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Is Devotion A Fetish?

by J.

In sexually dimorphic species one of the sexes usually initiates mating behaviour. In mammals males usually select potential mates from the population of females, and this is what happens in many human societies. Among human beings, in societies where individuals are free to choose sexual partners, where mariages are contracted through mutual attraction, for love, rather than by arrangement, it is usually the man that chooses to approach a particular woman, and his reason for approaching her must, in the first place, be in response to at least one cue he perceives at a distance and finds attractive. In contrast a woman typically finds a man presenting himself to her as a potential mate, and may accept him or reject him in response to cues that depend on interaction, or which are perceptible only when she is close to him.

Of course the preceding statements are over-simplifications, but they describe in broad terms the way many people come together to form sexual partnerships. Because of the asymmetry in the behaviour of the sexes in pairing, the cues that attract men to women are likely to be different from the cues that attract women to men. There is added confusion because it seems that the features of women that men find attractive may be very different from the features of women that the women themselves imagine to be attractive. The converse appears to be equally true: the aspects of the male that men imagine are attractive are very different from those that women actually find attractive. One of the main differences between the responses of men and women to each other seems to be the importance of appearance as a determinant of sexual attractiveness: it seems to be more important to men, less important to women. In contrast, women seem to be much more sensitive to, and much more affected by subtle olfactory cues than men. It may be that differences for men and women in the importance of physical appearance are less real than they seem. Men are relatively free to say what they feel about sexual matters: women, in contrast, are expected to be reticent and modest. It may be that a woman finds the cues detectable at a distance almost as important in selecting a man as a man does in selecting a woman, the difference being that it is acceptable for a man to admit to being affected by such cues while it is less acceptable for a woman to do so. The differences in the courtship behaviour of men and women may therefore be reinforced by social convention; but I am sure that social convention alone is not solely responsible for these differences; if it were, there would be no reason to expect that a particular sex would be the initiator of courtship behaviour, and in any particular society neither sex would be more likely than the other to take the role of initiator; therefore, in about half of a sample of different societies the females would be expected to initiate courtship, and in the other half the males would. Though societies do exist in which the women make the selection, such societies are a small minority of those studied. This evidence supports the hypothesis that there are underlying biological differences that determine the ways in which courtship takes place.

Men are likely to vary in the importance that they place on physical appearance as a determinant of the sexual attractiveness of potential mates. In the mind of each adolescent male, as he approaches adulthood, a pattern develops, an ideal, and he finds women attractive in proportion to their conformity with the pattern. The development of this ideal may take a very long time: there is evidence, for example, that an attraction to amputees may be felt in early infancy and may contribute the dominating factor in the development of the devotee's pattern of attraction. It is not clear if this very early experience determines the broad features of the development of the pattern of preference of other men. I suspect that it is generally true that the important features of the pattern that identifies the ideal partner are determined unexpectedly early in life. However it is only in adolescence that the pattern will begin to affect objectively observable behaviour to a significant extent. It is likely that the patterns will vary in their specificity, some men having narrowly limited preferences, others having more catholic tastes. Success in finding potential partners will depend on two factors: the specificity of the patterns, and the frequency with which women conforming to the patterns occur in the population of women overall. I suggest that being attracted to people with stigmata, devotees have patterns that lie at the extreme of variation of such patterns. For the devotee, the pattern that evokes the highest degree of attraction is precisely specified, and the proportion of the population that conform to the pattern is minute, so it is not surprising that on the very rare occasion he encounters a person conforming to his ideal, he experiences feelings of adoration, and is attracted to the person very strongly indeed. Unless the pattern for the selection of mates depends strongly on the appearance of the ideal mate there can be no way that a person can become a devotee, and this I believe is the reason that almost all devotees are male, a consequence of the biological asymmetry between the sexes in courtship. Aspects of this attraction, especially the precisely specified evoking stimulus and the intensity of the attraction, seem to have affinities with fetishism, but I believe that the phenomenon of devotion is fundamentally different from the phenomenon of fetishism.

