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Sole love: A brief look at shoe fetishism

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

Further reading

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.

Better collate than never: Can collecting be an addiction?

In a previous blog on bibliomania (i.e., an obsessive-compulsive disorder associated with the collecting and hoarding of books), I briefly mentioned that collecting more generally could perhaps be addictive for some people. Writing in a 2006 issue of the International Journal of Psychoanalysis, Dr. Peter Subkowski wrote that the urge to collect is a ubiquitous phenomenon that has anthropological, sociobiological, and individual psychodynamic roots. Dr. Russell Belk writing in a 1991 issue of the Journal of Social Behavior and Personality described collectors of mass-produced objects as falling into one of two main types: the taxonomic collector who attempts to own an example of every type of a series of items produced, and the aesthetic collector who simply gathers items because they are pleasing in some way.

So what are the motivations for collecting? In a 1991 issue of the Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, Dr. Ruth Formanek suggested five common motivations for collecting. These were: (i) extension of the self (e.g., acquiring knowledge, or in controlling one’s collection); (ii) social (finding, relating to, and sharing with, like-minded others); (iii) preserving history and creating a sense of continuity; (iv) financial investment; and (v), an addiction or compulsion. Formanek claimed that the commonality to all motivations to collect was a passion for the particular things collected. One of the prime researchers in the ‘collecting’ field is Dr. Russell Belk who has written many papers and chapters on the topic. In a 1991 book chapter, Dr. Belk (along with Melanie Wallendorf, John F. Sherry, Jr., and Morris B. Holbrook) noted that:

“In examining literary and social science treatments of collecting…some regard it as a passion, others as a disease. It is frequently described as a pleasurable activity that can have some unpleasant consequences. In its pleasurable aspect, collecting embodies the characteristics of flow…It is an optimal experience that is psychologically integrating and socially beneficial. In its darker aspect, collecting is an activity over which many consumers fear losing control. Whether likened to idolatry or illness, collectors acknowledge the very real possibility that collecting can become addictive. Danet and Katriel (1990) suggest that the seemingly self-deprecating admission of addiction to one’s collection can be a way of disclaiming responsibility for uninhibited collecting. At the same time they recognize that ‘serious’ collectors relish their ability to freely express passion in their collecting activity. What apparently is being negotiated in the area between passion and addiction is the definition of whether the collector controls or is controlled by the activity of collecting”.

The chapter also claimed that the tendency to pursue an altered state of consciousness produced by any ritual activity “whether behaviorally via collecting, or pharmacologically via chemical use” is cross-culturally universal. Obviously they acknowledged that most collectors are not addicts but claimed there was “compelling evidence of its pervasiveness in the observations of others” based in self-report surveys, and the labels by which collectors in their research studies described themselves (e.g., “magazineaholic”, “getting a Mickey Mouse fix”, “print Junkie”). Brenda Danet and Tamara Katriel claimed some of their collectors’ said it was “a disease”. They also reported that Sigmund Freud amassed a large collection of 2,300 Roman, Greek, Egyptian, Assyrian, and Chinese antiquities that eventually numbered approximately 2300 and described his collecting passion as “an addiction second in intensity only to his nicotine addiction“. Based on their interviews with collectors, the chapter then went on to claim:

“Although almost any behavior can become addictive, the pattern of behavior characteristic of collectors makes it especially prone to addiction. Most collectors interviewed mentioned the search for additions to a collection as the central activity of their collecting behavior. Rather than spend time examining or organizing items that are already in the collection, collectors prefer to search or shop for additions to the collection. Search behavior may be compulsively and ritualistically enacted. Acquiring rather than possessing provides the temporary fix for the addict. A sense of longing and desire — a feeling that something is missing in life — is temporarily met by adding to the collection. But this is a temporary fix, a staving off of withdrawal, followed by a feeling of emptiness and anxiety that is addressed by searching for more. Shopping and searching are the ritualized means by which the collector obtains a sense of competence and mastery in life. These activities are the bittersweet consequences of experiencing longing in the arena of the marketplace”.

