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Monday, November 12, 2007

Savage Love Letter of the Day

posted by on November 12 at 13:38 PM

I come to you with a question about children’s psychosexual development. My son has always loved women’s feet—since he was two. I kid you not. He is now 5. The other night he was laying on the floor playing with my feet. He suddenly got up, face very red, and said he wanted to marry my feet! He also had an erection! I cannot tell you how odd this all is to me—I was never around boys much as a child, so sometimes I am bewildered by how they operate. I told him I loved him, but that marrying me and/or my feet would not work out. I let him know that he would find a nice person to marry one day, and gave him a hug and changed the subject. 1. Could you rate my response? 2. WHAT THE FUCK? So many questions are swirling in my head about his behavior, I don’t even know where to start. Is it common for young boys to be aroused by their mothers? Is he turning into a foot-fetishist? Was the erection purely random and just so happened to be at the same time as the foot playing? Does that seal the deal forever? I asked my husband and he was as confused and slightly embarassed as I was. Can you help? Anonymous


When I put the odds of a five-year old boy that liked musicals, makeup, dresses and Zac Efron growing up to be gay at 99%—you can read that column here—a couple of hundred thousand “Savage Love” readers attempted to rip me a couple of hundred thousand new assholes. After assuring me that they weren’t the least bit homophobic, these outraged readers peppered me with angry questions: What was I thinking?!?! Who was I to say the kid was gay?!?! Didn’t I know that not all kids that like musicals, makeup, dresses and male teen heartthrobs grow up to be gay?!?!

Well, yes. The ones that don’t account for the 1%. Like, duh.

So when this letter arrived I thought… hm… I wonder if I’ll get in as much shit when I tell this woman that there’s a 99% chance her son is going to grow up to be a foot fetishist? Probably not. Because despite the protests a lot of the people that wrote in to complain about my advice for the aunt of that five year-old boy were being homophobic. Just a tad.

The reaction I got to that column reminded me of a reaction I once got from friend at college. We were discussing another kid in our theater program—a good-looking guy that didn’t have a girlfriend and didn’t seem much interested in acquiring one. For that and other reasons I concluded that he was a fag, like me. When I told my non-homophobic friend what I thought, she rolled her eyes. “Oh, Dan,” she said. “Must you always think the worst of everyone?”

Even for many non-homophobic straights, believing someone to be gay—a five year-old boy with a crush on Zac Efron, a 19 year-old boy without a crush on anyone (who came out later that year)—remains the worst thing you could possibly think. When it comes to homosexuality, it seems, even avowed & admitted homosexuals are required to extend benefit of the doubt. Because it is a terrible thing to be gay or even be thought of as gay. So how dare I think that five year-old is gay?

Anyway, Anonymous…

1. Your response was perfect, spot-on. Well done. Bravo.

2. Your son will be a foot fetishist when he grows up. Hell, he’s a foot fetishist now. The deal is sealed—well, let’s say 99% sealed.

UPDATE: Anonymous is reading Slog right now. If you have some advice or insight for her, toss it up in comments.

RSS icon Comments


Dan, I'm honestly surprised you haven't riffed more heavily on this before.

Because you *never* hear: "How dare you say that little boy will grow up to be straight?!"

Toddlers are always being admonished for doing anything outside of the het/normal gender roles, but never a peep is said about behavior reinforcing the "norm".

You never hear a parent say to a very little girl - for example, a 3 year old pretending to be a princess so her prince can come sweep her away - "But honey, you might want a princess someday".

More's the pity.

Posted by Cassandra in Colorado | November 12, 2007 1:50 PM

And remember from the age of 1 to 16 or so the slightest breeze could give a boy a hard-on, so I wouldn't be too concerned that he is attracted to his mother.

Posted by boxofbirds | November 12, 2007 1:54 PM

er, make that 1 to 116...

Posted by boxofbirds | November 12, 2007 1:56 PM

Dan, you should have done more to tie the reponse with it being THE MOTHER'S FEET. Really, the entire incest thing should have been brought up. THAT would have freaked her out and made for GREAT entertaining reading for the rest of us!

Posted by Just Me | November 12, 2007 2:00 PM

Hahaha, that letter makes me want to have kids. They're so weird and unpredictable. (Don't worry, I won't.)

Having a foot fetishist for a son might make Anonymous a little uncomfortable and embarrassed, but at least it's not anything to really worry about. As long as the kid knows there's acceptable and unacceptable behavior in public, then I don't see how this could ever be a real problem.

