Fetish, the Other F Word

(originally posted to The Bilerico Project)

The most important things I ever learned about dating and relationships came from the leather community.  So it bothers me when I see people and lifestyles trashed as “disgusting” or “a tarnish on our community.”  Or when the medical community misuses fetish to further stigmatize and marginalize us under the titles of “transvestitic fetish” or “autogynephilia.”  I’ve said it before: the medical community really does not comprehend “fetish,” wrongfully equates harmless practices with paraphilias, and generously applies it to anything they don’t understand or find socially unacceptable.  This was how homosexuality was categorized until the early 1970s, when the medical community had the epiphany that most gay men and lesbians lived their lives in a non-harmful manner and with only the emotional distress that society thrusts upon them.  This was the means that clinicians attempted to control and stigmatize womens’ pleasure under the largely invented banner of “nymphomania,” on the societal assumption that only men were supposed to enjoy sex; for women, it was simply a “duty.”  This was how masturbation in either gender was turned into an evil spilling of the seed, until the medical community proved it a necessary part of being. 

And with regards to understanding fetish, the general public is perhaps better, but only marginally, the reservations driven by an entirely sex-negative religious right that would see all intimacy restricted to missionary-position sex done solely for the purpose of procreation, and done solely between married, heterosexual couples.

I’ll start by saying that I believe that we all have fetishes, which are usually approximately defined as images or ideas that cause sexual arousal.  It can be something as innocent as candlelight dinner, men or women in uniform, or ripped shirts and bared chests, as long as those things consistently put one in that “romantic mood.”  The primary difference between breast fetish and foot fetish is that one is considered socially acceptable… the other is driven underground, where it stews and brews and sometimes bubbles over in “creepy” ways, to thus generate support for the stigma via the repression principle.  But the fetishes are there and a natural part of sexual beings.  The medical classification / treatment and overall general phobic hysteria should exist solely for when those fetishes risk harm to a person’s self or others, or become indifferent to the concept of valid consent.

Now, I’m not a therapist, and I’m also not specifically a trans-fetishist. I don’t consider my transsexuality a fetish, because it has in fact never been a sexual turn-on of itself (of course, in my erotic daydreams, I also did happen to be female, but only coincidentally – that was also the case with my non-erotic daydreams).  My experience of this comes from a different direction.

I’ve spent time off and on over the years involved with the leather (BDSM) community.  This was originally because it was one of the few communities that welcomed me and didn’t care how I looked or dressed.  This also provided a circle in which I could find relationships with open-minded people.  I don’t do serious BDSM, although I think sex-positively, despite a hormonally-caused absence of libido.  And leatherfolk really honestly didn’t “get it” (with a few exceptions) about transsexuality, thinking it a kink, but they gave me an opportunity to have some sense of community that wasn’t there otherwise.

I should take a moment to define what I mean by the “leather community.”  This was a movement started primarily by hardline (Old Guard) gay men into rough sex, in 1960s San Francisco and spread to other major urban centres.  The Old Guard didn’t allow women, didn’t allow heterosexuals, didn’t trust or allow bisexuals, it was a very rigid framework replete with sometimes very intricate ritual — but over the years, it morphed into a wider culture of loose-knit organizations that practiced some form of bondage and discipline, dominance / submission and / or sadomasochism (all rolled up into the acronym BDSM).  What is observed today extends more widely, sometimes not even including BDSM itself, but just “kink” of all kinds, body modification, costume roleplay… even (shudder) furries.  By using “leather community,” I’m sort of co-opting it with a nod of the head and an apology to the original leathermen (from whom many of the codes I’m about to mention originated), but I know that to say “kink community” outright would have alienated all the readers who I feel need to hear this message, right from the outset.  So there: I’ve come clean.