They also noted that searching and shopping for collection items highlight the ritualized aspects (i.e., it is patterned and repetitive). They provided the example of a Barbie doll collector that spent considerable time at doll shows that had specific rules that guided his doll buying (e.g., having the dealer completely undress then redress the doll to allow him to see if any part of the body is damaged). They also reported that items for their collection found in the search were often seen as having irresistible power over the person. One collector of antique bronzes was quoted as saying “I just had to have it. It had to be mine”. Searching for such items are “not the only addictive focus for collectors”. Belk and colleagues reported that:

Compulsive attention to and control over the objects in the collection provides an additional source of feelings of control and mastery –important feelings to an addict. For example, one interpretation of the propensity of collectors to will their collections to museums is that, by doing so, they retain a certain sense of control of the collection by insuring that it will not fall into the hands of another collector. Collecting activity allows a collector to avoid other aspects of life. It is a form of withdrawal from other aspects of life that is nevertheless often positively sanctioned…On the whole, collecting, particularly for the addict, involves the individual in a repetitive, predictable pattern of behavior which can provide a form of solace for someone who is troubled by living in an unpredictable world”.

In a 1995 paper in the Journal of Economic Psychology, Dr. Belk carried out in-depth interviews with 200 collectors. He claimed that for most, collecting was a highly beneficial activity. However, he also noted there were extreme cases where collecting was found to be addictive and dysfunctional for the affected individuals and their families. He also wrote that:

“Collectors often refer to themselves, only half in jest, as suffering from a mania, a madness, an addiction, a compulsion, or an obsession. Because collecting is generally a socially approved activity, no one is likely to treat such a confession as stigmatizing in the way that it would be for an alcoholic, a heroin addict, a compulsive gambler, or someone truly believed to be mentally ill…But like much humor there is an uneasy fear behind these self-admissions, for some collectors really are out of control”.

The most vivid example that Belk encountered was a dealer and collector of Disney cartoon character replicas who was a recovering poly-drug abuser who himself described his collecting behaviour as an addiction. Over many years, he accumulated a large collection of Mickey Mouse memorabilia to obtained his “Mickey fix”. Consequently he was often unable to pay his house rent or pay his bills. Belk claimed that he thrill of collecting and displaying his objects eventually threatened his psychological wellbeing and in the collector’s words had to go “cold turkey” and cease collecting.

Finally, in an online article about addictive collecting, Hale Dwoskin, CEO and director of training of Sedona Training Associates provided a list of symptoms of a collecting addiction:

  • You look for/buy/trade collectibles for hours on end, and the time you spend doing this is increasing
  • You think about collectibles constantly, even when you’re not collecting
  • You have missed important meetings/events because of collecting
  • It’s difficult for you to not buy more collectibles, even for just a few days
  • You try to sneak more collectibles into your home
  • You have tried, unsuccessfully, to stop collecting
  • Your family or friends have asked you to cut back on collecting
  • Your personal interests have changed because of your collecting
  • You have lost a personal or professional relationship because of collecting

As an ‘avid’ collector myself (of records, CDs and music in general) I can certainly see how collecting can become an expensive habit that goes beyond disposable income. Although I think that it is theoretically possible to be addicted to collecting, the number of genuine ‘collecting addicts’ is likely to be very low.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Belk, R. W. (1982). Acquiring, possessing, and collecting: fundamental processes in consumer behavior. Marketing Theory: Philosophy of Science Perspectives, 185-190.

Belk, R. W. (1992). Attachment to possessions. In: Place attachment (pp. 37-62). New York: Springer.

Belk, R. W. (1994). Collectors and collecting. Interpreting objects and collections, 317-326.

Belk, R. W. (1995). Collecting as luxury consumption: Effects on individuals and households. Journal of Economic Psychology, 16(3), 477-490.

Belk, R.W., Wallendorf, M., Sherry, J.F., & Holbrook, M.B. (1991). Collecting in a consumer culture. In: Highways and buyways: Naturalistic research from the consumer behavior odyssey, pp.178-215.

Danet, B. & Katriel, T. (1989). No two alike: The aesthetics of collecting. Play and Culture, 2, 253-277.

Formanek, R. (1991). Why they collect: Collectors reveal their motivations. Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, 6(6), 275-286.

MacLeod, K. (2007). Romps with Ransom’s King: Fans, Collectors, Academics, and the MP Shiel Archives. ESC: English Studies in Canada, 30(1), 117-136

Subkowski, P. (2006). On the psychodynamics of collecting. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 87, 383-401.