Thursday, September 2, 2021

Fighting Shame in BDSM: Fetishism By Gloria Brame, Ph.D., Board-certified sexologist

Mutually consensual fetishism is a normal part of the sexual spectrum. It can’t be cured. You can’t fix what isn’t broken.

A fetish is when you feel a powerful erotic response to something normally considered outside the realm of sex. Society, psychiatry, and the law have long treated fetishes as a type of psychopathy.
Is it? Let’s find out.
In this piece, I’m focusing on the myths that make fetishists question their needs. Fetishists are a world unto themselves, almost infinitely diverse in their specific interests. What unites them is the pain of feeling alone in their fetishes and being afraid that they’re freaks.


We don’t know. Sex scientists are still trying to piece it all together. I believe that one day we will find a genetic marker for kinks and fetishes.
Consider this enigma: even when they come from different backgrounds, religions, and nationalities, and without a common language, people who share the same fetishes can have ecstatic experiences together. Whether they were born in Peoria or Pakistan, people who share the same fetish will gravitate towards the same fetish porn and masturbate to the same fantasies.
From 30 years of research and experience, and particularly my private practice where I’ve worked with hundreds of fetishists, I have built an etiology of how fetishists sexually develop. 99% of my clients said they fit this model, so my theory may be proven out in the future.
Meanwhile, this is what I’ve got (the condensed version): first, we’re born with fetish tendencies. Then comes nurturing and exposure to things in early childhood. By adulthood, fetishists have well-defined erotic needs, which then develop further according to their life choices and opportunities.
The bottom line: maybe/probably a genetic marker, then childhood and adolescent sexual formation which makes them permanently lean into specific fetishes that become treasured aspects of their sexual imagination by the time they’re grown-up. As with all things sexual, fetish can become a sacred and beautiful act; or it can become a place of shame and self-hatred.

Stereotype: Fetishists are Weirdos


Traditional Narrative: Fetishists are sex-obsessed degenerates.

Facts: Think of all the lingerie shops out there. They didn’t get there by accident. Fetishists are everywhere.
Fetishists are your neighbors, friends, teachers, and pastors. (Trust me, I know.) The vast majority of them enjoy their kinks, live their lives, and don’t bother anyone.
Fetishism occurs in ordinary people, extraordinary people, and the neurodiverse. Not surprisingly, since fetishism is a universal human trait, it also occurs in people with poor impulse control and substance abuse issues. When it does, that can mean they’re at risk of doing inappropriate things.
Take Away: There are tens if not hundreds of millions of people with erotic fetishes who lead happy lives. Media tends to focus on the exceedingly small handful who commit harm to get outrage clicks.

Stereotype: Fetishists Can’t Love People as Much As They Love Their Fetish

Traditional Narrative: Fetishists don’t make true connections, they only use partners to play out their fantasies.
Facts: Fetish doesn’t turn a person mean, selfish, or closed-off to meaningful connection. Those traits are either there or they’re not. That said, I’ve heard many partners of fetishists say they feel like the 3d wheel in the relationship. Often, that’s because they have put their fetish partner in the position of choosing between them and their fetish.
Asking someone to sacrifice their inborn needs for the sake of love is, at best, a very big ask and, at worst, emotional hell for their partner.
Of COURSE, fetishists experience love. They particularly love those who do not demonize their fetish or make them feel ashamed of who they are inside. When someone mandates “it’s me or the fetish” they inflict a wound as deep as asking someone to give up their faith or their dreams to hang on to a relationship. The tragedy is that many fetishists try to do that out of love and respect for their families — and end up ruining their own lives by living in a state of self-denial and self-hatred.
Take Away: Fetishists are just as capable of love as anyone else. Their fetish is simply the most intensely pleasurable experience they can have in bed.

STEREOTYPE: Fetishism Must Be Cured

Traditional Narrative: Fetishists need shrinks to fix them.
Facts: Ah! That would mean so much business for me if it was true! But, nope, it’s baloney.
Fetishism is a normal part of the sexual spectrum. It can’t be cured. You can’t fix what isn’t broken. You simply can’t cure the needs and desires people are born with.
Anyone who says otherwise is trying to sell something.
At best, people can suppress those needs. That may leave them feeling like they’ve never really lived their lives to the fullest. That they’ve never had the ultimate ecstasy their minds and bodies need.

Take Away: Fetishists are as normal as anyone else.


Fetish clients laugh sometimes when I tell them, “Oh, yes, don’t worry, that’s normal for a fetishist.” No one ever told them they were normal before! I run my theories on fetish development by them, though, and they stop laughing and start gasping with happiness. They realize that they ARE normal — just kinky normal, not conformative normal. So I’m adding this bonus to illustrate my theory of Fetish development.

Brame’s Seven Stages of Sexual Development in Fetishists

Adapted and edited from The Truth About Sex: Vol 2.
1. In early childhood, they have innocent (non-sexual) but unusual (fascinated or excited) reactions to body parts, specific activities, or material objects.

2. In puberty, things that formerly intrigued them are becoming parts of their erotic imagination.

3. In their teens, fetish themes begin to pervade their private fantasies. If they masturbate, their fetish interest may center in their fantasies.

4. In young adulthood, it’s common for them to think that once they have intercourse or get married, the fetish will subside. Fortunately, more and more young adults understand these days that a fetish is a fixed part of their erotic imaginations– even if they remain ashamed or confused about it.

.5. In the “settling down years,” the choice of a partner will shape whether or not fetishists act on their desires. Some find partners who share or learn to love their partners’ fetishes; others marry people who are uncomfortable, even hostile, to the fetish; and the majority of people fall in between those two relationship paradigms.

6. By the age of full adult sexual maturity, the fetish is a fixture of their sexuality. If they can’t share it with their spouse or partner, they may secretly masturbate to fetish porn.

7. Post-Prime: the older BDSM/fetish people get, the greater their need for kink/fetish sex to feel fully alive. By this time, regardless of marital status or how ashamed they may feel inside, they feel driven to have the experiences they’ve craved their whole lives before they die.

Dr. Gloria Brame is an award-winning sex therapist and best-selling author. Contact her at