Jack’s Naughty Bits: Peter Schaffer’s Equus

Pin it

Jack's Naughty Bits

I‘ve used this column a number of times to speak out against the popular appropriation of the technical term fetish and the resulting dilution in its precise meaning. A clinical fetish is not S/M, not bondage or leather and not just something a person really, really likes. It is a typically non-sexual thing — a feather, a swatch of leather, a pair of stockings — that must be present for a person to achieve sexual arousal. “Due to his perversion, the fetishist often diminishes his excitability to normal stimuli, or, at least, is capable of coitus only by concentrating his fantasy upon his fetish,” wrote sexologist Krafft-Ebing. Strict fetishism, to put it plainly, is more than appreciation; it is a predilection whereby the object becomes a sexual sine qua non. If the fetish object is not there, no sex happens.


I myself am not a fetishist in this strict sense (though it does seem that sex not preceded by quality conversation becomes more and more difficult to engage in), but I am fascinated by the psychosomatic processes that underlie true fetishes. For while a clinical fetish is clearly a function either of nature, nurture or both, so too are less strict sexual needs and, by fiat, the whole gamut of preferences that make up the fabric of desire. Fetish, being the node where want becomes need, seems to present the occasion to study desire in an undiluted form. But are fetishes simple exaggerations of what in other men are mere preferences, or is the nature of a fetish something truly apart, not an extrapolation but a going beyond desire? If a stocking fetishist was genetically coded a bit differently, or if his experience of stockings was a bit less acute (or occurred perhaps later or earlier in life), would he have been left with just a general stocking enthusiasm? Is fetishism hardwired or conditioned? And could there be less extreme versions of conditioning that become confused as desires? (Advertising would certainly promote this effect.)


In literature, one of the most sustained, probing analyses of fetish is surely Peter Shaffer’s brilliant stage-play Equus. If you don’t get a chance to see it live, don’t fret; Equus is a quick, gripping read and I have to be careful not to give away too much of its potent narrative. Suffice it to say that it centers on a seventeen-year-old boy, Alan, who has been sent to a psychological hospital having just blinded six horses with an iron spike. His supervising doctor, Dysart, suspects a sexual basis for the crime, and, as the play progresses, he succeeds in probing deeper and deeper into Alan’s psyche. The scene below is Alan recounting his first memory of a horse, a day when, as a child, he was on a beach and a man rode up beside him and pulled him up for a ride (before Alan’s father saw them and pulled Alan down). If there could be an experiential basis for clinical fetishism, this is its dramatization.


From Equus by Peter Shaffer

ALAN: It was sexy . . . That’s what you want to know, isn’t it? All right: it was. I’m talking about the beach. That time when I was a kid. What I told you about . . .

[Pause. He is in great emotional difficulty.]

I was pushed forward on the horse. There was sweat on my legs from his neck. The rider held me tight, and let me turn the horse which way I wanted. All that power going any way you wanted . . . His sides were all warm, and the smell  . . . Then suddenly I was on the ground, where Dad pulled me. I could have bashed him . . .


Something else. When the horse first appeared, I looked up into his mouth. It was huge. There was this chain in it. The fellow pulled it, and cream dripped out. I said, “Does it hurt?” and he said — the horse said — said —

[He stops, in anguish. Dysart makes a note in his file.]

[Desperately.] It was always the same, after that. Every time I heard one clop by, I had to run and see. Up a country lane or anywhere. They sort of pulled me. I couldn’t take my eyes off them. Just to watch their skins. The way their necks twist, and sweat shines in the folds . . . [Pause.] I can’t remember when it started. Mum reading to me about Prince whom no one could ride, except one boy. Or the white horse in Revelations. “He that sat upon him was called Faithful and True. His eyes were as flames of fire, and he had a name written that no man knew but himself” . . . World like reins. Stirrup. Flanks . . . “Dashing his spurs against his charger’s flanks!” . . . Even the words made me feel . . .