Sneezing fetishism has caught the fleeting attention of the Internet before. In 2011, for example, Gawker poked fun at posts about the disaster movie Contagion on the Internet forum SneezeFetishForum.org (SFF). ABC took stock of the phenomenon a few years prior. But few have tried to understand sneezing fetishism beyond a knee jerk reaction to its oddity.
It’s true—sneezing fetishism exists. But if we suspend our initial disbelief at this fact, we can start to ask some more interesting questions about the sexualization of sneezing, questions like: Where did this fetish come from? How did we discover it? And how can something like a sneeze ever be sexy?
Most forms of sexual fetishism have textual footprints that predate the Internet. Nineteenth-century sexologists like Richard von-Krafft-Ebing, Havelock Ellis, and Magnus Hirschfeld collected hundreds of case histories of fetishism in their massive tomes on sexual variation. But sneezing fetishists are nowhere to be found in the archive, which is unfortunate because they’d probably love to collect some dust.
In the late 20th century, fetishists began to publish newsletters about their own interests. There were newsletters for foot fetishism, latex fetishism, amputee fetishism, and even a newsletter called Razor’s Edge for men with a fetish for women with shaved heads. But still, nary a newsletter for the sniffling enthusiast.
It’s taken the advent of the Internet and social media for us to even realize that sneezing fetishists exist. And sneezing fetishists themselves didn’t find each other until the days of AOL, either.
As one sneezing fetish Webmaster writes, “Interest in sneezing showed itself on the web in 1995 in the form of messages on newsgroup[s] for fetishes in general.” By 1999, she estimates, there were only about 400 sneezing fetishists online spread across various chat rooms and forums. Today, SFF, which seems to be the premier web destination for anyone with this proclivity, has a membership of nearly 3,500. A surprisingly large number of these posters are women, too—Freud theorized that only men could develop a fetish but he never had any of the SFF ladies on his couch.
The size of this co-ed SFF user base still pales in comparison to the membership numbers of Internet forums for more popular sexual fetishes like foot fetishism or even diaper fetishism. Given the way the Internet tends to magnify even the smallest of niches, this must mean that sneezing fetishism is one of the rarest of all sexual interests.
But still, a few thousand people being into the same thing can’t be just a fluke. So what’s sexy about sneezing? There’s an old myth that 10 sneezes in a row is the equivalent to an orgasm and although it’s nowhere near true, the physiological parallels between sneezing and orgasm are hard to ignore.
In addition to having an unpronounceable job title, an otorhinolaryngologist—better known as an “ENT”—is someone who studies ear, nose, and throat conditions. Otorhinolaryngologists Murat Songu and Cemal Cingi describe sneezing as a “reflex [that] may be divided into two phases.” In the first “sensitive phase,” the “nasal mucosa” are stimulated by “chemical or physical irritants,” which, in turn, cause neural stimulation that increases until it reaches a “threshold.” In layman’s terms, this threshold is the moment when you realize you have to sneeze and start to move your hand to your nose.
The second phase of the sneeze—which Songu and Cingi refer to as “the efferent or respiratory phase”—“consists of eye closing, deep inspiration, and then a forced expiration with initial closing of the glottis, and increasing intrapulmonary pressure.” Finally, the action commonly known as a sneeze is a “sudden dilation of the glottis [that] gives rise to an explosive exit of air through the mouth and nose, washing out mucosal debris and irritants.”
An orgasm is a reflex that follows a similar physiological pattern: an initial sensitivity and an increase in stimulation up to a threshold— called a “plateau” in this scientific context—which gives way to a release in the form of a palpable bodily response: muscle contractions, elevated heart rate, and, for men, ejaculation. In fact, American sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer once famously demystified the orgasm by saying, “An orgasm is just a reflex, like a sneeze.”
That doesn’t mean, of course, that orgasms and sneezes act in the same way in terms of arousal but perhaps there’s something about this rollercoaster ride of tension and release that sneezing fetishists understandably find appealing. When one member of SFF tries to describe how it feels for him to sneeze, for example, he sounds as if he’s recounting an orgasm: “It’s hard to describe exactly what I feel, but it’s sort of a combination of release, relief, excitement and relaxation all rolled into one.” Another waxes euphemistic: “The physical act of sneezing (buildup, release, good feeling afterwards to put it in a shorter format) is similar to something else.”
Like the otorhinolaryngologists, too, SFF members divide the sneeze up into two phases: “buildup” and release,” or, as one puts it, “aaaahs” and “chooooooooooo[s].” Some folks on the forum prefer the buildup—“The gasping breaths, the heaving chest, and the look of desperation as they try to fight it”—and others prefer the release—“I think I enjoy the release more, as long as it’s a nice, intense, consonant-filled release and not an outdrawn, vowel-filled one.”
That’s not the only divide in the sneezing fetish community. There are also competing preferences for “sudden” versus “drawn-out” sneezes, “loud and proud” versus “quiet” sneezes, and for sneezing oneself versus watching other people sneeze.
Some sneezing fetishists also have a soft spot for stifled sneezes—which can be unhealthy, by the way—and within this sub-group, there are idiosyncratic weaknesses for different types of stifles: “clean, cute stifles,” “loud stifles,” “failed stifles,” “successful stifles,” “silent stifles.” To each their own, apparently.
But by far the most controversial kind of sneeze on SFF is the so-called “false alarm,” when someone builds up to a sneeze but never follows through. For some, this is the sneezing fetish equivalent of a good striptease. Others are not amused and deem it “disappointing.”
Throughout sneezing fetish corners of the web, there’s also a focus on the loss of control that accompanies a sneeze. As one early sneezing fetish Webmaster wrote: “Nobody can hide who they are when they sneeze; for just that one second, they allow us a glimpse of something they can’t hide, something they can’t stop. It’s beautiful—very sexy.”
In this respect, sneezing fetishism shares some common territory with BDSM even if it might be hard to picture Christian Grey getting off on a case of the sniffles.
But none of this answers the question of how a sneezing fetish comes to be. From the very first writing on sexual fetishism, psychologists have theorized that fetishes have roots in a singular childhood experience. As Freud wrote, “The choice of a fetish is an after-effect of some sexual impression, received as a rule in early childhood.”
Most SFF members have had the fetish since childhood and many can recall specific incidents in which they made powerful erotic associations with sneezing. For example, woman writes: “I watched the Count on Sesame Street, counting flower pots and sneezing after each one. MAN, that felt SO GOOD!” (For reference, the Count sneezes seven times.)
But Freud also theorized that the sex drive is initially “polymorphously perverse”—meaning that it’s naturally inclined to wander into all sorts of strange territory—so it’s hard to know the true significance of these etiological moments. His explanation of normal heterosexuality, after all, is at least ten times more convoluted than his account of fetishism.
And while sneezing fetishism might be fun for the “normal” to gawk at, it’s also a richly textured erotic world full of mysteries that have yet to be explored. It’s more than just a weird fixation, it’s a complex but rare form of human sexuality. So to all the sneezing fetishists out there who have put up with the Internet’s exotifying gaze these past few years: Bless you.