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Fetishes Are ‘Normal’ As Long As Expressed With Consent; Not The ‘Deviant Freak’ That Pop Culture Says They Are

People with fetishes or fantasies can be ordinary people - doctors, lawyers, clerks, accountants, unemployed people who have families, pets, and the same socio-familial responsibilities as you and me. The fetishes are just one part of their stories.

Maybe the ‘latex-clad freak’ most of us are worried about is inside you too? Confused? Let me explain.

The sexual mores of the world around us have changed over the years. We have, perhaps, moved a little way away from the times of chastity, virtue and “good girls have to say no.” You may notice that in pop culture as well, and while sexuality is not as openly discussed as may be ideal, we have started to depict some things that may appear “bold”. Movie franchises like 50 Shades of Grey and shows like Game of Thrones had millions of people watching, excited at the prospect of openly depicted ‘deviance’.

Yet all around us fetishism is still seen as abhorrent or niche. Watching it on a screen is fine, because there is a divide between fantasy and reality, and we can stomach fetishism in fantasy. In reality though, it is something that feels less than acceptable, a little ‘sick’ perhaps, and maybe you don’t see what’s dangerous and sinister about that. I didn’t either, until the Tarun Tejpal judgement.

The sessions court in Goa, amongst other things, ruled that “because the victim (dubbed prosecutrix, a term reserved for female rape victims for some weird reason) had admitted to fantasies of being forced and raped, there was doubt that she could have actually been raped.”

That part of the ruling startled my very soul because by that point, I was aware how common fantasies of being forced are in people (especially women, over 60% of women have had these fantasies at least once), but here the prevalence of that fetish was being used against her as if she were an outlier. The other. The freak.

But, what if I told you that you’re a lot more like ‘those people’ than you realise?

The primary issue with the depiction of fetishism on screen is the symbolism. How will you know someone is a kinky freak if you don’t see it on them within the six-seconds they are on screen?

I remember, when I was a very young girl going through puberty, I made the startling realisation that I was fascinated with being hurt. I had very little understanding of sex and sexuality itself, but I knew that the idea of being hit or having my hair pulled really excited me. The realisation was terrifying, because it made me wonder if something was wrong with me. Eventually, to make my peace with it, I told myself that it’s just a little proclivity to pain, it’s not like I want to put on a leather corset and be chained to a cross. I promised myself that it would never get to that and because I didn’t see myself in the visual representation of a kinky person that society had unwittingly taught me, I felt safe and normal.

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The driving need to be ‘normal’ in a traditional society

Of course, I was actually safe and normal, and would have been so even if I had taken to leather or wrapped myself in chains, but I was so young, and I didn’t yet know that sexuality does not have to rely on symbols to be more or less real, and I just needed to know that I was “normal”.

The expectation of ‘normalcy’ is very high in India, and the need to qualify can sometimes mean the difference between life and death. However, as I got older, and I began to actually explore my sexuality, one thing became very clear, the masochism would not be denied. I could pretend that I wasn’t “one of those freaks”, but only until the lights were dimmed and the clothes came off. It got to be a problem. I was sent to a psychiatrist who diagnosed me with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). He said that he saw many patients who exhibited non-nornormative sexual behaviour, and it was always problematic, and indicative of something else.

But what is really ‘normal’?

Mental health is one of the tools we use to normalise the ‘sexually sick’ but all I could think about was that if there are many people who exhibit fetishistic behaviour, why isn’t it just considered normal?

It’s the ‘othering’ enabled by decades of supposedly ‘funny’ caricatures in our movies that make us believe that ‘freaks’ look a certain way, and if they must integrate into society they must be neutralized first. However, the reality of fetishism is that it does not fit a narrative perfectly. If your sexuality is a piece of writing, the fetishism is the meter in it that adds the music, and makes it poetic. Adds the something ‘extra’.