When I first began to discuss the attraction some feel towards others who are amputees I used the term amputation fetishism because the few references I had found in the literature about sexual deviancy referred to that category of people, a category to which I felt I belonged.

Afterwards I came across the term devotee. I wasn't too impressed with the word 'devotee' because it imposes a special technical meaning on a perfectly ordinary word that everybody knows the meaning of; and on Šsthetic grounds I was appalled by the word 'devoteeism' which I suppose must be taken to mean the practice of being a devotee. If you must have 'devotee' I think you should allow yourself 'devotion', meaning the feelings of the devotee towards someone who has the stigma to which he or she is attracted. (Thus there is a clear distinction that can be made between the actions of a devotee, which are described by the word 'devoteeism', and the feelings of the devotee described by the word 'devotion'.) It is clear that the class of devotees contains more members than the class of amputation fetishists. If you must formulate an appropriate Greek compound with which to dignify devotion, dress it up in academic robes with a laurel wreath about its brow, I suggest stigmaphorophilia, which can mean 'attraction to people who have stigmata'. An alternative formulation might be stigmaphilia, meaning an attraction to a stigma, shorter, and easier on the tongue, but an unsuitable term, one that could be taken to imply that devotion is a kind of fetish, where the stigma is the predominant attractant and not the stigmaphore, the person who bears the stigma. I undertook this digression to lay the foundation for the argument that of all the terms that have been offered to describe devoteeism, amputation fetishism is the least appropriate, and that devoteeism is something quite different from fetishism.

To investigate this proposition it is important to determine what sexual fetishism is believed to be. At one extreme Gosselin and Wilson offer the following definition:

Fetishism may be defined as a form of behaviour wherein sexual activity or sexual fantasy focuses to an unusual extent upon a body part or an inanimate object rather than on a person as a whole.'

At another Meissner states:

... the fetishist tends to cathect libidinally an inanimate object that has come to symbolize a part of the body of an ambivalently loved person. Fetishism is consequently a mental state that leads the person to worship or love such a material object which he takes as possessing a magical power or as having a special neurotic interest. This is the fixation of neurotic investment on an object or body part that is inappropriate to normal sexual purposes but is required by the person for the attainment of sexual gratification.

This definition, expressed in impenetrable jargon, glides oleaginously from anthropology to psychoanalysis leaving us impressed but unenlightened. Gosselin and Wilson's definition is, at least, easy to understand. They admit that it has a number of shortcomings especially in connexion with the feelings elicited by the fetish object, noting that Binet in the 1890's observed that the fetish object does not necessarily give sexual gratification in the sense of direct genital stimulation, but can produce a kind of adoration, a wish to possess it, to unite with it, appreciate it with all the senses, that the subject is experiencing not erotic arousal, or at least not erotic arousal alone, but something akin to agape, love in all its aspects, the feast of love. One similarity between devotion and fetishism is intensity of emotion that is evoked.

The published definitions of fetishism are unsatisfactory because they do not seem to be based on an exhaustive logical analysis of the causes of sexual arousal and their interaction. By considering a particular example, it is possible to explore the contribution of different stimuli to the sexual arousal of a subject and to arrive at an uncontentious objective definition of fetishism. Take an example: Suppose that a man is strongly aroused by the presence of a particular stimulus, a woman wearing leather underwear. To investigate the influence of the underwear on arousal the stimulus can be divided into two parts, the woman, and the underwear. In qualitative terms we can divide the effect of a stimulus into three categories: depressing, neutral or irrelevant, and arousing. The stimulus in the case under consideration can be classified by an ordered pair of symbols, belonging to the set '-' symbolizing 'depressing', '0' symbolizing 'neutral', and '+' symbolizing 'arousing'. Let the first symbol in the list stand for underwear, the second for the woman. Thus the pair '++' means that, the stimuli being presented together, both the underwear and the woman contribute to the arousal of the man, while '0+' means that the underwear is irrelevant and the presence of the woman is arrousing. Arousal may be elicited by the following responses: +-, +0, -+, 0+, and ++. The first two of these combinations seem to be typical of a fetishist aroused by underwear, where the presence of a woman wearing the underwear either depresses the arousal or is irrelevant to it. Of the other three combinations, it is said that the normal one, the most frequently occurring one, for men is ++; but for me the combination that expresses my feelings is -+ ' ... beauty, like truth, is best in nakedness.' It can be argued that the combination ++ indicates a variant of fetishism because arousal is enhanced by underwear, which is irrelevant to the processes of sexual intercourse.

