Fetishes are Natural – Unless Desensitized?

Paul Gauguin, Two Tahitian Women

Paul Gauguin, Two Tahitian Women

I get a lot of feedback on a piece I wrote called, “Men Aren’t Hard Wired To Find Breasts Arousing.”

There, I note that you don’t find the breast fetish in every culture. For instance, you don’t find it in tribal societies. So it can’t be biological.

Several men have suggested that the fetish is natural, but when you see it all the time men simply become desensitized. Like this guy:

Acknowledging the possibility that desensitization explains why tribal cultures can live without female breasts being covered, without constant male arousal, I want to point out that cultural factors can desensitize as well as fetishize.

Sure, once you have a fetish you can become desensitized to it, which happens with men who overdose on porn. Or men who find that their partners provoke less of a fetishy response over time. Leaving a lot of guys watching porn so that the fetish response lives on.

But as I’ve said before:

The breast fetish wasn’t in existence for early humans

Consider:

  • Genetic adaptations that affect us today occurred thousands of years ago among our prehistoric ancestors
  • Our earliest ancestors — for thousands of years — lived in tribal societies
  • No tribal societies fetishize breasts
  • So for thousands of years no one fetishized breasts
  • And yet people reproduced, anyway
  • So the fetish was not created to encourage reproduction
  • Today people in tribal societies still don’t experience a breast fetish —  yet they do reproduce

If the breast fetish wasn’t in existence for early humans, there was no fetish to get used to, and become desensitized to.

Paul Gauguin, The Offering

Paul Gauguin, The Offering

Here’s what creates a fetish:

  • Selectively hide and reveal — creating sexual tension
  • Declare a body part sexy, and then say, “Don’t look at it!” — creating sexual tension
  • Obsess over the body part: The camera zeros in on it. People talk about it incessantly… Because it is declared soooo sexy.

The breast fetish is actually bad for sex

And actually, the breast fetish is frequently bad for sex.

Due to our cultural fetish, women start to think that it’s really important to have the “right” breasts. Yet around 70% of them think that theirs aren’t good enough. And nearly 90% of my women’s students say that when they are in bed they can get distracted from sex over concerns about how they look.

And that makes sex anything but pleasurable.

This is likely one reason why nearly half of American women experience some form of sexual dysfunction, like one or more these: a lack of interest in sex, painful sex, difficulty with orgasm.

But really, why would a woman be interested in sex, be lubricated enough that it won’t be painful, and easily orgasm… if they AREN’T having an erotic experience BECAUSE they are distracted with concern over whether their bodies look attractive enough?

So the breast fetish is often the opposite of adaptive.

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About BroadBlogs

I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social psych). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State. And I have blogged for Feminispire, Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos. Also been picked up by The Alternet.

Posted on March 14, 2016, in body image, men, psychology, women and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 30 Comments.

  1. I guess I’m lucky. Looks like I’m one of the few women happy with their looks

    • You are indeed. Roughly:

      . 70% of women don’t like their breasts
      . 80% of women have poor body image
      . 90% of my women students get distracted from sex, at least some of the time, due to concerns about how they look. And some of them think they look pretty good.

      And see these:

      Lose Virginity, Lose Self-Esteem?
      https://broadblogs.com/2012/05/28/lose-virginity-lose-self-esteem-2/

      Sex Objects Who Don’t Enjoy Sex
      https://broadblogs.com/2011/03/02/sex-objects-who-don’t-enjoy-sex/

      • Yes. And it might not be such a big deal if we weren’t so narrow in our beauty ideal (completely unnecessary since ideals vary so much from culture to culture). And so judgmental about women’s bodies.

      • Yeah. But I guess it’s very difficult to change that

      • Could be. But it’s worth a try to make people more aware of the problems.

        In the original post I wrote that the breast fetish is a social construction. If women can understand that this is a social construction, they won’t have to feel so bad about themselves. And it seems to be important info for women, given the number of shares this post has received — more then 19,000. And the fact that it is pretty much always in my top 10 most viewed posts even after all these years.

        The best outcome I can imagine for men in terms of “getting this” is that they might be less judgmental if women don’t have breasts that fit the cultural ideal.

        I’m hoping that as a culture we can learn to appreciate a wider variety of body types (I’ve written on issues other than the breast fetish), and see what is attractive in one another beyond this fetish.

      • Idk. I don’t think women I know care

      • Have you asked them?

        People tend to think that their experience is the same as everyone else’s.

        If that were true, we wouldn’t need social science.

