Having given up on finding any sort of steady work in the nadir of the recession, Jemez sat on the couch in our basement apartment that looked like the inside of a boat, laptop open, and cruised Craigslist for gigs. She’d struggled to make ends meet ever since she drove across the country — leaving D.C. in the middle of the night after her ex choked her out — to Oakland, CA to stay with me. I tried to pick up odd jobs too. I was living with roommates in a small apartment, juggling a full course load and crew practice. Cash was tight and space was tight, but Jem had to come. She’s my family. Whatever I have is hers, wherever I am, she could be.
We’d become friends in middle school in Albuquerque. Over the years, we’d gone through a lot of shit together — growing up as abused kids, me dropping out of college in LA after being raped, her severing ties with her unstable family members, me leaving my controlling ex’s place in New York, and both of us starting and stopping various drugs — and that’s not half of it.
She looked up from her laptop and grinned at me. “Want to make 50 bucks an hour doing foot stuff?”
I laughed. This sounded like exactly the kind of dumb shit we do together. While we’d spent most of our lives living on opposite coasts, but whenever we were together, it was like we had our own language. Our own vibration. I feel it every time we are in each others’ presence; I am a little bit shinier, I can see the words we speak to each other glazing the air like fire, our faces lit by each other. We create a force-field around us, for us, our own universe.
That intimacy led us to believe, subconsciously and yet simultaneously, that nothing bad could happen to us when we were together. It still feels like that, even when I know, logically, that that isn’t the case.
A consequence of that belief was that we tended to take more risks together than either of us would on our own. So, when Jem asked me to go to some stranger’s house to do this, it didn’t seem risky, it seemed hilarious. Besides, we were curious.
“You basically just lie there and he does things to your feet. But like, whatever, it’s my feet, it’s not real sex. I’ll just be chillin,’ taking a nap, you know? He’ll even pay for regular pedicures.”
She showed me the Craigslist ad. It said he’d give foot massages. That sounded amazing, too. “We’ll keep our clothes on and everything.”
Jem and I considered ourselves relatively well-informed about kinks, but for us, they existed on a spectrum from sexy to comical, with leather and some bondage on the sexier side, and things like puppy play and furries on the other. Foot fetishes seemed to be on the funnier side, and there was security in “not getting it”. For two girls who frequently felt like freaks growing up, it was reassuring to point the finger elsewhere.
What was the deal with men and feet?
There are theories that the origins of foot fetishism lie within the brain, that the regions of the brain associated with feet get crossed with those associated with sensory processing of genital stimulation.
Neuroscientists use a map to show where sensation from a body part registers in the brain, called a somatosensory homunculus. It shows one-fourth of the brain with limbs melting around the outer edge like candle wax. The body parts are arranged closest to the part of the brain that receives sensations from them. The larger the body part, the more nerves it has. The order of the body is roughly upside down relative to the brain, with feet towards the top of the crown. Hands are enormous, bigger than all other parts by an order of magnitude, followed by the face. While the body goes from feet towards the head, the face is turned up, as though someone in a handstand lifted their head to look at you. Large eyes, giant nose, huge lips, and finally the tongue, massive and pointed towards the ground.
In the sensory homunculus, at the top of the brain, the feet and genitals are right next to each other.
I told Jem I’d do it.
She made all the arrangements. The plan was to show up together on Saturday, stay for an hour, take our money and that would be that.
Leading up to the day, nervous and uneasy, I stayed busy to distract myself. Crew practice, classes, homework, hanging out with Jem and her stoner friends from her most recent job at the skate shop. Even Jem didn’t know that, I’d been self-conscious and sensitive about my feet for years.
From about 5th grade on, I was the tallest girl in class, and often the largest shoe size among both boys and girls. I would cry when my mom took me shoe shopping, combing through the limited selection of shoes in my size trying to find something cute, embarrassed by the Cinderella routine of trying on pair after pair that were too small, asking for a larger size, only to find that the store doesn’t carry my size at all.
Big feet were for ugly stepsisters.
Over a decade later, I still hadn’t shaken the feeling that my feet were shorthand for my entire body — ugly, too large, and out of place. If I brought up feeling uncertain, Jem always knew what to say to play it down; it wasn’t a big deal, it didn’t count as sex work, that it was easy money, that it would make a good story. Jem would never let bad shit happen to me, that much I knew.
That Saturday, we got pedicures together. On Sunday, we both wore high heels to show off our painted toes. Even though we’d talked about how non-sexual this whole thing would be, part of me wanted to feel sexy, wanted this man to go wild over my feet in strappy silver stilettos. Jem seemed indifferent, although she too wore heels. I didn’t tell her about my insecurity, about my fear of being rejected by a stranger, of being declared too big and ugly for this.
