Cross-dressing, documented throughout history around the globe, is a well-known erotic activity. Done occasionally for fun or variety, it’s an offbeat variation. Some men do it alone; some couples play with it together.
But some men can’t get excited without cross-dressing; others can get excited, but don’t feel really satisfied unless it’s part of sex. That’s when therapists describe it as a fetish. A fetish is an eroticised object (or, depending on your point of view, body part) whose use is crucial to a person’s sexual function. Unlike a vibrator, which is valued because it provides direct physical stimulation, a fetish provides psychological stimulation.
Often, just the sight of a fetish object - say a muddy shoe - provides the erotic jolt. If the fetishised object does provide physical stimulation - say, using a glove to stroke the penis - the physical stroking may be enjoyable, but the identical stroking from, say, a napkin won’t provide nearly the same charge. For the fetishist, in a sense, the idea of being stroked by a glove is more important than the feeling of being stroked by a glove.
Many fetishes from which to choose
Cross-dressing is only one of many fetishes. Humans, of course, express their sexuality in a staggering variety of ways, and so an amazing variety of things are fetish objects to someone or other. These include gloves, shoes, latex, various foods, and soaking wet dresses. Body parts such as hands and feet are common fetishes, as are urine and faeces.
Some erotic rigidities involve experiences in addition to (or instead of) objects. For some people urine in a jar is uninteresting, but being urinated on (“golden showers”) is thrilling. Torn clothing may be of no interest, but the tearing of clothing may be exciting. The risk of discovery in a semi-public place (elevator, staircase) turns sex into fireworks for some people.
The attachment to such experiences is generally called a paraphilia rather than a fetish. Exhibitionism, voyeurism, and sadomasochism are common ones.
When couples don't share interests
When both people in a couple are interested in the same thing - she likes to be handcuffed, he likes to handcuff; he’s ecstatic when she wears a full slip and blows smoke in his face, she loves to play Marlene Dietrich - the issue of narrow erotic interests doesn’t seem like a problem. It’s when one person gets bored with the routine, or never liked it in the first place, that couples have difficulty.
As with so many other sexual problems, talking about this is essential. Some couples hesitate to talk, fearing that honesty will confront them with an essential incompatibility. And indeed, that does happen. But if there’s any flexibility in someone’s preferences, if there’s room to include other things or to slightly change a game (e.g., deserted stairwells can provide the rush of potential exhibitionism without any real danger of discovery, thus satisfying two people with contrasting needs), only solid communication will discover it.
On the other hand, a true fetish - a long-term, rigid requirement of a specific object - is unlikely to change. A serious 25-year-old girdle fetishist will usually become a 50-year-old girdle fetishist. If you find that your partner has a fetish that you can’t accept or somehow incorporate into your sex life you should consider a couples therapist - a sexually open-minded one, to be sure.
So what about worshiping big penises, or liking a warm room, clean bed, and sweet words: Fetish? Paraphilia? Ultimately, if your partner shares your preference, it doesn’t matter. If your turn-on is your partner’s turn-off (or vice-versa), it doesn’t matter what it’s called - it sounds like trouble. (Elna McIntosh, Health24 sexologist)
Compulsive sex and its treatment