation was irrelevant to theory.
Needless to say, not everyone agreed with Freud.
By 1910, psychology had moved away from traditional step-by-step research styles, and into a theoretical structure system. Each school of thought developed umbrella philosophies, and specific methods of study for human behavior. Shrinks generally identified with a single school of thought–causing a narrowness to their approach and research of a topic.
Behaviorism — “Classical Conditioning and Imprinting”
As Freud’s psychoanalysis was becoming the “darling of psychology,” other schools emerged to challenge it, most notably, behaviorism. The difference between these two schools is primarily their research methods. While psychoanalysis uses psychodynamic introversion techniques, a behaviorist believes the opposite, “If it can’t be seen and measured, it can’t be studied.”
Although it was Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov’s classical conditioning experiments that inspired behaviorism, he was not a psychologist, and had no involvement in the school.
It was John B. Watson (American), who first popularized “classical behaviorism” with his 1913 essay, “psychology as the Behaviorist Views It.” He felt psychology had failed to become a “natural science” because of the “non-scientific, hocus-pocus” methods employed by Freud and others (this led to heated and amusing articles in the psych journals).
Watson followed the philosophy that babies are born “Tabula Rasa” (blank slates). All behavior is learned and correctable through conditioning–this included fetishism. He and other behaviorists agreed that accidental association was a necessary component in forming fetishism, but they have conflicting views on how it becomes an immutable life-long compulsion.
Classical conditioning works by having multiple exposures to a stimulus, which would mean feet associated with sexual pleasure repeatedly, until they became tied permanently to sexual arousal. Explaining how fetishism develops without repetitive associations created a problem for behaviorists, and led to the addition of the imprinting theory. Adapted from ethology (study of animal behavior), imprinting is rapid learning that is age or “phase” sensitive. Children are most susceptible to environmental influences at particular stages of development. There is a critical period for learning certain things, such as language. During this crucial time (usually between 5 and 8 for podophilia development), a single occurrence can leave a profound and lasting impression on an individual. Behavioral theorists suggest, while emotional significance is attributed to feet through imprinting in early childhood, classical conditioning also likely occurs during puberty for a foot fetish to develop (fundamentally, not that different from Freud’s theories).
Imprinting has never been demonstrated in fetishists and many experts object to its application as an over-simplistic view on fetishism development.
There have been however, a few note-worthy conditioning experiments on fetishism. One study, conducted in 1968 (Rachman), attempted to condition seven adult males without paraphilias, to develop podophilia. The men were repeatedly shown a picture of a nude attractive female, along side an image of a woman’s black boot. Later, five developed partial erections when shown the picture of the boot on its own, and three got “semis” when shown pictures of different styles of black boots and shoes (only black though). Since then, these findings have been replicated several times. This lends credibility to the behaviorist belief that podophilia can be, at least sometimes, conditioned.
***When I looked deeper into the Rachman study I found complaints of manipulated results and flawed methodology.***
As for the behaviorist’s theory that fetishism can be “corrected” through conditioning and aversion therapy. . .
. . . shrinks have subjected fetishists to absurd, and many times cruel, treatment methods in an attempt to cure them of their obsession. . .
all have failed miserably.
The Einstein of sex. — “Partial Attractiveness”
Magnus Hirschfeld was an early champion of gay, transgender rights, and had one of the only original psychological theories on fetishism. His views on “perversions,” as well as his methodology, were progressive and unusual for the early 20th century.
Hirschfeld used biology to investigate the mind and behavior. Using standard scientific methods, he analyzed fluid secretions, raised heart beats, and other physical reactions to mental stimuli. He relied on a person’s body chemistry, anatomy, and other biological factors to determine psyche.
Hirschfeld also drew ideas from evolutionary and genetic theories. This gave him a unique perspective, and led to some truly original thoughts on fetishes.
In 1920, Hirschfeld puts forth his ‘partial attractiveness theory’ (mentioned in part one), it proposed fetishism is present in all humans to some degree. He believed even in a sexually “normal” individual, attraction was never to a “whole” person, but rather to individual features or personality traits collectively.
my attraction cues. . .