Posted by Carollani | November 12, 2007 2:03 PM

One more item: Anyone who implies in ANYWAY being Gay is bad or an insult is by definition: HOMOPHOBIC!!!

Posted by Just Me | November 12, 2007 2:03 PM

i don't think it's his mother he's attracted to, just the feet...

yes, boyhood boners are a curse and just as confusing and horrifying to the kid as it is for the parents...and they hurt, too...

personally, I can recall being MUCH more interested in seeing dad, or any adult male naked, than in seeing any female naked, from a very young age 5.

and to the three or four right wing American Talibanist who monitor this column, no, i wasn't molested and there wasn't any so called "bad" gay influences around to "turn" me gay. It was the 60's and small town Nebraska. Unless watching too much "Bewitched" can make you gay or listening to Petula Clark sing "Downtown", (which WAS my favorite song; that and the Tijuana Brass on the Casino Royale soundtrack).

Posted by michael strangeways | November 12, 2007 2:06 PM

@2 More precisely, attracted to his mother's feet.

But keep in mind, he's 5. It isn't exactly the adult version of sexual attraction and all that implies.

And yes, Anonymous' response to the situation was spot-on.

And yes, little boys get erections pretty much at random. They don't even know why.

And then, of course, when little boys become teenagers, I don't think they ever *lose* their erection. Except maybe when someone points and laughs at them.

Posted by Toby | November 12, 2007 2:08 PM

that should have been, "TalibanistS"

Posted by michael strangeways | November 12, 2007 2:09 PM

To clarify in my previous post:

When I said "they don't even know why", I was referring to kids not knowing why. Its not really a conscious thing for them.

Posted by Toby | November 12, 2007 2:11 PM

Sensitive moms should do their best to ignore their baby boys' penises.

You do not want to know. Your world is pretty and neat. If you think too much about it, your baby boy's penis will illuminate some dark places of the world you don't wish to see.

Don't ever wonder why the laundry is still. Don't ever wonder how that hole got in the blanket. Don't notice when he stares blissfully at you when you change your clothes.

You're up against forces no sensitive mom can harness or control.

Tell Dad to talk to him when the time is right. Until then, just pretend it isn't there.

Posted by six shooter | November 12, 2007 2:18 PM

Little boys are in love with their mommies. Their mommy's hair, elbow, eyes, lips, and feet. Probably if he'd been sitting next to you and you were in short sleeves, he would have wanted to marry your elbow.

I just love mine right back but always make clear that I'm married to his daddy (which infuriates the son).

At least he didn't want to marry your breasts.

Posted by NYCMom | November 12, 2007 2:22 PM

5 year old boys who think of marrying their mothers aren't unusual. It's perfectly commonplace, and the overwhelming majority move on from that desire.

The foot thing is unusual. Yes, her son is different, and will probably remain unusual. But a foot fetishist? Who can say? And more importantly, does that really matter to a mother?

Posted by Raphael | November 12, 2007 2:24 PM

Let me clarify: Even 5 year old faggots may at one point entertain the notion of marrying their moms.

Posted by Raphael | November 12, 2007 2:25 PM

Sounds like pretty standard Oedipal stuff to me. She should tell her son to find and marry another girl who reminds him of his mom, just like every other straight guy does.

Posted by Greg | November 12, 2007 2:27 PM

@14. NEVER will I marry that slag Lois!! Death to Lois and her fat husband too!!! Now, I need to spend time with Rupert.

Posted by Stewie Griffin | November 12, 2007 2:29 PM

Re: “Must you always think the worst of everyone?”

Sometimes when I'm riding with gay friends I like to curse bad drivers with "Fucking cock sucker!", "God damned butt munch!", etc. Then I turn to my friends and say, "No offense, guys." It always gets a chuckle.

Posted by Dave | November 12, 2007 2:29 PM

I remember my brother and I standing behind my dad when we were little around 4 or 5 and he would be sitting reading the newspaper in the evening, relaxing after dinner. He had long hair on top and we would put my moms rollers in his hair and play hairdresser.
My brother is straight and not a hairdresser and has no inclination to be one. I am gay and NOT a hairdresser and also have no inclination to be one.
I am not saying the kid might not be into feet it is just one of the many odd things kids do. It is not something to be blown out of proportion.

Posted by -B- | November 12, 2007 2:33 PM

Please contact me immediately!