        When people hear that their experience is different from average they sometimes find it unimaginable. I’ve been in that situation myself. At times it hasn’t been until after my situation changed that I “Got it.”

        You say that you have a good body image, so it could be difficult for you to imagine what it’s like not to. And according to social science research, nearly 80% of young women don’t have good body image (78%).

        Also, women college students who were surveyed over time felt increasingly good about their bodies. But after first sex they felt worse. When they were in bed they started worrying about whether they looked good enough.
        https://broadblogs.com/2012/05/28/lose-virginity-lose-self-esteem-2/

        How can you enjoy sex and have an orgasm if you are distracted by worry that you don’t look good enough? That’s a big distraction. The opposite of erotic.

        I also surveyed my women students and found that 88% of them spent at least part of their time worrying that they didn’t look good enough. I will write about this later, but here’s a preview (this is ongoing research so I don’t know if the numbers might shift with more surveys):

        Question:

        When you are in a sexual situation do you ever think about how your body looks to your partner? … Do you sometimes focus on how you look instead noticing how great the position feels? … Is it ever a distraction? … Does it make the sex hotter?

        The body-focus seemed to be a bigger problem with a new partner. Or at the beginning of a sexual encounter. A few said that they start out worrying and then try to let it go.

        The vast majority worried that they weren’t attractive enough. But feeling like you ARE HOT doesn’t necessarily help.

        Here’s what some of the women had to say:

        It is distracting a lot of the time. I’ll focus on making sure I look good for him, and my pleasure becomes unimportant. (Does it make the sex hotter?) For him.

        It’s more stressful because you’re consumed by your appearance instead of your enjoyment. Trying to be perfect is very distracting.

        I do get distracted thinking about how I look, and it’s a problem because it takes the attention away from what matters. Especially if it’s your first time you wonder if you are being hot and sexy enough.

        Some women — either friends of mine or people who write comments on my blog or psychological studies or my own students — had talked about how they don’t like to have sex unless they are wearing a bra because they don’t like way their breasts look.

        From magazines like Cosmo, and from googling, I’ve seen articles, or men on message boards, talking about being with a woman and being annoyed because she’s constantly asking if her breasts are okay. Takes both him and her out of the experience.

        It’s also important that men appreciate a variety of body types. Here’s another sneak preview of another upcoming post:

        Another study found that men who frequently objectify their partner’s bodies by excessively focusing on their appearance are more likely to feel shame about the shape and size of their partner’s body which in turn is related to increased sexual pressure (i.e., the belief that men expect sex and that it is a woman’s role to provide sex for her partner) and sexual coercion, both in general and through violence and manipulation.

        Meanwhile, nearly half of women experience sexual dysfunction. And this could contribute.

        Anyway, this is a real struggle for many women, who would be greatly helped if our society didn’t act like perfect breasts were the end-all, combined with narrow notions of beauty.

        It’s wonderful that some people like you don’t have to deal with this. The rest of us would appreciate support for the notion that so-called “perfect” breasts aren’t a requirement, and that variety IS the spice of life.

      • I haven’t specifically asked them but I tried talking to them and they wouldn’t listen. It’s like they’re unable to question anything society dictates

      • It’s an uncomfortable topic. My surveys are anonymous to try to lessen the discomfort. I’m not sure I would even get an honest answer if I tried to have a conversation with someone.

      • That’s possible. Although of course I wish you could get an honest answer from your friends

  2. All your claims are completely undocumented. 1. That tribal men don’t go around with a permanent hard-on doesn’t mean they don’t find breasts sexual. Ask any nudist. 2. Nudists don’t go around with permanent hard-ons so you proved too much, that no part of a woman is sexual to men (reductio ad-absurdum). 3. You don’t define what fetish is. All I can imagine is that it is that a breast is sexier than.. oh say a big toe. Big tow fetishes are not common despite that women cover them up. 4. Breasts and nipples swell and become enlarged on arousal. Nipples are probably the most significant erogenous zone. It would be absolutely astonishing therefore if breasts were not sexual by nature. 5. I’ve yet to hear any proof whatsoever for this contention. You have the rather difficult job of proving a negative.. that men don’t sexualise breasts in tribal cultures, but you made the claim, now prove it.

    • Everything is documented in another post – this was written to fill in some gaps. I’ll be referring readers to this post for questions that still come up. So all of the documentation is over there: https://broadblogs.com/2015/02/02/the-breast-fetish-is-natural-afraid-not/

      Fetish: a form of sexual desire in which gratification is linked to an abnormal degree to a particular object, item of clothing, part of the body, etc.