Men who are aroused by the combination of stimuli could be assigned to the different categories by assessing the degree of their arousal in response to the stimuli presented together and separately. Such an analysis cannot be carried out if the stimulus cannot be divided into two independent entities, and this is one reason why I believe that devoteeism is fundamentally different from the phenomenon of fetishism. Sexual activity directed towards people, or elicited by the presence of people, seems to me to be fundamentally different from sexual activity directed towards things. In principle, a partial analysis could be obtained by comparing the degree of arousal produced by observing the arousal of a subject in the presence one at a time of women who were identical twins, one of whom had become an amputee (not very likely; but this is only a thought experiment). Using the same convention as before, with 'woman' as the first condition 'woman who is an amputee' as the second condition, arousal could be elicited by, -+, 0+, and ++. I suggest that the first two conditions could be regarded as evidence of a sort of fetishism, while the last is evidence of devotion. It is important not to minimise the differences between these analyses, because the conditions are to do with particular physical attributes of people, rather than contingent additions such as clothing. If neither of the twins was an amputee and one of them dyed her hair blonde, and this was the second condition, no-one would regard -+, or 0+ as pathological preferences, after all, gentlemen prefer blondes.

Using the first example as a model, fetishism can be defined as sexual arousal elicited by stimuli the effectiveness of which is unaffected or even reduced by their connexion with a potential partner. In contrast devotion is the attraction of a person to people who possess stigmata. These two conditions differ fundamentally: fetishism is to do with arousal produced by things; devotion is to do with arousal produced by people. It is quite possible for the same stimulus to elicit either fetishistic behaviour or devotion. Suppose that the stimulus is red hair (and why not?). The fetishist is attracted to the red hair for its own sake, may even prefer to cut a lock and cherish it in private, the devotee will, other things being equal, find the possessors of the red hair especially desirable, especially lovable people because they have red hair. The ecstatic feelings of the fetishist and the devotee may be similar in kind and equal in intensity despite the fact that the relationships that elicit the feelings are very different.

Experiments have been designed to explore the origins of fetishistic behaviour by causing subjects to develop fetish-like behaviour in the psychological laboratory. It has been shown that classical Pavlovian conditioning can lead to the development of arousal by the sight of representations of objects which before conditioning did not elicit arousal. Rachman and Hodgson carried out the experiments using pictures of women and of a boot. The conditioning took place only if the unconditioned stimulus (a picture of a woman) was presented before the conditioned stimulus (the picture of the boot). The changes produced by the experiment took place in stages, in the first of which arousal was caused only by the unconditioned stimulus, the second by the conditioned stimulus following the unconditioned one, and finally, when the conditioned stimulus was presented in the absence of the unconditioned one. At this point the experiment was concluded. In terms of the symbolic representation the subjects have been conditioned to the state ++, the first symbol signifying the woman, the second, the boot. Such a state, I have argued, is only marginally a fetishistic one. To belong to the class of fetishists the state of the subject ought to be -+ or 0+. In other words pictures of women ought to depress or leave unaffected the sexual arousal of the subject. To produce one or other of these effects the experiment could have been continued for a further stage. The subjects should have been conditioned so that they were no longer aroused by the pictures of the women. The conditioning procedures to produce this effect are well-known and it is possible (though probably unethical) to condition the required aversion to pictures of naked women.

