How Sexual Fetishes Come into Existence
Very often sex is more than just simple fucking. We love to whip each other. To wear a leash. To piss on each other. To call each other "mommy", "daddy", "boy" or "girl". We get turned on by the idea of fucking in public places. We like to get dressed in rubber dog or horse masks. But why do such fetishes exist? What are the reasons and origins of these kinks, like for example sadism/masochism, sex with fecal matter, or pet play? And what can sociology and psychology teach us about them?
[Dieser Artikel existiert auch auf Deutsch.]
© photo by Jeff Mannes / orgysmic.com
"God, relieve us from the urge to do the forbidden. Let the propensity for our downfall sleep in the deepest bottom of the soul. And forgive us our greed for evil and the night. Don't let us lose our heads, when the animal within awakens. God, protect us from the obsession to want more than what is good for us. And block every escape when lust overcomes us."
~direct translation of the German version of Dance of the Vampires' song "Das Gebet"
Some might think of the fetishes described in this article as "sick" or "perverted". ORGYSMIC – The Sex Blog – is a sex-positive blog. We welcome all forms of consensual sexuality. We try not to stigmatize. With this article I would rather like to try to sociologically explain the origins of sexual kinks.
I define a fetish mostly as happening in one's head. It is about practices and thoughts that often (but not always) provoke sexual arousal and that go beyond the simple genitalia-oral-, genitalia-genitalia-, or genitalia-anal-sex, or that provoke sexual arousal not or not only by physical contact but also by the idea in the fetishist's head. So I'm sorry if you're looking for an explanation for purely clothing fetishes (like leather or rubber) but this article won't give you an answer on that unless the clothes are an integral part of a certain behavior or sexual role.
For my article I have combined several sociological theories. However this is only one particular point of view of the phenomenon. In no way is this article meant to produce a definite truth of the fetish phenomenon. It is simply a snapshot in time with currently present knowledge. It is the attempt to put this knowledge into a theory, however subjective this knowledge might be. In alignment with post-structuralism there is no neutral or objective knowledge. Knowledge is rather dependent of many different factors, including power structures that I myself am obviously also embedded in and that shape my "knowledge."
Personal and social fetishes
In this article I differentiate between personal and social fetishes. Social fetishes are those that exist relatively often among a higher number of people within a given culture. In the western culture one could name for example BDSM, watersports, sex with fecal matter (also called "scat"), certain role plays, sex in public areas, or pup play. They exist often enough that it is profitable for clubs in certain cities to offer sex parties with names like "Yellow Facts: Piss without dresscode", "Athletes Fit for Fuck: Sportswear and Sneakers", "Mask: No face, just body", "Work ‘n dicks: Get off in your workwear", "Scat: Smear it, smell it, break a rule", "Mud Party: Do it pig-style", "Drecksloch: The After-Mud-Dirthole-Piss-Fuck", or "Pump electro tits: Raw body torture". Personal fetishes are those that only exist among a very small number of people or maybe only within one person within a given culture. For example if somebody gets turned on by watching someone eating an apple. Or by paying someone else's dentist bills. These kinks do exist but are so rare that they may only be found within one person.
For this article I would like to focus on social fetishes, the ones that exist relatively often. I will look at those with the help of certain classical and modern social scientific theories.
Fetishes as a byproduct of socialization
Central to my theory is the phenomenon of socialization. To make it simple: Socialization is the process which teaches us subconsciously to act, speak and even think according to what is considered "normal" in our culture. Socialization is the reason why French men (of any sexual orientation) usually greet each other by kissing each other on the cheek, while German (especially heterosexually identified) men shake hands to do the same. Socialization causes us to internalize these patterns of behavior and thinking until they become our "second nature." Even if there is no biological reasons for these patterns they still will feel "natural" to us.
Socialization is like an invisible force that guides us without us recognizing it. It enables us to function within our culture and to communicate and interact with other people in our society. However, without us being aware of it, it also forces us to behave according to the norms, rules and values of our culture. We not only act according to our socialization; even our thinking is guided by it. Most of the time it seems impossible for to us to imagine different things than those we know. We can only think in very given ways. And socialization starts right at birth: Parents, friends, family, school, media, etc.: We get shown and taught everywhere how to act as "normal human beings." We then also learn to internalize those norms, rules, and values. The outer force is turned into an inner compulsion. First we used to feel the pressure from other people around us. Now we unconsciously feel it inside ourselves. I want to show that this leads to inner tensions that might be the origin of sexual fetishes. If we look at kinks in this way they are nothing else than the inner pressure that is released in form of sexual energy. And the stronger the inner tensions caused by the inner pressure the bigger the sexual arousal when those tensions are released. The bigger the pressure not to do/say/think this or that, the bigger the excitment to do/say/think it after all. Society therefore creates fetishes as a "byproduct" of our socialization.
Berger & Luckmann: The unintentional social construction of fetishes
But how exactly is that "byproduct" produced? To understand this I want to use Peter L. Berger's & Thomas Luckmann's theory of the social construction of reality (1; 2). According to their theory not only is society a product of human beings, but every human being is also a product (via socialization) of society. It works as a circle: Humans create society, society creates humans. In this cycle human beings also creates the social requirements for the construction of fetishes. And this society then creates humans with certain kinks. This process "individual creates society creates individual" is produced in three steps:
Externalization: Human individuals create material (buildings, objects, etc.) and immaterial things (laws, norms, rules, institutions, etc.) and by that they also create the foundation for the society they will live in.
