Directing attention to the atypical by labeling it deviant is a time-proven way of utilizing shame as a social control. “Why can’t you be more like x?” is the parental equivalent of the social admonition “don’t rock the boat” and the childhood condemnation of “you’re a weirdo.” The modern notion of declaring someone insane who’s ideas or behavior is disagreed with, simply carries this tendency forward. Given the power of human sexuality and its ability to inspire change in individuals and society, there’s little surprise that it holds a special place for the labeling of deviancy.
Sexual behavior that is deemed atypical has usually been labeled as a “fetish” or, for the more academically-minded, a “paraphilia.” The latter is usually reserved for noting a behavior as harmful or as a variation of mental illness. Unfortunately the two are often looked at as synonymous and there’s a great deal of confusion as to just what “harmful” means. As with calling someone “weird” who simply behaves outside a particular conservative vision of humanity, the atypical becomes considered harmful simply to attempt stopping it occurring.
For clarification, Sternberg (2014):
“For sex researchers (and for this blog post), “fetish” specifically refers to a strong sexual preoccupation with an object, material or body part. Fetishism is not in itself recognized as a psychiatric disorder.”
“A fetish might be an important part of someone’s sexual identity, but it is not the same as someone’s sexual orientation or their gender expression” (Sternberg, 2015).
Importantly here is the distinction between fetish as the labeling of a particular behavior and fetish as a general descriptive term. The former directs attention to those behaviors deemed, from within the construction of a “societal norm,” outside that structure. The latter is, going back to Sternberg, “a sexual preoccupation with an object, material or body part.”
A basic Google search for “fetish” will come up with lists, to varying degrees exhaustive, detailing one-off declarations of sexual interest found throughout human experience. The sheer enormity of the so-called “paraphilias” has served to titillate the budding teen curiosity and resulted in an uncounted number of heads being shaken in bewilderment. What seems to be the case is, far from being deviant in the general sense, fetishes are simply a natural outgrowth of human sexuality.
As Ogas (2012) notes in a Psychology Today article:
“Men and women do not suffer from ‘atypical’ or ‘deviant’ fetishes, but rather possess a range of typical sexual interests that can mostly be predicted from the natural operation of healthy sexual mechanisms in the brain.”
The ability to focus on a particular object, material or body part as a locus for sexual arousal is, as a general rule, rather standard practice. This process of association, from general to specific and vice versa, is no different than other arousal systems on the emotional spectrum. Anger can expand from a general feeling to being inspired by a particular event or person associated with it, as is the case when upset over inequality and then a particular example allows for it to be focused on. Stress and anxiety, an arousal system directing attention to that deemed potentially damaging, can become associated with broader places from isolated incidences, as in when becoming lost and later the whole place inspires wariness and concern.
Acknowledging and accepting arousal and it’s ability to be broadened or limited through the process of mental association can be helpful in understanding the sheer enormity of human sexuality. What this allows is a more nuanced view of identifying that which is harmful or distressing. Sternberg’s article references the DSM-IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual), but since then the DSM-V has come out and changes were made in an attempt to clear up a great deal of misunderstanding.
“Most people with atypical sexual interests do not have a mental disorder. To be diagnosed with a paraphilic disorder, DSM-5 requires that people with these interests:1) feel personal distress about their interest, not merely distress resulting from society’s disapproval; or2) have a sexual desire or behavior that involves another person’s psychological distress, injury, or death, or a desire for sexual behaviors involving unwilling persons or persons unable to give legal consent” (APA).
As is the case with most pathologies, the diagnosis of a paraphilia requires there to be distress and/or unwilling harm to self and/or others. Distress is viewed as requiring the identification of a clinically significant disruption to one or more areas of a person’s life. There is much work still to be done in removing the stigma from particular consensual sexual practices, though this is a good step in moving deviancy away from the realm of the merely different.
Stepping away from the disease-model of psychology, we can see where diagnosis does not require a life-time commitment. If the systems of arousal work through the associational processes of our minds, as they seem to, then behavior that is destructive or harmful can be shifted and changed through healthy and humanistic interventions.
Most important for the journey of healthy expression and human exploration is the acceptance of our sexuality as a source for arousal, one that is not, in itself, cause for shame or to be labeled and shunted away into the back of a behavioral drawer. The multiplicity of human fetishes is not grounds for the identification of deviancy, but an indication of our profound ability to find meaning and pleasure in life.
© David Teachout
Ogas, O. (2012). Fetishes do not exist. Retrieved April 23, 2016, from Psychology Today, https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/billion-wicked-thoughts/201205/fetishes-do-not-exist
Association, A. P. (2016). Psychiatry.Org. Retrieved April 23, 2016, from https://www.psychiatry.org/psychiatrists/practice/dsm/dsm-5
Sternberg, R. (1998). Understanding sexual Fetishes and Paraphilias. Retrieved April 23, 2016, from http://kinseyconfidential.org/sexual-fetish-blog-post/