The Phenomenology of Fetishism in Objectum Sexuals

The Phenomenology of Fetishism in ‘Objectum Sexuals’

Sunayana Baruah, M.A, M.Phil

Right from the time of inception of a child into the world, instincts come to define her by influencing the choices made. These choices then mould personality as she gradually assimilates as a member into larger social systems. (Bronfenbrenner, 2006) Parental authority and socialisation form the foundation that encourages independent decision making. The idea of development, at some level however, is intrinsically associated with trauma. This trauma might not always be a catastrophe that overturns the course of events. It could be a deep seated sense of loss and mourning that comes associated with every stage of growth with which the individual is forced to negotiate. When the individual is unable to compensate for this sense of loss arising out of trauma, a desperate need to find a substitute for the lost object arises.(Khan,1963). When this substitute object is found, it begins to provide the much yearned for comfort and security that was otherwise elicited by the intrinsic loss. This attachment to the substitute object tends to become all pervasive gradually engulfing all aspects of an individual’s otherwise mundane life. The very sense of establishing homeostasis then comes to depend on the presence of this object; leading to an obsessive striving to be associated with it. This paper involves the employment of various contending psychoanalytic theories and concepts that could shed light on the causal factors of the phenomenon of fetishism among a very specific group of individuals. The idea of fetishism comes to be inherently related to sex as it is that one aspect of personality that exerts pleasure and can be controlled and manipulated. The sense of loss experienced comes from a need to assert and gain control over such an important domain of one’s existence. This paper marks the initial part of analysis of phenomenology of sexual fetishism through the lenses of Freudian ego defense mechanisms, particularly repression, denial and  reaction formation, Winnicott’s transitional object, ‘not me’ phenomenon ,the idea of holding, Klein’s intrapsychic loss, splitting and Projective Identification.

This article is mainly an expository one in which I employ the aforementioned themes to analyse the notions of internal associations with the loved object that manifest in fantasies of the sexual dimension. Bion’s conception of the container and the contained in the context of comprehending a traumatic reality would all be extensively applied in terms of explaining the nature of the intimate relationships. I take into account certain specific real life case studies as a pivotal starting point for the analysis of the development of fetishism from chiefly an Object Relations perspective. However, I strongly maintain a clinical standpoint to explain the phenomenology keeping in mind the eclectic approach adopted by the workings in the clinical setting in recent times. My sole intent behind writing this paper by focussing on fetishism among the group under study is to question the element of deviancy assigned to their sexual choices and if at all they are that different from ‘normative’ sexualities that are otherwise highlighted by psychosexual-societal constructs.

Freud’s (1927) initiative towards bringing forth the phenomenological study of fetishism in psychoanalysis was brought about by the knowledge of the civilizational traditions surrounding the idea of obsession towards an object. He was greatly influenced by the works of anthropologists that accompanied European imperialists in West Africa. He elaborately defined how tribes worshipped totems ranging from idol worship to skin piercings and tattoos while attributing them with special powers to such an extent that their very existence as a collective identity came to depend on these objects.

These then performed an intermediary function that fulfilled the innate needs of safety, security and affiliation of man. Alfred Binet in 1887 introduced and defined the term, Fétichisme as the unconscious associations that attribute erotic qualities to an otherwise neutral object (Kafka,2010).

Objects have always played a major role in negotiating trauma meted out by the external world. A blanket, a toy, a pillow, a garment have all played important roles in an individual’s life right since childhood. Be it the unavailability of the mother to be constantly present to comfort the child or the flight into fantasy to escape an abusive environment, objects have always been a constant supportive presence throughout a child’s developmental dilemmas. Marsh in her paper, Love among the Objectum Sexuals (2010) denotes how objects have come to be associated with transference of affection throughout history as she quotes The Hunchback of Notre Dame to describe Quasimodo’s passionate attachment to the bells of the cathedral.

