Fetishism: disorder or preference?

Racing model Choi Yu-jung poses for a photo, wearing black stockings. Some people have a fetish for something black. / Courtesy of Choi Yu-jung

Acceptable unless it is dysfuctional

By Park Jin-hai, Kwon Ji-youn, Yoon Sung-won

Everyone has his or her own little secret. If you have peculiar sexual inclinations like fetishism, however, beware. If your secrets are revealed, you will be judged not only by people around you but also by the rule of law as well.

Sexual fetishism is the state of sexual arousal a person feels toward an object or situation, for instance, certain body parts or articles of clothing.

A recent court ruling heated up the debate about whether fetishism is a harmless inclination or a pathological disorder. On March 7, a district court in Suwon, Gyeonggi Province, sentenced two men to six and eight months, respectively, in prison, for uploading pornographic video clips featuring adult women in school uniforms performing sexual acts.

Under the revised Youth Protection Law, adult pornographic actors dressed in school uniforms are considered underage youth. Under this law, producing, distributing and owning such films or videos are a violation of the law.

Intimate obsessions

In a conservative society like Korea, confessing to having a fetish is tantamount to admitting you are a sexual deviant who needs psychological treatment, even if you are not harming anyone.

However, an increasing number of people argue fetishism is a private inclination that does not harm anyone, and thus should not be criminalized.

A 21-year-old undergraduate student Choi is one of these people. He confessed that he discovered his fetish three years ago, when he just started university.

One day, in class, while Choi was listening to a female classmate's presentation, his hands began to tremble slightly and his heart pumped wildly.

He had known her for months, but now, was suddenly feeling an awkward emotion. He realized that he was staring at his classmate's black stockings, not her. Overwhelmed, Choi left before the class was over to get some fresh air.

"I now feel natural about being sexually excited to some extent whenever I encounter women in such attire," Choi said. "But I don't think such an excitement is something I should feel ashamed of because it's just my preference and I don't harm other people."

Even though many people in Korea have adopted this progressive thinking, many still consider fetishists as perverts. A 32-year-old office worker Kim said that he has a fetish for stockings and high heels. His girlfriend of eight months gave him a hard time after he asked her to go out in public wearing just stockings and heels and no underwear.

"I briefly mentioned my desire, but she labeled me as a pervert and got extremely angry. I believe such labeling is a form of prejudice," said Kim.

"I was not forcing her in anyway, and even if she did what I asked, it still isn't a crime. I think it's a private adventure that doesn't harm anybody," he added.

Fetishism is not restricted to men. According to Kwon Seung-jae, 31, the fetish webpage he manages has more female members than one would expect.

"Although female members aren't as active as their counterparts, they do visit our webpage from time to time. They enjoy it when men on the webpage strike certain poses," said Kwon.

There are others who have found the root cause of their innermost desires. Park, an office worker in her late 30's, admits that she has a mild case of fetishism. She says her fetishism stems from her past experience with her ex-boyfriend.

"As a well-educated elite, I have always been pampered by those around me. So I was shocked when my boyfriend cursed at me one day. But at the same time, I found those degrading words very sexually attractive," said Park.

"Now I am dating someone else, but I don't have the courage to reveal my innermost desire to him yet, for fear that he might think I am abnormal, to say the least."

Breaking the taboo

Fetishism had been in the margins but is now part of mainstream culture.

Over the past 30 years, many renowned fashion designers, including Vivienne Westwood, Christian Dior, Anna Sui and Jean-Paul Gaultier, have launched fetishism-inspired fashion lines featuring ultra-high heels, corsets, frilly underwear, latex catsuits and leather gear.

Celebrities such as Madonna and Lady Gaga often dress provocatively and are a fetishist's dream. On the streets of downtown Seoul, many girls wear see-through clothing with contrastingly colored innerwear.

Some people have begun to break the taboo, coming out and sharing their experiences with their friends.

Kang Eun-ji, a 27-year-old Seoulite, said she has kept her high school uniform even though she graduated several years ago. She keeps it in her closet not only as a souvenir, but also to wear occasionally when she has a secret date with her boyfriend.

"My boyfriend and I both like to wear high school uniforms when we are alone, because putting them on arouses us sexually," she said. "It especially pleases me to think that I'm breaking a taboo, even though I'm actually doing nothing that is wrong or illegal."

"I think such costumes help me enjoy a happier and healthier relationship with my boyfriend," she added.

Acceptable unless it is dysfunctional

According to Dr. Chris Kraft, a professor of human sexuality at Johns Hopkins University in the United States, fetishism is acceptable, unless it becomes dysfunctional.

"Fetishism can be diagnosed if the fetish is causing the person significant distress," he told The Korea Times. "If the person has a unique sexual arousal to something that is non-human, (scholars) don't consider the attraction pathological just like we don't see homosexuality as pathological."

He said that most people who have fetishes do not see a doctor or psychologist for their inclinations because most of them do not feel that they are in distress.

Fetishism in healthy way

Dr. Kraft said that people can integrate fetishism in their life in a healthy way, instead of focusing on the social stigma.

"As long as someone's fetish is not harmful to others or oneself, we encourage people to find ways to enjoy their attraction," he said.

"Most people find others like themselves on the Internet and have formed online communities. There are also webpages to help people find others like themselves to date and form relationships, both friendships and intimate traditional relationships," he added.

Park Jin-hai jinhai@koreatimes.co.kr

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