What is not clear though is whether the aversion to pictures of women would transfer to an aversion to pictures of boots. If it did not, and boots retained the property of arousing the subjects, I believe that the conditioning experiment would be an acceptable model of the effects of fetishism though not necessarily an acceptable model of its causation; but if at this stage of the experiment the pictures of boots also depressed the subjects, and this is what I expect would happen, the experiment would not be an acceptable model. As a model of the origin of fetishism the experiment is flawed because it fails to take account of the fact that fetishistic behaviour can be established long before puberty, long before individuals are aroused by unconditioned stimuli like pictures of women. This experiment is also criticised by Gosselin and Wilson op. cit. who argue that there is no evidence that fetishism is caused by arousal occuring through coincidental association of appropriate and inappropriate stimuli. They prefer the model of La Torre, who carried out the following experiment: Two groups of men were told to select potential girlfriends from photographs. The members of one group were subsequently told that the girls were interested in meeting them, the members of the other group were told the girls were not. Subsequently the members of both groups were shown pictures of parts of women's bodies, of underwear, and of whole women. They were asked to rank the pictures in attractiveness. The rejected men found the pictures of parts of women's bodies, and of underwear more attractive than pictures of whole women, the accepted men found the pictures of whole women more attractive. La Torre concluded that this gave evidence that rejection might lead a person towards fetishism. I'm not entirely convinced by La Torre's choice of experimental stimuli. Following from the analysis above I believe it is reasonable to argue that the preference of the rejected suitors for the photographs of parts of women or underwear is only marginally fetishistic, though to be fair, the differences in the preferences were significant. If they had preferred photographs of bicycles or rubber boots or television sets I would have been more convinced. Nevertheless La Torre's findings are suggestive. Feelings of rejection can afflict children long before puberty and one explanation of fetishism in the adult is that it is the retention into adult life of the equivalent of a comfort blanket or teddy bear used as a mother surrogate. Fetishism may therefore arise out of the confusion of attributes of objects for the attributes which may be taken to identify an individual as a candidate for being a parent. The sexual activity of the fetishist is autosexual, elicited by the stimuli obtained from the releaser object. This activity may perhaps have an ›dipal component directed towards the hypothetical parent figure identified by the releasing attributes of the fetish object.

For a devotee, the class of most desirable sexual partners is delimited by the possession of stigmata of some kind. The sexual activity desired is reciprocal, directed towards, and accepted from another partner, and insofar as autosexual behaviour is elicited, it is elicited because of the absence of a partner with the releasing stigma. For devotees, it seems that attraction is elicited by features that are interpreted as gender signals, but which are irrelevant or even detrimental to the possessor's appropriateness as a sexual partner. A stigma caused by accident, such as the loss of a limb, has no direct relevance on the fitness of children, except that it might limit the abilities of a parent to look after them. Other stigmata, such as dwarfism might indicate serious deficiencies in the physical ability to become an effective parent and also the possibility of genetically controlled malformations in the offspring. Having made the case that fetishism and devoteeism are different the next question to address is: Are they significantly different or does all the argument so far developed do nothing more than arbitrarily divide a homogeneous set of people into two separate subsets? If the subdivision is arbitrary then it would be expected that the causes of both fetishism and devoteeism would be the same. The causation of these phenomena is likely to be complex, containing at least two separate phenomena: the ultimate causes, the causes that predispose a person to become a fetishist or a devotee; and the proximate causes, the event or events that cause the predisposition to manifest itself in an objectively detectable way. Four possible interactions must be considered these are: first, that the ultimate and proximate causes of fetishism and devoteeism are the same, because if the causes were the same the effects would be the same and fetishism would therefore be identical with devoteeism, secondly, that the ultimate causes of both phenomena are the same but the proximate causes differ, thirdly, that the ultimate causes differ but the proximate causes are the same, and fourthly that both ultimate and proximate causes differ. For devoteeism to be objectively different from fetishism the causation must belong to one of the three last classes of interaction, raising the questions: What empirical observations can be made to distinguish among the causations?

