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The term "fetish" first came into widespread use in the eighteenth century in the context of the study of "primitive religions", in which it denoted an inanimate object of worship.
It was Krafft-Ebing who, in the last decade of the nineteenth century, first applied the term to sexual behavior.
The fetish is usually an inanimate object such as a shoe or piece of underwear.
Confronted with the mother's lack of a penis, the fetishist disavows this lack and finds an object (the fetish) as a symbolic substitute for the mother's missing penis.<ref>Freud, Sigmund.. "Fetishism", 1927e. SE XXI, 149</ref>
In Lacan's first approach to the subject of fetishism, in 1956, he argues that fetishism is a particularly important area of study and bemoans its neglect by his contemporaries.
He stresses that the equivalence between the fetish and the maternal phallus can only be understood by reference to linguistic transformations, and not by reference to "vague analogies in the visual field" such as comparisons between fur and pubic hair."<ref>Lacan, Jacques. "Variantes de la cure-type", in Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. [1956b]. p. 267)</ref>
Penis and Phallus
However, he retains Freud's view that fetishism is an exclusively male perversion,<ref>Lacan, Jacques. Écrits. Paris: Seuil, 1966. p. 734</ref> or at least extremely rare among women.<ref>Lacan, Jacques. Le Séminaire. Livre IV. La relation d'objet, 19566-57. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1991. p.154</ref>
In the seminar of 1956-7, Lacan elaborates an important distinction between the fetish object and the phobic object; whereas the fetish is a symbolic substitute for the mother's missing phallus, the phobic object is an imaginary substitute for symbolic castration.
Like all perversions, fetishism is rooted in the preoedipal triangle of mother-child-phallus.<ref>Lacan, Jacques. Le Séminaire. Livre IV. La relation d'objet, 19566-57. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1991. p. 84-5, 194</ref>
However, it is unique in that it involves both identification with mother and with the imaginary phallus; indeed, in fetishism, the subject oscillates between these two identifications.<ref>Lacan, Jacques. Le Séminaire. Livre IV. La relation d'objet, 19566-57. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1991. p. 86, 160</ref>
Lacan's statement, in 1958, that the penis "takes on the value of a fetish" for heterosexual women raises a number of interesting questions.<ref>Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. p. 290</ref>
Firstly, it reverses Freud's views on fetishism; rather than the fetish being a symbolic substitute for the real penis, the real penis may itself become a fetish by substituting the woman's absent symbolic phallus.
Secondly, it undermines the claims (made by both Freud and Lacan) that fetishism is extremely rare among women; if the penis can be considered a fetish, then fetishism is clearly far more prevalent among women than among men.