A Meditation on Ethical Paraphilia
(Previously titled “A Meditation on Ethical Fetishism”)
Okay, so we fetishists and paraphiles have a pretty bad rap. And unfortunately, that’s not without reason. Our nasty DSM entry doesn’t do us any favors, I’m sure.
But my thesis for this post is basically this: fetishism and paraphilia isn’t inherently creepy, dangerous, or even, in some cases, objectifying.
I’m going to make the case that paraphilia isn’t the evil twin of “natural” sexuality, isn’t the broken version, the trampled and deformed version; isn’t the product of a questionable childhood and arrested emotional development. It’s differently sexual. And it’s capable of being just as fulfilling, healthy, and respectful as being normophilic.
I’ll be the first person to admit that we can be a very strange and troubling bunch, though. The reasons for this are complicated, but I’ve got a few theories:
1. Internalization. If paraphilia and fetishes (not, you know, your typical BDSM fare) are painted as going hand in hand with other–and also misrepresented–mental disorders, like, say, antisocial personality disorder, then a paraphilic individual might figure they’re damned by virtue of being different and internalize the stereotypes of being pathologically egocentric, amoral, unthruthful, etc. There aren’t too many places one could go and not be received without suspicion or outright hostility, and even many self-proclaimed sex-positive circles implicitly link fetishism with non-consent, oppression, and plain old toxic behavior. When it’s, you know, brought up. If you go your whole life being told you’re a criminal or a criminal in the making, should it be surprising to anyone when you start to believe it?
2. Avoidance. This one became apparent after I’d started exposing myself to a lot of talk and outrage over attribute-oriented fetishes (versus action-, object-, or scenario-oriented). It’s not unwarranted in the least– people do really shitty things to other people in the name of satisfying fets. But at the same time, it was like watching people trying to talk about US foreign policy with a 10-word vocabulary. But it’s not just the detractors and the “haters” that do this, it’s the fetishists themselves as well. Because saying “I have a thing for Asians” is a hell of a lot easier than spending dozens of sleepless nights trying to figure out that that even means, and not to mention that doing so is taboo. The fact of the matter is that paying lip service to fetishism is socially acceptable, if not hip in some demographics, and unthinkable if explored in any real way whatsoever. That 10-word vocabulary winds up creating a seriously fucked-up positive feedback loop in which staying completely ignorant about what’s actually coming out of people’s mouths becomes commendable.
3. Because the fetishist in question is genuinely a douchebag. No ifs, ands, or buts about it. They’re using it to free themselves of sexual and romantic responsibility, as a vehicle to oppress, manipulate, and dominate others, and they are selfish and shameless. Those people can go fuck themselves; they’re probably not interested in any of this anyways, so all I can say is I feel very sorry for whoever their partners or fetish targets are, and I hope they don’t get roped into their shit.
Those are the three big ones (read: the only three I have).
So, the question remains: how does one be an ethical fetishist? For your consideration, another list:
1. Understand that you’re not intrinsically bad or broken. You are, or at least have the capacity to be, whole and healthy in all areas of life. Don’t let anyone let you think otherwise.
2. Non-consent is not an option where other people are concerned. Ever. Respect the fuck out of people’s boundaries.
3. Treat people like people. If you’ve got a fetish for long hair, it’s no excuse to treat everyone with long hair the same. It’s no excuse to treat them like cardboard cut-outs that don’t have emotions or lives outside of you and their hair. If heterosexual men are capable of treating women like autonomous human beings worthy of respect, then you can do the same thing for people that meet whatever paraphilic criteria you enjoy. Anything but makes you an asshole.
4. Figure out what your fetishes/paraphilias actually are. Being vague does no one any favors. It makes it harder for you to communicate with partners, more likely to stereotype others, more likely say offensive things, and it makes finding porn way more difficult than it already likely is. If you have a “thing” for a “race”, do everyone in the world, yourself included, a favor and figure out what exactly that entails. Because that be the difference between being a racist piece of shit and having a strong preference for a single facial feature that, in reality, isn’t exclusive to a particular ethnic group. Handy, huh?
5. Don’t pressure partners into satisfying this need. They are not obligated to. At the same time, I think it’s perfectly OK to prioritize your needs, and if those needs aren’t being met then ending a relationship over that is acceptable (maybe not according to your partner, but that’s why you broke up with them to begin with right?). Just don’t be a huge jerk about it yourself.
6. Do find a support system. One that isn’t problematic, though. This could be very difficult if you look within the fetish fandom, as those are often riddled with every -ism and -phobia under the sun (because no one else will really have done #4 on this list), and are often safe havens for entitled white cis men with a chip on their shoulder; but finding at least one person who is actually a decent human being who shares your interest shouldn’t be impossible. Looking outside the fetish will make this a lot easier, though. Finding friends into more mainstream kink is also probably good (make sure they’re also not -ist and -phobic), and don’t rule out your own partners or other open-minded, normophilic friends as well. Don’t underestimate the power of being able to bring up your own sexuality, even if just for laughs, in casual conversation among people you trust.
7. Do find out what the law may or may not say about your paraphilia in your area. Lots of places have weird laws against stupid stuff. If a guy can get arrested and become registered as a fucking sex offender for being intimate with a bicycle in private, then it will be useful to be able to do some general risk assessment to keep yourself safe depending on what your fetish/paraphilia is. (And this is assuming that your paraphilia doesn’t require non-consensual participation. On that note, actually…)
8. If your paraphilia requires non-consensual participation, get professional help ASAP. There are people out there that can help you develop coping mechanisms, mental strategies for resisting compulsive urges, and if it’s really bad, put you on medication that will help lessen or eliminate that need. Understanding that your desires require hurting people, and assuming that you know hurting people is wrong, is a first step. It is possible to be a good person while carrying the burden of having to constantly resist the calls of a fucked-up paraphilia. But doing it alone isn’t recommended. And my heart goes out to all the people out there who have to deal with it every day.
9. It’s OK to want to change, but make peace with not being able to. None of us woke up one day and decided to have a paraphilia. None of us decided that it would be super cool to have it be a constant thread throughout our lives, going hand-in-hand with (or serving as, even) our orientation. Understand that this is something that happened by chance at a very young age: paraphilia is just another sort of imprinting. You’re not broken, you’re different. And different can be frustrating.
That’s about it. I was going to write more, but they were really all going to be along the lines of “don’t be afraid to assert your own happiness and personal well-being”. With all the hangups that we have about normophilic sex, it’s no surprise that people would have even more damaging hangups about having a “deviant” or paraphilic sexuality. Guilt and isolation are a potent mix of Bad Things that can lead to a lot of other crap like depression, anxiety, and a whole host of issues involving either self-hate or resentment toward your manifest fetish and the people that come to represent that. So yes, knowing that you deserve to be happy like anyone else is a big freakin’ deal.
A really fantastic example of how the fetish/paraphilia doesn’t define the creep is this documentary I stumbled on about 4 years ago (oddly enough, it wasn’t making any rounds in the Transformers community lol; it was, however, one of the things I made my now-husband watch very early on in our friendship and I’m happy to say it didn’t scare him off!). It’s about two different guys in the US who only experience sexual attraction towards cars and vehicles and it follows them as they each take a roadtrip to meet at a car show someplace. The one guy is nice, considerate, and aware of boundaries. The other guy… is not. Let’s say that I wouldn’t ever want to be alone in a room with him even without being attracted to humans.
So this was something of an eye-opener for me when I first saw it. Same paraphilia, two completely different personalities.
That about wraps this post up, though. The takeaway in 140 characters or less? “A. People should be respected B. You should be happy. If A, then B.”