My fetish priors
When I tell people I’m researching sexual fetishes, they often tell me their theory about what causes them, but I’ve found myself consistently disappointed at how simplistic they are. I hear that fetishes are caused by childhood anxiety, or childhood exposure, or are a psychological attempt to regain control. My sense is that the answer is probably gonna look closer to like “all of the above, sometimes, depending”.
(Also, I’m using the word ‘fetish’ to refer to ‘any sexual interest’; I know this is nonstandard!)
My intuitions here are that all fetishes are not created equal; I suspect some are more dependent on things like hormones, while others are more cultural, and still others might be genetic. My guess is that this might also be split according to gender; as in, a fetish might have more genetic influence among men and more cultural influence among women. My guess is also that fetishes are less malleable and controllable than most people seem to assume they are.
I find myself doubting a lot of individual explanations for where they got their fetish from. For example, assume you’re very aroused by feet; you might explain this by citing an early memory where Aunt Martha with her impressive cleavage would often sit next to you with bare feet. You might think this was the cause, where at an early age you learned that bare feet was something associated with sexual titillation.
But it’s hard to know which direction this goes - did you get titillated by feet because it was associated with sex, or did you notice the feet in the first place because you were already predisposed to be interested in feet? If you’d been born with a hormonal cocktail that really made you fixated on feet, then this easily could have resulted in exactly the same scenario of feeling your first unusual interest while on the floor by Aunt Martha. We should always be asking, “could different causes also be responsible for the same memories you report?”
A lot of stories people tell me about their earliest memories of specific sexual interests feel easily like they could be told with reverse causality. My suspicion is we sort through our memories, find a story that fits and gives us tidy sense of control over why we are the way we are, and then we’re done with it. This is why I have a lot of baseline skepticism around self-reports of fetish causes.
There’s also the possibility of a genetic aspect of some fetishes confounding things - if pedophilia is genetically inherited, you’re probably more likely to be the victim of sexual assault as a child (because your parents are more likely to be pedophiles), and then we would see there’s a correlation between childhood sexual assault and pedophilia, even if the actual underlying cause is genetic.
Another guess of mine is that fetishes occur at different “levels of consciousness”. For example, something like schizophrenia is something we conceive of as pretty “low level” - it’s well beyond our conscious control, explainable mostly through some confusing stew of genes and raw biology, and while there’s some higher-level aspects (like, the way it manifests seems to differ based on culture) we reason about it more similarly to the way we reason about food allergies.
Something like “fear of abandonment”, on the other hand, is something we conceive of as pretty “high level” - it occurred due to concrete, comprehensible narratives like “my mother left me when I was a child,” and is manageable in the sense of “if I do enough therapy I will finally get secure.” We reason about it closer to the way we reason about deliberate life choices like “buying a house”.
I suspect that the spectrum of fetishes works the same way - that some should be understood through a low level lens, and others through high. But I also think that this is likely true even within the same type of fetish - arousal from getting peed on might be very low level for Alice, and very high level for Bob.
I also assume some sort of imprecise evolutionary function of fetishes here; as in, my guess is some general categories of fetishes can be understood as advantageous sexual strategy. I squint mostly at power dynamics here, because this seems to be the most commonly reflected “nonstandard” sexual behavior we see among primates.
And to be clear, I think evolution is not a great lens to use to understand a lot of things that might be better understood through other factors (like, we still don’t deeply understand the evolutionary benefit of gay people), but my intuition is that some larger tendencies - namely, the ways male and female (and possibly noncis) sexual preferences differ from each other - are more likely to have useful evolutionary explanations.
I don’t have great data for any of these assumptions beyond the degree to which they were formed by me reading studies I’ve since forgotten about; this is just meant to outline my intuitions, which might be a useful backdrop to link to when I’m discussing findings in the future.