We lust for metaphors, us speakers. It’s hard if not impossible to organize our thoughts, comprehend reality and communicate with others without using categories and analogies, all of which are metaphor-based. Nietzsche famously pointed out that no two leaves are the same, yet we hodgepodge them all into a single definition, give it a name and thus allow ourselves to talk about something that otherwise would be overly complex. Often these oversimplified categories get amplified beyond even their original meanings. Such is the case with “fetish” first an anthropological term used to speak of the perceived irrationality of the idol-worship of “primitive” cultures, then a precise clinical word for an inanimate object that incites sexual arousal; it is now used loosely and metaphorically to speak of any excessive interest in or infatuation over something. In the popular press, the meaning of fetish has gotten so fuzzy and diffusely sexual that it now gets confused with or lumped in alongside sado-masochism, an entirely different psycho-sexual interest. There are now fetish clubs (usually S/M-centered), fetish gear (ditto) and fetish-fiction anthologies these last containing truly heterogeneous stories, few involving fetish in the strict sense.
Among places to read of actual body and object fetishes, Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s breakthrough turn-of-the-century Psychopathia Sexualis is particularly amusing. Compiling cases of sexual deviance (including such practices as bestiality, satyriasis, self-mortification and, shhh, homosexuality!!), Krafft-Ebing says that “pathological fetishism is commonly a cause of psychic impotence.” He goes on to explain that “it often happens that, due to his perversion, the fetishist diminishes his excitability to normal stimuli, or, at least, is capable of coitus only by concentrating his fantasy upon his fetish.” To put it in a nutshell, if you need to stroke a high-heeled shoe to get an erection, you’re a fetishist; if you like your girlfriend to wear leather boots, you’re just normal.
On the winning side, Krafft-Ebing’s accounts of grave-robbing necrophiliacs and small-penised neurasthenics are, by turns, macabre and comical. On the more unfortunate side, his association of homosexuality with excessive masturbation is dated and embarrassing, as is his adherence to now-debunked theories of female hysteria. But overall, Psychopathia Sexualis makes great reading, and gives an interesting overview of clinical psychology before Freud. Its great lesson: Beware the shrunken-headed masturbator!