Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Why podophilia?

Before the bath
 – William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905)

What is it about women's feet? They are the part of a woman’s body that men most often fetishize. A study on the frequencies of different fetishes concluded: "Feet and objects associated with feet were the most common target of preferences [...] We found podophilia prominent (about half of Feticist groups subscribers) in our sample" (Scorolli et al. 2007). 

That finding is in line with many others:

- Podophilia was common in a sample of male adolescents and young adults with either autistic disorder (AD) or borderline/mild mental retardation (MR): "Partialism (a sexual interest in body parts) was common in the AD group: four individuals got sexually aroused by body parts (three by feet, one by bellies) compared to none of the MR group" (Hellemans et al. 2010). 

- A former escort girl and stripper "reported that [her] most frequent requests were (1) those involving a foot or shoe fetish, (2) those to sell to the male client her underwear, and (3) those to urinate into her underwear before selling it to the client" (Cernovsky 2015). 

- Online searches that include the term "fetish" most often co-occur with the term "foot" (Anon 2007)

- The Austrian psychologist Wilhelm Stekel noted that ''the most widespread form of partialism is preference for feet” (Stekel 1952, p.169)

Female feet have been eroticized even by Victorian writers like George du Maurier (1834-1896):

"That's my foot," she said, kicking off her big slipper and stretching out the limb. "It's the handsomest foot in all Paris. There's only one in all Paris to match it, and here it is," and she laughed heartily (like a merry peal of bells), and stuck out the other.

And in truth they were astonishingly beautiful feet, such as one only sees in pictures and statues—a true inspiration of shape and color, all made up of delicate lengths and subtly modulated curves and noble straightnesses and happy little dimpled arrangements in innocent young pink and white. (Du Maurier 1894, p. 174)

The cause?

There has been a lot of speculation. Ramachandran and Hirstein (1998) attributed podophilia to accidental cross-talk between adjacent regions of the cortex:

In the Penfield homunculus the genitals are adjacent to the foot and, as one might expect, we found that two [amputee] patients reported experiencing sensations in their phantom foot during sexual intercourse. [...] (One wonders whether foot-fetishes in normal individuals may also result from such accidental 'cross wiring'—an idea that is at least more plausible than Freud's view that such fetishes arise because of a purported resemblance between the foot and the penis.)

Actually, Sigmund Freud proposed three hypotheses. He listed them in a footnote and apparently had no strong opinions on the subject. His first hypothesis was that feet are fetishized because they are strong-smelling. His second was that “[t]he foot replaces the penis which is so much missed in the woman.” Finally, he suggested that foot fetishism arises from male desire being redirected away from the female genital area because of “prohibition and repression” (Freud 1920, n19).

The third hypothesis seems to me the most interesting. A young man may focus on a woman’s feet because he cannot look too long at other parts of her body either because of social discomfort (in the case of her face or her breasts) or because they are concealed by clothing, so he looks at a body part that is exposed and freely observable. This is especially a problem in societies where an unmarried woman is expected to cover herself when seen by a man from outside her family (i.e., neither her father nor her brothers). Only her face, hands, and feet may be seen, and sometimes not even her face. Her feet thus become a focus of male erotic interest and sexual fantasizing. With repeated reinforcement and conditioning, they may even become a primary source of sexual arousal.

The reinforcement and conditioning hypothesis has two problems: 

1). In Western societies, socks and other footwear have been worn indoors and out since the eighteenth century, and women’s arms, legs, and upper chests have become denuded since the early twentieth century. If feet no longer rank among the top three areas of naked female skin, shouldn’t podophilia be a lot less common nowadays?   

2). Although puberty seems to be key to development of podophilia, a survey of foot fetishists showed that about half of them remembered feeling attraction to feet at earlier ages:

45 per cent thought that the fetishism was linked to pleasurable experiences during childhood. Many men had their first feelings of sexual pleasure with a member of the family's feet (fathers, uncles, brothers), the experience connected to innocent activities such as tickling or washing feet [...] (Peakman 2013, p. 379)

The mental circuitry thus seems to be already in place by childhood, at an age when sexual fantasizing is still rudimentary at best.


Perhaps some of that circuitry has become hardwired, through a process of gene-culture coevolution. In societies where young unmarried women had to conceal most of their body surface from public view, foot fetishizing may have developed as a safe form of premarital eroticism. That kind of social environment rewarded “good boys” who played by the rules of premarital sexuality, while penalizing “bad boys” who didn’t. The first group would tend to have a certain mix of hardwired sexual predispositions: not only inhibition of overt sexual interest but also displacement of sexual interest into areas that are not socially penalized. Over time, and with each passing generation, those predispositions would have become prevalent in the gene pool.

That sounds weird, but we see such hardwiring in the courtship behavior of other mammals, which typically try to attract a potential mate through behavioral patterns drawn from other areas of social interaction, such as between a mother and her infants. In some cases, courtship can incorporate stress-induced behavior. Feelings of stress cause the male to preen himself, and preening thus becomes a regular and expected part of courtship, at which point there is strong selection to make it a hardwired component of the behavioral sequence (Manning 1972, pp. 112-118).