If devotees were a random sample of society, we could conclude that devoteeism is caused entirely by the environment. As there is strong evidence that they are not, we have to conclude that different sorts of people are differently affected by the environment, and that there must be ultimate causes, perhaps social, physical, or even hereditary that predispose people to become fetishists or devotees. It should therefore be possible to use personality inventories to separate the two groups such that the members of groups are more similar to each other than they are to any member of the other group. Gosselin has investigated the personality attributes of rubber fetishists but I know of no corresponding study of devotees (Perhaps this is something we could undertake for ourselves.) Consistent differences between the members of the two groups would suggest that devoteeism and fetishism are different. It may be that the ultimate causes of fetishism and devoteeism are the same but the proximate causes are clearly different. Where are the young devotees? The age distribution of respondents to the OverGround surveys seems to start at about 40. If people became devotees only after they had reached the age of 40 this finding would be explicable; but many of us became devotees long before puberty. Something has therefore changed in the past 40 years that has reduced the probability of people becoming devotees. This might be due to many causes, to a reduction in the frequency of the ultimate causative events, reduction in the frequency of proximate causative events or a reduction in both.

There is some evidence that fetishism is associated with temporal lobe epilepsy perhaps caused by hypoxia or injury at the time of birth - a general improvement in the care of mothers and their babies would reduce the incidence of such accidents and hence of the proportion of the population predisposed to become fetishists. There is no reason to suppose that the probability of exposure to the proximate causes of fetishism has declined with the passing of time. If this is true the proportion of fetishists of a given age x in the population should be a linear function of the proportion of babies suffering brain damage at birth x years previously. Those predisposed to do so would never become devotees if they were not exposed to people with stigmata during the sensitive period in childhood. The continuing improvement of prosthetic technology means that most amputees these days have relatively life-like artificial legs or arms, and in public look hardly at all different from everybody else, so the proportion of the susceptible population that has the opportunity to see someone obviously lacking one or more limbs, decreases with the passing of time, and since such exposure seems to be crucial in eliciting devotion, the proportion of the population that becomes devotees will consequently be continuously reduced with the passing of time; and this could explain why there are so few young devotees. It may also be the case that certain fetishism objects are less frequently encountered than formerly. We might expect the proportion of fur fetishists to decrease with the reduction of the use of fur in clothing and furnishing; but my argument is that fetishistic arousal can be evoked by a variety of stimuli in the environment, and that in the absence of one class of object another will come to elicit the feelings of adoration. In contrast the predisposition to become a devotee is manifested only in response to the proximate causation of the potential devotee's encountering a person with a stigma.

In essence, then, the difference between fetishism and devoteeism is that the fetishist associates an irrelevant stimulus with a pre-existing arousal in such a way that subsequently the stimulus elicits the arousal; in contrast the devotee misinterprets a stigma as a characteristic defining an appropriate sexual partner, and is aroused at the time and also subsequently by people marked with the stigma. A corollary of this view is that the predisposition to become a fetishist precedes an inevitable manifestation of fetishism directed, if not towards one stimulus then towards another, while devoteeism arises out of random accidents that happen occasionally to people involved in the universal process of acquiring a search image for people belonging to the class of appropriate sexual partners. The one piece of evidence that calls into question the interpretation of devoteeism that I propose is the fact that devotees are not a random sample of the population at large. I have already proposed an explanation for why the age distribution might be skewed, but the fact that devotees appear to be better educated than average suggests that there may be other factors acting together to cause someone to become a devotee. It may be that devotees are indeed a random sample of the population as a whole and that the educational bias arises because well-educated people are more likely than others to be prepared to admit the fact that they are devotees. Members of the middle class, the most highly educated group in our society, tend to be more tolerant of sexual diversity than members of either the upper or the working classes, and it may be that the bias in educational achievement is simply due to biassed reporting by the devotees themselves. Another possible source of the bias is the fact that members of the middle class are able to make the most effective use of health services, and they work in jobs that are physically less hazardous than members of the working class. This may mean - stretching things a bit here, but let's go with the flow - that working class children are likely to encounter people who are marked with stigmata sufficiently frequently to recognize unconsciously that both sexes can be marked with stigmata, and that therefore the possession of a stigma is not a gender specific signal. If this is the case it is entirely contingent that devotees are well-educated, they are devotees because they belong to the middle class and have grown up in an environment that minimises physical hazard to the point where people with stigmata are very rare. A final explanation can be offered: Perhaps success in education arises from an innate ability to make patterns easily, to generalize from small amounts of evidence. In the case of the development of devotion, the generalization about the kind of person who is an appropriate sexual partner may have been made on too scanty a set of evidence, provided by the encountering of a single individual with a stigma. Brain damage at birth is likely to reduce intelligence rather than enhance it, and therefore if fetishism is associated with perinatal brain damage, the intelligence of fetishists may be lower than average, and therefore they may be less able to exploit educational opportunities, consequently the population of fetishists might be expected to be educated more poorly than average. If this speculation is correct it would provide further evidence of a difference in the causations of fetishism and devoteeism.

