Getting a face lift: A beginner’s guide to mask fetishism
Back in 2005, the BBC reported on the case of Norman Hutchins, a 53-year old man with a fetish for surgical masks. He constantly phoned hospitals and dental surgeries pretending that he needed the masks for charity events. For instance, he would tell medical staff he was doing a ‘fun run’ in fancy dress or that he needed the masks for amateur dramatics. However, he used the masks for his own fetishistic sexual kicks. He was described in court as “a menace to anyone involved in medical or dental institutions”.
Mask fetishism involves individuals who derive sexual pleasure and arousal from either wearing masks and/or seeing others wearing masks. There is little in the way of academic or clinical research on the topic and much of what is known can best be described as anecdotal. The masks that form the basis of the sexual arousal are often vary specific and may overlap with other types of paraphilic and/or fetishistic behaviour. For instance, those individuals into coulrophilia (sexual arousal from clowns) will prefer clown masks, furries will prefer animal masks, sexual sadists will prefer leather, PVC or rubber masks (e.g., ‘gimp’-type masks as featured in Quentin Tarantino’s film Pulp Fiction), and those into medical fetishism will prefer surgical masks.
However, there are many other types of mask that may stimulate sexual arousal including gas masks, hangman’s masks, Ninja masks, leather masks (such as the archetypal ‘rapist’s mask), rubber face masks (some of which may be a famous celebrity), oxygen masks (as popularized in David Lynch’s film Blue Velvet), porcelain masks, and novelty masks (e.g., Halloween characters, alien characters, horror movie characters). There are also individuals who derive sexual pleasure and arousal from women wearing Muslim and harem-type face coverings although this is usually deemed to be a veil fetish rather than a mask fetish.
Dr. Brenda Love in her Encyclopedia of Unusual Sex Practices has a small section on masks and hoods. Dr. Love notes that from a sexual perspective, masks were popular in Europe during the 18th century. She also reported that prostitutes originally used them “to hide their identity but later they became popular among women of higher social status”. In the context of sado-masochistic bondage, Dr. Love writes that hoods and masks are used to “depersonalize a partner” and that anonymity it affords gives the dominant partner more power and also gives both parties fewer inhibitions.
A 35-year old male Cypriot posted a query on mask fetishes to Dr. Allan Schwartz’s Sexuality and Sexual Problems online Mental Help website because he was on the brink of suicide. The Cypriot man talked about his mask fantasies that he had dating back to early childhood. He talked about how sexually turned on he was seeing women wearing scarves around their faces. His fiancé tried to share his sexual fetish (and wore a cat-suit hood for him) but ultimately decided that she got little from it. However, it got to the point that the man couldn’t get sexually aroused unless his fiancé was wearing a mask. Dr. Schwartz replied:
“The human face represents the very essence of a person and most intimate lovers would want to have their face seen while making love and to observe the face of their partner. Yes, a mask sometimes, if that is your wish, but not always. In a way, the mask causes you and her to not really be there together…I suspect that you are conflicted about your sexual feelings and about sexuality as a human means of communication. The mask, something you always must have your partner wear, may hide the real and personal woman, rendering the sex anonymous. This is only a guess but I suspect that something of the kind is going on”.
Nick Brown’s blog, How To Ask Out A Girl, featured an article on mask fetishes. He had overviewed other blog stories on mask fetishes and came the conclusion that the content was “mainly negative”. He claims that the negative outlook on masks more generally comes from the horror-film culture. I have also done my own research on the topic and my own view is that there is a lot of negativity about mask fetishes but mainly from women who do not share their partners’ desires. Here is what I feel is a typical story I came across:
“My partner has a mask fetish. He desires to put on masks and have sex. He has been purchasing masks and accumulates them. I believed they were a pastime but he truly will get turned on by it. I consider it quite creepy and I personally do not enjoy clowns or masks. He buys latex masks, Halloween masks, and those ballroom/fantasy masks. He also has a porcelain one. It is out of my scope of tolerance and I normally have attempted covering them because he likes to hold them on display. The porcelain one was hung up in the kitchen, really creepy to me”
There are passing references to mask fetishism in the sexual paraphilia literature but the primary focus of the papers they appear in are not mask fetishes but something else. For instance, a paper by Dr. Paul Bebbington in a 1977 issue of the Archives of Sexual Behavior described the case of a 44-year old male fetishist who had an unusual vibrator fetish but who also had a “mild mask fetish” that eventually “abated of its own accord”. He was described as a “careful, orderly, pedantic man with little social life” and was sent for treatment because he was a civil servant and his fetishes were considered to be a security risk by his employer. However, no further information was given regarding his ‘mild’ mask fetish.