That kind of opportunism seems to characterize much of our sexual behavior. Kissing, for instance, was initially done only between a mother and her infants or as a gesture of respect between a subordinate and his superior. It then became sexualized in some societies but not in others (Frost 2015). Did podophilia follow a similar evolutionary path? Did it begin as a side effect of sexual repression and later became incorporated into love play? Like kissing, it may have developed as a safe alternative to sexual intercourse. Unlike kissing, it has not reached the same level of social acceptance. Keep in mind that even kissing is frowned upon in many societies. 

To test this hypothesis, we need cross-cultural data. Is podophilia more frequent in those societies where, at least until recent times, most of a woman’s body surface was hidden from the gaze of male strangers?


Anon. (2007). The AOL Search Data: Self Identified Fetishers. Accessed September 4, 2019

Cernovsky, Z.Z. (2015). Fetishistic Preferences of Clients as Ranked by a Sex Worker. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy 42(6): 481-483. 

Du Maurier, G. (1894). Trilby. Harper’s New Monthly Magazine. January 88(524): 168-189.

Freud, S. (1920). Three contributions to the theory of sex. Second edition. New York: Nervous and Mental Disease Publishing Co. 

Frost, P. (2015). Not everyone does it. Evo and Proud, July 18

Hellemans, H., H. Roeyers, W. Leplae, T. Dewaele, and D. Deboutte. (2010). Sexual Behavior in Male Adolescents and Young Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder and Borderline/Mild Mental Retardation. Sexuality and Disability 28(2): 93-104.

Manning, A. (1972). An Introduction to Animal Behaviour. 2nd edition. London: Edward Arnold.

Peakman, J. (2013). The Pleasure's All Mine. A History of Perverse Sex. London: Reaktion Books

Ramachandran, V.S. and W. Hirstein. (1998). The perception of phantom limbs. The D. O. Hebb lecture. Brain 121: 1603-1630.

Ribeyrol, C. (2015). 'The Feet of Love': Pagan Podophilia from A.C. Swinburne to Isadora Duncan. Miranda 11

Scorolli, C., S. Ghirlanda, M. Enquist, S. Zattoni, and E.A. Jannini. (2007). Relative prevalence of different fetishes. International Journal of Impotence Research 19: 432-437.

Stekel, W. (1952). Sexual aberrations: The phenomena of fetishism in relation to sex (Vol. 1) (Trans., S. Parker). New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation.


Luke Lea said...

The Chinese were extreme foot fetishists. Not sure how that fits in.

Sean said...

As I recall, inexperienced girls will instinctively go up on the balls of their feet if they are feeling flirtatious with you while they happen to be without footwear. That recreates the alignment high heels put the feet into. And female porn performers are told to point their toes at all times. My impression is that flexing the ankle is a sign of sexual receptiveness in women, which is why men are attracted to it and women simulate it with heels to look attractive.

The Tibial nerve vagina-ankle connection.

Bruce said...

Just a guess – bare feet could be a sign of submissiveness, vulnerability?

FWIW, I have noticed that some women take their shoes off and walk around the office barefoot – you never see men do this. The practice doesn’t seem arousing but I guess it seems “cute.”

Anonymous said...

I don't get it. Personally, I don't care about feet at all. I care about breasts though. Now that, my dear fellow evo&proud readers, is a worthy "philia." Catch the fever.

Michel Rouzic said...

I think there could be another secondary mechanism at work, which is that it was easy to make feet attractive through evolution. Compare two opposite extremes, feet and labia. Feet were probably always the most commonly visible body part after the face and hands. So feet can easily become a factor in picking a mate, I would hate to marry a woman with ugly feet, and typically I would have an easy time selecting early against ugly feet. Labia is the opposite, no matter how I feel about being with a woman with aesthetically shocking labia not only will I probably not get to get a good look at it before being in some kind of commitment with the woman, which lowers the chances that I would select based on such a factor, but also pubic hair would commonly obscure the view, making labia aesthetic appeal an even lesser factor. And despite all the modern media putting labia on display I think that labia have failed to become revered let alone fetishised for their aesthetics the way feet have, not because of taboos but because it just doesn't look that great. My point is feet have become aesthetically more pleasant by being an easy trait to select for while labia are less aesthetically pleasant because pleasant-looking labia would always been very difficult to select for.

I think Sean might really be on to something and it might be an unconscious part of the courtship process. As someone who feels that feet can either be very off-putting or quite aesthetically compelling I can confirm that the angle at the ankle is a major factor in how it looks. If the foot breaks the continuity of the leg by giving it an L shape this is quite unappealing, if the foot is in the continuation of the leg this is much more eye-catching. In other words if a woman stands upright with her feet flat on the ground, the most common and mundane position, I will most likely be indifferent to them, regardless of how the feet compare to others. So it could be that females use that to selectively attract mates, and that of course only works on males who are sensitive to such signals, therefore females more likely to use their feet for courtship and males being receptive would have a selective advantage. And of course high heels would serve the purpose of increasing attractiveness by putting them at a more eye-catching angle at all times, which is probably why high heels have been continuously fashionable for several generations.