In Freud’s Totem and Taboo (1938), an identification with an object always involved an affiliation for either reverence or hatred for the power and control the object yielded over the person; the fetishist in this paper. It was this idea of a totem that Freud defined as inciting the interplay of the functioning of the Eros and Thanatos. (Benjamin, 1988) It is only when the individual acquires the lost element; a totem, tangible object that leads towards achieving sexual fulfilment, then that object becomes a fetish; an object that even when possessed never fully delivers sexual satisfaction. The individual might be aware of this intrinsic shortcoming of the fetish being a temporary compensation. This could in turn, lead to the repetitive use of the object resulting in the foundation of the phenomenon of fetishism.

It is only a matter of varying degrees of intensity of the individual’s obsession with the necessity of the presence of the object.

In this paper, I have taken detailed case histories of three women who recognise themselves as a group of individuals called ‘Objectum Sexuals’. Objectum Sexuals are those individuals who develop intimate, sexual relationships with inanimate objects. I have selected the ‘Objectum Sexuals’ for analysis as they could very possibly stand at the extreme of the spectrum of behaviours associated with sexual fetishism. Being intimate with an object itself demands analytic scrutiny of the emotional worlds of the individuals and calls for a purely intellectual understanding of the conditions of external reality that preceded such life choices.

The first dissemination of information in media about the existence of Objectum Sexual individuals occurred through the BBC documentary, Married to the Eiffel Tower (2008). In recent times, it has met with considerable criticism from the community for sensationalising their intimate lives, inviting social ridicule as they were perceived to be titillating because they pushed conventional boundaries of sexuality. The film has been viewed as promoting voyeurism and judgement, eliciting revulsion or pity among the masses as they were perceived as excluding themselves from ‘real’ relationships in society. However, the film alone elicited intellectual scrutiny from diverse disciplines. Among the scarce research initiatives undertaken, Amy Marsh’s (Love among the Objectum Sexuals, 2010) and Jennifer Terry’s (Loving Objects, 2010) contributions have been noteworthy. This phenomenon has still not been met with adequate psychoanalytic scrutiny which calls for immediate further examination.

“Erika La Tour Eiffel, 44 is a former soldier in the U.S Army who lives in San Francisco. She is a former world class archer and has many titles and trophies to her name. She is a smart, athletic woman who is outgoing and traveling is one of her greatest passions. She changed her name to Erika La Tour Eiffel in 2007 after she married the monument. She describes herself as one of the forty(40) people in the world who define themselves as Objectum-Sexuals or OS. The term was first coined by Eija-Riitta Berliner-Mauer, a 61-year-old woman who has been “married” to the Berlin Wall for more than 30 years.”(BBC; Married to the Eiffel Tower, 2008)

Her very first infatuation was with her bow that she christened as Lance. The Objectum Sexuals as seen from the narrative in the film, reportedly have a telepathic sense of the sex of the loved object, are open to bisexual relationships and could be polyamorous. Erika even though married to the tower, later grew fond of the Berlin Wall and visited it in Germany. She had to however, go meet Eija Riitta in Sweden first who had already been married to the Berlin Wall. Erika relates The Wall to her own life of abuse and neglect. She exhibits an awareness of her paraphilia not adhering to socially sanctioned norms and the subsequent acceptance of her own alternate sexuality.  Erika’s story then intertwines with Herr Riitta. Riitta lives in Sweden having been married to the Berlin Wall for over 30 years. Herr Riitta had never had a relationship with another human being in her lifetime.(Marsh,2010)

The documentary then follows the life of Amy Wolfe(40) who had been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome as a child; a label that she rubbished. She had been obsessed with a cartwheel at a fair. Her long time love however, had been the Twin Towers in New York that were one single male entity for her. Riitta, Erika and Amy had never had intimate physical contact with humans apart from the abuse Erika had suffered in the hands of various perpetrators.