Sunlight glanced off crisp, whitewashed pillars in front of the man’s apartment. His place looked nice, maybe even rich. He buzzed us in and as I entered the complex in my tight t-shirt, skinny jeans, and high heels, I flushed with self-consciousness. It reminded me of a walk of shame — the bright daylight, the inappropriate-for-the-hour clothes.
He answered the door wearing faded navy-blue sweatpants with a hole near the crotch. The hole stuck in my mind — I couldn’t see anything through it, the sweatpants were loose, but I wondered if this whole “no sex, no masturbation” thing was a lie. I didn’t mention it; I was in peak “see what happens” mode. Other than that, he was clean. Showered. Shaved. It turned out shoes weren’t his thing; he asked us to take them off in a soft-spoken, nervous voice, and then he gestured to the left, to the bathroom. We were instructed to wash our feet in the bathtub.
Washing my feet with my hands has always felt symbolic. In the Bible, Jesus washed the feet of his disciples as an act of humility. Many Christian denominations include foot-washing as part of religious practice, both to show humility and be Christ-like, and sometimes, to repent.
In 2011, archbishops in Dublin and Boston washed the feet of survivors who’d been abused by the clergy; those in power humbled themselves and elevated the abused. In Islam, washing one’s feet is the last step of wudu, the ablutions a Muslim performs before prayer, to be clean as we offer thanks, and ask for protection, or forgiveness.
I believe that the body is sacred, that sex can be a kind of prayer. I know that sex work is powerful work.
But I’m not sure I believed all that back then. I tried not to think about it as sex work, or even work at all, just a silly thing two girls were doing for money, for laughs. We never talked about the desperation, the constant fear that poverty carries. Jem used to carry cheap wrapped tacos in her purse “just in case” she couldn’t get food. School had not erased my needling worry about having a roof over my head next month, or the month after that. So we played it cool, when we talked about it at all, but by minimizing what we were doing, by treating it as though it didn’t count, I was unprepared for the emotional impact of coming there, by how complicated it felt.
As with wudu, I could have taken the preparation — the pedicure, the shoe selection, the foot washing — as ritual, as time to mentally prepare for a type of intimacy. I didn’t know what I needed to prepare for, and I wasn’t willing to admit that this interaction could be intimate.
As a result, I was sucker punched by shame.
As I took off my strappy heels, feeling stupid for wearing them only to have them not be involved in this at all, I noticed how dirty the tops and sides of my feet had gotten on the walk from Jem’s car to this apartment. The sidewalk was littered with rubbish and scum, and while I didn’t think I’d walked through piles of anything, I saw my toes had gray smudges on them, and the shoe straps had left ugly crease lines all over my feet.
I was ashamed to wash my feet for this man, ashamed of how dirty my feet were, and then ashamed that the only other time I washed my feet in this particular way was for religious reasons — me preparing for worship, for connecting to the Divine. To do so for a man, to help him use me to get off — no, not even me, just part of my body — felt like sin. Sin, something I didn’t think about, didn’t really believe in. I am not a religious person, but I was raised Muslim, and situations like this made me realize religion was still in my head, no less a part of me than my shadow. I am surprised as an adult at how much Islam has shaped my brain.
Feelings of sin and virtue appear thoughtlessly, the sun shines and I see they were there all along.
I had worked hard to refuse shame, especially shame connected to sex, so this shame, connected to the familiar ritual rather than a sexual interaction, felt strange and alarming as they emerged darkly on the surface of my mind as I prepared my feet for this man.
Ritual and worship have long been a part of fetishism. The word fetish is often used in the sexual sense, but it originally signified a human-made object, often part of a religious practice. It could be an amulet, a sculpture, a symbol.
The fetish object could be worn to give the wearer supernatural powers, or it could, while not empowering the wearer, protect them from others. In the case of sexual desire, the fetish object has the supernatural ability to arouse the fetishist. The relationship between the object and the subject is supernatural in the true sense of the word, beyond the constraints of “natural” or normative sexuality. The fetishist is under the spell of the object, sometimes unable to be aroused without it.
A fetish is inherently objectifying. That’s its whole thing. To fetishize, in the sexual sense, is to reduce the body to a fragment, to value the fragment over the whole, to desire the symbol or representation of the being in place of the being itself. The inanimate shoe, the disembodied foot. For the fetishist, relationships are inverted. The subjects — both the fetishist and the person whose body is being fetishized — are sublimated. The object, elevated. The fetish is the object with power.
As I washed my feet, I thought of how large they are, how indelicate I am, how unfeminine I felt no matter what I wore, how sad and heavy I felt at the possibility of this man rejecting them, and how pathetic I was for feeling sad and heavy at the possibility of rejection from someone I had no cause to care about.
