Amalgamating notes from various sources results in an articulation of fetish that seems fairly clear – an erotic focus on non-living objects, non-genital parts of the human body, and/or certain activities. Or at least, this concept seems fairly clear until you start to pick it apart.
Per this conceptualization, from non-living vibrators to non-genital derrières, most people have some sort of fetish or fetish-adjacent erotic focus. And from vigorous exercise to having a glass of nice wine, there are all sorts of activities that may come with an erotic charge. But we don’t usually think of “ass men” as fetishists, nor do we think of gym rats or people who own a few sex toys as fetishists either.
This brings us to a key aspect of figuring our what a fetish is – social norms.
Social norms are collective understandings that guide and shape individual behavior within wider society, as well as within smaller group units (e.g. your family, people at your work). Norms vary over time and place as societies evolve and change. Interestingly, a norm may not even be the most common or frequently observed behavior in any specific sense. Regardless, whatever is normative is often regarded as the most desirable or “correct” conduct.
As such, in general, part of the reason why butts and vibrators don’t fall into the fetish category is because they’re within the normalized scope of conventional acceptable sexual desire – even if they may technically fall in line with some sort of fetish definition.
As we look at behaviors and proclivities commonly regarded as fetishes, it’s important to consider this wider social dimension. It’s not that vibrators, as objects with an assigned sexual use, are somehow more or less sexy than shoes. At some point and within some context though, we simply labeled shoes as less conventional than vibrators in terms of sexual desire.
When talking about all aspects of fetish, the most important thing to consider is not what’s “normal” – truthfully, everything is normal in some way. The thing to consider is consent.
Consider this: A few years back, a Chicago Tribune(?!) reader posed a question via the paper’s “Ask Amy” column. The reader’s fiancée had just disclosed his tickling fetish, and she was asking Amy if this was “normal or common.”
In order to get some expert insight, Amy shared the reader’s letter with psychologist Jesse Bering, author of Perv: The Sexual Deviant in All of Us.
Bering said, “It’s unclear if your fiancé is a true ‘titillagniac’ (someone whose primary means of sexual gratification is tickling), but since that’s extremely rare, more likely he simply has a light tickle kink… [C]onsensual tickling is usually quite harmless. The key word is consensual.”
“My own advice to you is more run-of-the mill. Whether it is a sexual matter, financial issue or a basic value such as sharing household chores — you two are already doing the right thing, pre-marriage: He is telling you something important about himself, and you are carefully considering the impact on you. Communicating honestly and thoughtfully about this — and other matters — will strengthen your relationship, possibly even more than sharing a benign sexual fetish would do,” Bering concluded.
This is so important as Bering, while acknowledging tickling may be normatively set aside as a fetish or kink, de-emphasizes considerations of “normal” and highlights consent. Also of note: consent for the tickler and for the ticklee.
When thinking about any sexual behavior or desire, it’s imperative that we consider why we think about said behavior or desire in a particular way. It’s that social norm stuff again. We also must consider consent — both our own, as well as the consent of whomever else is thinking about tickling or vibrators or asses or the most vanilla sex ever alongside us.
Until next time, be well – Dr. Chauntelle