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October 30, 2014
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SexPlusFetish: Shoes, Sex, and the Culture of Desire
Sonya JF Barnett: "Haute couture is nothing other than stylized fetishism"

I’ve been waiting for some time now to see an exhibit like Christian Louboutin’s, currently showing at the Design Exchange. Having missed the Alexander McQueen exhibit at the Met in 2011 (something for which I will never forgive myself), this is the next best thing.

The show was pretty — beautifully designed shoes placed on velvet pedestals, the room dimly lit and cocooned in red and black. Dita von Teese occasionally appears, her hologram stripping away what is surely a bespoke ensemble to reveal an impossibly small corseted waist. The burlesque influence on Louboutin is palpable.

A mix of the mass manufactured and hand-crafted one offs, the Louboutin show reminds us that haute couture, and even something as ubiquitous as footwear, is nothing other than stylized fetishism. 

After my tour around the showroom, I sat in on a lecture by Elizabeth Semmelhack, head curator at the Bata Shoe Museum. Called Flashing Red: Louboutins and the Culture of Desire, she spoke of society’s obsession with the high heeled shoe, having gone initially from a men’s status symbol with Louis XIV to the ultimate women’s boudoir accessory. We were told that at the opening of the exhibition, Louboutin owners flocked to Holt’s and waited in line to have their red soles signed by the master himself.

I thought of all the shoes that line the front hallway of my house. Fetishism, being the arousal that one feels toward an object, is clearly evident. Next to my leather boots are rows and rows of sneakers that belong to my husband, all with three stripes adorning the sides. They come in various colours, and according to the trained eye, various styles. His one material obsession with Adidas is shameless.

Outside the walls of a respected design museum, fetishism experiences its share of stigma. When most people think of it, they envision latex pants, thigh-high lace-up boots and ball gags (the Louboutin exhibit is doing its best to link shoes with a certain type of sexuality. I wonder if the designer knows about bootblacking). But those items are just the accoutrements of a particular group of people. Truly, anything can be fetishized: puff skirts with polka dots, men’s shirts, too-tight yoga pants, large sunglasses. Just ask Ian Brown, the man who just can’t stop looking at women.

Though often perceived as a sexual perversion (and sometimes considered to need treatment), fetishism is more common than you think and visible in varying degrees. While someone may chastise another for not being able to achieve orgasm without wearing latex, that person doing the chastising may not be able to function without a cigarette or grande latte. I’ve happily been able to achieve the big O without the constant use of aids, but have you seen someone who hasn’t had their coffee yet? Gah. Instagram is often littered with photos of cups of coffee, topped with the requisite flourished cream (which often looks a bit phallic, if you ask me). I’ve seen more pics of café counters than I have of any latex gear, and we scroll through them thinking nothing of ‘obsession’ or ‘fetish’. 

The same goes for electronic devices, though nobody wants to admit they’re almost sickly attracted to their phone. Pseudonyms have popped up for these fetishes and those who have them: otaku, fanbois, enthusiasts, early adopters. Pffft… if it walks like a duck. My own house has too much plastic topped with images of a certain bitten fruit.

These may not be sexual attractions, but they are certainly an obsession with things that people simply can’t do without.

On the extreme end of fetishism is objectophilia, where one garners emotional or sexual pleasure from an object on the same level as most people have with other humans. The most commonly seen might be those who are partnered with something like a Real Doll, but there are some who are romantically or sexually linked with objects like cars, trains, and buildings. Though this may seem incredibly odd to many, I find it somewhat comforting that a person can garner basic pleasure from a thing when many times the alternative is dealing with the dregs that are OKCupid. I’m sure the woman who married the Eiffel Tower doesn’t complain that her parter snores, is rude to waitstaff, spits on the street or shows up two hours late for a date.

While a respected institution can present some obsessions under the guise of art (DX calls it ‘magic’), we’re all guilty of collecting or enjoying things to an extreme. There’s nothing wrong with using something extra to boost the adrenaline or serotonin, or simply find peace. Whether they be shoes, masks, buildings or dresses (McQueen’s ghost haunts me), as long as they’re not hurting anyone, it doesn’t matter what we call it.


Sonya JF Barnett, also known as “The Madame,” is the founder of an erotic arts community called The Keyhole Sessions and the co-founder of SlutWalk Toronto. Follow her on Twitter @KeyholeSessions

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