Q: Why do some individuals have fetishes? Or even paraphilia?
A: There are many different reasons why people can have fetishes and it depends on what kind of fetish we’re talking about. For most fetishes that are healthy (do not cause harm to oneself or others), people usually report developing them around the beginning of puberty (12 – 14 years old). This suggests that fetishes are often caused by different events that are happening around this time, likely due to conditioning. Often our first sexual experiences can be very emotionally charged—exciting, shameful, confusing, etc. So, anything that we happen to be experiencing during that sexual experience can be cognitively connected to feeling of sexually arousal. This is because when areas of the brain “fire together,” they tend to “wire together.”
For example, let’s say that a 12-year-old boy is learning how to masturbate and one of his parents accidently walks in on him. This can cause a lot of shame, which can then get tied with feelings of sexual excitement. This can make feeling ashamed become sexually arousing in itself. Because of this, as an adult, this man may sexually enjoy being called names, ordered around, or anything else that gives him a sense of shame and powerlessness. Another example could be a 10-year-old girl who begins rubbing herself on the vagina with one of her toys. Realizing it feels good, she begins to rub herself harder and then accidently cuts or bruises her vagina. The pain can get connected with the sense of sexual arousal and this can develop a pain fetish. In the future, this woman may enjoy being spanked or whipped.
This are just a couple of examples and are far from the only ways people can develop fetishes, but it just goes to show that early sexual experiences can be really formative in the development of our sexual likes and dislikes (i.e., fetishes).
When it comes to paraphilias (fetishes that are harmful to oneself or others), such as public flashing, rape fantasies or pedophilia, there’s less research on how these develop, but it’s likely through the same general process. However, people who develop these types of fetishes often have a background of physical or sexual abuse, so they can become sexually excited by inflicting pain or fear in others.
Answers provided by Dr. Ross Avilla
Dr. Ross Avilla has been teaching Human Sexuality since 2013 and has a PhD in psychology from UC Davis. Dr. Avilla is not a clinician and all information and advice offered on this website is for educational purposes only.