Objectification: The material and immaterial products created by humans now exist independently of their creators. At first the car was an idea inside the head of a human being. This idea was then "externalized" by its creator. It started with an idea (dependent of the human being that had the idea) and become a physically and independent of its creator existent real car. It's similar with immaterial things, like rules, norms, laws, but also thinking patterns, options for action, etc.. Originally they were created by humans, but now they exist independently of them. That's why we use the term "objectification": Out of the subjective reality inside a human's head becomes a "really existent" objective reality. Or like Berger and Luckmann call it: a reality "sui generis," that confronts humans as a fact and puts pressure on them to act and think accordingly.
Internalization: Triggered by this pressure humans then internalize that reality via their socialization. Or put into other words: Out of the objective reality a subjective reality is formed again. We for example not only internalize how to use a car, but also the rules, laws, norms, patterns of thinking, options for action, etc. of the society we live in. Those rules, norms, etc. used to exist outside of us before our socialization. Because of the pressure, that they put on us, they will be "encoded" into our consciousness without us noticing it. Now they will also perform pressure from within us. Without us necessarily realizing that subtle pressure. If a a man in London is introduced to another man, an inner pressure will lie upon them to shake the other man's hand to say hello. This pressure is not necessarily felt by them, but it does exist in a subtle, subconscious way.
Now shaking hands is a very mundane example for such an internalization on norms, options for action, or the like. Beyond this there are much more complex, profound, historically significant und less visible norms, thought patterns, or options for action. Those again will perform a much more subconscious pressure onto us. They not only create the structure of our society but via socialization also our inner world, the thoughts in our heads. I am certain to find several indications here, why a certain culture has certain sexual social fetishes. Because of the inner pressure there will be inner tensions as well. Those tensions will be unloaded in human sexuality in forms of kinks. Because it is notable, that most – if not even all – sexual social fetishes are linked directly or indirectly to some socially deeply engrained norms and thought patterns. They are an "unintentional byproduct" of the social construction of reality so to say. I will show exactly how this works using the example of pup play later in this article.
Bourdieu: Fetishes as "anti-habitus"
The way the concept of the habitus, as it is mainly used in sociology today, goes back to French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. The term "habitus" describes a specific world view as well as the specific way people act in certain situations (3; 4). The habitus is socialized as well. For example Bourdieu describes the willingness of a working class man to accept his limited standard of living as something that is normal for his position in society as part of his habitus. The same goes for his consumption habits, his food choices, his manners and customs, the TV programs he watches and his interest in sports. The habitus is an acquired, relatively coherent set of potential world views and activities, that are implemented in action situations. It's the "natural" and "obvious" things, the "doxa," that will guide his thinking, seeing and acting. The habitus of a working class man as well as the collectively shared habitus of the whole working class (or any class) is steadier and more permanent than their situative wishes and interests; the habitus is the embodiment of the permanent social structure and social organization within their personalities. (5)
Bourdieu also describes the habitus as matrix that guides and controls our acting, thinking and perceiving. Human beings of a certain group (for example of a certain gender, ethnicity, age, professional group, or condition) therefore share a common habitus compared to another group. The same can be said of a society as a whole compared to another society. Within this lies the key to understand which kinks will exist in which society and why they do so.
Central to Bourdieu's theory is the term "doxa." It describes the via socialization internalized fundamental beliefs and values that form part of the habitus. It's those values that are so deeply ingrained in our subconscious that we won't even think of questioning them. They are so deeply subconscious that we won't even explicitly recognize them. They will rather act unrecognized: Nothing is more unspeakable, non-communicable, more indispensable, and more inimitable than the incorporated, embodied values. (6)
Exactly because the doxa works so much unrecognized it creates inner tensions. One of those fundamental values of the doxa is for example that one that tells us to act "human" and not "like an animal." And a "civilized" (contrary to "wild") behavior includes for example to piss into a clean, hygienic toilet behind closed doors. And to make that piss disappear as quickly as possible in the drains. Nothing must remind us anymore of that "natural", "animal-like" process. We virtually learn to deny our own "naturalness", yes even ourselves. This creates inner tensions that will – during an act of sexuality – turn themselves into their opposite in a form of arousing discharge. So basically into an "anti-habitus" – and the piss fetish is born which leaves some of us sexually aroused at the idea of pissing onto others, having others pissing onto us, lying in piss, being fucked in piss or drinking piss.
The anti-habitus is the exact opposite of the habitus. Because the doxa is encoded into our subconsciousness we will also always feel a constant subconscious pressure to act in exactly the way we have learned to. This pressure leads to tensions and can not constantly be maintained. Those tensions will be discharged as sexual arousal in forms of fetishes. To put it simply: To do the opposite (anti-habitus) of what we have learned to do (habitus) turns us on. The anti-habitus is the inevitable other part of the habitus. It is its shadow. The stronger the pressure of the habitus the bigger will be the satisfaction of the anti-habitus, i.e. fetish. Habitus and anti-habitus are two sides of the same coin. The one cannot exist without the other. Each attempt to suppress the anti-habitus is therefore predestined to fail. Each attempt, to suppress a fetish will not only remain unsuccessful but will even increase the desire for it.
Western philosophical history & dualisms: Fetishes as "the animal within"
A dualism is made up of two opposing categories. In Western philosophy – which has a substantial influence on our culture, our sciences, and our religions – there are countless dualisms: men vs. women, whites vs. blacks/POCs, heterosexual vs. homosexual, God vs. Lucifer, culture vs. nature, humans vs. animals, reason vs. emotions, ratio vs. instincts/desires, etc..
