There was a time when Philadelphia was synonymous with the cheesesteak. And then there was a time when Philadelphia became the city of Swiss cheese — specifically, Swiss cheese wrapped around the penis of a man on the loose.
If you haven’t read the saga of the “Swiss Cheese Pervert,” Google it right now. The story involves a 41-year-old Norristown man who became infamous overnight when several women reported him roaming the streets of suburban Philadelphia, “dangling a large slice of Swiss cheese over his penis and offering to pay the women to perform sexual acts on him using the cheese.”
Naturally, the local news went berserk over the story (because, okay, it’s pretty funny). While the women involved were understandably disturbed, the press was altogether amused, summing up the story with headlines like: “Philadelphia ‘Cheese Pervert’ Needs Swiss Cheese To Orgasm, Kraft Cheese Spread Doesn’t Work.”
I like a good cheese joke as much as the next girl, but focusing on fromage misses the point. A food fetish may seem weird, but there’s nothing inherently wrong with it. Flashing or harassing women on the street, however, is definitely not cool, and it’s a shame that the coverage of the Swiss Cheese Pervert cashed in on cheap humor rather than offering a frank discussion of fetishization.
For better or for worse, fetishes are experiencing a breakthrough in pop culture. Call it the “50 Shades of Grey” effect, if you will: We think bondage is sexy, we sing along with Rihanna when she croons about S&M, we cheered on a subplot of “Desperate Housewives” devoted to a neighbor who worked as a dominatrix. Fetishes and kink have become acceptable, even appealing.
Unless, of course, it’s a fetish for cheese. Anything that veers too far from “normal” suddenly raises eyebrows. Having a thing for thigh-highs screams sexy, but having a thing for cheese signals perversion.
“Certainly, having a sexual fetish doesn’t make someone a pervert,” affirms Dr. Chris Fariello, a Penn alum who serves as the director for the Philadelphia Institute for Individual, Relational and Sex Therapy. But by definition, a fetish — or a paraphilia, to use more technical jargon — is an “atypical sexual interest,” so they don’t always fit into a normative erotic schema.
Still, in the case of the Swiss Cheese Pervert, the sexualization of cheese isn’t really an issue. Compared to getting off with handcuffs and whips, a slice of Swiss surely seems innocuous.
But while the local media was fixated on the weirdness of the cheese, they missed the darker fetish for exhibitionism — the desire to shock strangers with his exposed privates (with or without the cheese) — and its potentially perverse consequences.
“If this guy wasn’t exhibiting himself, he could do whatever he wanted with Swiss or muenster,” explained Dr. Michael Bridges, a Philadelphia-based psychologist who specializes in the treatment of sex offenders. According to Dr. Bridges’ theory, it’s the exhibitionism — not sitophilia, or the “food play” — that motivates his sexual behavior, and it’s this sexual desire that should have played a bigger role in the news coverage of the Swiss Cheese Pervert.
According to the DSM-IV, paraphilias like exhibitionism become psychological disorders when they cause harm to the individual or cause harm to others. In this case, it’s the sense of disgust, revulsion or fear in the women that he solicited.
Dr. Bridges’ primary concern is wrangling the cheese man and getting him some help for what he considers a serious psychosexual disorder. But other professionals have other concerns. Fariello fears what this news story could do for individuals with strange fetishes of their own.
“My fear is that now any person with a fetish — especially a cheese fetish — is going to stay locked in the closet and fear letting anyone know their little secret,” he said, before adding, “at least until they find the fetish community.”
Arielle Pardes is a College senior from San Diego. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow her ?@pardesoteric. “The Screwtinizer” appears every other Friday.