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Fetish vs. Fetishization: What’s The Difference?



You may view the concepts of “fetish” and “fetishization” interchangeably. In reality, the two carry distinct meanings, histories, and implications. Ignoring such nuances may contribute to how one connects with others and engages in sexual activities. Acknowledging them may lead to more informed and sensitive discourse, heightened consensual experiences, and greater relational satisfaction– especially for those seeking involvement with fetish communities, sexual minority communities, and other minority communities.


Fetish vs. Fetishization


A “fetish” refers to an intense- or sometimes even exclusive- attraction to a specific object, activity or body part that is not typically or inherently sexual. Therefore, sexual gratification may be strongly linked to that particular thing. Having preferences, exploring your preferences, and engaging with the objects of your preferences is all perfectly normal and acceptable- as long as this process is done consensually, safely, and within legal boundaries.


The world of reported fetishes is fascinatingly diverse, as sexual interests can vary widely among different people. Examples of the most commonly reported ones include feet, leather and latex, bondage, role-plays, and voyeurism. FutureMethod provides helpful graphics and glossaries to understand more about common fetishes and how they vary from place to place. Additional platforms to find communities include Fetlife, Fetster, and Feeld.


“Fetishization” is the process of making someone or something into a strong sexual preference, and/or treating them as such. When this is done to a human being, it can strip them of their individuality and personhood. It is often done nonconsensually and involves assigning exaggerated importance to a certain body part, trait, or aspect of their identity that is outside of their control. More often than not, this process focuses on the gratification of the fetishizer- rather than on mutual gratification and input from all involved parties.


Fetishization occurs on both interpersonal and societal levels. In either form, the practice holds root in imperialistic traditions of ‘othering’ minority identities, diminishing people to mere bodies or parts, and assuming those bodies or parts exist for the pleasure and sexual desire of others. In addition to racial fetishization, one may be desired for their disability status, age, weight, gender, or sexual identity.


Is Fetishization Bad?


Fetishizing a person can lead to the psychological effects of them feeling objectified, sexualized, dehumanized, and violated. Because it is so often nonconsensual, it may be categorized as sexual harassment as well. On a systemic level, the practice promotes stereotypes and makes it easier to treat different groups of people in the manners that align with whatever biases or preconceived notions developed against them as a society.


In a qualitative study of TGNB (transgender and gender nonbinary) individuals, most had experienced the follow forms of fetishization:


  • “I’m not really very comfortable with the feeling. I’d rather be cared for/loved for myself, not for what fetish I can fulfill.”
  • “Someone is interested in me and I usually feel good and wanted, until they make a comment such as they like boycunt, FTMs, or they think I’m the best of both worlds or whatever. Then I realize they’re fetishizing me and I feel gross.”
  • “Eventually you start to just settle for being the fetish. You start settling for being a waste bin object of desire for a night.”


Asian women commonly experience the fetishization known as “yellow fever,” which may affect the way they date and view love:


  • “It scares me that our presence alone is perpetuating the sick mindsets of others. It scares me that our identity is being fetishized and viewed as an object of their desire. Paired with my own experiences with romance, I’ve realized that Asian women have so many hoops to jump through when it comes to dating. We have to make sure that people are dating us for us, and not the color of our skin.”
  • “I’m definitely less open to dating or acting on crushes. It’s always in the back of my mind that I’m different from everyone else here, and that makes me feel like boys regard me in a different way than other girls. My race has played such an impact in the way I view love that I’ve sort of just given up on it.”
  • “Not only are we dealing with a surge of Asian American hate crime due to the anti-Asian rhetoric that is being spread from the COVID-19 pandemic, but we also deal with constant fetishization and misogyny.”


Engaging in Fetishes Intentionally


Having a preference that may have to do with an aspect of another person’s identity is not an excuse to objectify them. Some fetish play does, however, center around the sexualization or objectification of people involved. In other words, the fetish is to be fetishized. Mollena Williams describes of race play, for example, “most of us have been on the receiving end of bigotry, exclusionary tactics and ‘othering’ at some point in our lives. Race play gives me the opportunity to explore this within the safer context of a controlled environment.” The difference here is that this is a ‘scene’ intentionally set up, communicated, and mutually agreed upon by consenting adults.


Understandably, the line between fetish and fetishization may get blurred when it comes to these and other forms of play such as devoteeism, feederism, and “tranny chasing.” Fetish.com provides the following list of questions to engage in play, without unintentionally objectifying a play partner:


  • If your relationship really is purely for fetish purposes, have you ever explicitly discussed that with them?
  • Are you confident they’re on the same page?
  • Do you get shitty with them if their “real” life intervenes?
  • Are you good at remembering that away from you, they’re a complete and ordinary person in their own right?


Further questions you may ask yourself include the following:


  • Did the receiving party seek out this form of play?
  • Are they doing it to please you, or because the idea excites them as well?
  • Are you fetishizing them outside the context of the ‘scene’ or negotiated areas for play?
  • Have you collaboratively established appropriate checkpoints, safe words, and aftercare?
  • Are you recognizing their boundaries, humanity, and needs?


By approaching such fetishes with intentionality and respect, we can better ensure that our actions, words, or behaviors do not harm others; and that we are appreciating individuals and cultures in their full complexity.

Modern Intimacy is a group therapy practice, founded by renowned Psychologist and Sex Therapist, Dr. Kate Balestrieri. This inclusive blog is designed to provide a wealth of information and resources for mental health, relationships, and sexuality. Subscribe today to get the latest information from our expert contributors from all around the world.


Author Bio

Presley Rei Wilson is a clinical extern at Modern Intimacy. She is currently completing her Master’s in Counseling Psychology at the University of Miami and will pursue an additional AASECT Sex Therapist Certification upon graduation. Presley’s emphasis on holistic well-being and the mind-body connection are important to her work with clients.



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