Posted by DR. SCHOLL | November 12, 2007 2:50 PM

This is the 3rd little boy I've heard about or know personally who like women's feet! And I've never come across any little girls who like feet. The girls always go for brushing hair, arranging hair or dressing up.

I'd say it's nothing to worry about. But why is it only little boys, I wonder?

Posted by Only Boys seem to like feet | November 12, 2007 2:57 PM

I'm going to jump on the "five-year-olds are obsessed with marriage" bandwagon. I teach at a college-run preschool a few hours a week, and I've gotten too many marriage proposals from (especially) little boys. The little girls are more interested in making inanimate objects marry. Last week, I witnessed a firetruck and a stuffed dragon wed in holy matrimony.
In that same vein, when I was the same age, we had lesbian neighbors and I completely idolized them because they were often my babysitters. I told them that I wanted to grow up to marry a girl. I had lots of boys as friends, played with trucks and batman, and yet I somehow ended up straight. My parents didn't freak out about it. They just let me dress up like a mechanic for Halloween and made me wear dresses to school to make up for it.

Posted by G | November 12, 2007 2:58 PM

I have a 7-year old nephew in the same boat; everyone just knows and accepts that he loves feet. Maybe he will love feet forever, maybe not. Maybe he'll turn out gay and not love feet at all. Currently, he's 7, really likes feet and wants to see everyone's feet. He also likes to get up in the middle of the night and secretly eat cold rice from the refridgerator when his mom is asleep. Does either one of these make him gay? Is there some inherent connection between being a gay man and loving feet? I think I missed something.

Posted by A | November 12, 2007 3:04 PM

This is the 3rd little boy I've heard about or know personally who like women's feet! And I've never come across any little girls who like feet. The girls always go for brushing hair, arranging hair or dressing up.

I'd say it's nothing to worry about. But why is it only little boys, I wonder?

Posted by Only Boys seem to like feet | November 12, 2007 3:06 PM

men like feet...

women like shoes...

Posted by michael strangeways | November 12, 2007 3:10 PM

I don't see it. When I was a little kid, I sometimes put on makeup and wore my mom's shoes just to play around. I grew out of this, and have no urges to cross-dress. I also know a guy who told me about getting erections thinking about being spanked as a little kid (his parents didn't ever spank him, actually), but it stopped when he reached puberty.

Sometimes little kids who don't know anything about actual sex acquire random erotic associations, and grow out of it later. I think it happens more often than you might realize.

Posted by tsm | November 12, 2007 3:20 PM

I was obsessed with my mom's feet when I was three or four. I used to rub her feet all the time. She had huge cracked calluses and I was determined to loosen them up.

It was just a weird phase. I had almost totally forgotten about it until I read this just now. Come to think of it, I was into tying up the other kids too. I was kinkier at six than I am 35!

I wouldn't mind being a foot fetishist though. It's so quaint and harmless. I'd even out myself. Being a straight white American dude is so boring!

Posted by malawana | November 12, 2007 3:29 PM

kid erections are creepy. but didn't manolo blahnik tell his mom the same thing?

have him draw shoes & don't think about it.

Posted by max solomon | November 12, 2007 3:40 PM

As the mother (and single mother at that) of a 5 eyar old I can attest that they get errections all the time. I just remind him that he has to go to his room to play with his penis becasue that's something he ought to do in private. He also loves to get naked in front of people and I have to keep an eye on him lest he strip down in front of strangers. He has also freaked out more than one boyfriend by asking him if he had apenis and if he could see it. He has a huge crush on the waitress at our favorite restaurant. I think he is very curious and figuring out the world and how people work- I doubt he is gay but he might be or discover he is later and that's fine- I'm more worried aobut making sure he goes to college someday than in worrying about who he loves.

He is also very interested in seeing me naked and when he bursts in to the bathroom or my room when I'm changing I simply tell him that he needs to go out and knock and wait to be invited in because I want privacy- not that gasp he shouldn't look at my nakedness- I don't want him to think there is anything wrong with bodies but that they belong to the people who's bodies they are and are private (unless otherwise invited but that's a nuance for when he's older).

Posted by NELBOT | November 12, 2007 3:46 PM

22: Yes, you missed something. No one has made any connection between foot fetishism and homosexuality except you. There were two separate points.

Posted by Carollani | November 12, 2007 4:11 PM

FWIW, Dan, I thought your advice on the 5-year-old musical/Zac Efron child was right on the money. Except the part about hiding from dad, which would teach the kid to be dishonest about his sexuality. If I were his aunt, I would have actively encouraged the kid right out in plain sight of my brother.

