August 12, 2013

Plugged In: Sexual Fetish Communities 1970s to the Present

Guest Blogger Samantha Allen documents how the Internet changed fetish culture. She is the 2013 John Money Scholar in Sexology

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Baby letters

Baby letters

“…for those of you who haven’t yet gotten on the Internet, you’re really missing something.”

This quote from a 1996 issue of the shoe fetish magazine In Step captures a pivotal moment in the history of sexual fetish communities: the emergence of the Internet. This same moment has its echoes in almost every fetish publication I found during my time at the Kinsey Institute as the 2013 John Money
For instance, Diaper Pail Fraternity (DPF for short), an adult baby and diaper fetish newsletter that began in 1979, also celebrates the advent of the Internet in a 1996 issue:

“We’re happy to announce that the INTERNET and cyberspace has come to DPF. I’m sure you can picture all these big babies and diaper lovers as they sit in front of their computers while they surf the Net.”

By 1999, Tommy, the editor of DPF, is thrilled that his website gets “15,000 hits per week, which is a lot.” The late 90s were a heady time for sexual fetishists who, for the first time, could communicate instantaneously with others who shared their interests. Things would never be the same again.

The More Things Change, The More Things Stay the Same

But did the Internet change everything? At The Kinsey Institute, I was able to research an often-neglected “golden age” of fetish-oriented print publications that ran from the 1970s through the 1990s. This era of print might feel like ancient history to a younger generation of Internet-savvy sexual fetishists, if they are aware of it at all. The Internet forgets history all too quickly.

This 2003 conversation from a foot and trampling fetish forum, for instance, foreshadows the Internet-induced amnesia that would soon overtake online fetish communities. Older members of the forum reminisce about In Step magazine as if it were already a relic from a bygone time even though it had only been out of print for two years. One member adopts a grandfatherly tone to tell the “younger folks” that they “need to know that fetish material was not readily available to us older folks” and that they should “learn to keep things in perspective.” Today, a decade after this 2003 conversation took place, droves of young people have drowned out the few remaining older voices who remember the drudgery of scavenging bookstores for that one perfect magazine.

This younger generation of sexual fetishists might be surprised to learn that many of the fetish newsletters of the 70s, 80s and 90s are almost identical in structure to the online fetish forums of the 2000s. Over the course of this golden age of fetish publications, communities were forming around even the most obscure sexual fetishes such as diaper fetishism, amputee fetishism and piercing fetishism. Some extremely rare fetishes, such as sneezing fetishism, appear to have no textual footprint prior to the advent of the Internet (but I’m sure I’ll find one someday!).

Today’s online forums are patterned directly after print newsletters that were in circulation during the golden age. A popular adult baby / diaper fetish site called called Daily Diapers, for example, is almost identical to Diaper Pail Fraternity newsletters from the 80s and 90s. DPF contains a catalog of erotic literature that a member can order by mail; Daily Diapers has a story section. DPF has a roster of members that lists their ages, interests and geographical locations; Daily Diapers allows members to create their own profiles. DPF has a letters section in which readers can share experiences with each other; Daily Diapers has a robust message board that fulfills the same function. DPF regularly highlights diaper appearances in mainstream news and media; Daily Diapers has sub forums devoted to these topics. Both advertise and sell pertinent accoutrement: diapers, baby clothes, pacifiers.

The throughlines from print to internet—from the “golden age” to the online message board—became strikingly clear once I was able to read through the material available at The Kinsey Institute. In order to highlight this continuity between print and internet fetish discourse, I want to share with you the story of…

The Golden Age

In the beginning, there was Fetish Times. Fetish Times is a periodical published out of Burbank, California from 1972 to 1996 that primarily catered to a relatively common set of sexual interests such as bondage, submission and transvestism. Early in the periodical’s history, the editors seem unaware of sexual behavior beyond these garden variety proclivities. In a 1977 issue, for example, they were shocked to discover the existence of adult babies:

Disbelief invaded the Fetish Times office when a gentle lady named Mistress Florence called from North California, [and] said she was in the business of selling—yes!—baby togs for big folks…”

But as Fetish Times acquired an increasingly diverse audience of readers, the editorial staff embraced (and capitalized on) more obscure fetishes. By 1989, adult babies appear in the centerfold with the declaration:

“If spring is the time of love, then summer is the hour of the adult baby!”

Throughout the 70s, 80s and 90s, the editors also published features on amputee fetishism, enemas and scatological play. Fetish Times appears to have functioned as a sort of sampler plate for sexual fetishists: readers could taste everything, locate their specific interest and pursue it further in a more narrowly focused publication. Advertisements in the back pages directed readers to the print periodical most suited to their needs. In the 1980s, they started to advertise rubber fetishism newsletters and, in the early 1990s, advertisements for publications like Amputee Times and Diaper Pail Fraternity began to appear as well. A regular feature called “On the Rack” highlighted even more publications for interested readers to investigate.

Fetish Times marks the center of an explosion of print publications on fetishism in the 70s, 80s and 90s. Whatever your interest, there was a publication for you. Magazines like Atomage, Shiny and Erolastica catered to rubber and latex fetishists. A newsletter called B.R. Creations provided a forum
for corset fetishists. Brief Notes was a newsletter for gay male underwear fetishists. My personal golden age favorites are two periodicals from the late 70s called SEBA and The Razor’s Edge which focus on people with fetishes for piercings, baldness and headshaving.

Most of these publications have a similar lifespan: they make strong debuts but suffer from financial difficulties before the Internet ultimately comes around and puts the nail in the coffin. The technology that seemed so exciting in the mid 90s effectively shuttered most print fetish publications in the early 2000s as readers discovered ways to access content for free without paying subscription fees. In 1996—the same year that InStep and Diaper Pail Fraternity discovered the Internet—Fetish Times closed its doors. Their last words?

“Perhaps we will resurface on the inter-net.”

They did not return. A somber end, to be sure, but, if you can trace the impressions that the golden age left on today’s Internet fetish communities, it’s almost like they never left.

Guest Blogger Samantha Allen is a Ph.D. student and the George W. Woodruff Fellow in the Department of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Emory University.

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