“Nothing has been invented yet that will do a better job than high heels at making a good pair of legs look great, or great ones look fabulous” (Stuart Weitzman, shoe designer).
“It is hard not to be sexy in a pair of high heels” (Tom Ford, Gucci designer and film director)
According to Dr. Russell Belk in a 2003 article (‘Shoes and Self’) in Advances In Consumer Research, individuals in the USA “buy approximately a billion pairs of footwear a year and 80 percent of these are estimated to be purchased for purposes of sexual attraction”. Belk’s figures come from Dr. William Rossi who has been writing scientific papers on shoes for decades. I have no idea whether these figures are (or were) accurate, but there is little doubt that when it comes to sexual fetishism, shoes – and particularly high heel shoes – are one of the most common types of object that people develop fetishes for.
Individuals with a shoe fetish derive sexual arousal from shoes and footwear as (according to the Wikipedia entry) “a matter of sexual preference, psychosexual disorder, and an alternative or complement to a relationship with a partner”. As I noted in my previous blog on foot fetishism (i.e., podophilia), shoe fetishism is also referred to as retifism (named after French novelist Nicolas-Edme Rétif). The Wikipedia entry on shoe fetishism also notes that:
Individuals with shoe fetishism can be erotically interested in either men’s or women’s shoes. Although shoes may appear to carry sexual connotations in mainstream culture (for example, women’s shoes are commonly sold as being ‘sexy’) this opinion refers to an ethnographic or cultural context, and is likely not intended to be taken literally. Another fetishism, which sometimes is seen as related to shoe fetishism, is boot fetishism”.
In a previous blog on sexual fetishism more generally, I wrote about a study led by Dr G. Scorolli on the relative prevalence of different fetishes using online fetish forum data. It was estimated (very conservatively in the authors’ opinion), that their sample size comprised at least 5000 fetishists (but was likely to be a lot more). Their results showed that there were 44,722 members of online fetish forums, among those people preferring objects related to body parts, footwear (shoes, boots, etc.) was the second most preferred (26,739 online fetish forum members; 32% of all ‘objects related to body parts) just behind objects wore on the legs and/or buttocks (33%).
As the opening quotes highlight, high heeled footwear is often associated with sexiness. Those that find allure of high heels sexually arousing are said to have altocalciphilia (a sub-type of shoe fetishism). The online medical website Right Diagnosis says that the defining features of altocalciphilia are (i) a sexual interest in high heels, (ii) an abnormal amount of time spent thinking about high heels, (iii) recurring intense sexual fantasies involving high heels, (iv) recurring intense sexual urges involving high heels, and/or (v) a sexual preference for high heels. I am not aware of any empirical research specifically into altocalciphilia but in researching this article, I did come across an interesting 2006 Master’s thesis by Ash Sancaktar who provided an analysis of shoes within the context of social history of fashion (including a chapter on shoe fetishism). In relation to high heel shoes, Sancaktar wrote that:
“There is no solid evidence that definite heels existed anywhere before 1500. According to legend, early 1500s the high heel may have been invented by Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519). There are earlier records of high heel shoes that served a practical function such as heeled boots horse riders wore to grip their stirrups better. However, 1533 was the year that gave birth to the high heel that served no purpose other than beauty and vanity. Catherine de Medici, when she got married to the Duke of Orleans, wore shoes with two-inch heels because she was sensitive about her lack of height…The development of a proper heel with an arched sole was the dominant feature of shoes in the seventeenth century. Elevated shoes had been known from early Hellenic times however this phase of fashion was the first time shoes were associated with the female sex. It completely altered the posture of the wearer, encouraging both men and women to carry themselves in a way which set off the flowing lines and affected manner of the Baroque period…Practicality has little to do with female high heels. They have always been essentially about allure – as they are today”.
Sancaktar also notes the association between high heeled shoes and sadomasochism by making reference to the (semi-autobiographical) book Venus in Furs by Baron Leopold Von Sacher-Masoch (from whom the term ‘masochism’ originated). Sancaktar reported that Sacher-Masoch] wrote about his experiences with his mistress in which he allowed her to whip and walk on him before kissing the shoes that had caused him pain. Sacher-Masoch’s ideal woman was cruel and wore furs and high heels. Citing the work of Linda O’Keeffe and Valerie Steele, Sancaktar wrote:
“According to [Linda] O’Keeffe ‘Women may wear slippers, put on sneakers and slip into loafers, but they dress in high heels’ (O’Keeffe 1996, p. 72). Psychologically, high heels give permission to lead than to follow. A woman might become a towering seductress or she can choose to become the subject of the object of a male…According to [Valerie] Steele, one reason high heels are considered sexy is because they produce an erect ankle and extended leg. The arch of the foot is radically curved like a ballet dancer on point. The entire lower body is thrown into a state of tension resembling that of female sexual arousal (Steele 1998, p. 18). By tilting the pelvis, her lower back arches, her spine and legs lengthen and her chest thrust out. The breasts thrust forward, and the derriére protrudes. A woman in high heels looks taller and thinner. Her legs are emphasized and the leg muscles tighten, the calves appear shapelier. And because they are at an angle, her feet look smaller and more pointed”.