Another paraphilia that is associated with mask fetishism is hypoxyphilia (deriving sexual pleasure and arousal from oxygen deprivation). For instance, a recent 2011 paper in the Romanian Journal of Legal Medicine led by Dr. Oleg Skugarevsky examined a couple of deaths due to hypoxyphilia, one of which was wearing a gas mask at the scene of death. They noted that:
“[Hypoxyphiliacs] use a variety of techniques to produce the hypoxia like strangulation, suffocation or reduction of the oxygen in the inspired air that may be achieved with plastic bags or gas masks that may allow inhaling some anesthetic gases (chloroform, nitrous oxide) and volatile chemicals (isopropyl nitrite and isobutyl nitrite (“poppers”)”.
The incidence and prevalence of mask fetishism is unknown although the ALT Experience website claims that it is “a common paraphilia” (although no statistics or evidence is provided for the claim of being commonplace). The site also claims (again without any supporting evidence) that:
“The psychological factors behind this have to do with society’s idea of the face as a focal point of beauty. By covering up the face, sexual play not only hides a person’s appearance, but creates a degree of anonymity. Without being able to see facial features, it is more difficult to read responses of pain, fear, pleasure, and so forth. This, in a sense, creates an aspect of anonymity that goes beyond just the physical features of a person’s face. Thus, the mind is more open to imagination and fantasy”
In 2002, Finnish researchers led by Dr. Kenneth Sandnabba examined the sexual behaviour of sado-masochists in the journal Sexual and Relationship Therapy. The paper summarized the results from five empirical studies of a sample of 184 Finnish sado-masochists (22 women and 162 men). More specifically, the examined the frequency with which the respondents engaged in different sexual practices, behaviours and role-plays during the preceding 12 months and reported that 66% had used masks and/or blindfolds at least once. Given the lack of empirical data on mask fetishism, such claims may well be verified as true by future research, but unlike the hypoxyphiliacs, I’m not holding my breath!
Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
ALT Experience (2012). Masks. Located at: http://altexperience.com/masks/
BBC News (2005). Surgical mask fetishist jailed. January 20. Located at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/north_yorkshire/4191969.stm
Bebbington, P.E. (1977). Treatment of male sexual deviation by use of a vibrator: Case report. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 6, 21-24.
Benomran, F.A., Masood, S.E., Hassan, A.I., & Mohammad, A.A. (2007). Masking and bondage in suicidal hanging: a case report. Medicine Science and Law, 47, 177-80.
Brown, N. (2011). You can’t make love without wearing a mask. December 11. Located at: http://www.howtoaskoutagirl.info/tag/mask-fetishThere
Love, B. (2001). Encyclopedia of Unusual Sex Practices. London: Greenwich Editions.
Marshall, J., Walker, B., Benford, S., Tomlinson, G, Egglestone, S.R., Reeves, S. Brundell, P., Tennent, P., Cranwell, J., Harter, P. & Longhurst, J. (2011). The gas mask: A probe for exploring fearsome interactions. Proceedings of the 2011 Annual Conference Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp.127-136). New York, NY.
Nation Master (2012). Mask fetishism. Located at: http://www.statemaster.com/encyclopedia/Mask-fetishism
Nation Master (2012). Veil fetishism. Located at: http://www.statemaster.com/encyclopedia/Veil-fetishism
Richters, J., de Visser, R.O., Rissel, C.E., Grulich, A.E., & Smith, A.M. (2008). Demographic and psychosocial features of participants in bondage and discipline, ‘‘sadomasochism’’ or dominance and submission (BDSM): Data from a national survey. Journal of Sexual Medicine, 7, 1660–1668.
Schwartz, T. (2009). Mask and encasement fetish, Mental Help. April 29. Located at: http://www.mentalhelp.net/poc/view_doc.php?type=advice&id=6613&at=7&cn=10&ad_7=1
Sandnabba, N.K., Santtila, P., Alison, L., & Nordling, N. (2002). Demographics, sexual behaviour, family background and abuse experiences of practitioners of sadomasochistic sex: A review of recent research. Sexual and Relationship Therapy, 17, 39–55.
Skugarevsky, O., Ehrlich, E., & Sheleg, S. (2011). Accidental strangulation resulted from hypoxyphilia associated with multiple paraphilias and substance abuse: a psychological autopsy case report. Romanian Journal of Legal Medicine, 19, 249-252.