I’d said that the most important things I ever learned about dating and relationships came from the leather community.  Here are some of them:

“Safe, responsible, consensual and respectful.”  This is an adaptation of the “safe, sane and consensual” motto that permeates the community like a mantra… but one that adherents take great pains to understand.  Of these, “responsible / sane” strives toward an overwhelmingly open and honest level of communication that few mainstream relationships ever achieve.  “Consensual” has such a strict definition that a White House intern giving pleasure to someone who she wouldn’t otherwise normally consider “because he’s the President” is not consent; someone exposing themselves in a shopping mall also likely failed to obtain the consent of the onlookers.  “Respectful” is perhaps my addition, knowing that erotic partners sometimes don’t even have to know each other let alone love each other… but do have to respect each other.  The vast majority of BDSM relationships I’ve seen have been respectful at their heart, even some that involve some pretty heavy humiliation play — I’ve also seen many mainstream relationships, however, that don’t even come close.

“YKIOK.”  For those who remember the early days of the Internet, USENET and the coming together of marginalized communities, the leather community was faced with a quandary: people of a billion different persuasions, many of whom did not understand any other persuasions, all clashed over whether things like humiliation play were responsible, whether breath play was safe, whether 24/7 lifestyle living trod beyond consensuality.  It was a chaotic period that calmer minds managed to bring to a truce with the concept of “YKIOK.”  As long as a person found a way to practice their passions safely, responsibly and consensually, they argued, then “your kink is OK.”  It’s “live and let live” set into a strict on-paper legislative policy (what else would you expect from control freaks  🙂  ?).  Personally, I don’t understand “adult babies” play (adults in diapers, etc.), but I’ve learned enough about it to know that it is not the same thing as pedophilia, and for some people even seems to provide a catharsis.  It’s not my “thing,” but if it stays within safe, responsible, consensual and respectful behaviour, I see no other reason to vilify it.  The trans community, with its many divisions that sometimes seem to be from entirely different planets, would do well to learn from “YKIOK” — although here, the work “kink” would often be a misnomer (substitute “identity?”).

The “safe call.”  For blind dates (i.e. Internet dating), first dates and simply playing with someone of whom one wasn’t certain, the leather community devised a “safe call” system of checking in with a remote friend that involves certain checks and balances, and involves alerting authorities if a planned call fails to take place or a danger code word is used.  I’ve regularily recommended this to pre- and non-op transwomen and some transmen, who face considerable risk on first dates.

Communication.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen another environment that so earnestly encouraged open, soul-baring and honest communication.  Now, some of what we communicate is coloured by our personal beliefs and biases of the moment, and some of it is clouded by our own personal confusions, but it is still often as honest as we are capable of — which is all that one can ask.  Too, as one becomes more jaded, it becomes far more difficult to bare oneself in this way, but when one finds a partner with whom one is able, nothing else compares.

That’s quite a lot of heavy life lessons from people who some consider to be “paraphiliacs.”

The DSM is filled with Sexual and Gender Identity Disorders that are overencompassing, unnecessarily stigmatizing and driven toward subversion.  To sift through and remove safe, responsible, consensual and respectful (SRCR) practices would leave a few serious issues (pedophilia, rape compulsion, amputee fetish as some examples) and the rest being a whole lot of coping with the repression principle, including some of the many goofy and/or stupid behaviours that erupt from that — such as streaking across the football field in panties, nylons and garters, or some desperate play to sniff the shoes belonging to the cute girl at work.  Already, with regards to fetishists, therapists primarily see people who are either struggling with themselves (repression principle), or people who are mandated to see them due to something they’ve done that is not SRCR (repression principle bubbled over), so they’re getting a completely biased and tainted picture of fetish.  Transgender activists should be as concerned about “Transvestitic Fetish” even as it currently stands, pathologizing innocent behind-closed-doors crossdressing, let alone the danger of what a champion of “Autogynephilia” might turn the diagnosis into.  And on the subject of autogynephilia — which is defined as a male’s sexual attraction to the image or idea of himself as a woman — it is a serious note that existing studies lack control groups of female-born women.  We all know women who like to dress up sometimes and get a little bodily excited about the possibilities of the evening:  how much can the difference between that and sexually-driven transvestites be accounted for by the pumping of said body full of testosterone?  And if the majority of TF / autogynephilia can be explained in this manner, should it really be the subject of medical diagnosis, study, stigmatization and treatment (again, when SRCR)?