Whether or not these speculations are correct they make empirically investigable predictions about differences between fetishists and devotees. I have no doubt that fetishism and devoteeism are different phenomena, and that the predictions I have made could be confirmed. If I am right it means that you are either a devotee or a fetishist, you can't be both. Devotion is therefore not a fetish.


I wish to thank Margaret Child for reading and commenting on an earlier version of this article.

Notes and references

... subtle olfactory cues ...
The tyranny of beauty p 63
Arline and J. Ligget (1989)
Victor Gollancz, London.

Liggett and Liggett comment that women are about 1000 times more sensitive to musky smells than men and that this sensitivity is dependent on the presence of the hormone oestrogen. Women who have had their ovaries removed do not produce oestrogen and lose the sensitivity, but they regain it if supplied with replacement oestrogen.

... the pattern that identifies the ideal partner ...

A series of personal accounts of epiphanies, events which established the strong attraction of devotees to amputees is given in Epiphanies

Fetishism, sadomasochism, and related behaviours pp 89--110
Chris and Wilson Gosselin (1984)
The psychology of sexual diversity
Kevin Howells (ed.)
Blackwell, Oxford
Psychoanalysis and sexual disorders
William W. Meissner
Handbook of human sexuality
B. Wolman (ed.) (1980)
... objective definition of fetishism ...

Gosselin and Wilson op. cit. argue that fetishism can be identified only cognitively, and give the example of a man pulling a garden roller round his lawn. They suggest that there is nothing about rolling the lawn that suggests that such behaviour may be sadomasochistic unless the observer knew that while he was rolling the lawn the subject was at the same time involved in a fantasy about being a slave drawing his sexually provocative mistress's chariot in a procession of conquest. I'm not convinced by this argument. If the motivation of lawn rolling is to support fantastic ideas it is likely that the careful observer would notice that the lawn was being rolled unnecessarily frequently, (from the point of view of the lawn's welfare) and that the man was displaying signs of arousal, possibly of sexual arousal, not usually associated with rolling the lawn. The careful observer would have to conclude that the behaviour being observed was fetishistic.

Psychological record 18: 25--27
Experimentally induced sexual fetishism
S. Rachman and S. Hodgson (1968)

This work has also been replicated by other workers using an abstract pattern for the unconditioned stimulus to eliminate the possibility that some subjects may be predisposed to find boots inherently arousing.

Journal of abnormal psychology 89: 295--298
Devaluation of the human love object: Heterosexual rejection as a possible antecedent of fetishism
R. A. La Torre (1980)

Personality attributes of the average rubber fetishist
Chris Gosselin (1979)
Love and attraction pp 395--399.
M. Cook and G. Wilson
Pergamon Press, Oxford.
... better educated than average ...

The Feedback column in OverGround indicated that devotees are better educated than average and that the age distribution is skewed towards middle and old-age.

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