Jem decided she would lay down in the bedroom. I took the couch — dark blue corduroy. I could feel the ridges of the fabric under my palms, itchy and soft, synthetic fluff. The guy had a bunch of weed on his coffee table. He rolled me a blunt. I laid down and sunk deep into the cushions. I smoked. He put on a record — jazz, maybe Miles Davis, something obvious, but still great. If it wasn’t what it was, if we weren’t there for why we were there, I could have easily hung out, the apartment had a great vibe. I remember thinking that I really liked his place.
He massaged my feet with soft, puffy hands. I was tingly from the weed. I felt embarrassed, like I should apologize for my feet. Jem had tiny doll feet, maybe I was monstrous in comparison. He told me people like all kinds of feet — some people were into really muscular feet with veins, some were into dirty feet. Flat feet, high arches, long toes. He told me to check out a bunch of YouTube videos with titles like Happy Feet or Sleepy Feet — feet getting tickled, feet on a bed, sticking out from under a blanket.
After a while, he went into the bedroom to massage Jem’s feet, and I could hear Jem’s voice. From her murmuring, I think she was ticklish. She wasn’t laughing, I could hear the tension in her voice. She sounded small and far away.
She later told me she’d pretended to be asleep.
Lying on the couch, alone and sluggish, I thought about how when I was being molested as a kid, I pretended to be asleep. If I was asleep, I didn’t have to confront the reality of what was happening. I’d freeze, and I hated my younger self for freezing. This wasn’t like that exactly, but the image of little me lying in bed meandered across my mind. I stared at the ceiling. The jazz played. I floated like smoke up out of my body.
At this man’s apartment, and later, hanging out with Jem, we kept joking about it — the things we do for money! — but I was not comfortable. I was “baseline-okay,” a phrase I use to describe recognizing something isn’t right, but that I’d maintained a level of emotional distance. The jokes weren’t as funny as they were supposed to be. Jem and I had told ourselves that since there was no penetration, no undressing, nothing we thought of as “real sex,” it didn’t count.
But the dissociation and shame were messages; my body and my brain were telling me that it did count, well before my conscious mind could process it.
In some ways, partialism, fetishes centered on parts of the body such as the feet, aligns with my experience of my body as an abuse survivor. I dissociate. For years it was very hard for me to feel fully present in my entire body; instead, I felt disconnected, severed from full sensation. I understand the body in pieces so much more easily than I can imagine experiencing mine whole.
My life’s healing work is to keep my mind present inside my body, and even when I think I’m doing great, I have moments when I realize I shut off hours ago.
For years, all sex was inherently partialist sex to me, in that I could not be fully present. Parts of my body did the feeling for all of me—my chest might feel shredded and raw while my legs felt cold and heavy, while my mind was stuck in the past, reliving trauma, or circling the room like a spirit outside my body, or, rarely, if I was lucky, there in that moment.
It was not possible to have sex with me as a whole person — parts of my body were present, other parts disappeared, not numb so much as vaporized, thin air.
My body and mind, in dissociation, are fragmented. The sensory homunculus of the abused girl is all floating pieces, disembodied, the neurological wiring in disarray as innervated parts go numb, eventually decreasing in nerve endings as she avoid touch.
This isn’t a metaphor — the effects of PTSD on the brain are well documented. The abused child’s brain develops differently, her body grows differently, the way a tree warps when it grows in high wind. The somatosensory cortex associated with the genitals is thinner, resulting in a lower pain threshold. At the same time, the brain of a sexually abused child may also reduce the connectivity of regions that were hurt — pieces of the body disconnected from each other, alone and raw.
The fetishist’s brain may be different too, though the research is sparse, and what little we know is almost exclusively limited to male brains. We don’t know how it starts, whether the brain is different from birth, or develops differently in early childhood. Some psychologists theorize that the fetish object is involved in someone’s earliest sexual experiences and the association between the object and arousal imprints on the brain. Children are small and low to the ground; they see shoes more often than faces.
Others suggest that feet become associated with sex because they are often being in the same visual field as the genitals when one is having sex. Fetishes are common throughout the world, and feet are the most common among them, suggesting fetishism may not be, as often stigmatized, an abnormality, so much as sexual diversity.
When he came back into the living room, I was staring at the ceiling, and I was on the ceiling, staring down at me. He rubbed my feet, and then he put them in his mouth. His tongue was thick and formless, like a warm sponge, and he ran it along my arch. He pulled and sucked on my toes, scraping them with his teeth.
He pulled back and started massaging my feet with his hands. I was on the ceiling, but the massage gradually pulled the entirety of me back into the only part of my body that was feeling. In that moment, my self as subject was indistinguishable from my feet as object, as though my entire self were packed tight into that center of sensation.