Michel Rouzic said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Michel Rouzic said...

If you think about it, feet might just be the ideal stealth display to use as a selective courtship signal if certain configurations are more appealing, for instance pointed feet being more appealing, or soles being more arousing than the top side. Everybody can see anyone's face at pretty much any angle, there's no way to make it special except by giving certain direct looks, the hands also get to be commonly seen by all on both sides in any position so it's hard to see how a hand fetish could serve as an advantageous vector for courtship signaling. This leaves nipples and their ability to erect as a potential signal (but of little use in cultures where developed breasts are concealed), and that's mostly unconscious, and feet which are almost universally socially acceptable to display yet how they are shown (position and side shown) is selective and can be consciously controlled. Feet as a courtship signal can therefore be kept neutral (like flat on the ground) when not intended to be used to signal anything, and can be used in certain ways (like pointing one of them, standing on the balls of the feet or making the soles visible) to attract a more specific mating prospect in a way that I can hardly imagine ever being a cause for reprimand or social disapproval, making it a stealth signal that no one acknowledges as even being a signal but that is still effective.

The other advantage is in the plausible deniability and therefore a low threshold for activation. Giving someone a direct suggestive look with your face says "hey you, yes you, let's get it on", which is a bit of a leap to take, whereas signaling with legs/feet says "hey you, check out how sexy I am. I didn't say I liked you though". So it's a much easier signal to trigger, you don't need to think twice about it just like I wouldn't think twice about adopting a good posture in anyone's presence (but I'm more likely to do it in the vicinity of suitable mates), and the way I see it it could happen entirely under the radar, both for the female signal emiter who might not fully consciously realise that she's using her legs for the purpose of seduction as well as for the male signal receiver who might not realise that this is a signal meant for him and would just think "this female is attractive", without necessarily even acknowledging any interest in feet.

Mystery elucidated, at least as far as I'm concerned.

Peter Frost said...


Yes, that was my impression. I was hoping to find a study that showed population differences in foot fetishism. My hypothesis is that foot fetishism should be more frequent in cultures where, historically, women were covered up in public (most of Eurasia). I would expect to see less of it in African Americans for instance.


Women do this sort of thing unconsciously. It looks like a coevolution between foot fetishism in the male mind and foot exhibitionism in the female mind. Again, I wasn't able to find a lot on the subject.


It's probably arousing to different degrees in different men. There is probably a lot of variability even among men of the same ethnic or cultural background.


Mammaphilia is understandable. Breast size and shape is very sex-specific.


"Leg continuity" seems to be common in ballet. Many of the most popular movements emphasize pointing of the feet, as if the L-shaped position were less attractive.

Yes, foot fetishism may originate in low-level sexual signaling that all men and women do unconsciously. There is also low-level sexual signaling with the face (winking, nodding, changes in pupil size) and the hands (more so in Middle Eastern cultures).

Sean said...

Is it just a coincidence that ballet, which many young girls like, has a lot of ankle flexion? Skipping is a girls thing. I think the stance in a situation where they feel sexy is probabally unconscious, with heels designers like Jimmy Choo merely taking advantage of it. The ankles are exposed more often than toes in designer high heels. Decorative ankle adornments and chains go back to Sumerian times

Traditional wives (the trousers and dress thing over it plus headscarf) of the Muslim countries do tend to wear open toe sandals in quite cold weather, but maybe they are more comfortable with sandals, a lot of people of both sexes like them. In the Islamic world you take off your shoes before entering a mosque, or house, and baring your feet in sandals is OK to wear in the street. In those countries that in sandals or bare, feet would get even dirtier than they do now.

In my experience those traditional women will wear their headscarf back on their head or even take it off completely, and undo an extra button on the blouse if they are trying to attract your interest. Evidence for the exposed feet thing as cryptically exibitionistic or sexual in places like Iran and Pakistan is thin on the ground. The religious police in Iran when it was super strict were very definitely intolerant of bare ankles though.

My impression is that in all times and places ankles being exposed has been considered a far more sexually provocative look than bare feet. "Barefoot and pregnant" is a saying that denotes a downtrodden dowdy type rather than a temptress. A much older saying is "a well-turned ankle", which dates from the early 17th century. Maybe a well flexed ankle was what they meant.

V E Lane "VEL - The Contemporary Heretic" said...

It's definitely a strange phenomenon given that, unlike other fetishes, feet have no obvious connection to sex and aren't especially dimorphic.

I would only add that, from my own extensive research on the topic (i.e. watching lots of porn), it seems that foot fetishism is often linked with a submissive BDSM-type fetish, related to the idea of prostrating oneself and grovelling at the dominant partner's feet.