      And the covering of the big toe does not fit all three bullet points I listed above. In fact, it doesn’t fit any of them.

      But I’m wondering what difference it makes to you?

      If you want to know what difference it makes to me, see my replies above.

      In sum: It’s hard on women’s self-esteem, and it’s harder for many women to enjoy sex. Which isn’t good for men either: most men want to be with women who are enjoying sex.

      So again, what difference does it makes to you whether the breast fetish is natural or learned?

  3. “my own students — had talked about how they don’t like to have sex unless they are wearing a bra because they don’t like way their breasts look.

    men on message boards, talking about being with a woman and being annoyed because she’s constantly asking if her breasts are okay.

    The rest of us would appreciate support for the notion that so-called “perfect” breasts aren’t a requirement, and that variety IS the spice of life.”

    Doesn’t the men’s response on message boards, cosmo, google, etc show how women fretting about it is unnecessary and kind of ridiculous? Women fretting about this stuff can drive men crazy. Especially why are women fretting about their breasts? I know women focus on their bodies because of society, but breasts? How do women not know how sexy their breasts are to men? It’s like women go out of their way to make themselves feel bad, despite constant feeback from boyfriends, husbands, men they are with and the fact their boobs are just sexually attractive, sexy and lust worthy.

    I know it’s not always attention they want, but it’s weird. Said girl who probably just went home and looked at her nude breasts in the mirror and feeling bad about her boobs, probably just a few hours ago, maybe wearing cleavage just had men glancing at her sexually attractive, sexy chest, yet somehow it’s not good enough to her? It’s like a singer who can sing and sings in a concert and people cheer and say she’s a good singer. But she later on feels bad, because while she can sing, her voice is not as good as say Beyonce, Adele, Katy Perry, etc..Elite vocalists and her obsession with not being the best makes her not feeling she’s that good when the contrary and if she paid attenton to compliments and feedback and blocked out or didn;t get involved with her own sabotaging thoughts. She’d feel pretty good about her voice, but because she just can’t handle not being the “best”, she ruined what happiness and pride she could have about her voice.

    I think of that the same way when women feel bad or obsess about their boobs not being attractive or enough. Why do men love breasts? Because they are sexually attractive body parts that are uniquely feminine to women’s bodies and curves and what they represent. And also the variety and shapes and sizes not of just women’s bodies, but women’s breasts and nipples/areolas. Men feel bad they don’t have perfect breasts, yet men are glad women aren’t build in the same cookie cutter shape and their bodies are different and variety and same can be said for women’s breasts. If anything, the question could be why women find men’s bodies sexy or men’s cant be that attractive or interesting, because our bodies don’t have the variety like women;s do. Our chests certainly don’t. So men get to visually enjoy the variety. Women’s breasts and nipples are like snowflakes, each pair unique and different from the other. Men’s bodies if variable, not to the same difference. So men have more variety and interesting things to see, compared to women who are getting “robbed” on the variety scale.

    • I’m guessing you are saying this based on something I wrote to another person on the topic. I correctly remembered that men were happier with their partners breasts then women were. But I misremembered that barely over half of men were satisfied with their partners breasts. Which means that nearly half of them weren’t. “56 percent of men feel satisfied with their partners’ breasts, (but) 44 per cent of men–a large proportion–feel unsatisfied” Here’s the Psychology Today write-up: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/all-about-sex/200911/men-s-breast-obsession-and-women-s

      That’s not good for men or women. The vast majority of women think they aren’t pleasing enough. And nearly half of man agree. That’s a buzz kill on both sides.

      If our society didn’t focus on such a narrow definition of beauty a lot of people would be a lot more satisfied.

  4. Since you are speaking about visuals when it comes to sex, there is an irony.
    We believe that it’s the men who really care about the looks of the women whereas the women don’t really care about the looks of the men but when it’s about sex it’s actually the other way around.
    Sure, men like looking at sexy women on the screen but then again even women like looking at sexy women. When it comes to actually having sex men don’t really care about looks. Men are so eager to have sex that they are happy with “whatever they can get”. That’s why men are so willing even to pay for sex, whether that’s a professional or just pay for dinner and gifts.
    On the other hand when it’s about sex, it’s women who actually care about looks. Women get approached by men so they can pick and choose. A woman won’t choose to have sex with an attractive man but she would go home only with the very best she could get.
    The notion that women don’t care about men’s looks is valid only when women are about a serious long term relationship.

