An object or body part which, real or fantasized presence, is psychologically necessary for an individual to achieve sexual arousal or climax.
The fetishized object is feet, or an accessory to feet, i.e., shoes, socks, nylons . . . (Technically, a foot fetish is called a Partialism, while a shoe fetish is called Retifism.)
In the first three parts of this series, I wrote about foot fetishism from a psychological diagnostic perspective. It is impossible to give an accurate answer to what a fetish is without discussing the history of the term, and its intended usage.
The word “Fetishism” was chosen as a label for the psychosexual disorder, in the late 19th century, as psychology began to classify psychiatric conditions. It was used exclusively in this way for nearly 70 years. As society has gradually become more accepting of fetishism, it’s definition has loosened considerably and is now commonly used in a contextually ambiguous way. Although, this has helped lessen the stigma attached to podophilia, it has also created confusion.
A lot of men (and a few women) are sexually aroused by another person’s feet, but a foot fetish requires a psychological event in childhood for its development. In this way, podophilia is the same as any fetish–a psychosexual disorder in which sexual arousal is exclusively triggered by a non-sexual object, i.e., shoes. Feet are different than other types of fetishized objects though; often sexualized without the exclusive, obsessive nature of fetishism. There have been many examples of foot adulation documented throughout history, and today it can be seen in cultures across the globe.
This is not fetishism, and it leaves a big question…
Why is it so common to sexualize feet?
Unlike other fetishes, which may solely be the result of a psychological catalyst, podophilia development has other influencing contributors. It is these other determinants which supply the root of foot sexualization without fetishism.
Several theories, from different areas of study, have been put forward to help explain this common male attraction to feet.
Evolutionary psychologists believe all sexual cues develop from the basic human need to procreate. As a species, “sex-in-design” is for this one reason. Everything from how good it feels, to recognizing subtle cues signifying a virile or fertile mate, has evolved from the human need to have more babies.
ANTHROPOLOGY PROFESSOR UCLA
Daniel Fessler has done a considerable amount amount of research on foot aesthetics. He and other notable evolutionary psychologists (i.e.Donald Symons), have collected data on foot preferences from dozens of world cultures. What they’ve found in each, with the exception of Indonesia (Kushnick), is an overwhelming male preference for small female feet.
Are small feet an innate cue, signaling a more fertile woman?
There are overlapping similarities between a small female foot and other evolutionary mate-selecting cues. Smaller feet are more common in “young, nulliparous, and slim women”–all markers of higher levels of estrogen, a sign of fertility, which coincidentally, also limits bone growth.
Researchers also point out, women’s feet grow during pregnancy, a time when they would be considered evolutionarily less desirable as a potential new mate.
They speculate, small feet are an “indirect indicator of a woman’s health and long term childbearing prospects.”
These theories support the idea that male sexual attraction to feet is normal, in varying degrees, and may make men susceptible to developing a foot fetish. However, it would still require a perfectly timed psychological event, for feet to become an exclusive arousal trigger–a fetish.
One thing, which has bothered me while researching foot fetishes, is the common misrepresentation of pseudo-studies as fact. I discussed this issue in part two of this series, citing the erroneous use of data collected on the prevalence of foot fetishes. Below is another example of theory, masquerading as fact. I debated whether to include it in this piece, and eventually decided it was necessary for two reasons. One, the information uncovered is fascinating and worth discussing. Two, it is one of the most referenced data points on foot fetishism, but it is usually overstated and misleading.
In 1998, Dr. James Giannini, Ohio State University, authored a study which hypothesized a relationship between sexually transmitted disease (STD) epidemics and foot fetishes. He proposed, when sex becomes a risky health hazard, more men displace their sexual arousal to something “safer”–feet.
Giannini, and his fellow researchers, analyzed historical literature during three of Europe’s historic STD outbreaks–the “great” gonorrhea epidemic of the 13th century, and the syphilis epidemics of the 16th and 19th centuries. They noted large increases of the sexualization of women’s feet during these times, and also showed foot interest “greatly” diminished, within a generation, after each epidemic.
To support their theory, researchers reviewed 30 years (1965-1998) of mass-circulated pornography magazines to determine if a similar spike in foot interest could be detected during the more recent AIDS epidemic. Analyzing back issues of the eight largest, “general” (non-fetish specific) pornography publications, they discovered, as you can see in the graph below, since the early 1980’s foot love has become increasingly prevalent in main stream pornography.
There are problems with interpreting this “study” as conclusive. However, the researchers were willing to address the issues. They documented awareness of both the subjectivity of the material analyzed, and of each individual researcher–careful not to draw unsupported conclusions. They go the extra distance by discussing and including other factors which could, theoretically, be responsible for the increase of foot love during these periods. They noted, specifically, the possibility of a correlation between eras which had increases in female empowerment, and a male displacement of attraction cues. Each of these STD epidemics coincide with periods of relative female emancipation–when women achieved more freedom or rights.