One of the probably oldest dualisms is the culture-nature-dualism, which can also manifest itself as the human-animal-dualism (7). In fact culturally animals are often seen as the opposite of humans. Scientifically humans are part of the animal kingdom. They are one animal species among many. But when we culturally talk about animals – and it is this meaning that is dominant – then we mean millions of different species, from the worm to the gorilla, but humans are excluded (8). Even though the gorilla has more in common the human than with the worm. "Humans are animals and at the same time the opposite of animals" (9).
This human-animal-dualism is central to the idea of domination over nature by (Western) human culture. The animal becomes the key symbol of this domination over nature. Social scientist Birgit Mütherich therefore stated that by seeing an animal as a product of a blind, unconscious natural process and by that in contrast to the cultural human being, we enable its submission, objectification and industrial mass exploitation (10).
It would be too much for this article to go into the complete historic details of Western philosophy. However the human/culture-animal/nature-dualism can be found in the majority of Western philosophies, starting in the antiquity, going through christianity, and up to Kant, Descartes and the era of enlightenment. In fact the era of enlightenment brought an amplification of this dualism. Here humans were described as the moral, rational beings while animals were seen as driven by instincts and impulses. An idea that remains until today. Horkheimer therefore ironically described that rationalized and industrialized domination over nature by the era of enlightenment as "rape of everything outside" (11). Over the course of this dichotomy humans construct themselves in clear differentiation to nonhuman animals as superior, morally pure, clean, good, non-violent and non-deviant (12).
However this not only leads to the control and subjugation of animals "outside human beings," it especially also leads to the control and subjugation of what we have learned to see as "the animal within ourselves:" Apart from the domination over nature is the enlightened human also compelled to dominate over his or her inner nature. The subjugation of the inner nature is seen as a necessity for the civil subjectivization in modern times (13). We learn via socialization to behave "civilized" (i.e. not like "wild animals"), to comb our hair, to cut our nails, to shave unwanted body hair, to dress neatly, to hide body smells, to not eat with bare hands, to use a toilet behind closed doors, and especially to control "the worst part of the animal within us": our sexuality. Every human being not only has to participate in the subjugation of the outer nature, but in order to achieve this, they also have to subjugate their inner nature: Domination over nature includes domination over humans (14).
The idea of the human being in the European history is expressed in its differentiation to the animal. With the animal's irrationality they prove their human dignity (15). It's remarkable that many of our kinks are directly or indirectly linked to that image of nature and "wild animals." It's those denotations that make "wild sex" wild. Piss-sex, BDSM, exhibitionism, sex with fecal matter, and so on: All these fetishes are either linked directly or indirectly with natural/body processes, or they remind us of our own naturalness, of the "animal within." Or they may also be related to the loss of the control over that "animal within" – a control that we have so laboriously learned via our internalized socialization. Fetishes like horse- and dog-masks, respectively pup play probably demonstrate this more than any other kink. No other animal species has been domesticated as much all throughout society as horses and dogs.
BBC documentary in German: The title says "The animal within humans – Part 2: Programmed to have sex"
Foucault: Fetishes as liberation from biopower
French philosopher and sociologist Michel Foucault is especially famous for his work on sexuality and power. In 1984 he was the first public person to die from the consequences of AIDS. His partner Daniel Defert then founded France's biggest HIV organization AIDES. Foucault's non-normative sexuality might have enabled him to explore and question things that had been considered as self-evident up until then. Often Foucault is being blamed to negate the social suppression of sexuality. However this is not quite true. He rather locates this repression within a bigger network of power which uses discourse (or to put it easier: communication) to produce "truth" about sexuality (16). This truth has not necessarily something to do with objective truth. It rather refers to what is considered to be true and real within a given culture at a given period of time. For example at the beginning of the 21st century it is considered true in Western society that homosexuality, heterosexuality and bisexuality are parts of the identity of a human being. "Born this way:" In Western society today sexuality is not something, that you do (like it is or was the case in other cultures for example) but something that you are.
In his works about power and the creation of truth Foucault shows how the potential critical gaze of our fellows prompts us to constantly observe ourselves out of fear of not being accepted by others. This has resulted in a society full of fear of being punished, ridiculed or rejected – a society where everyone monitors themselves (17). People are encouraged to constantly question and assess themselves: We have to improve and work on ourselves. And we have to present to the world a positive and successful image of ourselves based on what we have learned to see as "normal." Foucault did not live to see Facebook. But his theory has probably never been confirmed to much than with the rise of social media.
The panopticon of modern age – © photo by joelle L / flickr.com
Of course this phenomenon does not only exist on social media but throughout the whole of Western society. To explain this Foucault introduces a new term: biopower. Foucault thinks that the transition to the industrial society has lead to an economy that is dependent on how much and how well the working people pursue their job. This resulted in the need of governments to have a more daily power over the bodies of the workforce. (That's why it's called biopower since "bio" means "body" here.) Only then can one be sure that the workforce will be productive. However at the same time governments started to have less direct contact to the working populace in ever growing, urban societies.
