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Bite Those Nails, Baby: A “Quick” Tale of Fingernail Fetishism

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Suum cuique pulchrum est—“to each his own is beautiful.” For an otherwise normal, 23-year-old male patient described by the Wisconsin psychiatrist Austin McSweeny in 1972, the most arousing sexual fantasy was the image of an obese woman nibbling at her nails. And so be it. One man’s bad habit is another’s erotica. The trouble, however, was that the patient, presumably a virgin who’d never been in any sort of romantic relationship, wasn’t comfortable with his “onychophilia” (fingernail fetishism). After all:

He could [only] become sexually aroused and experience penile erection by seeing or fantasizing the fingernails of a woman as they were being bitten by her. Occasionally, the mere sight of a woman’s severely bitten fingernails would cause the patient to experience a spontaneous erection … When the patient experienced the proper fetish situation, he could masturbate to the point of ejaculation and experience gratification. This was his only means of expressing his sex drive.

The psychotherapist’s request for the man to picture heterosexual intercourse or a vagina in his mind’s eye was enough to make him vomit. As with another Daily Deviant, our belly-button enthusiast from before, this man was a partialist. That is, his primary carnal longings were for a specific body part, one other than the run-of-the-mill private parts. Just as those of us who aren’t partialists can be said to have certain “tastes” in sexual partners—say, having a preference for blondes over brunettes, or, all else equal, going for tall over short, and so on—his taste in nails was for well-bitten ones attached to pudgy hands.

As with the developmental origins of any fetish or paraphilia, this man’s obsession with nail biting was something of a mystery. At thirteen, his mother tried to get him to suckle from her breasts (she was, at the time, lactating for his newborn brother). The patient described his mother as a “very domineering, dishonest, unaffectionate, overprotective woman.” Having a piece of work like this for a female archetype, McSweeny surmises, likely had something to do with the man’s present sexual issues. “His mother’s fingernails were always well-manicured, long, slender and carefully polished,” writes the author:

He felt that there was a connection between these physical aspects of his mother and the fact that he was disturbed by slender women and by long, narrow, well-manicured fingernails. Conversely, he was attracted to wide, short, bitten fingernails, and he was of the opinion that women looked best if they were obese.

Ah, but there was a gay twist in the case, as there so often is once one goes down the twisted rabbit hole of neo-Freudian sleuthing. It seems that a year before that unnerving incident with his mother’s swollen breasts, the patient had had his first serious crush on a classmate. And, rather surprisingly, it was for another boy—a boy who, it turns out, was a chronic nail-biter. “At that time,” McSweeny tells us, “he employed a masturbation fantasy of his chum in the act of biting his fingernails.”

It’s worth considering how much may have gone unsaid in these sessions regarding the subject’s suppressed same-sex desires. The fingernail fetishist “wanted nothing to do” with homosexuality. This was one of his primary concerns, and much of the therapeutic exchange involved the man’s strenuous efforts to convince himself of his own masculinity. (It was 1972, bear in mind, so a year before the APA officially declassified homosexuality as a psychiatric disorder.) The patient reluctantly confessed to McSweeny how, sometimes, he grew aroused by certain men’s gnawed-on fingernails, too. In my opinion, the overwhelming nausea experienced by the patient upon being asked to visualize a vagina may be as much a reflection of his underlying homosexuality as it is a product of his fingernail fetishism.

Nevertheless, the psychiatrist claimed success in addressing the man’s wet fingernail-related dreams through hypnosis. With a few choice hypnotic suggestions deposited in the patient’s somnambulant brain (such as, “not all women are your mother,” and “the feminine sex organs are not dangerous and need not be frightening or repugnant”), his passion for promiscuous cuticles seemed to dry up somewhat. The man even became engaged to an overweight lady who he’d given the (obviously psychodynamic) nickname “Big Mamma,” insisting she keep her nails cut short. Yet, “although the patient achieved a rather dramatic change in his sexual behavior,” McSweeny admits, “he was not experiencing ejaculation during intercourse.”

Now, call me a cynic—or perhaps a romantic, depends on how you look at it, I suppose—but I have a sneaking suspicion that, were we to track down this long-forgotten fingernail fetishist today, we’d be greeted at the door by a puzzled man busily biting his nails and asking why on earth we’re asking to see his boyfriend.

Suum cuique pulchrum est.

I discuss paraphilias like this one, and much, much more, in my new book Perv: The Sexual Deviant in All of Us, which will release on October 8, 2013. Follow me @jessebering (#DailyDeviant). For more on all things deviant, and to find out if I’ll be visiting a city near you for the Perv book tour, visit www.jessebering.com.

Jesse Bering About the Author: Jesse Bering is Associate Professor of Science Communication at the University of Otago in New Zealand. He is the author of The Belief Instinct (2011), Why Is the Penis Shaped Like That? (2012) and Perv (2013). To learn more about Jesse's work, visit www.jessebering.com or add him on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/jesse.bering). Follow on Twitter @JesseBering.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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