By learning what “fetish” is, I’ve come to seriously believe that modern psychiatry does not adequately understand it, and that there is a serious difference between that and paraphilia.  It’s become a convenient dumping ground for anything in the sexual realm that runs afoul of moral standards.  And there are a LOT of things in the sexual realm that we’re taught are socially unacceptable.

The religious world (and no, I don’t mean all Christians, nor do I mean just Christians) has repeated it back to us until it’s become an almost equative mantra: “sex. sin. sex. immoral. sex. perversion…”  Religions and the political bodies they infest use this equation as a tool of subjugation and control.  They can’t make us ashamed of eating or breathing; can’t make us repentant of needing to sleep or use the washroom.  But sex provides them with a necessary biological process that they can manipulate into a shame and self-loathing factory to keep the flock submissive, repentent, begging forgiveness, defensive, receptive to any doctrine that is fed to them that might lead to redemption.  Unlike race and gender bigotry that the churches are slowly getting over (no, they’re certainly not there yet), homosexuality, transsexuality and fetish are points of discrimination that they really can’t afford to give up: they strike at the heart of one of the most effective means of manipulation that the churches have over their followers.  Acceptance of anything outside heteronormativity as they define it erodes their power.

Machiavelli made another point clear that the churches and politicos know very well: it is highly effective to draw a majority into unison and avoid factionalism by confronting them with a common enemy.  One percent of the world’s population controls 80 percent of its wealth, the nation has no health system, no environmental plan, but it’s gays that must be stamped out.  This is the agenda of a ruling class that exists to rule the people, not to listen to them.

Before I overstep myself too much, this is where I remind people that these are overgeneralizations, there are exceptions and in real life, no rule is absolute.  Human beings tend to delight (however unconsciously) in confounding absolutes.

While defense of fetish itself is not the trans or gay community’s fight, necessarily, it’s becoming apparent to me that two things need to be understood in order to quell a serious issue of marginalization within our own communities:

1) Using the word “fetish” as a broad brush to colour masses of people is nothing more than a way of marginalizing anything we don’t necessarily understand — often marginalizing things that are not even sexually-driven — and simply furthers the religious reich’s behaviour pattern of throwing anything considered socially unacceptable into this same bucket.  This is something we all face, and can all fight together, if we’re willing to acknowledge this mutual struggle.  Is association with fetish a threat to our self-definition?  At least when rational discussion occurs, I doubt it.  I dissociated my transsexuality from fetish in the fourth paragraph above, and don’t feel that anything else I’ve said here sabotages that.

2) Even where fetish is present, it does not equal paraphilia.  What makes fetish become paraphilia is irresponsible, unsafe, non-consensual and / or disrespectful behaviour, and a majority of those who are (often quite well-balanced and self-disciplined) fetishists shun such things.

There are many reasons why understanding this is important.  For one, these diagnoses — even if they were meant for those who tread beyond safe, responsible, consensual and respectful behaviour — are still used as weapons against undeserving people.  In the Alberta community, I know a number of trans parents who have lost custody or visitation or at least had those things jeopardized by the use of GID and / or TF diagnoses in court.  Times are changing, but in some of these backwards regions where even social democrats and gay communities are sometimes offended by and refuse association with transfolk, GID and TF remain weapons in vengeful ex-spouses’ collective arsenal.  In this way, we share something in common once again with leatherfolk, who have on occasion seen custody issues hinge on courts’ interpretation of what is actually SRCR behaviour that families take pains to ensure children are not exposed to.  For those wishing to have GID removed from the DSM, would they consider the possibility of alliance with such allies?

For another, this attitude of indiscriminately dismissing entire groups of undeserving people as “fetishists” further marginalizes all of our sub-communities.  As we are divided and fighting amongst ourselves, we are failing to speak with a stronger collective voice to accomplish real and lasting change that benefits all of us.  It also causes further repression, with even those to whom transfolk need to relate turning against them.  And further repression leads to further bubbling-over in non-SRCR behaviour which is what people fearing association with fetish are in fact most afraid of.