I realised this when I was twenty years-old and I met a very ‘normal-seeming’ man at a coffee shop. We talked, we went out and eventually we ended up in bed together where I learnt that he was really into jasmine flowers. I was surprised that one could develop that level of sexual engagement with a flower. He wanted to put them in my hair, he had oils that smelled of it, he wanted to crush the flowers against my skin and it caused a clearly visceral reaction in him, much like being hurt caused in me. Later, I talked to him about it, and he told me a story about a woman he had met when he was a young boy, and how the smell of her made him feel things that he didn’t know his body was capable of feeling. At the time he didn’t know it was the fragrance, or what the fragrance really was, but when he got older, he had an awakening at a flower-mart that grew into his sexuality and developed into a fetish.

So what, really, is a fetish?

A fetish, which can be defined as a fixation on a particular object, act or body part that extends a high-degree of pleasure and can sometimes be essential to sexual activity, can really be anything and can have varying degrees of magnitude in people.

After I met the Jasmine-guy, I started to look at the sexualities of people more deeply, and notice the little things that seemed unique to them, and seemed to bring them more pleasure that would seem valid on the face of it. To my alarm, I discovered, that like a fingerprint, I could find this in almost all people. When I stopped looking for latex and chains, I discovered that kink and fetishism were all around me. Sometimes in the fixation on stockings, sometimes in a position, sometimes in a closet full of knives (sorry mom), a form of music, a specific word uttered at just the right moment, a hand around their throat, a dust-covered cat costume hidden in the back of their closet, a proclivity to fluids.

This kind of sexual engagement that involved the search for a person’s sexual signature and embracing it (without necessarily having to engage with them if we weren’t compatible), made me conclude that sexuality is in itself an art-form, and the unique way in which in manifests in all people is at the heart of the art. Perhaps that is why the Kama Sutra even exists, not to ‘normalise’ sex, but to find what’s beautiful and soulful about it. To celebrate its vastness and potential for uniqueness.

Popular caricatures of the ‘fetish freak’ are misleading

The caricature of the freak is a dangerous thing because it makes all of us, the ones who may very well harbour fetishes of our own, look at a woman like her and believe she is too different from us to be extended the same level of humanity.

In reality, and in my experience with the fetish community in India, and the rest of the world, while some people enjoy toys and dress-up, if you did actually come across a congregation of fetishists, you would not know it.

When I attended my first social event with a group of kink-enthusiasts in India, I was startled by how ‘normal’ everyone in the group looked, and how normal their lives actually were. They are doctors, lawyers, clerks, accountants, unemployed people who have families, pets and the same socio-familial responsibilities as any of the rest of us. The fetishes are just one part of their stories, a part they have decided to indulge and delve into further, but one part nonetheless. It’s not a reason to believe they are any different, especially when, if you look hard enough at your own sexuality, you’ll find it in yourself.

So I may be a self-confessed masochist who was once told my a psychiatrist that pills would fix my sexual signature, which as it turned out did get to chains and leather, but if you met me you wouldn’t know, much like if I met you I wouldn’t know. It doesn’t change who I am as a human being, it merely adds colour. It doesn’t caricature me as the other, it doesn’t make me so different you cannot imagine being able to relate. I have a fetish.

But. I’m inside. Open your eyes.
I’m you.

This is part of our monthly sex column UnMissionary (all posts for this column can be read here) that is nuanced, real, and a deeply personal exploration of women’s sexuality and sexual experiences that steers clear of any stereotypes, and is informative, colourful, humorous, and very serious, all at the same time. This is in contrast with most sex columns that revolve around popular ideas of women’s sexuality are largely stereotypical unidimensional, and are mostly from the male POV and for the male gaze, and are often about the “how to” of sexual lives. 

Image source: a still from the film Once Again

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About the Author

Aarushi Ahluwalia

Aarushi Ahluwalia is an author, journalist and columnist. She has been covering women's issues and rights for various news organisations throughout her career of almost a decade, and now runs a women's media read more...

9 Posts | 23,172 Views

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