Biopower is therefore a very diffusing form of power. Power used to be very linearly from a ruler to those being ruled. Now power is woven throughout whe whole of society like a network. At the same time this power is also much more profound and pervasive since the monitoring and surveillance comes from every direction at the same time. The power is everywhere not because it involves everything but because it comes from everywhere (18). According to Foucault this biopower, i.e. the governing over the human bodies, also explains the contemporary compulsion of Western societies on bodily discipline and the urge to be seen as "normal." We are constantly controlling ourselves related to what is considered as normal in our society. This is especially true in the age of social media since we are now constantly confronted with the posts of success and alleged normality of our friends and try to live up to that. The "like" becomes a digital confirmation that we are accepted.
Source picture "biopower": Barker, Meg-John; Scheele Julia (2016): Queer – A Graphic History, London, p. 68
Extract of the official video of Moby & The Pacific Choir (2016): Are You Lost In The World Like Me? - © Steve Cutts
This self-monitoring leads to a docile society with a strong commitment to conformity. The economy profits because productivity is raised. Also more products and services that build upon our insecurities are being sold. But obviously this also leads to an enormous inner pressure. Similar to the habitus' doxa biopower is where sexual fetishes are born. Nobody can constantly maintain this pressure. The short escape out of this pressure promises arousing liberty.
However it is important to note in which domains the biopower works most within a society. This will determine which kinks will develop. The pressure of the biopower is so powerful, so encompassing, so pervading that even a short, shallow escape from it results in an ecstatic feeling of salvation. Biopower domesticates the human body. Especially sexuality, or more specifically the genitalia have to be hidden and controlled in Western society. How tempting might be in such a society the fetish of exhibitionism? What level of arousing liberation offers it? Or put in other words: Would it even be possible for exhibitionism to exist in a society where no biopower would dictate us to cover our vaginas and penises?
"A fetish bestows humans a short, shallow liberation from the pervasive, all-engrossing biopower."
The stronger the urge to be "normal," the bigger the feeling of satisfaction to let go of this urge and fall into the exact opposite, even when only for a short period of time. A fetish bestows humans a short, shallow liberation from the pervasive, all-engrossing biopower. Maybe one can even go thus far as saying that the biopower needs fetishes in order to deflect this pressure. Without them – without this short but intense moment of salvation – human beings might crack from this vigorous power. The biopower would then destroy itself.
Butler: Fetishes as reversed performativity
Judith Butler is one of the most influential philosophers of modern times. She is especially famous for her often quoted and controversially discussed "Gender Trouble," where body socialization plays an important role. Body socialization describes the process during which an individual learns via socialization how to move, (not) to cover, to dress, etc. their body. They learn to internalize the social norms related to their body. For example a man learns to use his body more actively, partly also with a subtle aggression, to sit legs spread, and to stand with a proud, expanded chest because this is considered manly in Western cultures. A woman rather learns to take bake her body, to present herself more passively, to cross her legs while sitting and to have a more submissive position.
This is what Butler calls "gender performativity" (19). Because of this constant body socialization, during which individuals learn to always act according to the gender they had been assigned at birth, gender much more becomes something that one does (performs) than what one is. One constantly recreates one's "being a man" or "being a woman" by performing it. And with this performance one proves again and again to one's surroundings that one is a man or a woman. Of course this also happens with a specific pressure to act according to the gender one has been assigned. A man who cries is often stigmatized as a pussy. A woman with a strong personality is often stigmatized as being bossy.
Source picture "performativity": Barker, Meg-John; Scheele Julia (2016): Queer – A Graphic History, London, p. 80
Holly McNish (2017): Pink or Blue?
Butler also connects her theory to the above mentioned construction of dualisms. Not only does the dualism man/woman play an important role here in association with our body socialization but also those of mind/body and culture/nature. The mind has to control the body in a similar way that human culture has to control nature. Because in Western culture the body stands for the profound emptiness, the Fall of Man, disappointment, sin, the warning metaphors of hell and the eternal feminine (20).
The labelling of the body as the opposite of the mind, with danger and sin, creates a complex of at the same time feared and desired phantasies (21). That what we have learned to fear exerts simultaneously a fascination onto us. Nothing is more seductive than the forbidden, the sanctioned, the taboo. Nothing is more attractive than to give in to the "desires of the corporeal body." This is true in general for sexuality, but especially also for fetishes.
Indeed social sanctions and the compulsion to subject oneself to socialization play a key role during the emergence of sexual kinks. As Butler says: The discreet gender identities are part of what humanizes individuals in our current culture; we regularly punish those that don't perform their gender identity correctly (22). And again, if you break out of this pressure it can take on a feeling of a sexual fetish. Just like the fetish of men crossdressing can show us. Men that crossdress wear women's (sexy) underwear during a sexual roleplay. The male has historically always been seen as the "better, stronger sex." Culturally it positions itself above the female. It wields control. It dominates. That's why the potential sexual satisfaction is so high when shortly letting go and "falling" into the opposite and take on parts of "the female." It's not only to cede control and domination and shortly be treated like our culture treats women. It's above all to let oneself "fall down" into the opposite and by that also lose all inhibitions which might feel to some men sometimes as a sexually arousing blessing.
In fact taking over a role with "feminine" attributes not rarely plays a key part of the sexual behavior of many men having sex with men and that enjoy being fucked. In order to raise sexual arousal these men for example enjoy being called "sluts," "women," "whores," "property," etc. and they like their asses to be called "pussies" or "cunts." A fact that shines new light on Butler's statement that the reproduction of heterosexual constructs within non-heterosexual circumstances highlights the thoroughly constructed satus of the so-called heterosexual "original" (23). One can indeed call it a kink when sexual arousal is created by turning the male into the female that will be "fucked" and actively penetrated by another male. We can see a similar situation in dominatrix-slave-relationships. The gender performativity is turned into its opposite. The fetish is made up of the reversed performativity, a reversed gender performance.
