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BLOG » Fetishes Explained: The Neuroscience Behind Taboo Arousal
Fetishes. Kinks. Taboo desires. Reading those words likely sparks discomfort. Society breeds shame around atypical arousal. But what if much of that unease could melt away? The truth is fetishes arise from normal developmental imprinting in childhood and adolescence. With compassion and understanding, the taboos around fetishes lessen. Come learn the science and start dismantling shame.
Estimated Reading Time: 4 minutes

Fetishes Explained: The Neuroscience Behind Taboo Arousal

October 09, 2023

Let’s address the giant elephant in the room first - conversations about fetishes, and sex in general, often bring discomfort. The taboo around anything outside of the norm breeds shame and prevents true understanding leading to unnecessary judgment and a whole lot of unhappy people.
By peeling back the layers and digging into the science of the biological mechanisms behind fetishes, much of the unease tends to dissolve.

In this post, I’ll share key concepts and research illuminating how fetishes originate and develop. There are pivotal childhood moments at play, imprinting sessions during maturation, and societal influences overlaying it all. But to get a full understanding with examples check out my video:  “Fetishes Explained: The Neuroscience behind it all with a Nod to Dr. Huberman & Dr. Kruse.” 

Defining Fetishes vs Kinks

Before diving further into the origins of fetishes, let’s get clear on some definitions. There are nuances between fetishes, kinks, and "normal" sexual interests.

A kink is something that someone enjoys sexually, but doesn’t require to become aroused or climax. Kinks add excitement and pleasure and an avenue for curiosity and experimentation. 

A fetish has roots that go much deeper neurologically. It is something that the person needs to feel fully aroused. It can be an object, body part or scenario.

Of course, there is a spectrum in-between where people's needs and interests lie. There is no universal “normal” in sexuality - each person’s map differs based on upbringing, experiences and biology.

The key distinction is that interests become fetishes when there is an intense mental imprint of pleasure and neurological arousal specifically with that stimulus. Let's explore where those imprints come from.

Yes, Fetishes begin in childhood

During our youngest years, the brain is rapidly making new connections in response to sensory experiences. We encode memories early in life as the brain develops - before judgment, context and meaning overlay our perceptions. Any experience that has a strong emotional sensation, like fun and laughter or even not so fun emotions, the memories are registered as important even if the details of the experience fade away. 

We’ll explore more soon on how puberty interacts with these early emotional experiences but for now, the key is that fetishes often stem from intense memories as a child. Situations that activate many of the senses (not just sight, sound, touch, smell, taste) - make the strongest impressions.

My video includes examples of clients tracing their fetishes back to memories like laughing under a table in tickling play. As a young child, we simply feel, we do not analyze. But those sensations can shape our future.

The Teenage Years

How do our early childhood experiences translate into arousal patterns later in life? Much in the same way life changes (or reinforces) our behavior patterns now.
During the day, everyday situations can end up randomly triggering memories. If the memory that resurfaces isn’t important, we have a tendency to disregard it. But if the memory is emotional, we may stop and think about it and give it more attention.
Same thing happens when you’re a teen except as a teen you have surging hormones that can create different sensations in your body. Since we’re talking about fetishes, I’m talking specifically about new feelings of arousal and desire. 

When vivid memories from childhood resurface and it coincides with the rushing hormones and new bodily sensations of adolescence, strong associations form. We attach the physical pleasure of hormonal derived arousal with the memory. It is in these moments that start the initial imprinting of a fetish.

During sleep, the brain organizes the experiences of the day in whatever way makes the most sense based on the experiences of the teen. Unfortunately, the teen brain is still developing so the brain will have limited capacity to apply context or judgment to these new desires.

The Impact of Shame

As we’ve explored, fetishes take root early in life, often stemming from pivotal childhood moments and imprint during adolescence when the brain isn’t fully developed. Societal norms and messaging through mainstream media and culture shape the lens through which we view our desires.

If someone gets aroused by something that falls outside the norm, it’s easy to judge these inherent impulses as inappropriate or unhealthy when you don’t understand how fetishes develop. However, this judgment only serves to further strengthen neural pathways associated with the fetish.

When we experience intense emotional feelings about our fetish responses, it intensifies the imprinting rather than loosening it. Each moment someone spends feeling shame, guilt or rejection reinforces the neural pattern subconsciously.

The alternative is cultivating compassion and understanding for ourselves.

Reshaping Your Neural Pathways and Dismantling Stigma

While fetishes may feel ingrained, neuroplasticity allows our brains to evolve. With self-compassion, we can approach desires without judgment, creating the safety needed to rewire patterns. Judgment keeps us stuck; compassion enables change.

By understanding the biological mechanisms behind fetishes, we can dismantle the taboo and shame surrounding them. Fetishes arise from pivotal childhood moments, not personal failure.

However, if a fetish feels misaligned, change is possible. With care and courage, new associations can develop towards arousals resonating with our values. Over time, these newer pathways are strengthened.

The first step is returning to a state of innocence and playfulness as we relate to our sexuality. We must unlearn the secrecy and shame preventing understanding.

With compassion, we can openly explore our interests and associate healthy feelings to them. Neuroplasticity allows reshaping pathways towards alignment with our values and self-concept.


While society perpetuates taboo and discomfort around fetishes, my hope is that by illuminating the biological mechanisms at play, we can dismantle shame and foster self-acceptance. Our desires do not define us, though they contain clues about our inner world.

Next time you encounter stigma around a fetish, remember the innocent origins. Honor the courage it takes to openly explore this terrain. The conversation around fetishes and sexual diversity requires patience, nuance and wisdom and our brains are always evolving. I appreciate you joining me today to dig deeper with openness as we cultivate compassion for ourselves and others.

Links Mentioned

Rick Rubin podcast (Tetragrammaton with Rick Rubin)
Dr. Jack Kruse and Andrew Huberman, Part 1

Huberman Podcast AMA #11: Improve Task Switching & Productivity and Reduce Brain Fog AMA #11: Improve Task Switching & Productivity

Kink vs. Fetish: A Sex Therapist Lays Out the Difference


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Wendy is a trauma-informed orgasm and neuro-pleasure coach that specializes in biohacking the nervous system to increase pleasure. A self-proclaimed "nerd" with ADHD, Wendy has mastered the art of hyper focusing to learn about the human body and how the different systems work together. She believes that everyone deserves to experience maximum pleasure and orgasmic bliss, and she works tirelessly to help people achieve this goal.

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