To me, shoes (and the psychology of them) have always been a trivial topic. However, maybe I just haven’t got my finger on the pulse (or should that be my foot on the pedal?) Here are a few quotes that I came across while researching this blog:
- “Shoes are totems of Disembodied Lust. They are candy for the eyes, poetry for the feet, icing on your soul. They stand for everything you’ve ever wanted: glamour, success, a rapier like wit, a date with the Sex God of your choice…They seem to have the magic power to make you into someone else, someone without skin problems, someone without thin hair, someone without a horsy laugh. And they do” (Mimi Pond, in her 1985 book Shoes Never Lie).
- “Almost every woman is not only conscious of her feet, but sex conscious about them” (Andre Perugia, shoe designer).
- “Shoes are seen by most of those studied as revealing age, sex, and personality and as creating moods and capturing memories. For adolescents, shoes are a key signifier of their identities, and the shoes they desire often conflict what their parents regard as appropriate. Shoes appear as a key vehicle through which adolescents and young adults work out issues of identity, individualism, conformity, lifestyle, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and personality” (Dr. Russell Belk in a 2003 issue of Advances in Consumer Research).
According to Dr. Russell Belk (who has written lots of great papers on the psychology of collecting that I have referred to in a number of my previous blogs), the average woman in the USA owns over 30 pairs of shoes. Citing from William Rossi’s 1976 book The Sex Life of the Foot and Shoe, Belk also claimed that 80% of shoes are bought for purposes of sexual attraction. He also noted that:
“Shoes figure prominently in stories and fairytales, including Cinderella (a highly sexualized tale in it’s more original versions), Puss ‘n’ Boots, Seven League Boots, The Wizard of Oz, The Red Shoes, and The Old Woman Who Lived In A Shoe, as well a more contemporary tales. Shoes and our desire for them are the objects of art, satire, museum exhibitions, [and] films. And they are the objects of a growing number of histories, catalogs, essays, and tributes…As all of this attention suggests, what we wear on our feet is far from a matter of indifference or utilitarianism” (Please note that I removed all the academic references and just cited the text).
These selective quotes all seem to point to the special place that shoes seem to hold in some people’s lives, and that there can be a sexualized element to them. For a small minority of people, shoes can become a sexual fetish either on its own or overlapping with other sexual praphilias including clothing fetishes, foot fetishism (podophilia), pedal pumping, transvestite fetishism, sexual sadism, and sexual masochism. Obviously it is the restrictive types of clothing that are most associated with sadomasochistic activity. This includes very high heel shoes (which make it difficult to walk) and which I examined in a previous blog on altocalciphilia (a sexual paraphilia specifically related to high-heeled shoes). As Valerie Steele noted in her 1996 book Fetish, Fashion, Sex and Power, the shoe (like the corset), was one of the first items of clothing to be treated as a fetish.
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 5,000 fetishists (but was likely to be a lot more). Their results showed that there were 44,722 members of online fetish forums with a fetishistic and/or paraphilic sexual interest in feet (47% of all ‘body part’ fetishists that they encountered). 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%).
A Master’s thesis by Ash Sancaktar explored the “many paradoxes inherent in shoes in collecting, consuming, fashioning, representing, and wearing them”. The thesis also examined the significance of shoes in a number of different disciplines i.e., history, fashion, sociology, psychology and dance) as well as sexuality (with a large part of one chapter devoted to shoe fetishism). The chapter noted:
“Foot fetishism has been a powerful sub-division of sex since shoes were first created. Many scholars accept feet were used as convenient metaphors for the genitalia. Keen, perhaps, to downplay emphasis on the generative process, the belief set of many pagan religions, the ancient Hebrews took the foot and made it a gender icon. According to Brame, the definition of foot fetishism is a pronounced sexual interest in the lower limb or anything that covers portions of them. The allure normally attributed to erogenous zones is literally translocated downward and the fetishist response to the foot is the same as a conventional person’s arousal at seeing genitals. (Brame & Jacobs 1996). Freud considered foot binding as a form of fetishism…Foot fetishists tend to keep their inclination concealed for fear of social ridicule or other apprehensions. Published research indicates fetishists have poorly developed social skills, are quite isolated in their lives and have a diminished capacity for establishing intimacy. Rossi (1990) reported the majority of male fetishists were married, living perfectly conventional lives with their spouse, who in turn was fully aware of partner’s behaviours and preferences”.
