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s hoe s : p l e a s ur e a n d p a i n

“When I entered a house and saw the boots arranged in a row, I would tremble with pleasure.” Why do women’s shoes become an erotic object in the minds of so many men? Jesse Bering uncovers the essence of foot fetishism

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f all the non-reproductive body parts arousing sexual interest, the most common, by far, is the foot. And just as lingerie is to the genitalia, footwear is also frequently eroticised, becoming for many fetishists “an aid to tumescence”, as the British sexologist Havelock Ellis rather indelicately put it. “In a small but not inconsiderable minority of persons,” wrote Ellis in his 1927 book Studies in the Psychology of Sex, “the foot or boot becomes the most attractive part of a woman, and in some morbid cases the woman herself is regarded as a comparatively unimportant appendage.” Consider, for instance, the case of the eighteenth-century French novelist Rétif de la Bretonne, whose irreverent works are filled with sordid tales of his foot-related fancies. (The eponymous “retifism” is an arcane term for foot fetishism.) “This taste for the beauty of the feet,” reflects Rétif of his upbringing in Burgundy, “was so powerful in me that it unfailingly aroused desire… When I entered a house and saw the boots arranged in a row, as is the custom, I would tremble with pleasure; I blushed and lowered my eyes as if in the presence of the girls themselves.” What was especially enticing about shoes to Rétif, Ellis tells us, was his knowledge that they had absorbed the essence of the feet he so desired. “He would kiss with rage and transport whatever had come in close contact with the woman he adored.” In fact, he wished desperately to be buried with a distinctive pair of green slippers with rose heels and borders worn by a woman whose feet he’d long been enamoured by. This intense craving for objects that have made intimate physical contact with the real subject of desire lies at the heart of sexual fetishism. For those who are aroused by feet, a pair of brand new, unworn, store-bought shoes is far less desirable than footwear still warm from an attractive owner’s aromatic soles. In order for the object to become a sexual surrogate, in other words, it must first be imbued

Left: shocking-pink leather stiletto heeled boots, by Jimmy Choo, 2005. Photo: Jaron

James, V&A Photographic Studio © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

(as if by contagion or magic) with the singular characteristics of the person who inspires lust. Like most patterns of atypical sexual desire, there are far more men who are self-professed foot fetishists than there are females. Many of these men believe that the seeds of their yearnings were planted through some innocuous encounter with feet or shoes at a young age. And within this “podophilic” group there is also considerable diversity, including gay and bisexual shoe lovers. In a study of gay male foot fetishists, subjects reported becoming most excited by the sensory tapestry they’d come to associate with the stereotypical shoe styles of their preferred sexual partners. “[It’s] the odours and the corresponding image,” explained one of the interviewees, “docksiders and preppies, sneakers and young punks, boots and dominant men.” For straight men, however, it is most often the petite female foot that serves as the aesthetic ideal, and so it is the small, delicate shoe that has captured the male imagination in both myth and reality. The famous story of Cinderella’s glass slipper has its roots in an ancient Egyptian legend in which a courtesan’s sandal is carried off by an eagle and dropped in the king’s lap, who would not rest until he made the owner of that impossibly small shoe his queen. Perhaps nowhere were women’s demure feet appreciated more than in China, with its ancient practice of female “foot binding” (there are still ageing survivors of it in some rural areas). Although the precise origins behind this painful ritual – one in which young girls’ feet were tightly bound so that they atrophied permanently into small stumps – are hotly debated, the earliest examples of Chinese pornography show men fondling women’s tiny feet. Some scholars have likened it to the use of corsets by European women in the Victorian era, whereby an inherently desirable attribute (whether a slim waist or small foot) is further accentuated through a contemporary, if cruel, fashion trend. It may not be as inhumane as foot binding, but women’s wearing of high heels, which has the effect of making their feet appear smaller, can be painful in its own right. With too-frequent use, these stylish yet merciless must-haves have been known to convert the perfect female foot into a hammer-toed, callused appendage replete with bunions and corns. In some women, they’ve led to shattered ankle bones, chronic lower back pain and even osteoarthritis of the knees.

V&A Magazine Summer 2015

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V&A Magazine — Issue 37  
V&A Magazine — Issue 37  

V&A Magazine, Issue 37, Summer 2015 Style, sex and psychology