Freud explained when the original object satisfying a wishful impulse has been lost as a result of repression; it gets frequently represented by an endless series of substitutive objects none of which, however, brings about full satisfaction (Petocz,1999). The constant fixation towards achieving a state of near-perfect satisfaction of the aroused libido leads to repression because the ego is under great pressure. Three phenomena can occur that closely explain the obsession with the fetish object: the fetishist in overt social behaviour denies the existence of these already repressed needs, projects the thwarted libido onto a neutral object that could be easily controlled, manipulated and altered, or employs reaction formation by denying the want for another social being that is seen as a stressor and in turn replaces the need for the other with the fetish object.

Throughout every stage of development, the individual seeks to transfer the frustration experienced arising from fixations with instinct satisfaction onto an object. This object could also represent a narcissistic ego ideal for the person and serve the function of eliciting a belief in one’s own grandiosity in the face of the threatened ego. This narcissism serves as an ego defense mechanism to protect one’s already damaged ego from further harm by a ‘real’, threatening partner in a relationship. The element of being in control also plays out in the extreme dynamics of such a form of fetishism.

Winnicott(1960) attributed a greater role to Freud’s otherwise deterministic child by assigning a definite personality to the child when it came to exploring the external world and making meanings out of external circumstances. The baby starts off its life with the oral stage during which the act of sucking denotes a desire of wanting something beyond nourishment.(Grand, 2000) At every stage, the baby wishes its wants to be satisfied in a particular way from the ‘good enough mother’ in the external environment. When the mother fails to ‘hold’ the baby’s emotional dilemmas, the baby finds ways and means to recuperate for this loss of a supportive base. For the manifestation of such an intense fetish as that seen in Objectum Sexuals(OS), the complete absence of a figure that otherwise fosters the supervised yet independent exploration of the world by the baby might prevail. The baby needs an external object that reassures her of not meeting with disintegration in an untrustworthy, aggressing world. That is when the first ‘not me’ phenomenon occurs and the baby reaches out to an external source of comfort that stretches beyond her own person.

This ‘not me’ phenomenon results in finding the transitional object (Winnicott,1953) that helps the baby make the transfer of libido from self to object love.

In an optimal pattern of development, the child’s illusion of omnipotence gradually begins to dissipate when the love for self gets transferred onto the transitional object which in turn, aids in the transferral onto the loved object in the external environment. In other words, the transitional object acts as a go-between in the process of transfer of omnipotent love to an external object of affection. However, if this transmission gets thwarted, the libido gets fixated on the transitional object which could in turn manifest as a fetish. The disruption of the process could make the child dependent on the transitional object. The object aids the child to regress to a stage prior to the disruption and rejection of the libido by the neglecting mother. Thus, the last remaining vestiges of an unhurt, intact ego are carefully guarded by the fetish object as a buffer against the onslaught of any kind of further trauma.

The ‘not me’ phenomenon influenced Melanie Klein’s (1955) perspective in formulating the Object Relations Theory in which she described the universal instinct driven phenomenon of projective identification; identifying an object as fulfilling one’s repressed fantasies. The fetish is the remaining semblance of reality for the child who could only grasp it from a paranoid schizoid position. This object then facilitates her delving deeper into her own world of fantasy where her needs are imagined as actually fulfilled.

Schizoid personalities (Fairbairn, 1940) could become a consequence of identifying with the fetish and subsequent withdrawal from human relationships. This could quite possibly answer the question as to why most fetishists including Objectum Sexuals do not see their sexual choices as deviancy of some sort. When the mother fails to reciprocate the love of the child or even so much as shuns it; the child goes on to develop the feeling that her love is hateful, unwanted and potentially destructive.

The child becomes fearful of losing her grip on external reality when she is faced with the inability of the same reality to hold her insecurities, frustrations and in turn, pushing them back into the child. It is this desperate attempt to gain an understanding of  the painful truth that the trauma gets dissociated, abandoned from the hurt ego and the child creates an intrapsychic world where she is in supreme control of herself and of others around her. This process is was what was defined by Klein as splitting (1946). By showing extreme resilience, the child carefully reconstructs an internal object love that is unharmed by external influences and is fully under her control. The object comes to represent a yearning for reciprocal love that the child never experienced. The preoccupation with this internalised world of control makes the child gradually withdraw from a need to establish concrete, social relationships in external reality.

