For most people, a sneeze is nothing more than an ordinary biological act: one "achoo!" and it is over. But for a certain group of enthusiasts, a sneeze means much more.
Many swoon over a delicate "htchew!" accompanied by a fine mist. Some like the breathy buildup, some like the release afterward. Others prefer them in series, one after another after another, in a phlegmy trifecta.
Music to the ears? Maybe not for most. But for those with a sneezing fetish, hearing, seeing or having a sneeze tickles them in all the right places. And with allergy season upon us, enthusiasts can look forward to some quality sneezing.
Take, for example, the members of Sneeze Fetish Forum, a site with discussion boards related to all things rhinologic. One poster describes a woman who has the "cutest sneeze ever. She gives a big 'ahhh.' Makes the squeak sound of a pinched stifle, and then lets out a loud 'chooo.'"
Response posts were alternatively congratulatory and envious of the poster's encounters with the sneezer.
One wrote: "Oh, what I wouldn't do to work in a desk beside your co-worker."
Another said: "That's great! I wish I could make a certain someone allergic to me."
Though experts have no simple explanation for how sneezing fetishes -- indeed, fetishes in general -- develop, sneezes themselves are not simple at all.
A sneeze occurs in two phases. During the nasal phase, an irritant -- dust particles, allergens or chemicals -- stimulates nerves in the nose. The brain signals nasal blood vessels to dilate and nasal glands to begin producing liquid. These events trigger the diaphragm and muscles in the soft palate to constrict during the respiratory phase. The eyes close as the body prepares to forcefully expel air -- and with it the irritant -- through the nose.
The process moves rather quickly, but a person with a sneeze fetish can find erotic pleasure in those few seconds -- and experts are stumped as to why.
Though they find creative ways to describe what is going on in the mind and body when it comes to sex, both therapists and researchers know little about how sexual behaviors develop. Some theories propose humans know what does or does not appeal to us sexually by age 8. Others say arousal patterns continue to develop through the teen years and beyond.
But fetishes tend to be deep-seated, often formed at a young age.
"Suppose a child were playing with him or herself and at the same time they hear someone in the next room sneeze," said Linda DeVillers, a Los Angeles sex therapist and psychologist. "The connection is made."
But beyond a personal fetish, sneezing may mimic other sexual behaviors, especially orgasms.
"It might be a good psychological parallel or metaphor," said Howard Ruppel, dean of the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality in San Francisco. "It's like a buildup and let go or release."
But others say this theory is nonsense. Developing sexual behaviors, including kinks and fetishes, is a highly individual process.
Nothing to Sneeze At
A person with a fetish places great sexual importance on and becomes intensely aroused by inanimate objects, although body parts, like hands and feet, are often fetishized as well. These objects are required, in conjunction with sexual activity, for a person to be turned on.
According to Daniel Watter, a sex therapist and clinical psychologist in New Jersey, the clinical definition of a fetish has a pathological component as well.
"In order to be a diagnosable thing, that interest has to create some distress within the person or inability to work or live their life in some way," Watter said. "The element of being distressed is crucial."
A fetish can disturb a partnership if it becomes the primary focus of a couple's sex life. DeVillers described a couple she knew who engaged in bondage during sex.
"The man needed to tie up his girlfriend in order to be sexually functional," sex therapist DeVillers said. "She went along with it. She probably found it fun."
But bondage and sex became too intertwined in the couple's love life. Unless she was tied up, the man was not interested in his girlfriend, and she began to feel unattractive and unhappy, DeVillers said.
"Is it healthy to have creative, playful variety in your sex life? Yes," DeVillers said. "When it becomes very ritualized, it isn't so much fun as mandatory and odds are it's not ultimately going to be as satisfying."
What a Blow
Information on fetishes is limited because people only seek help when they are in distress. It is unlikely that a penchant for sneezing is going to hamper a person's life significantly and many experts have never even heard of such a fetish.
"If it hasn't come to any professional's attention, that must mean it doesn't disturb the partnership," said Aline Zolbrod, an author and lecturer on sexuality.
One poster on Sneeze Fetish Forum was not distressed at all by her college roommate's allergies: "It really seemed like everything made her sneeze, which did make me happy."
In lieu of expert guidance, many people, including those with a sneezing fetish, refer to the Internet for information. Sites such as Sneeze Fetish Forum and Tarotgal (now defunct, but still a source of information, stories and art), as well as Yahoo groups dedicated to sneezing offer a place where itchy noses and their admirers can gather to share stories, experiences and advice.
The shared experience of the fetish community makes for strong bonds, especially because fetishism was traditionally considered a kind of paraphilia, or a behavior that is beyond normal.
But the idea that fetishes or kinks, a looser term that means a person likes variant behavior, are beyond normal is giving way with people questioning the boundaries of what's "normal." Oral sex and masturbation were once considered deviant behaviors. Now many consider them mainstream; staples of a sexual repertoire.
"There's fetishes in every size, shape and color," Ruppel at the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality said. "If something is rewarding to us and feels good to us at certain points in our development, we imprint it into our development. ... There is diversity in sexuality."