Hirschfeld’s views are the predecessor for modern psychological interpretations of fetishism. He proposed: a fetish only becomes detrimental when an individual over-values a specific object or body part, to the point where the “whole” person loses significance and is replaced. He also suggested: if a fetish isn’t adding undo stress to an individuals life, it shouldn’t be considered a psychological disorder. This is comparable to how psychology views podophilia today.
Pediatric psychoanalyst — “Transitional Objects”
With Freud’s lack of success and over-the-top theories, one would think psychoanalysis would have died with him. It has managed to survive however, and remains taught in every psychology program in the world; partly because of men like Donald Winnicott who progressed the theories in a more digestible and relevant way. After Freud’s death the school of psychoanalysis split in three directions: (1) Kleinian, (2) Freudian, and (3) independent (these exist to this day). Donald Winnicott was an independent-thinking shrink; his writing and theories were carefully disdainful of Freud’s views.
Winnicott stressed the importance of play in childhood development, and considered it key to emotional and psychological well-being. He theorized it was through imagination play that a child began to search for their “true self” and developed a confident, independent identity.
Winnicott’s theory of transitional objects proposed: during the early stages of identity separation, a child will attach to an object for comfort. The object becomes a substitute for the primary caretaker–often mom, in her absence. It has a quality of being both real and made-up; a crossover item that exists as a bridge between two necessary stages of childhood development.
This is usually a healthy phenomenon which occurs as children realize they do not control the world around them; the object is their first “not me” possession.
Winnicott suggested that a fetish developed when a child was unable to make a healthy transition from one developmental stage to the next. This kept the object (feet) a permanent transitional object (an illusion and real) throughout the fetishist’s lifetime. He believed it was not until puberty, as the fetishist needs change, that an object became sexualized.
In a non-clinical survey conducted in the 1990’s, Dr. Martin Weinberg and his colleagues collected data from 262 members of an online gay foot fetish group called “The Foot Fraternity”. They concluded from this data, only 25% of podophiliacs suffered psychological problems, and even fewer had sought treatment for their fetish. They also reported, the object generally became sexualized at puberty, and the fetishist’s earliest memories of feet (or object) were predominantly positive. Only a small percentage of these men were submissive, under-socialized youths.
This survey, along with thousands of case studies, show that Winnicott’s approach to fetishism was reasonably valid. One can’t deny however, the common connection between a podophiliac submissive, (desires humiliation, torture or domination from their fetish), and adolescent social disorders.
While each fetishist’s relationship with feet (object) is unique, all trace their first foot love experiences back to specific events or memories in childhood. Perhaps, it is the type of childhood event that determines a podophiliac’s relationship with their fetish.
There have been no original (credible) theories introduced on the psychological causes of podophilia in the 60 plus years that followed Winnicott. This is partly due to dramatic changes in how psychology and the public defines sexuality and paraphilias. Many things, once considered a detrimental deviance, are now considered normal, including foot fetishes. Psychology no longer theorizes about podophilia in the general ways of its founders; each case of podophilia is seen and treated as unique. However, keep in mind, all shrinks have been taught the above theories on fetishism. Chances are, if a podophiliac seeks psychiatric therapy, or even a better understanding of their fetish through psychology, it is the above theories that will be offered to them as explanation.
Remember, unless a fetish is causing extreme stress or problems in an individuals life. . .
it is not fetishism. :)
Society has normalized podophilia to the extent that it no longer has a specific meaning. Examples of foot sexualization is common, and people hardly take notice when someone claims to have a foot fetish. This acceptance has helped lessen the stigma on foot fetishism (yea!). However, in the rush to say foot fetishes are completely normal, we are missing the bigger picture.
Why is foot attraction so common?
Only a very small percentage of the world population has a foot fetish by psychology standards (about 1.5% in my estimation). Foot love, on the other hand, is represented in one form or another, in every world culture past and present (part five). The key in distinguishing between the two, is understanding the psychological roots of podophilia development.
Finding out why it’s so common to sexualize feet, (without the childhood psychological catalyst of fetishism), will not be answered by psychology.
Up next in part four. . .
Compelling new research has emerged showing the sexualization of feet may have both a neurological and maybe even an evolutionary cause. . .
Kisses and Luv,