    • It turns out that men and women are pretty similar when it comes to looks and relationships these days — now that neither men nor women depend on the other for money.

      But yeah, men actually care much less about looks when it comes to sex.

      But on the other hand we also don’t fetishize male body parts. So it’s a weird mix overall.

      Mix it all up and you are right, you get some ironies.

      • Let’s take for instance one night stands. Men would be willing to go home with pretty much whoever they could get. Sad but true.
        Women on the other hand would be willing to go home only with the very best they could get. Of course they wouldn’t be able to tell if a guy is a good guy in one evening so they decide by visual attraction.

        Have you ever asked your female students if they ever chose to have a one night stand or casual sex, with what criteria they would choose the partner?

        Try this: google “Jared Leto before after” and ask yourself or your students “this is the same person with the same personality, would women be attracted to him just the same?”

      • Boy that Jared sure has a propensity for gaining and losing weight.

        Luckily, this study has already been done (not Jared, but the equivalent). And I have already written about it. Here are the findings:

        Women Want Casual Sex? Yes and No
        https://broadblogs.com/2014/12/29/women-want-casual-sex-yes-and-no-2/

        But I might write up a post on the ironies you’re talking about. Thanks!

  5. So fetishes are culturally internalized and psychological and do nothing to enhance intimacy or sexual “felt” pleasure as opposed to the disconnected kind. Also makes me think about the female “fetish” dolls found buried in archeological sites from years before. It’s the discoverers who dubbed them as fetish dolls-when more and more evidence points to these dolls actually being statues of female deities–lending credence to the fact that before God was turned to a man, She was a woman.

    • Fetishes may be cultural or not. Sometimes they’re idiosyncratic. You can tell that there’re cultural when they vary from culture to culture. Sometimes they just vary from individual to individual.

  6. I do see some changes in the perspective of men today. If you ask a couple of guys which part of women’s body would they look at first, most guys would say either the legs or the hips. I tested this on my friends and asked why they put breasts after other body parts they would look at, one of them answered that breasts just don’t matter that much today like they used to. The focus of women’s body has shifted, breast is no longer the first thing men would have a fetish for. Yet, women do not seem to notice this change and nearly all of the female population are not happy with their breasts. For instance, in Asian countries, many women get breast enhancement to become more attractive. To me, I believe the beauty of breasts is truly just part of the social construction; people define it differently in different cultures. We should be confident with our body, overall, confidence is the most beautiful thing one can have.

  7. I agree. The male fascination with breasts seems to be a very american thing. It’s probably due to our society, and they way women are presented in adds, magazines, (ect.). I understand that when someone is attracted to the opposite sex, it is normal to be attracted to everything about that person (both personality and body wise), however breasts have always been something that men ‘drool’ over. Places like Hooters back that up. In our society we see few, if any, bars or strip clubs that have men in showing skin. Is this just the American society, or is that just how a lot of men are? Because in other societies around the globe, women are allowed and able to be topless without being sexualized by men.

    • Yes you’re right, it’s common to find everything about your partner attractive. But the breast fetish is a different sort of experience, And one you don’t find everywhere.

  8. On the topic of becoming desensitized, do you think it is possible to still experience arousal from a body part even if it’s something you can see in your day-to-day life? I wonder this because I had read about how European men found breasts not as titillating over time due to them being exposed; though I have a gay friend that has expressed to me he can get aroused by a guy with his shirt off, yet men with their shirts off is not taboo. That is anecdotal and I suppose perception is subjective. I don’t know a whole lot about how Europe or certain parts of Europe handled the breast fetish or if they decided they wouldn’t make a big deal of it since it became okay for women to be topless in public, so on that note, can a person still experience arousal toward something that’s normalized so to speak, and do you think it would depend on how the culture portrays a body part that’s no longer, or hasn’t been, considered obscene?

    • I’m not sure exactly what this guy means but I will say that there are different degrees of arousal. So men can see women’s legs on a regular basis and he might see a woman with a short skirt walking down the street and find that kind of arousing, Like the gay guy you talk about, Just because they have beautifully shaped bodies. But it’s not as intense as what I’m talking about here. Covering creates a higher level of intensity. So intense that they MUST BE covered up!

      • Ahh okay that makes sense! Even though women’s legs aren’t as culturally obsessed over as much as other parts, covering up does make a difference when it’s considered innapropriate. I never thought about it that way when it came to arousal.

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