Unsurprisingly, Sancaktar asserts that shoe fetishists are similar to foot fetishists but their stimulus (the shoe) becomes the total focus for arousal (rather than the foot within it). He cites Freud and says that he considered the shoe as symbolically representing female genitalia and that the foot symbolically represented a male phallus and when the foot entered the shoe, the union was symbolically complete. (Annoyingly, Freud doesn’t appear in the references so I am unsure which of Freud’s works is being referred to). Quoting from Valerie Steele’s book, he also notes that “The naked foot itself is not as erotically appealing, the shoe raises up the foot and gives it mystery and allure so it’s not just a piece of meat”. He then goes on to say that:
“According to [Steele], since the 1880s, high heeled shoes have been almost entirely associated with femininity with the exception of cowboy boots. Retifists usually collect women’s shoes and have exquisite taste for elegant style. Their preference covers the seven basic shoe styles described by Rossi (1993) and materials such as leather and furs often influence their choice. Retifists will personalize their collection by giving names to their favourite shoes. Freud was convinced all women were clothes fetishist, and believed clothes were worn to provocatively shield the erotic body. Most authorities now acknowledge there is a difference between foot and shoe fetishism and someone who innocently collects shoes…There are degrees of fetishes, according to Steele. Using the example of high heeled shoes, she said that most people are level one or two, finding them appealing. Her example of level three was a French writer who followed women in Paris wearing high heeled shoes. She gave for an example of level four, Marla Maples’ ex-publicist, who was found guilty of stealing Maples’ shoes. ‘He denied being a fetishist, but admitted that he had a sexual relationship with Marla’s shoes’, Steele said”.
Sancaktar uses the work of McDowell (and more specifically his 1989 book Shoes, Fashion and Fantasy) and briefly explores the alleged aphrodisiac qualities of some shoewear including the use of tight lacing:
“Tight lacing excites desire not just because it has a constraining effect but also because it carries the promise of release. This is why stays have always been such a powerful aphrodisiac. Both the tying and untying can have a strong sexual charge – a fact that shoe makers have been aware of for a very long time [McDowell, 1989]”.
Sancaktar also talks about the rise of mules and why they are considered the most seductive shoes and a rival for the traditional sexiest footwear (i.e., the stiletto):
“There are so many kinds of fetish shoes over a long period of time. Mules were originally simple, flat, backless slippers. Originally it evolved as a form of footwear for the boudoir, worn by the most fashionable of ladies and the most exclusive of courtesans. In the Rococo period mules were popular also for men and they had the romantic connotations. By the eighteenth century they had evolved into backless shoes on high heels. Today mules, which are known also as ‘slides’ are believed to be among the most seductive of all shoes, because they leave the foot half undressed. Fetish mules stand tall with the stiletto heel, and are decorate with an unexpected pattern. It is worn by women who don’t entirely realize what they say, historically and presently, to admirers yet know they look sexy”.
As with many other fetishes that I have covered in my blog, there is little empirical research on shoe fetishism. I know of no research that has pathologized the behavior and as such is unlikely to be the focus of scientific and/or clinical enquiry.
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.
Brame, G.G. & Jacobs J. (1996). Different loving: A Complete Exploration of the World of Sexual Dominance and Submission. New York: Villard.
McDowell, C. (1989). Shoes, Fashion and Fantasy. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd.
Pond, Mimi (1985). Shoes Never Lie. New York: Berkley Publishing Group.
Rossi, W.A. (1976). The Sex Life of the Foot and Shoe. Malabar, FL: Krieger Publishing.
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, (1996). Fetish, Fashion, Sex and Power. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Weinberg, M.S., Williams, C.J. & Calhan, C. (1995). “If the shoe fits…” Exploring male homosexual foot fetishism. Journal of Sex Research, 32, 17-27.