Extending Winnicott’s idea of the fetish object acting as a mediator between self and object love, Bion’s (1959,1985) concept of the container could be equated to the fetish as absorbing or containing the hatred, aggression and vengeance unleashed by the child at being threatened.

The fetish takes in the Thanatos, decreases the destructive intensity, transforming it into Eros to be absorbed back; thus initiating the process of re-introjection. The fetish thus becomes an essential container of murderous rage and in turn facilitates the experience of safety, security and even love. When she reaches puberty, sexual awakening and experimentation occur; she might then come across an entity that finally leads to a sense of gaining back the lost object resulting in its inevitable, overwhelming presence. The theory also greatly equates the attainment of emotional maturity with the gradual acceptance of the world in grey rather than in black or white; adopting a depressive stance with all its flaws while retaining hopes about its goodness. This comes about only with an intricate understanding of a sense of loss as an inevitable entity to be encountered at every stage of development. Fetishism can be a resultant of an all-encompassing denial of a deep seated loss, a tendency to hold on to, clinging on to an object that feels akin to an extension of the self because of the investment of libido that goes into it.

The sense of touch (Bick, 1968) provided by the objects in the cases mentioned above proves pivotal for the fetishists to experience intimacy in their own terms and feel connected to the real world. In the lines of most other psychoanalytic concepts that emanate from childhood traumatic experiences, fetishism in the Objectum Sexuals could stem from a perceived helplessness of one’s ability to control the loss of the loved object; a perceived trauma in other words.

The denial of the need for human contact and the inability to establish sexual relationships with another human being in each of these case studies highlight a strong sense of denial of a painful traumatic reality. The idea of being intimate with the inanimate is a strong indicator of vehemently shutting out the external social reality. At some point in development, this same social structure had failed the individual to such an extent that the she had intrinsically recovered from it by establishing a dehumanised internal world. The fantasy to change the traumatic situation and to flee from reality is so intense that the child creates his /her own cocoon with substitute objects that are fully under his/her control. This brings about a reassurance that these loved objects can in turn not push back the hatred projected into her as they will be controlled at all times. What better substitute of loved objects than inanimate transitional objects that form an essential part of every child in transitioning from one developmental stage to another. The positive emotions get associated only to objects that could be controlled instead of human beings that dominate, alter, control and traumatize the child’s very existence and reinforce the threat of annihilation and persecutory anxieties all the more at every situation possible.

The idea of an object that could be trusted to take in the trauma, to reduce the intensity so that the altered reality by the object is safe enough for the child to take in is the key purpose of the fetish object. Bion’s concept of projective reintrojection could be applied here. It becomes a parallel reality so it permeates into all aspects of living especially sexual as it gets manifested in expression of pleasure. The fetish object is Bion’s container and the fetishist is the contained here.

Other clinically significant behaviours

The human mind seeks to overcome dissonance. There are myriad ways how it strives to achieve this end goal and the ruthlessness affects behaviour.

In the narratives of Erika, Riitta and Amy, we observe certain common occurrences of behaviour that spread out from conventional constructs of normalcy and could easily border on psychosis. The Objectum Sexuals have withdrawn from human contact through their committed relationships with their choice objects. Dissociation forms an ever present undertone of their childhood narratives. The urge to construct one’s own world view is so intense that at times they have been considered to exhibit symptoms of Schizoid Personality Disorder, Autism and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Narcissism arising out of a grave sense of inadequacy and an awareness of one’s own shortcomings could be observed from their testimonies. This obsession with the fetish acts as a reminder of one’s omnipotence as it reserves a sense of identity which is otherwise associated with an ingrained persecutory neurosis of falling apart or disintegration.

This dissociation becomes necessary for the child to maintain orientation and a homeostasis in mental acuity.

In the intimate lives of the Objectum Sexuals described in this paper, what comes to light is the dichotomy of the fetish object’s functioning in one’s life. At one level, the object elicits behaviour bordering on psychosis while on the other, it is key to maintaining the grip on reality.