© picture "crossdresser": Dukas
Rubin: The sex hierarchy and fetishes as break-out of the charmed circle
"Thinking Sex" by anthropologist Gayle Rubin is one of the most influential sexological essays of the last decades. Central to her work is what she calls sex hierarchy, which is composed of an inner "good" circle (called "charmed circle") of socially accepted sexual practices and the outer "bad" limits of socially sanctioned and stigmatized sexual practices (24).
The Sex Hierarchy by Gayle Rubin (Cf. Rubin, Gayle (1992): Thinking Sex – Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality, https://www.ipce.info/library_3/pdf/rubin_thinking_sex.pdf, p. 13)
Naturally fetishes don't exist within the charmed "good" circle. Fetishes come into existence where society deems something as taboo, as "bad," "dangerous,""evil," "perverted," "sick," etc.. In fact, every social fetish has always been labeled – directly or indirectly – with these negative characteristics. And I believe that it is this fact that amplifies the potential of a sexually arousing kink. Yes, maybe it even originally produces the fetish. By creating these "bad" outer limits of accepted sexuality it simultaneously creates fetishes. Or at least the circumstances to create such fetishes.
"Wild" sex that does not happen in a marriage or relationship is hot for some partly (but not only) because society has labeled it with rampant lust. The idea of having sex with many different people or of having group sex is exciting for some people because it has been culturally stigmatized as "primitive" behavior. In a society where sex work is frowned upon some will of course find paying for sex arousing. The mommy or daddy kink can only exist in a society where cross-generational sex is a taboo. Exhibitionism and sex in public places can only be arousing in a culture where sexuality has been banned into the private sphere. (This does not mean that there would be no public sex in a culture where sexuality is not limited to your home. But it would not have a fetish character. I.e. the idea in itself of having public sex would not be arousing.) Filming oneself having sex is only exciting because it is labeled with attributes like "danger." Maybe one can even go as far as saying that by tabooing same-sex intercourse it has gained an additional arousing potential. The many cruising places of the male gay community also radiate a fascination because it contains the "forbidden."
"Exhibitionism can only cause an allure in a culture where sexuality has been banned into the private sphere."
These reflections reveal something very ironic: Fetishes come into existence and are amplified only because they have previously been labeled with taboos and other negative characteristics. Put into other words: A society always creates its own fetishes. Every attempt to suppress something sexually will inevitably result in its amplification. This emphasizes the thoroughly constructed character of human sexuality.
A sociology of fetishes: The example of pup play
Sexuality in Western culture is linked to numerous symbols. To yearning and to fear, to taboos and to phantasies, to desire and to greed, to corporality, to primitivity, to horror, to the abyss of the soul, to the forbidden, to evil, to darkness, to the animal within, to addiction, to temptation, to weakness, to danger, to perversion, to sickness, to savageness, to instincts, and to impulses to only name a few. All this symbolism creates – to use Butler's words – a complex of simultaneously feared and desired phantasies. Phantasies of the forbidden that attracts us a lot. Of the danger that arouses us, that makes us feel alive. Of the temptation of darkness that makes out heart beat faster, partly because of fear, partly because of excitement. Of that pressure to constantly conform to that image of "normality." And the short liberation from it when we just let go.
But how can above mentioned theories be fitted together to an overall picture? Let's use the example of pup play to do so. Pup play is a role play of the fetish scene where one partner takes over the role of a dog ("pup") and the other one takes of the role as master or mistress of the dog (called "handler"). There are authoritative, slightly authoritarian handlers and those that are rather passive. And also among the pups there are those that are rather submissive and those that are rather dominant (called "Alphas"). I believe that pup play is an ideal example to use for my theory on the sociology of fetishes since it is rather obvious and therefor easier to use as an explanation. But of course this goes the same for most of the other social sexual fetishes as we have already seen with exhibitionism, piss play, sex in public places or cross-dressing.
Pups at Folsom Europe 2017 in Berlin, Europe's biggest fetish festival. © GIF by Jeff Mannes / orgysmic.com
Since hundreds of years most Western philosophies, religions and sciences are based on several opposing categories where one is considered as better/higher than the other. Examples for those dualisms are:
man vs. woman
white vs. black
heterosexual vs. homosexual
culture vs. nature
human vs. animal
mind vs. body
reason vs. emotions
ratio vs. instincts
civilized vs. wild/savage
good vs. bad/evil
healthy vs. sick
God vs. devil
as well as (the partly historically new) dualisms from the sex hierarchy
Most social fetishes can be explained via at least one of those dualisms. For our example here however the following dualisms will be of higher importance: culture vs. nature, human vs. animal, mind vs. body/sexuality, and ratio vs. instincts. Those are historically very old dualisms that shape philosophy and science as well as unconsciously guide our thinking and acting since thousands of generations.
Biologically humans are one species among many. But we saw that culturally humans have been defined as the opposite of animals. An animal is a living thing from the chimpanzee to the ant excluding humans. Even though the chimpanzee has more in common with a human than with an ant. And it is this cultural, not biological, definition of an animal that guides our thinking. When we talk about animals, we don't mean humans.
Those dualisms have also historically been linked: Humans belong to culture, animals to nature. The (white, male, heterosexual) human is part of both the world of the mind and the physical world, the animal has been confined to the physical. Humans possess ratio, animals are guided by instincts, etc.. In short: Culture = human = mind = ratio, and nature = animal = body = instinct.
