Head Over Heels

Indian foot fetishists flock to e-commerce websites

Indian foot fetishists have been scouring online retail portals such as OLX, Quikr and eBay looking for used clothing and footwear. {{name}}
01 October, 2016

A few months ago, I put a pair of six-inch black-and-blue heels up for sale on OLX, an online platform for local classified ads. I had bought them on impulse for Rs 7,800 and, after teetering around the house in them once, decided to sell them for Rs 6,000. To my surprise, within a couple of hours, I had more than 30 messages in my inbox. Surprise turned into bewilderment when I realised that the vast majority of the prospective buyers seemed to be men, who were all interested in knowing just how used my heels were. To initial queries, I responded that my heels were “worn once only,” had “no scratch or mark” and were “as good as new.” I never heard from those people again.

The initial rejections made it clear that these men were looking for significantly used footwear. Then the messages started becoming more explicit, and things began falling into place. Some used euphemisms: “I am a collector of worn footwear. If works out could pay for two pairs monthly.” Others were more on the nose: “I need that stink”—of feet. “Could you smell and confirm?” Finally, one of the interested buyers, who insisted that he was a “decent guy with a good upbringing,” spelt it out for me. “It seems you haven’t heard of foot or shoe fetish,” he wrote. “It might seem berserk to you but surprisingly, it is common.”

He was right. Foot fetish, a strong sexual interest in feet, is indeed very common. In the last few years, the advent of websites for sale of second-hand products in India has inadvertently provided a platform for the trade of used clothing and footwear for fetish purposes. The country’s obscenity laws and the threat of violence from social vigilantes make it impossible to carry out such trade openly, which is why it is impossible to determine the size of this market.

In many countries, however, the fetish trade is a thriving, structured business. For instance, Tokyo has vending machines that dispatch “used” panties (which are not actually used, but manufactured to look and smell used). In the West, there are multiple sites that exclusively trade used and unwashed footwear, socks, inner-wear and gym wear.

I began chatting with some of the men who had responded to my ad, asking them questions about their lives. For their part, they kept trying to convince me to sell my footwear and other clothing. “If you don’t mind, swimwear or that stuff … may pay 500 upto 800 for the same,” one of them said. The deal stood for any garment that had the “aura of your smell.”

One of the fetishists, Kamal, with whom I had been chatting for almost a month, opened up about his life. Currently in his late twenties, he told me that he had just been accepted by an American university for a masters course. Kamal realised his love for female feet, shoes and their smell during primary school. “I remember a feeling that the sight of girls’ bare feet invoked during my music classes,” he told me over the phone.

In his teens, Kamal found out, thanks to the internet, that he was a foot-fetishist. He convinced a childhood friend to give him her used and broken footwear, which she would otherwise throw away. “She has never asked me what I do with her footwear,” he said. Kamal told me he is not attracted to the friend, who has been giving him her footwear for over a decade. “It’s just the footwear, its smell and taste that intoxicates me.”

Indian foot fetishists have been scouring online retail portals such as OLX, Quikr and eBay looking for used clothing and footwear. {{name}}

Surfing e-commerce websites such as OLX, Quikr and Ebay hasn’t worked out as well for Kamal. Only once in a while is he able to buy used footwear through such sites. In fact, multiple fetishists I spoke to told me that the websites prohibit and remove listings with any sexualised content. In what seemed to be evidence of the stigma and apprehension around the subject, none of the officials from these companies I contacted answered my questions directly, and instead pointed me to the general policy rules on their websites.

One fetishist, who enjoys dirty socks, put me in touch with a woman, a human-resources professional in her late twenties, who regularly sells her shoes and stockings to strangers. Though we had a brief meeting in a coffee shop, she was too uncomfortable to talk in the setting. Later, she opened up to me over the phone.

In 2013, she was a graduate student on a scholarship at a prestigious college in the United Kingdom. An evening shift in a restaurant after classes barely allowed her to stay afloat in the country. Then, she stumbled upon the online fetish market. She discovered many websites that “did not allow this kind of trade, but also allowed” it; their policies stated that they didn’t support the trade of fetish items, but they also didn’t pull down her ads. The money she earned through selling her smelly pantyhose allowed her to stay in London for two extra months, while she hunted for and found a job.

Early this year, the HR professional came to work in the India office of her UK-based employer. Out of curiosity, she decided to look for the fetish market in the country. Her initial explorations led her to believe that there was no such thing.

Quikr’s official policy, she read, prohibits “Offensive material intended for use in a sexual setting (including ‘bondage’ and ‘fetish’ items).” Ebay India bans the sale of used underwear such as briefs, panties, thongs and athletic supporters, monitors the content of listings—the descriptions and images—and clearly states, “Used articles of clothing marketed or described as well-worn fetish items are strictly prohibited.” What’s more, none of the ads on popular sites seemed targeted at fetishists.

But when she put up an ad, she was surprised to get responses from dozens of men who were specifically looking for used footwear. She found Indian men to be a lot more “confused and desperate.” “Every person I spoke to felt that he was the only weirdo,” she said. “But there are hundreds of them.”

Indian foot fetishists have been scouring online retail portals such as OLX, Quikr and eBay looking for used clothing and footwear. {{name}}

Eventually, she came to an arrangement with a man, whom she calls “Mr Shakespeare” for his archaic and florid English. “Rs 20,000 for two used shoes, one running tights, and three stockings every other month,” she said. “The best set-up I’ve ever had.”

One afternoon, the HR professional was watching the American television series Orange is the New Black with a few friends. At one point in the show’s second season, the protagonist, Piper Chapman, starts a successful fetish business selling used panties and bras from inside prison. This led to a trail of “eww,” “chee” and “yuck” in the room. She did not react.