Being turned on by the smell of someone’s dirty panties and the problems it can cause (2022)

SINGAPORE — Lurking in the corners of the Internet are things you would rather not see because it is just TMI (too much information).

A search for “used underwear” on a Singapore site that lists free classified ads churned out 157 listings. A separate search for “used socks” drew 142 listings, suggesting a demand for such personal items.

Over in some forums, anonymous online users lay bare their need for things that they do in private — sniffing other people’s used underwear, soiled socks and aromatic armpits, for instance.

Call it perverse, unnatural or kinky, they and their fetishes are out there: People who have an intense sexual attraction to non-living objects or body parts not traditionally viewed as sexual.

Last month, a 34-year-old man here told the world through social media that he was smelling female underwear and doing obscene acts with the items along the common corridor of a public housing block.

Several police reports were made, he was arrested and was charged with being a public nuisance. The fallout from this? He has seemingly caused his mother grief, he said.

Indeed, while having a fetish may enliven a consensual sexual relationship where both parties know what they are in for, experts said that it could become problematic when it starts affecting various aspects of the individual’s life.

Due to limited studies and underreporting, there are no numbers on the prevalence of fetishism here, which refers to the use of non-living objects or a non-genital part of the body for sexual arousal and sexual gratification.

Dr Derrick Yeo, a consultant at the department of forensic psychiatry at the Institute of Mental Health (IMH), said that of those who seek help from a psychiatrist or psychologist, less than 1 per cent do so with fetishism as their primary presenting complaint.

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APRONS, LEATHER AND LATEX

Many fetishes involve extensions of the human body, such as clothing or footwear.

Dr Yeo said that commonly seen ones include aprons, shoes, leather or latex items and women’s undergarments.

A study published in the International Journal of Impotence Research in 2007 found that about one in three men have a sexual preference related to the human body, such as feet, or objects experienced in close association with the body, such as a piece of clothing.

Feet and objects associated with feet were the most common preference, the study noted after analysing the content of nearly 400 online discussion groups.

Dr Yeo said: “In some cases, (these objects) simply serve to enhance sexual excitement achieved in ordinary ways, for example, having their partner wear a particular garment.”

Minor acts of fetishism with consensual sexual behaviour is not considered a disorder because distress and functional impairment are absent.

“It might even be enjoyable, and the individual is not ashamed or guilty,” he said.

However, more intense or highly compulsive fetishistic disorder could lead to behaviours that cause problems in relationships and affect the person’s ability to function at work or at home, Dr Yeo added.

A FIXATION

Psychiatrist Lim Boon Leng said that people who have a fetishistic disorder are fixated on using the non-living object or non-genital body part as the single, primary means of sexual gratification.

Experts said that for a diagnosis to be made, it also must cause significant distress or impairment in the person’s life such as social, occupational and other areas of functioning.

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Dr Lim, who practises at Dr BL Lim Centre for Psychological Wellness, said: “It has to cause a problem in the person’s life. For example, some married men don’t engage in proper sexual activities with their wives, and this can lead to marital issues when their wives catch them with the objects.”

From 2014 to last year, IMH saw an average of 19 diagnosed cases a year.

For Dr Lim, who sees a handful of fetishistic disorder cases in his practice, he said that there are some patients who feel guilty about their behaviour and also experience depressive moods and anxiety.

“The urge can be quite strong and they feel the need to do it in order to get sexual gratification but yet, they know it’s not something condoned by society. They may feel guilty about it, particularly if they have partners,” he added.

THE TROUBLE WITH UNCONTROLLED URGES

Uncontrolled urges can get people with fetishes into trouble with the law, as seen by the recent case and by other cases in the past of suspects caught stealing underwear.

Dr Lim said: “There are people who buy used underwear off the Internet. That may not be illegal but if you steal underwear or (perform lewd acts with it) in public, then that’s breaking the law.”

Dr Julia Lam, a consultant forensic psychologist, estimated that around one in 10 people referred to her for filming up women’s legs might have a fetishistic disorder. She works at Forensic Psych Services, which provides assessment and reports on medico-legal issues related to criminal, civil and family law.

“If a person has an obsession with underwear, he may be more tempted to take upskirt videos in order to know the colour, texture of what the person is wearing. Sometimes, it’s also the thrill of doing something secretive,” she said. “The person may also be using a lot of pornography. It all comes together.”

However, Dr Yeo from IMH emphasised that not all who are diagnosed with a sexual disorder will offend or are at risk of offending.

While some patients seen at IMH are referred by the police or other healthcare institutions, some seek treatment voluntarily.

“It is common for normal people to have unusual sexual fantasies, but only a small minority act on them and offend,” Dr Yeo said.

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A PREDOMINANTLY MALE PROBLEM

Experts said that the majority of fetishists they have encountered in their practice are men.

Among the handful of cases Dr Lim has seen for fetishistic disorder, all are males. He has seen young educated students who are referred to him after being caught acting out their urges, such as stealing undergarments.

Dr Lim and Dr Lam said that people who indulge in fetishistic behaviours may have difficulties in social interactions and finding partners.

“They may have no real friends or prosocial hobbies, and hence indulge in these behaviours,” Dr Lam said. Prosocial hobbies refer to activities that are not anti-social or criminal.

However, not all of these individuals are socially awkward, she added. Some may even be married and have children, or they are holding stable, decent jobs, or both.

“(The fetishistic behaviour) is a dark side of their life,” Dr Lam said.

It is not known exactly how fetishistic disorder develops and why it affects predominantly males.

Dr Lim thinks that cultural factors on how sex is viewed could play a role.

“Whether biologically or culturally, women tend to look at sex as part of a relationship or love, while men may tend to separate sex and love — and therefore, the sexual part could be projected onto objects,” he said.

Dr Lam said that paraphilia such as a fetishistic disorder usually start during early puberty, possibly around the age of 11 or 12. Without intervention, the behaviour tends to be repeated.

“For example, in the case of a person with underwear fetish, it could have started from the first time he accidentally smelled underwear, got aroused from it and associated it with a pleasurable experience. If he keeps repeating it, the behaviour is reinforced,” Dr Lam said.

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Dr Yeo said that seeking help early may prevent individuals from acting on their thoughts or help them stop the behaviour before they face legal consequences.

TREATMENT POSSIBLE BUT CHALLENGING

Sexual disorders including fetishism can be treated with a combination of medication and psychological therapy.

Dr Yeo said that medication can be used to reduce impulsivity and sexual urges, while psychological therapy addresses underlying deviant thoughts and life stressors faced by these individuals.

Psychological therapy also explores triggers that increase the risk of an offence, such as excessive viewing of pornography, boredom and lack of social support.

“It is possible to recover from a sexual disorder after a period of recommended treatment,” he said.

“However, it does not mean that one will not relapse after stopping treatment. Various life stressors may possibly trigger a relapse.”

Dr Lim pointed out that fetishistic disorder is challenging to treat and estimated that about half of them may relapse. The success of treatment also depends on the motivation of the individual.

“For one, it is a chronic condition, which can go on for many years. Many also don’t really see it as a true problem, so they may not sustain the treatment and may relapse,” he said.

“However, sometimes the fear of being arrested may turn things around for them.”

Dr Lim believes that parents and schools play a role in educating children about healthy sexual behaviour.

“I feel that sex is such a taboo subject that we sometimes underestimate the fact that we need to learn proper sexual practices,” he said.

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“Because of that, children and youth may start learning the wrong things maybe from TV, Internet and somehow associate sexual gratification with objects. Having open dialogues about healthy sexual practices may be useful.”

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