erogenous zones

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erogenous zones are those areas of the body that arouse sexual desire. Erogenous has two general meanings. The first refers to the genitals or breasts, which when stimulated produce pleasurable sensations in their owner. The phrase ‘erogenous zones’ was coined near the end of the nineteenth century and used in the early twentieth century by some psychologists to describe how simple pressure to these parts of the body could arouse complete orgasm in what were defined as ‘hysterical persons’ (generally understood to be women). The second general meaning of the phrase, to be dealt with at some length here, refers to a visual phenomenon associated with clothing and body adornment. For cultural anthropologists, erogenous zones are those areas of the female body which men find sexually arousing and which women alter or adorn to attract the male eye.

Erogenous zones vary from culture to culture and over time. Asian men prize the nape of the neck while Europeans are unique in their fixation on the waist. In defiance of common sense, the genitals rarely become erogenous zones. Suggestion is more arousing than exposure so male desire is displaced from the vulva to parts of the body like the mouth or the foot which symbolize or resemble it. Humans then increase this likeness through body painting, cosmetics, mutilation, or other procedures. Western women paint their lips bright red, enhancing the resemblance to the labia. Aristocratic Chinese women bound their feet so that these tiny, curled appendages more closely resembled the vulva. All societies alter erogenous zones to make them more ‘beautiful’ or prominent. Polynesians tattooed the thighs and buttocks of nubile girls; Africans scarred them. Both procedures were designed to exaggerate the secondary sexual characteristics, thereby helping the girl attract a mate. Westerners have not escaped this tendency to ‘perfect’ nature. In the nineteenth century, tight-laced corsets produced bulging hips and buttocks that made women more ‘feminine’ — that is, erotic.

When not laced, bound, stretched, pierced, or tattooed, erogenous zones are usually concealed or only partially exposed. In his influential study, The Psychology of Clothes (1930), psychoanalyst J. C. Flugel observed that bare flesh is boring. Male curiosity is sustained by veiling the erotic site, by covering and exhibiting it at the same time. In Africa and Polynesia, scarring and tattooing performed this function: erogenous zones appeared covered but were naked on a second glance. In the West, clothes perform this function, for they conceal while drawing attention to the erotic site. For example, heavy skirts concealed European women's legs for centuries, while colourful or decorated petticoats directed the eye to the feet and ankles. This ploy was so successful that Victorian men became fainthearted at the sight of a well-turned ankle. Then legs lost their sexual allure when hemlines rose after World War I. Female legs were exposed for the first time in centuries and the erogenous zone moved elsewhere, to the back in the 1930s and the breasts in the 1950s.

Erogenous zones should be distinguished from sexual fetishes. According to Freud, a fetish is an inappropriate object (a shoe for example) that is substituted for a woman and used for sexual gratification. An erogenous zone is a body part (a foot, for instance) that arouses sexual curiosity and draws a man's attention to the whole female body. Fetishism is an individual personality disorder, while erogenous zones are sexual preferences shared by most men at a given time or place. Fetishes belong to the science of psychopathology while erogenous zones belong to the social world of costume and fashion.

It was in fact a dress historian, James Laver, who first discussed ‘shifting erogenous zones’ in the 1930s. He used this concept to explain fashion or rapid changes in female dress. Influenced by psychoanalyst Flugel, Laver argued that women are born exhibitionists whose social subordination forces them to acquire male protection. Consequently, women dress mainly to attract men, and in order to do so they emphasize their erogenous zones by means of their attire. Male sexual curiosity is, however, highly unstable. Men quickly tire of a given erogenous zone and move on to other feminine body parts. Women must follow and adopt a new form of dress. The instability of male sexual curiosity means that women's dress is in a constant state of flux. This change of fashion and its dictates are directly related to shifting erogenous zones.

Unlike women, modern men have escaped the tyranny of fashion. In medieval and early modern times, male dress was opulent and highly erotic, as the Renaissance codpiece attests. Around 1800 male dress changed: men forswore exhibitionism and renounced brightly coloured, erotic attire. This ‘Great Male Renunciation’, as Flugel called it, produced the sober, undemonstrative suit, which two hundred years later men still wear. Male attire is impervious to fashion because it is indifferent to sexual display or allure: it need not follow shifting erogenous zones.

For fifty years, historians accepted this version of costume history and believed that shifting erogenous zones fuelled fashion. Then in the 1980s a new generation of costume scholars (most of them women) challenged the old theory. Art historians insisted that costume was a part of a broader visual culture and obeyed the same laws as painting or architecture. Feminists pointed to the sexism that underlay Flugel and Laver's theories and argued that women dressed to please themselves as much as to please men. Costume historians observed that fashion always produces its opposite anti-fashion and menswear, appearances notwithstanding, conveys subtle but strong erotic messages. All these scholars agreed that sexuality was not the primary motive for dress. People dress, the young scholars insisted, to express themselves, to project their ideal self image, to display their political views, to signal their racial and national identity, and to assert their social position. In the new costume history, sexuality still shapes costume; dress is too close to the skin to avoid it. But the erogenous zone no longer dictates fashion nor serves as the only explanation for the human compulsion to decorate, ornament, and alter the body.

Kate Norberg


Steele, V (1985). Fashion and eroticism: ideals of feminine beauty from the Victorian era to the Jazz Age. Oxford University Press, New York.
Wilson, E. (1985). Adorned in dreams. Virago, London.

See also body decoration; body mutilation and marking; buttocks; fashion; fetishism; scars; tattoo.