Additionally the destiny of humans and of human culture had been thought to control and partly subjugate nature and everything that was considered to belong to nature (so also animals and body/sexuality). Accordingly it's considered one of the biggest taboos for Western humans to fall back into an existence of a wild animal after the great efforts they've done to "free" themselves from their natural prison (25). This belief remains up until today – even if it has been weakened a bit. We can see it, for instance, when we shriek out with moral outrage when somebody is fucking around like a "wild animal." (And therefore is moving in the bad outer limits of the sex hierarchy as they are not living monogamous but promiscuous.) Or when we blame people living with HIV, saying it's their own fault because they did not control their own instincts. Philosophically and religiously sexuality has always been linked not only with corporality, but also with the animal, with darkness, with the night, with the abyss, with the evil, with greed, with irrationality, with instincts, with desire. You can find these patterns of beliefs in non-religious contexts as well. In science sexuality has since a long time been pathologized. Many forms of sexuality have or had been labeled as sick or underdeveloped by natural sciences and psychology. Or they were labeled illegal by law. Female sexuality, but also those forms of sexuality presented in the sex hierarchy, like homosexuality, masturbation, non-reproductive sexuality with passion are only some examples.
All these dualisms (including Butler's gender performativity) are inscribed in our subconsciousness via our socialization. Looked at them with the theory of the social construction of reality one can agree that they are a social construct, a social product. They have much less to do with true naturalness and and much more with how we perceive and classify nature. Humans as opposite of animals is not a law by nature but rather a human made construct. Remember the process of the social construction of reality: externalization, objectification, internalization. Humans create (externalize) the construct of human beings as the opposite of animals (as well as of culture as the opposite of nature, of the male as the opposite of the female, of the mind as the opposite of the body, and of reason as the opposite of and controlling power of instincts). With this construction and externalization "humans/culture vs. animals/nature" human beings have at the same time created the first step to give birth to the pup play fetish. Without this opposition human vs. animals and the belief that a human is the opposite of an animal, humans could never take over the apparently opposite role of an animal within kinky play. Afterwards the objectification begins: The belief that humans are the opposite of animals becomes a universal social "truth." Even if this has nothing to do with scientific facts it still becomes an invisible matter of course, "the way things are," a law that will not be questioned anymore. And even more importantly which will put pressure on humans to adhere to this belief. This finally results in the internalization of this belief that humans are the opposite of animals. This belief is encoded into every human being's subconsciousness during their socialization. The outer pressure turns into an inner pressure. Human beings will now start to control themselves to act and think in accordance to this belief.
The belief in a human/culture-animal/nature-dualism also comes with the control, domestication and subjugation of animals and nature (and by that of the body, the instincts, and sexuality) by human culture (as well as the mind and reason): Animals are tamed, subjugated and confined in circuses, in zoos, or in factory farming. But also pets are domesticated with a milder, softer form of control. Nature is pruned, trees are cut to look cultured and beautiful, hedges are cropped, flowerbeds are laid out, public parks are designed symmetrically. Everything is controlled in such a way that in corresponds to human concept.
But not only is the outer nature controlled. The same applies to the inner nature, the alleged "animal within" and everything that reminds humans of their belong to the natural word is controlled, subjugated, suppressed: Finger and toe nails are cut, hair is dressed and styled, bodies and especially genitalia are covered and hidden, skin is made up, body hair is removed, illness is tabooed, urine and stool is hidden and disposed of, sex is banned in the private sphere. The inner life has to be kept clean of what we are already controlling in the outer life: We are told not to do this, not to do that, to eat cultivated with cutlery and not with our bare hands, not to belch, not to be like a wild animal, to behave, to pull yourself together, to not think with one's genitalia, etc.. All of this is internalized during the social construction of reality.
This internalization happens mainly through biopower. Generally speaking (and maybe also a bit boldly): Western society has used biopower to domesticate humans like humans have domesticated other animals. People have not only learned to control, to domesticate and to subjugate outer nature and animals but also their inner nature. In order for the belief of humans despite their biology being the opposite of animals Western people have to be domesticated in a way that makes them hide everything that could remind them of their naturalness, of their animal within. Biopower has domesticated humans to chase out their inner animal.
The potential critical gaze of the people around you that Foucault described plays an important role in the internalization of the dualisms, including the belief of the opposition of humans/culture and animals/nature. Everybody polices themselves and controls their "animal within" and everything that has been described as belonging to that animal out of fear to be punished, ridiculed or rejected. Since the biopower is so pervasive and profound it strengthens the pressure to be considered as "normal" in the eyes of other people. And in this case "normal" means to act in a way to conform to all these requirements of controlling the inner and outer nature. In no way is one supposed to act "like an animal."
The biopower will eventually inscribe this behavior into the habitus of each person. These patterns of acting, thinking and behaving which are based on the world view of the human/culture-animal/nature-dualism become a "second nature." They become the habitus of the Western socialized individual. I already explained how objectification in the social construction of reality turns the belief in a human-animal-opposition into a socially constructed "truth." It is this truth, this certainty, and this self-evidence that becomes our doxa, i.e. our core beliefs and core values of the control of nature by human culture. This doxa that had been inscribed into our subconsciousness by an internalization through biopower will guide our nature and animal controlling thinking, seeing, and acting.