As far as this little guy goes, he's probably going to be a foot fetishist - which, all things considered, is a pretty harmless thing to be. Mom should just relax; she handled it very well, in my opinion.

Posted by OddlyEnough | November 12, 2007 4:51 PM

Not much to say, really. I guess you just need to make sure as he grows up and starts exploring his responses to this fetish that he understands what's appropriate and what's not.make sure he knows not to bug people about their shoes for his own gratification, and not to get himself worked up or something in public.

Posted by Ferin | November 12, 2007 4:58 PM

Oh Dan, must you think the best of everyone?! Foot fetishist is the best-case scenario, but it's obvious that this child is a budding indie performance artist. He wants to MARRY a pair of FEET while toddling around the stage with a giant hardon! Soon he'll be recreating the Last Supper with various feet dressed like the Apostles, or erecting giant toe displays at G8 Summit demonstrations. His poor mother will be wishing he'd grown up to be a harmless foot fetishist.

Posted by jack | November 12, 2007 5:09 PM

I have to go with tsm @25 here. Kids make random erotic associations, and Anonymous shouldn't worry about it. When I was a little girl, I LOVED playing "horsy" with my dad -- I'd sit astride his ankle and he'd bounce it up and down. I used to beg for this game! As I recall, it made my mother uncomfortable (not surprising, since she is a very repressed and uptight person). Sounds like you handled it well, and that's what counts.

Posted by Irena | November 12, 2007 5:10 PM

My four-year-old boy is in love with my upper arms and has been for at least two or three years (i.e., since he stopped breast-feeding). He will squeeze them and say "I LOVE YOUR BIG ARMS!" with a crazed look on his face. (By the way, they're not particularly "big"!) He seems to be growing out of this particular behavior, but I'm pretty convinced he'll find a girl with lovely arms someday. I've always assumed this was a stand-in for those breasts he used to "love." As for the feet, Freud would say, of course, this is a typical fetish replacing the mother's "lost" penis. I think that's probably b.s., but there you are. I wouldn't worry too much about it.

Posted by Lesley | November 12, 2007 5:17 PM

Yes! He WILL grow up to be a world famous shoe designer and there's nothing you can do about it!

Posted by manolo | November 12, 2007 5:45 PM

It's wordy, but super interesting. Just scroll through the first part and check out "Age 5." This behavior seems to fit perfectly with that description.

Posted by amp | November 12, 2007 6:43 PM

Has anyone considered that Anonymous might have particularly spectacular feet?

Posted by Sheri | November 12, 2007 7:28 PM

Uh... I wasn't suggesting that his foot thang made this kid gay. Only that it would be much less controversial to suggest that this kid has a foot fetish.

And it has been.

Posted by Dan Savage | November 12, 2007 8:37 PM

Hi can anyone tell me if they have ever wondered if Ken Burns is actually a girl or maybe once was one?
just wondered.

Posted by History Girl? | November 12, 2007 9:07 PM

All the above advice is well and good, but a bit too frou-frou IMO. Hows about some good old fashined repression, teach the boy to stifle his emotions, he would then twist them into a jumbled mess of resentment and self-loathing, thus assuring he could have a career in politics or the clergy, or at least spend his time making acerbic and pointless comments on internet discussion boards.

Posted by pissy mcslogbot | November 12, 2007 10:31 PM

Your advice to Auntie Mame was right on.
The Psychiatry Profession is very seriously (and one could say "unethically")lagging and "out-of-touch" on this issue. While "Homosexuality" was removed from the Psychiatric Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) in the 1970s, "Gender Identity Disorder" (GID) remains in the current version of that manual to this day and is inordinately applied to boys who manifest gender non-conformity. (Such girls are just called "tomboys" and people think its cute). Boys who do not conform to gender stereotypes earn the term "sissy", and that is not regarded by most people as "cute". My daughter can wear her Dad's clothes, and no one thinks anything of it.

Research has shown that almost all of these (GID) boys grow up to be gay, and the fact is that the GID "diagnosis" is still being used to "pathologize" the experience of these "proto-gay" (google it) boys. It is sobering to think that every gay man was once a gay boy, and most likely to be having a different developmental experience of gender from an early age (Gender is the earliest self-recognized attribution in young children, and developmental assessment tools for 3-year-olds make use today of the question "are you a boy or a girl?" as a measure of cognitive reality orientation).

