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This is part of our Taboo Series.

When I was a teen, I happened on an article by a guy explaining his fetish for having girls kick him in the nuts. 

When he was a teenager chumming around with friends by the local 7-11, he’d insulted a girl who promptly kneed him in the groin. He was in agony, yes—but it also supplied him with an erection. The rest is kink history. 

My mind raced to understand this mind-body connection, and sexual fetishes have fascinated me ever since.

A lifelong bibliophile, I was pretty well-read for a teenager, collecting magazines and books of many stripes to fill my Minnesota days during the dark and glacial winter. Head outside in -20 degrees windchill wearing 20 layers of clothing to go sledding or skiing? No thanks. Stay inside where I can be safe from frostbitten fingers to read Newsweek, Entertainment Weekly, and books on true crime? Now there’s my happy place. So armed with a newfound interest in atypical sexuality, or paraphilia, I started reading more on psychology and human sexuality, then focused on the social sciences in college.

Just like phobias, paraphilias were intriguing because I didn’t understand how they originated in a person.  Both are about feeling typically healthy responses to atypical things. Run in fright screaming when an ax-wielding clown appears from behind a bush and people will think you’re normal. Run in fright screaming when you see a cardboard cut-out of a clown and people might wonder if you’re high on bath salts. Unlike phobias, though, I didn’t have any paraphilias. I understood my entomophobia, for the most part—that would be bugs—which helped me grasp phobias in general. But paraphilias were totally strange to me.

Fast forward almost 20 years when I started my sex and relationship advice blog The Naked Advice. As a secular humanist, I was concerned about all of the myths and misinformation around sexuality, romantic relationships, and marriage among young people who’d received these false ideas from their religions. I added a YouTube channel to reach more people. Along with answering readers’ questions, which varied in spiciness from Dear Abby to Dan Savage, I made videos exploring specific fetishes. And by “exploring,” I mean discussing from a psychological point of view, albeit while role-playing for what I hoped would be entertainment value. YouTube is a visual medium, after all. It seemed like paraphilias were ignored by other advice bloggers and YouTubers, so I hoped it would give me an edge and fulfill a niche that needs to be destigmatized.

Rather than jump right to the kick in the nuts, I started with the humble foot fetish.

Why Do Some Guys Have Foot Fetishes?” is still my most-viewed video, currently at over 1 million views. It’s not my best video, to be frank, since I was still learning how to be comfortable in front of a camera and had trouble remembering my script literally seconds after reading it. Plus, I was rocking a bad haircut after a visit with a new hairstylist who must’ve also been very new at haircutting. Nonetheless, I still receive tons of comments on it by men confirming or challenging the studies I mentioned and sharing their personal insights. Recently, some dude going by “Lewis 970” wrote “As a male with a foot fetish, big feet are a turn-off. I love, love, love small petite dainty lady feet.” 

Thanks for sharing, Lewis!

It seemed like paraphilias were ignored by other advice bloggers and YouTubers, so I hoped it would give me an edge and fulfill a niche that needs to be destigmatized.

Rather than jump right to the kick in the nuts, I started with the humble foot fetish.

What came with those views was an avalanche of men with podophilia (oh, the difference one letter makes) writing to request pictures and videos of my soles. I didn’t just gain more insight about foot fetishes when I made that video, I also learned I have pretty feet. This was news. I used to think my feet were big for my height and body size. My mom wears a size 5 1/2 shoe, I wear 7 1/2, and we’re both only around 110 pounds and 5’ 3” tall.  Sorry, Lewis!

A second video quickly followed in which I answered a letter from a guy with a foot fetish asking me how to deal with friends who taunt him. “Advice For Guy With Foot Fetish,” which also quickly clocked a million views.

I had clearly stumbled into A Thing.

This boosted my exposure and led to more emails from guys lending me their take on what “caused” their fetishes to develop.

“Cause” belongs in quotes because there’s no consensus among experts on the etiology; some say it’s nature, some say nurture. Whatever the case, the theories experts propose are engrossing to read and provide an in-depth analysis of human evolution and psychology.

A compelling theory was put forth by V.S. Ramachandran, a neuroscientist who studied Phantom Limb Syndrome among amputees. Everyone has what’s called a “body image map” in their brain, where each brain region is associated with a different part of the body. He discovered that some foot amputees reported feeling sexual pleasure in their feet, and as it happens, the brain region associated with our genitals is adjacent to the region linked to our feet. Ramachandran proposed that those two areas of the brain are linked in those with podophilia. 

One particular guy begged me to Skype with him while having my feet propped up in front of the camera and teasing him by telling him how “smelly and sweaty” my feet were. Even though my personal hygiene is pristine, lying for the major bucks this chap was offering was not off the table—at least at first. I was beginning to resent how many people were assuming my channel doubled as a fetish service, but I also thought, “What’s the harm in making some extra money on the side?” YouTube had de-monetized many of my videos because I covered adult subject matter, so the potential to earn ad revenue disintegrated. I set up the Skype after receiving his payment and made it so I was incognito—then promptly never did it again. It was a disaster. I felt ridiculous describing my feet in falsely putrid ways and annoyed at his insistence on feeding me the lines he wanted me to say. 

Before this dude, I had no clue how many sub-kinks existed under the umbrella of podophilia. Along with foot fetishists like him who become aroused by the natural odor feet emit after a day of wearing sockless shoes, there are the foot fetishists who get off on watching a woman use her feet to step on things (“crush” fetishes), like her high heels flattening a cigarette butt on the cement sidewalk. There are the ones aroused by female domination (often shortened to “FemDom”), so worshipping at her feet goes with the territory. And the ones who love it when a woman uses her feet to kick his testicles, like the writer who ignited my intellectual curiosity all those years ago. In the comments for my YouTube video discussing ball-busting fetishes, a lot of men mention they watch movie clips and real videos of women bringing a man to his knees in pain in lieu of participating themselves. They cite the desire to protect the family jewels plus saving money: apparently it takes some major dough to convince an attractive woman to assault you unprovoked. 

At some point, I gave in to all the extra dollar bills these guys were offering and set up an OnlyFans where I could create content catering to foot fetishes (as well as a few others, but that’s for another time). I was an outsider in the fetish world, reporting on what psychologists and sexologists say, but having no personal experience from which to draw insight. Starting the OnlyFans changed all that. 

Being a sexual free-spirit and artist, my husband had no qualms about helping me research my newfound endeavors. I’d already been his model for a few years by the time this all came to play, so my work was an extension of the fine art nude and implied nude photography we’d already created. Being comfortable in my skin and acting while modeling to perform in shifting themes prepared me for the role-playing involved with my OnlyFans work. My husband gamely signed up to photograph me, help me film and edit videos, find costumes and props, and laugh with me when I’d fumble my lines for a video. 

The heartwarming part of all this is the scores of emails and comments I’ve received over the years from men thanking me for debunking myths surrounding their paraphilias and telling them not to feel shame. Our uptight culture and conservative religions shame people for typical sexual desires, so of course it’s even worse for people with atypical desires that hurt no one. If there’s anything religions tend to be good at, it’s sticking their noses into harmless, consensual sex between adults that isn’t their particular thing—at least not publicly. That’s why seculars should make a special point of validating the whole spectrum of consensual sexuality. 

The bottom line: if someone’s kink seems weird to you, it doesn’t mean they deserve ridicule and shaming. Ask if it’s hurting anyone. If the answer is no, there is no next question.

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Liz LaPoint is a bibliophile, sexuality researcher, writer, atheist, secular humanist, producer of The Naked Advice YouTube channel, model, wife, and mom.