He exhaled smoke and I watched his mouth. The smoke rose and masked his face. I closed my eyes. It felt incredible. I wondered, a bit fearfully, if I was a foot queen — fearful because I didn’t want to have a fetish, for fear that I would be a weirdo or freak, that, as an abuse survivor there was something wrong with me, multiplied by ’wrong with me’ -ness of having a fetish. As he laced his hands between my toes, the fetishist told me about how foot fetishes are the most common in the world. Guys won’t admit it, he told me, but watch their eyes when they check you out. Most of them will look at your feet.
I said nothing at the time, but ever since then, I notice. He’s usually right.
The fetishist touched me in ways that were unexpected. Maybe the parts of me that get touched the least felt it the most, an abrupt inversion of my sensory norms, like when you step out of a dark room and suddenly everything is so bright. Suddenly the untouched body was receiving signal and sending messages to the brain, and the rest of me, the parts of me most commonly involved in touch, laid dormant.
Unused to the attention, my nerves were hypersensitive. The massage felt grounding, pulling me back into the body as I begin to dissociate. It was good and safe to be touched. I often feel a heavy kind of tired, an aching kind of untouched. I struggle to be present in my body. Because being sexualized was triggering to me, because the emphasis and desirability of breasts, ass, and vulva was unsafe for me, the attention of the fetishist provided a sexual interaction that felt safer. After all, when I was raped, my feet were not the center of attention.
He brought out a bowl of warm, soapy water, and a washcloth. He took my foot in his hand and washed slowly, with tenderness. I felt small but not in a bad way; I felt small and grateful, as though I was being taken care of, a feeling I have not had often. As a kid, I wasn’t able to be small and safe. As an adult, I struggle to let someone take care of me in any way. Here, he was paying me to let him treat me so gently. No, not me — I did not exist in that moment. I was only my feet to him, but he treated them so well.
Washcloth wrapped over his finger, he scrubbed my instep. He was completely focused, seeing my feet in a way I never could — his face was almost beatific. He handled me so carefully, as though I was, not too big or ungainly but rather, that I was delicate, as though I might break, and as though it were up to him to make sure I didn’t. I so often feel as though I might break. I so often want to be treated as though I were not, as I am often called, “tough.” As he wrung water out of the cloth and let it stream from my toe to my heel, the feeling can only be described as grace — a state of mutual gentleness, compassion.
To him I existed in sections, yet because he wasn’t paying attention to the rest of me, I was able to watch him, and to feel freely. He seemed small too, and grateful, almost deferential. I felt as though I had helped him a great deal and that felt good. I was not ashamed anymore.
There was no sin here.
Jem and I went back once or twice, and we eventually stopped as she found more regular work and I wrapped up my last year of college. I didn’t pursue it further. I’ve read so many stories where abuse survivors get into a fetish or kink and it helps them work through their trauma. This wasn’t that. I never went into it with the intention of working through trauma, and I’m not sure it would work for me even if I’d tried. The fetish work did not heal me, but unlike other sexual experiences I’d had that were technically consensual but very unhealthy, it did not re-traumatize me. I dissociated, but I was safe.
That’s something, right? Even if I didn’t know I would be safe, from one moment to the next? I’m still not sure. Survivors who don’t get help in some form put ourselves in risky situations, have trouble establishing boundaries, feel the need to please and have trouble recognizing bad situations, much less extricating ourselves from them. I know I need help “processing” or dealing with abuse and trauma, but what about the in-between?
There is a vast liminal space between what is harmful and what is healthy.
I sometimes feel as though I live in that space, and every time I think I’ve crossed into healthy territory, I open my eyes and see that I’m still in the middle of the ocean, trying to swim to the shore, waves pushing me back, and all that work to get to the other side was actually just keeping me in place, just far enough from self-harm, but not quite where everyone else seems to be.
While the fetishist elevates and objectifies a fragment over the whole body, and while the abused child numbs her mind and her body to survive, the body is inseparable from the brain. Even when I dissociate, even when parts of my body and mind seem completely disconnected, my body is still working — it assesses the present, it takes in a constant stream of information much faster than my thinking mind can. After all, in the sensory homunculus, the biggest parts of the illustration are those that take in light, sound, taste, and touch.
The body is always communicating. I am learning to listen.
As much as I want to be “over” abuse, it informs the way I experience the world, especially the sexual world. I cannot separate this consensual experience from the abusive experiences before it, and sexual abuse impacts both my comprehension and my physical experience of being fetishized. I cannot minimize intimacy just because it was unexpected and uncomfortable. I’ve come to understand that touch, no matter how nonsexual, is always intimate, because it means allowing someone access to my body, and my body is entirely mine.
My feet are long, and narrow. He said they were good feet.