Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Fetishism: Castration Theory and beyond

The origins of the word fetish is thought to come from Portuguese "feitico" and derived from the Latin, "factitius" or "facere", to do or to make. The implication being the artefact was created artistically or by the supernatural and was worshipped in obsessive fashion because of its magical powers i.e. a lucky talisman. The attraction could be sexual or non-sexual, and the object, inanimate or animate. According to Steele (1996), the original meaning was either religious or anthropological.

By the nineteenth century, the term had been extended to refer to anything, which was irrationally worshipped. French psychologist, Alfred Binet, was the first to describe fetish in the psychological sense in 1887. As the science of sexology developed from the nineteenth century the term fetish became firmly associated with sex and the attraction of certain portions of the female body, or specific articles of female attire.

Examples of body parts, which attract the fetishist, include feet, hair, buttocks, and breasts; and objects include: gloves, lingerie, hose, leather, brassieres, and garters. Freud’s observations and psychological discourse on fetishism (Castration Theory) has been increasingly challenged. Although Freud's work is now no longer accepted verbatim his observations came at a time in history when they continue to influence much of modern thinking in psychoanalysis.

In laypersons terms what Freud observed was some men feared the sight of the vulva and to surmount this psychological aversion, the fetishist object was endowed with the characteristic, which made female genitalia more tolerable as a sexual object. Freud saw the function of the fetish object as a token of triumph over the threat of castration and a protection against it. Kaplan (1991) summarised this argument with brevity and wit by observing " The adult fetish cannot introduce his penis into the temple of doom (vagina), without a fetish to ease the way."

Ernest Becker argued fetishism represented the anxiety of the sexual act and the fetish itself was a lucky charm to transform the terrifying reality into something that transcended anxiety. Performance anxiety is a male fear and this according to Steele (1996) is one reason why fetishism is almost always a male obsession. The history of fetishism is interesting and there are distinctly two schools of thought. Many believe fetishism has been around for thousands of years whereas others consider it developed only in modern Western society.

Freud considered the shoe to represent the female genitals but by the time he wrote about fetishism the foot had been an erogenous zone for centuries. He described the foot as a phallus and when it entered the shoe, union was symbolically complete. Since Freud's original study of fetishism and his description of the geneses of the symptoms, many additions and elaboration have been made to these propositions.

Kaplan L 1991 Female perversions: the temptations of Emma Bovary New York: Doubleday.
Steele V 1996 Fetish: fashion, sex and power New York: Oxford University Press

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