Digging deep into the fetish mindset
Originally published in Hustler Magazine.
Recently I was engaged in some pillow talk on the phone with one of my regular phone-sex clients after a particularly intense Mommy-Domme session. We were chatting about what aspects of the call—and the Mommy/little boy dynamic—turned us on when he said, as if to defend or justify why he enjoyed the fantasy, “I think this turns me on because I have mommy issues.”
I responded that I think that it turns me on because mothers in our culture are often desexualized (the MILF category, after all, has very little to do with actual motherhood), and it allows me to claim some sort of sexual power in the very act of mothering.
But later, after I hung up the phone, I started to wonder why we felt compelled to explain to each other why the fantasy got us off, as if just enjoying the moment wasn’t enough. We could perhaps chalk it up to the taboo nature of this particular kink, but it isn’t just taboo kinks and fetishes that folks attempt to explain away.
After half a decide in the sex industry, I have been exposed to hundreds of people with wildly different kinks and fetishes. Quite often—particularly within the context of phone sex, because it’s heavily dialogical—my clients spend a lot of time talking about the origins of their particular desires: tickling, spanking, belt whipping, being called Daddy, pacifiers, leather, feet, nylons, balloons, breath play, bondage, exhibitionism, cross dressing, cucking, small penis humiliation, cock and ball torture, and forced chastity, to name a few.
Dr. Celeste Pietrusza, a clinical psychologist who wrote her PhD dissertation on kink practices and now works as a therapist to folks in the kink, poly, BDSM, sex work and LGBTQ communities—says that the quest to understand the origin of our particular sexual proclivities is natural, because the quest to understand ourselves in all aspects of our lives is natural. “As a child we ask, ‘Why this, why that?’” Pietrusza observes. “We have a drive to ask why we are the way we are. Not just with sexuality, but with our existence.” This, in other words, is an existential question. Sexuality is just one part of this.
We have a drive to ask why we are the way we are. Not just with sexuality, but with our existence.Celeste Pietrusza
Sexuality, however, may be a particularly weighty part of this. This is in no small part, Pietrusza admits, because psychology as a discipline, “hasn’t traditionally seen fetishes and kink in a sex-positive light.” While this has changed in the last 20 years, Pietrusza comments, “The discipline itself has historically pathologized these things.” In other words, psychologists have talked about them as a problem, leading folks to feel shame and seek to understand what is wrong if they have kinks and fetishes.
This can be seen, for example, in the way that my client and I interpreted our sexual experience. He said he wanted to call me Mommy because he has issues with his own mother. I said I wanted him to suck on my tits and ask for my permission to come because I’m tired of being stripped of my identity and sexuality simply because I have children.
But people do this with other sorts of kinks and fetishes as well. Let’s look at three examples: bondage, feet, and stockings.
Within BDSM (bondage/discipline; dominance/submission; sadism/masochism), bondage is one of the most visible and common. Pietrusza says, “My sense is that bondage is probably a thing many people do to dip their toes into BDSM.” This is in part, she says, because there is pleasure in restraint. “Surrender is a pretty common fantasy, as is the desire to feel powerless,” Pietrusza notes. We can see this in our cultural tropes, such as the damsel in distress. “This has something to do with coming to the point of crisis and then being saved,” she explains.
Some of Pietrusza’s patients have tried to understand why they are drawn to bondage, but they often come up short. “I have had patients who want to try to find the answer and are often unsatisfied,” she says. “It is not that there’s nothing there, it’s just not predictive or explanatory.” While they can often come up with a story about why they think they like bondage, that story doesn’t really explain why the particular practice is pleasurable.
Foot fetishists tend to talk about themselves as unworthy. Pietrusza notes, “A lot of men who have foot fetishes want to idealize women.” But she goes on to say that this idealization is often also tied to its opposite. She says, “The woman is both divine and dirty.” Feet walk on the ground, she points out, and “the ground can be sacred and profane.”
Many of the men Pietrusza has worked with who have these sorts of fetishes have talked about the desire to submit to female power and grandeur. My own clients, when they talk about worshiping my feet, like to tell me that they are not worthy of anything above my ankles. Their origin stories about their foot fetishes often aren’t about the moment in time that it started, but rather about the inferiority they feel (or want to feel) at the foot of a woman.
The eroticization of female power is transgressive precisely because it is rare in our culture. “A lot of my research is about how fantasies flip the social script,” Pietrusza says. “It is taboo in capitalist culture to not want to be the one in power.”
Those who have a fetish for stockings or nylons often tell a story about the first time they noticed nylons, saw an older woman putting them on, felt them, etc. Many of my clients have told me these stories and attributed their own desires to wear them to these erotically charged moments in their past.
Pietrusza tries to move her patients away from these narratives—not because she doesn’t believe that there was a first time, but because it seems more fruitful to focus on what the experience is doing for them in the present moment. She likes to ask questions like “What do they do?” and “How do they move?”
“In adult life we deprioritize movement, sound [and] touch,” Pietrusza says. Fetishes around stockings or nylons or other lingerie often re-centers these tactile sensations.
As with other fetishes, Pietrusza says that the problem isn’t in these kinks themselves. There is nothing wrong with enjoying wearing nylons, kissing feet or being tied to the bed. And often, trying to identify and pin down the reason why you are into these things only further pathologizes them. “The suffering is not in the fetish itself,” Pietrusza says. “It is not that you love and want stockings. It’s more that you get stuck there.” Rather than fixating, Pietrusza suggests that we give ourselves the freedom to appreciate the fantasy and enjoy it, without pinning it down to a particular memory, time or problem. She emphasizes, “It doesn’t have to harm your life. It doesn’t have to be excluded from your life.”
In fact, Pietrusza suggests that kinks and fetishes can be an incredible well of human sexual creativity. There can also be an elegance to it. “There is something about kinks and fetishes that foster a certain mood or atmosphere,” she says. “There is no shame in having kinks and fetishes as an aspect into your sexuality. They can elevate, improve, and intensify the experience.”
Perhaps being able to fully embrace one’s fetish or kink involves accepting it and enjoying it without the need to explain it away. There is always an element of mystery in our erotic lives, making it all the more interesting.
Jessie Sage is a sex worker and writer based in Pittsburgh, PA. She’s also the co-founder of Peepshow Magazine and the co-host of the Peepshow Podcast. Her words can be found in the Washington Post, VICE’s Motherboard, Hustler Magazine, Men’s Health, BuzzFeed, and more. She’s currently writing a book on sex work, motherhood, and illness called An Unexpected Place (forthcoming on West Virginia University Press).