This inevitably leads to an enormous inner pressure. But the human being can't constantly control the tensions between what they are and what they should be. Therefore these tensions have the potential to release themselves during arousal and sexuality by falling exactly into what one is actually supposed to avoid. To put into other words: It turns us on to allow what we are supposed to suppress. The forbidden, the danger, the taboo generates an incredible strong potential of arousal just because it is a taboo. Because humans constantly have to control their "animal within" it can offer an incredible excitement to allow the forbidden, to let oneself fall, and to "become an animal." And the pup play fetish is born.
But why dogs and not other animals? Obviously there are also similar kinks with other animal species like cats, horses, pigs, foxes, etc.. But no animal species seems to be qualified better for the pet play fetish than dogs. Because it is this animal that is most visibly and most strongly domesticated in every day life of most people.
"Dogs are also leashed. Well of course you can leash every other animal, too. But it's most natural with dogs. And especially the taming (...), well I connect that much more with dogs. (...) Cats... yeah well I don't know, for me every other animal is not as interesting (...) [as a dog] that really faithfully and dumb follows its master. (...) For me one beautiful thing about being a puppy is also to sit between your master's legs. And to stay there for a longer time and do nothing. Which in my opinion cats don't really do (...). Cats are looked at more egomaniacal."
- Pup, male, 36 years old
The domestication of animals can bee seen much stronger with submissive dogs than with cats that are not as drawn to humans. Pigs, cows, and so forth are also socially subjugated in the billions – their subjugation is for instance in factory farming mach stronger that the relatively soft domestication of dogs. But this happens rather in windowless buildings to which most people don't have any access. Their subjugation is much stronger but invisible. Which remains is the most visible domestication of animals: the dog.
The popularity of dogs for the pet play fetish can be explained by the social visibility of its open domestication. Which does not mean that the domestication or subjugation of other animal species is also visible to some people with different life stories, experiences, childhoods, and influences. Which is why also other animal species present a potential for the pet play fetish. But the dog remains the most obvious symbolic animal when it comes to the control and subjugation of nature and of the (inner and outer) animal, of instincts, of the wild, of the danger – control and subjugation by humans, by their ratio, their culture and their civilization. The dog presents the biggest potential to be sexually charged by the inner tensions that imprison the individual. The breakout by taking over the role aof a dog therefore offers an incredibly strong potential of liberation. This can be as strong as being linked to sexual arousal.
We are constantly surrounded by a permanent, profound, pervasive, comprehensive control of outer and inner nature. The biopower internalizes the doxa of controlling nature in our subconsciousness so that we constantly and profoundly control ourselves and our "animal within." This pressure remains even if it acts subconsciously most of the times. It lingers upon us like an oppressing shadow. What liberation, what salvation to just briefly release oneself from it. To finally let oneself fall. To vent unbridled which we control and suppress... How liberating is it to free the tightly constricted hair from the rubber band and let it fall seductively. Just as liberating and exciting is it for an individual that is constantly controling their "animal within" to just let this animal get out.
This is how the anti-habitus is formed. The biopower's pressure and the internalized doxa have to be deflected. On one hand the doxa creates the habitus of the control of nature, animals, bodies and instincts. But on the other hand, because of the tensions that result from this, it needs a deflection: the anti-habitus. A fetish takes over the role of the anti-habitus. Therefore I'd like to repeat this: The anti-habitus (in this case: to take over the role of an animal) is the opposite of the habitus (in this case to control the "animal within"). "To do the opposite (anti-habitus) of what we have learned to do (habitus) turns us on. The anti-habitus is the inevitable other part of the habitus. It is its shadow. The stronger the pressure of the habitus the bigger will be the satisfaction of the anti-habitus, i.e. fetish. Habitus and anti-habitus are two sides of the same coin. The one cannot exist without the other. Each attempt to suppress the anti-habitus is therefore predestined to fail. Each attempt to suppress a fetish will not only remain unsuccessful but will even increase the desire for it."
However, it remains unimportant whether the human-animal-dualism and the "animal within" is a scientific reality of whether it is a social construct. It just comes down to the sociological Thomas theorem (26) which states that every human action has real consequences not matter how unreal the situation was that lead to this action:
"If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences."
The "animal within", and all these dualisms are social constructs that don't exist in objective reality. But because they are perceived as real the consequence of the inner tensions are real. And by that also the kinks that result from them.
So society creates fetishes as an "accidental byproduct" of socialization. It creates them by trying to suppress them. The more it tries to suppress them the stronger they become. The more we try to control the animal within the more exciting it becomes to take over the role of that animal.
"The sexual fetish is a revolutionary act, a rebellion against social power structures."
So you can't suppress a fetish. It is the result of a suppression. In fact that makes it inadvertently a revolutionary act, a rebellion against social power structures. And it has the potential to falter them.
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About the author: Jeff Mannes studied sociology and gender and put his focus on human-animal-relationships, queer theory and sexuality. He worked for several years for a social psychological NGO in the field of social justice and has been volunteering for several NGOs for many years. Jeff Mannes has written articles for several media outlets in Germany and Luxembourg and he gives talks on sexuality in German, English, and French. He also offers a guided tour on the history of sex and sex science in Berlin.
(1) Cf. Berger, Peter L. (1988): Zur Dialektik von Religion und Gesellschaft – Elemente einer soziologischen Theorie, Frankfurt am Main.
(2) Cf. Berger, Peter L.; Luckmann, Thomas (2003): Die gesellschaftliche Konstruktion der Wirklichkeit – Eine Theorie der Wissenssoziologie, 19th edition, Frankfurt am Main.
