This week we return to our "ask the experts" series, where a sex addiction or partner trauma expert answers your questions. Today's question, about fetishes, is being answered by sex addiction expert, Jason Martinkus who practices out of Denver. Jason and his wife Shelley are well known in this field for their excellent work with—and resources for—men, women and couples: particularly their new "Kitchenconvos" video series.
My question has to do with fetishes. Where do these fit in with the addiction? Are these even connected to the addiction? How prevalent is it for the addict to have fetishes? This is a topic I have not seen addressed, yet can be very troubling in a marriage.
I would answer this question a couple of ways. First; yes, it is connected to the addition. But, what qualifies as a “fetish” is pretty subjective. It seems like in our culture today, the word ‘fetish’ either points to something dark, weird and creepy or to some kinky, romanticized, ultra-exciting sexual experience. For the sake of this question, let’s say a fetish is anything that is particularly focused on or included as a part of sexual acting experience. This might include specific clothing, settings, themes, anatomy, inanimate objects, etc. Which leads to part two of my answer.
By and large when I’ve seen someone struggling with a “fetish” it is connected to their arousal template. The arousal template is developed in our earliest and/or most impactful sexual experiences, and defines a framework for what future sexual experiences involve. For some people that framework is loose and malleable, being influenced by multiple and variable sexual experiences. For others, it seems set rather solidly by a few distinct experiences. Thus the fetishes are usually a by-product of that template, linking to something seen, heard or otherwise engaged in previously.
A perfect illustration of this comes from a real life example—a man in his 40’s almost always wears or has next to his chair a pair of cowboy boots when he acts out. This is connected to his arousal template as a function of early childhood sexual abuse. Without realizing it, those early and impactful experiences created a framework wherein sexual activity included the boots.
Another example is from a former clients. He had gained sobriety, all but for being drawn to the covers of certain magazines. When temptation hit, it was to go to a store and peruse the cover of fitness magazines. After some investigation, what he realized was that his earliest introduction to sexuality, sensuality and the female anatomy was through his older brother's fitness magazines. Not porn, per se. Still, it was enough to wire up the template.
So, back to the subjectivity; would cowboy boots and fitness magazines be considered fetishes? By our working definition yes. They are uniquely tied to early sexual arousal and thus manifest in present day sexual experiences.
For someone who struggles with a fetish, an important aspect of recovery is to review the earliest and/or most impactful sexual experiences, looking for any connection to the present. Then, to look beyond the specific thing, to a broader context of who was involved, as well as how those sexual encounters were experienced emotionally, mentally and physically. Finally, to process those insights and reconcile where or how they fit within a healthy, God and spouse-honoring sexuality today.
Thanks for sending in this question: and yes, fetishes can be very troubling.
Brain plasticity experts tell us that while "neurons that fire together, wire together" (thanks Jason for reminding me this is called Hebbian's Law), "neurons that fire apart, wire apart" — so if the fetish is not something you want to live with, your husband can, in time, move past it. The keys are counseling and creating new neural pathways (by firstly, avoiding connecting the fetish with sexual arousal/pleasure).
In fact, I would say that as all levels of intimacy deepen between a couple (resulting in deepening sexual intimacy) your husband will increasingly bond to you (your face, your eyes... your smile). Thus, given enough time away from a fetish and enough time with "the real thing" (i.e. you) the hold on him will diminish vastly, and may disappear altogether.
Realistically, this is likely to be the work of years, not weeks or months. However, I'd love to hear back from couples who have gone through this process. What was the timeframe for healing for you? One factor that may influence the healing is the length of time that the fetish has been indulged in (a few years, a decade, four decades, etc.) so mention that as well.