Fun with inflatables ... and other unlikely pleasures

David Aaronovitch The fetish game
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So, the smart thing to be is a fetishist. This will come as something of a surprise to those who first encountered fetishism in the pages of exciting anthropological classics (Naked Breasts in New Guinea by Professor WW Fawcett, and the like), or as incomprehensible cases from Freud's own notebooks. In one situation fetishism could be seen to be a product of a disordered mind, producing men that worshipped toenails, or of a primitive culture resulting in tribes that worshipped Prince Philip.

Well, we know better now, don't we? Thursday's report in this very newspaper helped to put us all straight. To fetishise is to live, according to Tim Woodward, editor of Skin Two, a fetish magazine (ie, a magazine for fetishists, not to be confused with a magazine fetishist, who presumably gets pleasure from the wearing of magazines).

Mr Woodward informed readers that feeling strangely about odd things was all the rage. "If you had told me five years ago," he said, "that there would be a regular fetish club night in Weston-Super-Mare, I would have said you were crackers. Now there are clubs in Kidderminster and Colchester."

It would have been an interesting thing to be described as "crackers" by a practising rubber fetishist, but Mr Woodward has a point nevertheless. London, by virtue of its size, must by the simple laws of chance have a club for just about everything, if you know where to look. But Weston? It's the sort of place that people retire to when they no longer wish to even think about ordinary sex, let alone dress up in PVC and high heels first.

If Weston now throbs to the beat of fetish drums, and if Kidderminster joins this urgent tattoo, something, as they say, is up. But what?

In circumstances like this, it behoves the enquiring journalist to take himself off to his PC, and plug into the Net. So, manipulating my mighty Search Engine (sorry about that), I called up "fetishism" and discovered a page that linked similarly curious enquirers to a large number of different fetish sites. And here - with some censorship which removed those practices requiring invasive surgical intervention and those that might not sit easily with a large breakfast - is my provisional fetish list: boots, corsets, feet, furs, inflatables, latex, leather, lycra, nylon, pantyhose, PVC, spanking, tattoos, uniforms and vampires.

(By the way, if your own particular fetish isn't here, don't worry. I'm sure that you too are perfectly abnormal.)

Clearly, when it comes to fetishism, working in the textiles industry gives you something of a head start. But the fetish I chose to follow up was that involving "inflatables". This, readers of the inflatables homepage are solemnly assured, does not refer to blow-up dolls (which the author regards as naff). No, it involves getting off on balloons (blown- up or popped - no narrow-mindedness there) as well as Lilos and air-filled rafts.

At which exotic point I began to wonder how a fetishist discovers his or her fetish in the first place. It must be - to say the least - a hit- and-miss affair. Many of us, especially in adolescence, find the act of choosing one out of two rather carefully delineated sexes hard enough. So the chances of working out that the thing causing you maximum tumescence is, say, your mother's pressure cooker must surely be very slight. Unless, of course, you go about with (in the case of men) your equipment held out in front of you like a divining rod, marching round John Lewis in search of a buzz.

This difficulty may explain why fetishisms seem to congregate around clothing, as we have seen. Most of us have been in clothes shops, our girl and boyfriends wear clothes, clothes are discussed a great deal, so it's easier to understand. You may spot a pair of leather trousers on a shapely person, and believe that each enhances the other. What more natural than that this should lead you - by stages - to the purchase of a leather cat suit, complete with face mask, two-inch protruding nails and zips strategically placed at genitals, nipples, navel and mouth?

Now, this makes many of us feel very inadequate. There we are, with our quotidian lusts (pretty girls, nice bosoms, that sort of thing), and here are these other fabulous beings, whose sexual inclinations are so precise, so finely calibrated, that it takes a thousand quid's worth of equipment and a lot of polish to keep them in balance. As Mr Woodward describes it, "It's not enough just to have sex any more. You want to look, you want to experiment."

In the Sixties, naive hippies thought they were so cool for having come to precisely the opposite conclusion. Now they're sexually square. Others have discovered a sexual aesthetic that is as far beyond us, as Gilbert and George are beyond Barbara Cartland.

Well, OK. But a word of caution before we despair, or run out to discover what really turns us on. Suppose it's all a great big try-on? Suppose that these guys have figured out that the rest of us are in no position to contradict them when they say they just adore spanking vampires in rubber rings? After all, if you lived in Kidderminster, might that not be what you'd do?