Freud defined the term traumatic in terms of economics that is saving mental energy. When sudden occurrences in external reality are too intense and powerful to be processed by an individual in a conventional way; his mental faculties and behaviour rearrange themselves permanently to protect the ego. (Freud 1917, p. 275)

The child, even before reaching Freud’s stages of psychosexual development is born with a turbulent mind that is governed by threats of insecurity, dependency, helplessness and subsequent fear of disintegration. She needs an external presence that reassures her of a trustworthy world (Eriksson,1980). The parental figure; usually a good enough mother (Winnicott) is able to take in all the fears of the child through physical presence and emotional support; introjection and give back positive emotions of nurturance to the baby; projection.(Klein) . Introjection by the child is essential to comprehend external reality. The breast of the mother initiates her into the process right from the time she is expelled from the mother’s body. Introjection is the medium through which a perspective is adopted towards comprehending the world. The infant adopts two stances according to object relations with the breast: both the mother and the world are good or bad; nurturing or depriving. The breast becomes the prototype of how the world will treat the infant. The primal phantasy of omnipotence begins to act as a defense while the infant continues to develop and grapple with an uncharted territory which is the external reality.

Ferenczi’s(1913) concept of the omnipotence experienced by the child as a response to uncertainty functions as a wish fulfilment that first gets manifested through the baby’s cry and subsequent wish fulfilment or deprivation that result from it. The phantasy of omnipotence determines positive and or negative hallucinations in the cases discussed in the paper.

Throughout pre-oedipal as well Freud’s psychosexual stages of development, each phase is marked by distortions and manipulations of reality and fantasy. An infantile wish is always associated with an organization of a construct of reality from a narcissistic worldview. Freud also talked about autoeroticism intrinsic to infantile sexuality which explains the lack of need for an external functioning being to achieve sexual fulfilment in the Objectum Sexual women. When the child reaches the stage of weaning, the anxiety and frustration of being persecuted by the depriving breast is at its peak. The inability of the primary caregiver to reassure the child of the presence of an adequate substitute for the breast makes the child introject a deep seated sense of loss giving rise to a perennial state of existence what Bion termed as the ‘nameless dread’(Bion,1962). The process of transition and separation gets hampered and ego stability becomes inadequate.

Freud’s explanation solely focussed on explaining fetishism from the male child fixated on substituting the fetish object for the mother’s non-existent penis.

The Objectum Sexuals being documented in this paper are women. That makes Klein’s understanding of the ego development for the girl child appropriately applicable. Both the child and the mother being of the same sex make the processes of projection and introjection more fluidic. The girl child is however under constant pressure from the ego ideal of the mother representing femininity and being compelled to achieve it. The mother could in these cases, instead of holding in the hatred of the child for deprivation of the breast, projects it back into the child. The child then experiences an emotional vacuum; a dread of disintegration. In the Objectum Sexual women, anthropomorphising objects as belonging to both sexes is indicative of turmoil in identification with one particular gender. The only way that remains for the child to emerge out of it is to find a substitute for a container that the mother could never be. The child then projects its extreme hatred onto it through displacement. As the object proves itself to be a good enough container, the child begins to project feelings of love, devotion and even obsession towards it.

In a much later paper, Freud finally brought in the concept of primary disavowal in terms of fetish behaviour.(Bass, 2000) He explained how repression results only when there is a deep seated acknowledgement of the existence of a traumatic reality. Primary disavowal allows one to understand the loss of the object love, repress the traumatic experience and go on to substitute that lost object with another entity. The individual although knowing that the satisfaction brought in by the replacement can never be equated with the original element continues to deny the longing for it. The replaced object is repeatedly used for the projection of negative emotions and the introjection of a perspective of a safe, trustworthy world. Disavowal was what later came to be equated with Klein’s concept of splitting.

