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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.

Self-expression of interest: A brief look at extreme body modification

One of the more noticeable ‘extreme’ trends is that of body modification. Arguably the most common (and socially acceptable) forms of body modification are ear piercing and tattoos, followed by various other types of piercings (e.g., nipple piercings) and various types of plastic surgery (e.g., rhinoplasty [nose jobs] and breast augmentation [boob jobs]). More extreme types include foot binding, extreme corseting, branding, amputation, and genital cutting. Such types of actions are known as ‘acquired characteristics’ as they cannot be genetically passed on to the individuals’ children. As the body modification section of the Wikipedia entry on acquired characteristics notes:

“Body modification is the deliberate altering of the human body for any non-medical reason, such as aesthetics, sexual enhancement, a rite of passage, religious reasons, to display group membership or affiliation, to create body art, shock value, or self-expression. The frequency of occurrence depends on the location, extent, and number of modifications, and, perhaps most importantly, on the mind of each individual being asked to accept the modifications on another”.

In a recent issue of the Archives of Sexual Behavior, Dr. David Veale and Dr. Joe Daniels added that:

“Body modification is a term used to describe the deliberate altering of the human body for non-medical reasons (e.g., self-expression). It is invariably done either by the individual concerned or by a lay practitioner, usually because the individual cannot afford the fee or because it would transgress the ethical boundaries of a cosmetic surgeon. It appears to be a lifestyle choice and, in some instances, is part of a subculture of sadomasochism. It has existed in many different forms across different cultures and age”.

These definitions of body modification would also appear to include such practices as circumcision (although this may of course be done for legitimate medical reasons as well as cultural and/or religious rites of passage). Other ‘extreme’ forms of body modification include:

  • Earlobe stretching: This refers to the gradual stretching of the earlobe through the gradual increase in size of piercing rings. This is typically carried out for aesthetic reasons, self-expression and/or group membership.
  • Branding: This refers to the deliberate burning of the skin to produce an irreversible symbol, sign, ornament and/or pattern on human skin. This is typically carried out for group membership reasons (but can also be carried out for aesthetics and/or self-expression).
  • Subdermal Implants (pocketing): This refers to a type of body jewelry placed underneath the skin and often used in conjunction with other forms of body modification. The body then ‘heals’ over the implant leading to a raised (sometimes 3-D) design. This is almost always done for aesthetic reasons and/or shock value.
  • Extraocular implants: This refers to the placing of small pieces of jewelry in the eye by cutting the surface layer of the eye following a surgical incision. Again, this is almost always done for aesthetic reasons and/or shock value.
  • Corneal tattooing: This is the practice of injecting a colour pigment into the eye. As with the previous two examples, this is almost always done for aesthetic reasons and/or shock value.
  • Tongue splitting: This refers to the splitting of the tongue so that the tongue looks like (for instance) a serpent’s tongue.
  • Tooth filing: This refers to the practice of filing teeth (often into the shape of sharp pointed fangs). This may be done for a variety of reasons including group membership, aesthetics and/or self-expression.
  • Tightlacing (waist training, corset training): This refers to the use of incredibly tight fitting corsets (typically by women) to produce an archetypal ‘hourglass’ figure. This is typically carried out for aesthetic reasons.
  • Pearling (genital beading): This refers to the permanent insertion of small beads beneath the skin of the genitals (such as the labia in women or the foreskin in men). Most of those who engage in pearling do it for aesthetic and/or sexual enhancement reasons (e.g., to increase sexual stimulation during vaginal or anal intercourse).
  • Anal stretching: This refers to the gradual stretching of the anus with the use of specialized built for purpose ‘butt plugs’ (typically carried out for sexual enhancement and stimulation).
  • Penis splitting (penile bisection): This is the cutting and splitting of a person’s penis from the glans towards the penis base (and which I covered at length – no pun intended – in a previous blog). This is typically done for reasons of sexual stimulation and fetishistic enhancement for either the self and/or sexual partner (although it has also been done for both religious and/or aesthetic reasons).

A really great 2007 review paper by Dr. Silke Wohlrab and colleagues in the journal Body Image examined all the known motivations for body modification (including tattoos and piercings) based on scientific studies and concluded almost all motivations fell into one or more of the following ten categories:

  • Beauty, art, and fashion (i.e., body modification as a way of embellishing the body, achieving a fashion accessory and/or as a work of art).
  • Individuality (i.e., body modification as a way of being special and distinctive, and creating and maintaining self-identity).
  • Personal narratives (i.e., body modification as a form of personal catharsis, and/or self-expression. For instance, it was claimed that some abused women “create a new understanding of the injured part of the body and reclaim possession through the deliberate, painful procedure of body modification and the permanent marking”).
  • Physical endurance (i.e., body modification as a way of testing a person’s own threshold for pain endurance, overcoming personal limits, etc.).
  • Group affiliations and commitment (i.e., body modification as part of sub-cultural membership or the belonging to a certain social circle).
  • Resistance (body modification as a protest against parents or society).
  • Spirituality and cultural tradition (i.e., body modification as part of a spiritual or cultural movement).
  • Addiction (i.e., body modification as a physical and/or psychological addiction due to (i) the release of endorphins associated with the pain of undergoing the practice, and/or (ii) the association with memories, experiences, values or spirituality).
  • Sexual motivations (i.e., body modification as a way of enhancing sexual stimulation).
  • No specific reason (i.e., body modification as an impulsive act without forethought or planning).

The review paper was incredibly thorough and these ten motivations cover everything they came across in the academic study of body modification. Unsurprisingly, the most frequently mentioned motivation was the expression of individuality and the embellishment of the own body. Hopefully I’ll cover some of the more specific body modifications in future blogs.

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

Further reading

Aggrawal A. (2009). Forensic and Medico-legal Aspects of Sexual Crimes and Unusual Sexual Practices. Boca Raton: CRC Press.

Lemma, A. (2010). Under the skin: A psychoanalytic study of body modification. London: Routledge.

Love, B. (2001). Encyclopedia of Unusual Sex Practices. London: Greenwich Editions.

Rowanchilde, R. (1996). Male genital modification. Human Nature, 7, 189-215.

Veale, D. & Daniels, J. (2012). Cosmetic clitoridectomy in a 33-year-old woman. Archives of Sex Behavior, 41, 725-730.

Wikipedia (2012). Acquired characteristic. Located at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Acquired_characteristic

Wikipedia (2012). Body modification. Located at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Body_modification

Wikipedia (2012). Penile subincision. Located at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Penile_subincision

Wohlrab, S., Stahl, J., & Kappeler, P. M. (2007). Modifying the body: Motivations for getting tattooed and pierced. Body image, 4, 87-95.