Valerie Steele also notes that fetishes come in various degrees (which I agree with) and uses the example of high heeled shoe fetishes to make her point and claims there are four different levels. She claims most people are among the two lowest levels (and basically equates to people finding high heels sexually appealing). Steele provides an example of someone at level three (a French writer who would follow high heeled women women in Paris). Her example of level four was the ex-publicist of Marla Maples’ who was found guilty of stealing Maples’ shoes. Steele said the publicist “denied being a fetishist, but admitted that he had a sexual relationship with Marla’s shoes”.
This need to steal shoes appears to be backed up by podophilia and retifism articles on the ToeSlayer website:
“Possession of shoes is important to the retifist and in cases of paraphilia, men may steal the shoes they are attracted to. Kiernan (1917, reported in Rossi, 1990) first described the term kleptomania which was used when theft took place when associated with sexual excitement. ‘Hephephilia’ is a term used when there is an uncontrollable urge to steal the objects of specific focus. Many hephephiliacs are ordinary people with no criminal intention other than a compulsion to possess the object of their desire due to a repressed or complicated sex life…Many retifists keep copious records of their activities all of which adds to their excitement…It is important exploring also the symbolism and fetishism of high heels. The erotic literature on shoe fetishism often associates high heels with the image of the ‘phallic woman’. According to [Valerie] Steele, submission to the powerful ‘phallic woman’ is a very popular fantasy”.
“The allure of high heels (altocalciphilia) for some people is very strong. Subconsciously this may relate to a primal instinct to identify lame prey. Throughout recorded history limping in others has been seen both as a physical weakness as well as a sexually attractive impediment. Wearing high heeled shoes can accentuate the limping characteristics in a very tantalising way…High heels are also thought to place the female pelvis in a precoital position. Whether or not this is true, the idea by itself, may cause arousal. Long legs are thought a strong arousal signal (Lloyd-Elliott, 2006). Men may be attracted to women in heels because it appeals to their superior nature seeing a member of the opposite sex vulnerable…Today, heeled shoes are very much part of the bondage ritual (Rossi, 1997) and sado-masochists maybe attracted to the perceived pain associated with wearing high-heeled shoes”.
Most of the academic writing I have read on this topic is anecdotal at best. There is much speculating and theorizing but little data. However, there is no doubt that high heel fetishism exists and that of all fetishes it appears to be one of the most common.
Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Belk, R.W. (2003). Shoes and self. Advances In Consumer Research, 30, 27-33.
Kunjukrishnan, R., Pawlak, A. & Varan, L.R. (1988). The clinical and forensic psychiatric issues of retifism. Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 33, 819-825.
Kunzie, D. (2013). Fashion and Fetishism: Corsets, Tight Lacing and Other Forms of Body-Sculpture. The History Press
O’Keeffe, L. (1999). Scarpe Una Celebrazione di Scarpe da Sera, Sandali, Pantofole e Altro. Hong Kong: Sing Cheong Printing Company.
Rossi WA (1990). Foot and shoe fetishism: Part one. Journal of Current Podiatric Medicine, 39(9), 9-23.
Rossi WA (1990). Foot and shoe fetishism: Part two. Journal of Current Podiatric Medicine, 39(10), 16-20.
Sancaktar, A. (2006). An analysis of shoe within the context of social history of fashion (Doctoral dissertation, İzmir Institute of Technology)
Scorolli, C., Ghirlanda, S., Enquist, M., Zattoni, S. & Jannini, E.A. (2007). Relative prevalence of different fetishes. International Journal of Impotence Research, 19, 432-437.
Steele, V., 1998. Shoes, A Lexicon of Style, (Co & Bear Productions, London).
Steele, V. (2001). Fashion, fetish, fantasy. Masquerade and Identities: Essays on Gender, Sexuality and Marginality, 73-82
Wikipedia (2014). Boot fetishism. Located at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boot_fetishism
Wikipedia (2014). Shoe fetishism. Located at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shoe_fetishism