In Freud’s terms, the fetish wards off the anxiety of the unseen, persecutory interior of the mother’s body that threatens to engulf the child back in. The concept of the uncanny; the familiar becoming threatening could be applied along with Klein’s paranoid schizoid position. The fetish aids catharsis of the child’s murderous rage; the Thanatos to in turn destroy the persecutory mother.

The fetishism exhibited by the OS women has a strong basis in neurosis that easily could cross over into borderline psychosis and other categories of psychopathology. The inability to reach a depressive position, still idealizing and equally hating the loved object even when it has failed them thoroughly and the inability to explore one’s reality because of the absence of a stable supportive not me object all bring about an extreme intimate relationship with inanimate objects that help them in repudiating the traumatic dynamics of human intimacies. At various levels throughout development, these associations and objects have deeply failed them. The sexual association made to objects is only a deep desire to maintain sanity and resilience in a deeply hostile, persecutory world. The psychotic elements associated with such a fetish help them maintain an orientation towards reality.

The fetishists in general are still unable to reach an infantile depressive position because of the projection of love which was met with hate. The subsequent introjection of the hate heightened the threat of internal annihilation.  The child grew up internalising the belief that her love towards the external figure was unwanted even dangerous and had the potential to bring about pain and destruction.

Stuck in Klein’s paranoid-schizoid position of comprehending reality through the mode of primitive splitting, they are unable to fathom and tolerate even the slightest ambivalence towards their object of affection. That is the reason the fetish in Objectum Sexuals involves the inanimate that promotes absolute control to maintaining their love towards the fetishist.

In their relationships with various objects that are anthropomorphised by the OS women, they prefer to fetishize a wide range of objects as that provides them with a consolation of being loved by all. That is when the narrative in the documentary states that the fetish involved the practice of polygamy. The obsession with each one of their ‘lovers’ denote the striving to achieve the phantasy of complete satisfaction by that one perfect object along with the simultaneous experience of disavowal. The sole purpose of focusing on the intimate lives of the three Objectum Sexual women is that they fall at the extreme end of the spectrum of fetishism. The range of symptoms with varying intensities associated with overlapping symptoms of various psychopathology and paraphilia begin from there. The tendencies of a weak ego, “omnipotence, delusions of erotomania, splitting both within one’s own mind and the external reality”(Balint, 1951); disavowal, adopting a paranoid schizoid world view, oral fixation because of inability to reach infantile depressive position and manic-depressive tendencies are common in all individuals and exhibit themselves in the quest for sexual equilibrium . It is just that they are present in varying intensities impacting psycho sexual social lives on parallel planes of existence. The Objectum Sexuals embody the complete replacement of the fetish for a sexual partner with that of an inanimate object that defines intimacy at a whole different level. The phenomenon of fetishism in Objectum Sexuals also is one of the very few areas that blur the lines between psychosis and non-psychosis. It maintains the ever dwindling continuum of Freud’s two dichotomies governing the human mind of neurosis and psychosis. The fetish object in light of these perspectives serves a multi-functional role in a deprived individual’s dehumanised internal world. Objectum Sexuals showcase resilience in the face of an incomprehensibly traumatic reality and refuting to succumb to it.

The trauma of birth as explained by Klein and in scourge of the modern age of commodity fetishism ,technocratic nihilism as proposed by Heidegger (1968) make all of us experience, repress and displace the internal destructive drive; what Freud called Thanatos onto the fetish object. When the fetish object is discovered and explored, it becomes essential to in turn introject the arousal of Eros.

The unitary ground of selecting the focus group of the Objectum Sexuals in this paper was because the phenomenon of fetishism all throughout the spectrum of broader paraphilia encompasses dehumanising, objectifying the other to exert control in the face of an unpredictable traumatic reality; a struggle to be in the here and now.

It is a reassurance that at least on one aspect of life; the sexual aspect the individual is in control of her satisfaction of primary needs.

The Objectum Sexuals stand at a position where dehumanising ends and complete objectification begins because their intimate relations involve inanimate objects in themselves. This sexual fetishism could be the merging point of the Eros and the Thanatos as one delves deeper into passion for a lifeless entity.
















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