Psychiatry and Psychology have yet to officially acknowledge and normalize such developmental experiences and are usually at a loss to effectively counsel parents and other caregivers of young children who manifest what is still labeled by ignorant/intolerant and judgmental double-standards as GID. Official Developmental Theory has no way to account for such an alternative developmental path and so remains officially silent and in denial.

The dualistic "sissy-boy/tomboy narrative" has been commented on and progressive researchers have described the issue and related research in peer-reviewed journal articles, but it remains to be seen if this new knowledge will be reflected in the next revision of the DSM, or if the Psychiatric Profession will "bury it's head" in order to avoid controversy by maintaining the popular myth that children do not manifest sexuality during the so-called "latency age" (following a "healthy resolution" of the early-childhood Oedipus Complex which orders young boys to kill their fathers and have sex with their mothers). Traditionally sexist Freudian theory still holds powerful sway in many medical schools of psychiatry.

There is indeed psychological and emotional (and often physical and sexual) abuse of gay children by parents, communities, and professionals from a very early age, and these are the children who learn to internalize that bigotry in the form of self-hatred. These children are eventually over-represented in homeless youth populations and make up THE SINGLE HIGHEST RISK-GROUP for suicide. If such a child is fortunate enough to find one adult who will understand and accept and affirm his own unique experience of human subjectivity, it could very well save that child's life.

If you want to see how bad this can look, rent a French Movie titled "Ma Vie en Rose" (My Life in Pink), which depicts how confounded and ineffective the mental health profession can be in trying to "help" such a young child.
It is sad that such stuff still goes on every day.

For some good parental advice on teaching healthy sexuality to children of all ages, follow the link to

Child Psychologist in Washington.

Posted by Tomasz | November 13, 2007 12:57 AM

Dan misunderstands his reader's objection. It has nothing to do with whether presuming gay-ness or foot-fetishism constitutes thinking the worst, or the best, of anyone. It has to do with presuming that he can confidently predict any aspect of a child's adult personality based on a second-hand description the child's behavior as a 5-year-old.

If gay men and foot-fetishists each constitute about 5% of the adult male population, I give Dan about a 5% chance of being correct in each prediction. In other words, no better than chance.

Posted by David Wright | November 13, 2007 1:04 AM

If the kid turns out to have a foot fetish is it really that bad? If he's cool about it and not creepy most women will be OK with it. As fetishes go it's a pretty silly, non-threatening one.

PS - It would be great if this could lead to a larger discussion about which Slog women have cute feet and what colors they paint their toenails (if they do). :)

Posted by footfetishguy | November 13, 2007 1:06 AM

I agree with Dan's advice in both cases. My sexuality began at age 4, and continued to develop to this day. I'm gay, but I digress.
I've had the same experience as Dan in college, except most of my predictions had to do with children I am close to- sons/nephews.
Without exception, even the most accepting adults were dismayed that I would dare suggest that certain behaviors might indicate gayness. None of them would have expressed shock had I suggested that a childhood love of model planes might indicate an adult who has something to do with aviation.
People need to grow up and remember their own childhoods- passions as children OFTEN develop into careers or personality traits as adults. Stigmatizing children's interests only serves to insure they attempt to hide those interests from others, but not change them. They're people and human beings the day they're born, not at some arbitrary age of development or maturity.

Posted by BeenThere | November 13, 2007 2:05 AM

The boys' interest in his mother is normal at that developmental stage and the feet are a classic (so classic as to be almost suspicious) freudian substitute. According to Freud, a fetish is a replacement for the actual desired object which cannot be directly desired. Anyway, the mother handled it pretty well. She could have added that she understands that he loves her too. thus making it less likely that the boy will become a fetishist since he won't need to repress his desire to be close to the mother. At least according to Freudian thought.

Posted by MSW | November 13, 2007 4:29 AM

Dan is 100% right about everything here.

Posted by chicagogaydude | November 13, 2007 4:39 AM

A similar thing happened with my nephew. He is now the head of a shoe development firm and makes GOBS of money. He married a lovely lady who loves to buy shoes so he is in heaven.
Mum handled it just fine. After all she isn't a psychologist or sexual counselor.

Posted by Gindy | November 13, 2007 5:12 AM

Thank you everyone for your comments. They've been extremely helpful and informative.

PS. My feet are actually hideous. I do paint my toenails however.

Posted by The Real Anonymous | November 13, 2007 7:42 AM

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