As I discussed in part 3 of this series, there is research linking foot fetishes, and an extreme, over-pronounced fear of women in a fetishists youth. This fear of women often contributes to the initial sexual arousal displacement to feet in podophilia. Perhaps, the increases in foot attraction during these times is a broader societal example of a similar phenomenon. In other words, it is not the fear of STDs, but the fear of emasculation by women, which creates an environment more conducive to male, sexual desire displacements.
You know what Freud would say…
This “study,” and the above evolution cue theories, offer fascinating and thought provoking ideas. Keep in mind, though, that is all they are–interesting ideas. Any study, research, or statistics presented as fact on foot fetishism should be viewed with a high degree of skepticism.
The most compelling evidence on sexual attraction to feet, having an innate or biological cause, comes from unintentional sources. Neurologists, while studying unrelated brain phenomenons, like epilepsy and phantom limb syndrome, have discovered direct links in the human brain, between feet and genitals.
In 1870, two scientists (Hitzig, Fritsch) published a paper, “On The Electrical Excitability of the cerebrum,” after experimenting on the brains of dogs. They electrically stimulated various areas of a dog’s motor cortex (part of the brain responsible for execution of the bodies movements) and observed, with each shock a different part of the dogs body contracted. Future neurologists would build off this research, applying similar methods to human brains, mapping the cerebral cortex, and giving a better understanding of how the brain views and controls the body.
DR. WILDER PENFIELD — NEUROSURGEON
In the 1920’s, Dr. Wilder Penfield began using a new technique prior to performing brain surgery on epileptics. He applied a local anesthetic to his patient’s scalp, opened their skull, and attached electrodes to the surface of the brain. The patient remained conscious, while Penfield administered mild electrical currents to different areas of the exposed brain. As he monitored for observable physical reactions, his patient described the effect each shock produced in their body. This allowed the doctor to target specific damaged areas of the brain during surgery.
Over the next twenty years, Penfield used the things he learned to map the cerebral cortex (the brains outer layer of neural tissue). This area of the brain has an important role in functions such as language, thought, memory, movement, and self awareness. He mapped both the primary motor cortex (part of the brain responsible for the processing and integration of motor information; movement) and primary somatosensory cortex (main sensory receptor area for the sense of touch).
This map, called the cortical homunculus, is how your brain sees your body. It shows which part of the cerebral cortex, controls which part of the body, and is often referred to as a “body image map”. Notice foot, toes, and genitals are adjacent to each other–to the brain, feet and genitals are in close proximity to one another on the body.
This map represents only half of the brain, and is duplicated on the other half, each controlling opposite sides of the body. Squished together at the very top on either half, are the genitals (more specifically the butt, then the genitals) followed by the toes and feet.
The proximity of the feet and genitals on the body image map, suggest that a neurological cause for foot attraction is possible.
Director of the Center for Brain and CognitionPsychology and Neurosciences Professor UCSD
More recent evidence of the neurological predisposition to sexualize feet comes from Neurologist Vilayanur S. Ramachandran’s studies on the brain malfunction which causes phantom leg syndrome. When an individual loses a body part, their brain is forced to rewire or remap the cerebral cortex.Sometimes the brain fails to erase the missing limb from its body image map, or the re-wiring is faulty.
Ramachandran found after the rewiring of a person’s “body image map” by the brain, many of his amputee patients reported feeling sexual pleasure and even orgasms in their missing foot. He proposed, because the genitals and the feet/toes are in adjacent areas of the somatosensory cortex, it could lead to cross-wiring or neural cross-talk between the two areas. An extension of the “neural cross-talk” theory is the possibility of the phenomenon known as “spreading activation” taking place.* When the foot sensation area in the somatosensory cortex lights up, it also may light up small areas around it–the genitals. This process would work in reverse as well; when an individual receives stimulation to the genitals, they may also feel a faint charge in their feet or toes. It’s important to note, as of yet, “spreading activation” has not been shown in this area of the brain.
Cross-wiring may help explain why feet and arousal are closely linked for many people. As Ramachandran said in his book, “Phantoms in the Brain; Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind”
While this neurological connection may be the basis for all foot attraction, it alone can’t answer all the mysteries of foot love.
For one, neural cross-talk can’t explain why it’s mostly men who are attracted to feet. The brain’s body image map is the same in both genders, but the vast majority of people who are sexually attracted to feet are male. It’s possible, the sexual stimulation confusion between feet and genitals exists equally in both genders, but manifest differently due to other factors. As Magnus Hirschfeld presented in the 1920’s on genders: women learn to present sexual stimulation to attract suitable male partners; men are sexually aroused by visuals–they naturally react to sexual stimulation.
Neural wiring also can’t explain why, or how feet become a sexual replacement for genitals in podophilia. Design may contribute to humans developing foot fetishism, but again, without a psychological foot-related event in childhood, it’s not likely. So podophilia may be highly influenced by this natural neurological connection, but really, foot attraction has nothing to do with fetishism.
Up next, part five in this series: The history of foot love
kisses and luv,