Excessive fears or specific fetishes are undoubtedly unique conditions, with each carrying its own set of distinctive symptoms. However, pinpointing the underlying similarities between psychological afflictions helps put the overall issue of mental illness in a more clear and concise perspective. For instance, between phobia, fetishism and even obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), there is an underlying link of obsession.
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), obsessions are defined as, “recurrent and persistent thoughts, urges, or images that are experienced, at some time during the disturbance, as intrusive and unwanted, and that in most individuals cause marked anxiety or distress.” While in the midst of this experience, a person will be haunted by various ideas, urges or images that may lead to compulsive responses.
From this classification, one can infer that obsessive thinking is a hindrance and causes distress. However, the emotional nature of the phenomenon is both vague and varied depending on the person’s circumstances. In addition to playing a cardinal role in how OCD develops, these fixations can also be attached to strong feelings like fear or pleasure.
- In the case of a specific phobia, an object or situation will evoke immediate fear or anxiety in a person.
- With fetishes, an object or body part will stimulate intense sexual arousal.
While these reactions are different in terms of affect, the obsessive focus is shared between the two conditions. Also, a notable comparison between the two is that both can arise as clinically serious disorders or behaviors without any associated distress. While being diagnosed with a phobia or fetishistic disorder is a serious situation, having common fears and sexual desires is a natural part of life and learning about oneself. The DSM also supports these distinctions.
The factors surrounding this seemingly polar relationship have been discussed in multiple areas. According to Ilana Simons, Ph.D., people with phobias, fetishes and OCD all compartmentalize the world around them to specific parts and targets. She even details an example of a man with a sexual fetish of humiliation and rejection in addition to a concurrent fear of losing his partner to another. Her reasoning for this cross-wired connection is that the person developed this strong sexual desire as a way to experience a more preferable outcome of rejection. In an intimate and controlled scenario, the man is able to ease his real-world anxiety.
Psychologist Kristina Randle explains that phobias and sexual fetishes are explainable via associative learning and conditioning. Under the school of behavior psychology, phobias are the result of unintended pairings of unconditioned stimuli with conditioned stimuli. For example, an early traumatic experience with a clown will lead to a fear of clowns. Dr. Randle explains sexual fetishism is a similar process, where sexual stimulation is paired with an unintended stimulus.
A 2002 study from the London Society of the New Lacanian School proposes phobia as a turntable that can be turned toward perversion and other neuroses. The analysis also supports how certain phobic thoughts and imagery can be re-evaluated and framed as a sexual fantasy due to the close proximity of emotions. Unfortunately, precisely delineating between fear and fetish is still a challenge in this day and age. The current collection of research regarding both topics is inconsistent, as different schools of psychology view them in separate ways. Further research is needed to create a more detailed image of obsession and how it relates to phobia and fetishism.
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Written by Lee Yates, Sovereign Health Group writer