When are sexual fetishes acceptable? Perdeby investigates.


The world’s attitude towards sex has changed a lot over the years. There was a time when sex was only socially acceptable between a married man and woman, when vibrators were used as a now discredited treatment device for female hysteria and when homosexuality was punishable by death in most countries. Today, decades after the sexual revolution (for example the publication of Alfred Kinsey’s controversial Kinsey Reports and the mainstream popularity of the Karma Sutra) sex has almost completely lost its mysterious and taboo nature. This is evidenced by the plenitude of sexual fetishes that are out there: from stuffed animals to insects crawling over genitals, people are starting to find a wide range of everyday objects and situations erotic. One can’t help but wonder what truly counts as normal and appropriate when it comes to sex and if people lost sight of that a long time ago in their pursuit of sexual freedom.

Thoko* is 21. She says that for the first five months of her relationship with her boyfriend, she had no idea what sort of things he was into in bed. “At first he wanted us to use candle wax on each other, then we started having sex in baths of really hot water.” She says that she at first objected but eventually relented and started playing into her boyfriend’s fantasies. “Sometimes we use real fire. It’s really hard to explain the welts and burns on my boobs and thighs to my friends, but I’ve started enjoying it so it’s a small price to pay.”

The definitive premise of festishes (or paraphilias as they’re clinically known) is that they’re “different” from normal sex. So what is normal and who makes that decision? In an article entitled “Paraphilias: What is Sexually Abnormal?”, Dr Wade Silverman, an American psychologist, writes that it is inaccurate to label certain sexual activities as either normal or abnormal as that creates unnecessary stigma on people’s private sex acts and causes shame. “In our own culture, we have changed our views on homosexuality, masturbation, and oral sex,” he explains. “Our male rock stars have worn skirts and our actresses smoke cigars. Assessments of abnormality are so tinged by personal values and personal biases that objective assessment of abnormal is almost impossible. One individual’s fetish is another’s object of disgust.”

James* is 22. He says that since he started having sex when he was 16, he has been sexually attracted to women with genital piercings (his current girlfriend has seven). James says that he finds it impossible to get aroused unless his partner has piercings that he can “play with”. This, he says, has made finding girlfriends difficult for him in the past because his particular brand of fetish is not the kind that either party in a relationship can easily compromise on. James himself has one genital piercing.

Even though most fetishes are harmless in private, sometimes certain fetishes can become dangerous or disruptive to an individual’s lifestyle or the public. Some fetishes, or paraphilias, like voyeurism, paedophilia and homicidophilia (lust murder) are against the law. Others, like coprophilia – the sexual attraction to faeces – can become health risks. Still others like asphyxiophilia (erotic suffocation) can even be deadly. Dimakatso Selebi, a second-year BCom Law student, says that she has no problem with other people’s sexual interests as long as they don’t affect the lives of those outside the fetishists’ relationship. “You can do whatever you want behind closed doors as long as it is between two consenting adults and the rest of us can’t hear, see or smell it,” she says.

The times are constantly changing and sometimes even the most private of pleasures have to change along with them. It’s no secret that the world is a lot more open about sex than it was decades ago and with little or nothing being left to the imagination, people are now forced to imagine more unconventional things to preserve the excitement and mystery of sex. And as long as laws aren’t being broken and they lock the door, change the sheets and hide the videographic evidence of their kinks, no one has to know about it and wrestle with the decision of whether or not to pass judgement. “To each his own,” Selebi reminds us.

*Name has been changed.

Photo: Hendro Van Der Merwe

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