Fetishes are also often metaphors — even if they mean different things to different people, and even those meanings are completely unconscious (I’d once contended that they were always metaphors, but have since learned that this is too sweeping a generalization).  The act of kissing a foot might represent an emotional need to dedicate oneself to someone.  Ponygirl and ponyboy enthusiasts are drawn to a pony motif because of what the image speaks to them: a horse is an animal that we harness because we respect its power; we groom it because we admire its beauty.  One fetish that has surfaced peculiarily frequently among MTF transsexuals (although not more than say 2% of the population) is chastity play — for someone disconnected from their physical body, ashamed of their genitalia, wishing to restrict the current body’s function despite the testosterone flowing, wishing to limit their experience of sex to that experienced by women, this becomes a tool to do exactly that.  All these things, no matter how strange-seeming on the surface, speak to an inner human need or desire. 

For this reason, I believe that many (though certainly not all — there are plenty for whom the appeal is tactile, role play or context) people we consider transvestitic fetishists are in a pre-transsexual situation, their identity issues often submerged to the point that they only surface in a sexual context.  It does not mean that they are not “real,” or not “serious enough,” it simply means that they are still heavily repressed by fear, confusion, perhaps self-loathing, fears of the possible implications on their families, jobs, relationships….  These people may need the support and wisdom of the trans community, and may add future strength in numbers and participation, provided we don’t actively alienate them.  That said, in a transvestitic fetishist’s current state, possibly such as fixation with a forced-feminization motif and such, until they are in a position of self-acceptance and self-detemination to take responsibility and control of their process, they are not in a state of mental readiness to do something like transition in day-to-day life to living as the gender to which they identify.  But they may still be transgender, and may still deserve a place at the table.

And finally, fetishes can be cathartic.  For some, exchanging power (consensual dominance and submission) provides a kind of balance in which someone who has to exert control daily at their job can then relinquish it privately and feel the weight off their shoulders.  For some, a rape role-play has even helped them to exorcise residual feelings from a real-life rape they’d experienced (although I certainly do not recommend that people who don’t know what they’re doing experiment with this, as it can also trigger some very bad juju).  Because we don’t know or understand fetishes, we need to be careful about vilifying and driving underground some very real and substantial benefits that they may have for a person.

What this all means for the trans and larger gay community is that we have some coming to terms to do with some of the skeletons in our collective closets.  And when some serious thought and experience shines on these things, they are not as scary, not as evil and not as hamstringing as people believe at the outset… just as much as the gay and lesbian community is slowly learning that association with transsexuals will not sabotage their own fight for rights (and still sometimes has yet to learn that about bisexuals, drag kings and queens and leathermen/women).

3 thoughts on “Fetish, the Other F Word”

  1. Every time I think my closet’s empty, another skeleton comes tearing out of it…

    I really enjoyed that post. Personally, I’ve struggled internally with judgements that are resultant, no doubt, of being raised in a very “quick to judge stuff as sinful” environment. And while I do think I’ve made a great deal of progress over the years, sometimes they still rear their ugly little heads. It’s embarrassing to think back on some of the opinions I once held at one time… But hey, one step at a time, right?

    I’m also glad you brought up “Safe, responsible, consensual and respectful.” That’s truly key.

  2. i liked this post a lot. i actually first really was introduced to BDSM, T/S and AB as well as other versions of “kink” when i joined a certain online community. i grew up raised by a Southern Baptist Church where of course…the vast majority is considered deadly sin. i was always frustrated whenever gay marriage was brought up and they would all talk about how unnatural and crude it was, when i never shared the feelings somehow. When i joined the aforementioned online community, i came to know and even cherish people with various fetishes and lifestyles, and i enjoyed every bit of it. in fact, the majority of them seemed more balanced than “normal”, heterosexual couples and relationships. the flawed idea of them being oddballs or psychos is an attempt to write off society’s problems to those that don’t fit the mainstream, because it’s easier to blame the man who likes to dominate his willfully submissive girlfriend than to blame the mayor who likes to smack his wife around after a bad day signing papers. Thank you for bringing up this issue.

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