(3) Cf. Bourdieu, Pierre (2014): Die feinen Unterschiede – Kritik der gesellschaftlichen Urteilskraft, 24th edition, Frankfurt am Main.
(4) Cf. Bourdieu, Pierre (2015): Entwurf einer Theorie der Praxis, 4th edition, Frankfurt am Main.
(5) Cf. Münch, Richard (2004): Gesellschaftstheorie (= Soziologische Theorie Band 3), Frankfurt am Main, p. 422.
(6) Cf. Bourdieu, Pierre (2015): Entwurf einer Theorie der Praxis, 4th edition., Frankfurt am Main, p. 200.
(7) Cf. Buschka, Sonja; Rouamba, Jasmine (2013): Hirnloser Affe? Blöder Hund? – ‚Geist‘ als sozial konstruiertes Unterscheidungsmerkmal, p. 25, in: Buschka, Sonja; Pfau-Effinger, Birgit (publishers): Gesellschaft und Tiere – Soziologische Analysen zu einem ambivalenten Verhältnis, Wiesbaden, p. 23-56.
(8) Cf. Mütherich, Birgit (2015): Die soziale Konstruktion des Anderen – Zur soziologischen Frage nach dem Tier, p. 50, in: Brucker, Renate et al. (publishers): Das Mensch-Tier-Verhältnis – Eine sozialwissenschaftliche Einführung, Wiesbaden, p. 49-78.
(9) Mütherich, Birgit (2003): Das Fremde und das Eigene – Gesellschaftspolitische Aspekte der Mensch-Tier-Beziehung, p. 18, in: Brenner, Andreas (publisher): Tiere beschreiben, Erlangen, p.16-42.
(10) Mütherich, Birgit (2003): Das Fremde und das Eigene – Gesellschaftspolitische Aspekte der Mensch-Tier-Beziehung, p. 17, in: Brenner, Andreas (publisher): Tiere beschreiben, Erlangen, p.16-42.
(11) Cf. Horkheimer, Max (1959): Erinnerung, p. 7, in: Organ des Bundes gegen den Missbrauch der Tiere e.V.: Das Recht der Tiere, Starnberg, edition 1/2, p. 7.
(12) Cf. Buschka, Sonja; Rouamba, Jasmine (2013): Hirnloser Affe? Blöder Hund? – ‚Geist‘ als sozial konstruiertes Unterscheidungsmerkmal, p. 25, in: Buschka, Sonja; Pfau-Effinger, Birgit (publishers): Gesellschaft und Tiere – Soziologische Analysen zu einem ambivalenten Verhältnis, Wiesbaden, p. 23-56.
(13) Cf. Sebastian, Marcel; Gutjahr, Julia (2013): Das Mensch-Tier-Verhältnis in der kritischen Theorie der Frankfurter Schule, p. 102f, in: Buschka, Sonja; Pfau-Effinger, Birgit (publishers): Gesellschaft und Tiere – Soziologische Analysen zu einem ambivalenten Verhältnis, Wiesbaden, p. 97-119.
(14) Cf. Horkheimer, Max (1991): Die Revolte der Natur, p. 106, in: Horkheimer, Max: Gesammelte Schriften Band 6: 'Zur Kritik der instrumentellen Vernunft' and 'Notizen 1949-1969', Frankfurt am Main, p. 105-135.
(15) Cf. Horkheimer, Max; Adorno, Theodor W. (2004): Dialektik der Aufklärung – Philosophische Fragmente, Frankfurt am Main, p. 262.
(16) Cf. Foucault, Michel (2017): Der Wille zum Wissen – Sexualität und Wahrheit I, 21st edition, Frankfurt am Main, p. 17ff.
(17) Cf. Barker, Meg-John; Scheele, Julia (2016): Queer – A Graphic History, London, p. 66ff.
(18) Cf. Foucault, Michel (2017): Der Wille zum Wissen – Sexualität und Wahrheit I, 21st edition, Frankfurt am Main, p. 94.
(19) Cf. Butler, Judith (2014); Das Unbehagen der Geschlechter, 17th edition, Frankfurt am Main, p. 200.
(20) Cf. Butler, Judith (2014); Das Unbehagen der Geschlechter, 17th edition, Frankfurt am Main, p. 191.
(21) Cf. Butler, Judith (2014); Das Unbehagen der Geschlechter, 17th edition, Frankfurt am Main, p. 197.
(22) Cf. Butler, Judith (2014); Das Unbehagen der Geschlechter, 17th edition, Frankfurt am Main, p. 205.
(23) Cf. Butler, Judith (2014); Das Unbehagen der Geschlechter, 17th edition, Frankfurt am Main, p. 58.
(24) Cf. Rubin, Gayle (1992): Thinking Sex – Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality, https://www.ipce.info/library_3/pdf/rubin_thinking_sex.pdf, p. 13.
(25) Cf. Sebastian, Marcel; Gutjahr, Julia (2013): Das Mensch-Tier-Verhältnis in der kritischen Theorie der Frankfurter Schule, p. 105, in: Buschka, Sonja; Pfau-Effinger, Birgit (publishers): Gesellschaft und Tiere – Soziologische Analysen zu einem ambivalenten Verhältnis, Wiesbaden, p. 97-119.
(26) Cf. Thomas, William Isaac (1928): The Methodology of Behavior Study, in: Knopf, Alfred (publisher): The Child in America – Behavior Problems and Programs, New York, p. 553–576.