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The weirdest sex thing I’ve ever heard about was featured in the Wall Street Journal.

At first, it seemed to be more of the Journal’s amiable perversity. The paper may be too expensive, too confident, and too specialized to be a really cost-effective daily news source, but the occasional human-interest story knocks the stuffing out of anything a general daily can unearth. The Journal’s reporters are frighteningly dry, which just makes their juicier reportage all the more wonderful. Witness the profile of the Jewish Iraqi dynasty of billionaires as they weather the Hong Kong transition: “‘I am not political,’ Mr. Kadoorie says with a disdainful wave.” Or the story of the company in Texas that manufactures medical-crisis-training aids: “It’s like little meatballs on a string,” they said about the rubber blockage in Choking Charlie’s windpipe. Or of internal strife at the British baby program Teletubbies, where the Shakespearean actor who plays Tinky Winky denounced his firing with thespian flair: “I was the first to fall off my chair and roll over. I took all the risks.”

So where better to print an awed feature about “smoxploitation” films and other cultural manifestations of an actual sexual fetish that involves men watching clothed women smoke cigarettes? This item boasted the usual Journal panache with quotes: “[Paula] is a fabulous smoker. As the video progresses, she does quite a few outstanding slow nose exhales.” (Cue Austin Powers: “Yeah, baybee!”)

The smoking fetish, like anything with a sizable American market, has various media devoted to it—newsletters like Smoke Signals and The Sacred Smoke Society; web sites, the funnest of which is Smoky’s Celebrity Cigarette Central (http://members.tripod.com/ -eno), which can lead you to sexy pictures of girl celebrities puffing (Molly Ringwald, we hardly knew ye!); and pages in the leg-and-foot-fetish mags Leg Show and Leg Action. Edited by everywhere-in-the-news intellectual pornographer Dian Hanson, Leg Show is the prime purveyor of hot pin action, and its smoking pages are pretty classy and ironic, although they incorporate just enough foot-love to keep the heel-and-toe crowd from feeling cheated.

But it was on Smoke Signals’ clean, professional online site (http://www. smokesigs.com) that, under the unhelpful heading “What Is the Smoking Fetish?,” this venerable (4-year-old) pervert club actually quoted the Ladies Home Journal on the subject. If genuine smoke-wankers have to look to a helmet-headed women’s mag and an upright, small-print financial journal for definition, something’s going on, as something usually is when a pleasure as ostensibly reasonable as sex is being so relentlessly subsumed.

The mystery of a fetish verging so bafflingly on being nonsexually based, whatever the fans’ response, goes directly to the unease with which even hard-core smokies present and discuss this stuff. Leg Show tweaks its inclusion on the cover with the misspelled come-on: “The Burning Butt Club, 5 Women Who Definately Inhale,” but the spread is strange and old-fashioned, with five not-skinny young ladies cantilevered into thick, white, grandma underthings—opaque girdles and full-coverage bras—sharing smokes and ignoring a couple of lonely martinis around what could be a poolside bar. The, um, text is mainly about the lengths of degrading torture the club puts its male help through; more ow than wow, if you like that sort of thing. Elsewhere, in the fictional tale “Cigarette Boy,” young Justin gets his jollies just lighting the things—no nudity please, we’re unwinding.

Online, men—it’s only men, at least the respondents—queried about the whys of their favorite pastime sound vague and unconvincing. Some offer admiration for the “bad girl” engaging in sultry and slightly outré behavior. Hanson backs this up with her usual smooth touch: “Anytime something becomes widely condemned and taboo, it will be eroticized,” she told the WSJ. But last we looked, smoking was still legal.

Perhaps closer to the bone, some men confessed excitement at the sight of women indulging in behavior that isn’t merely naughty but actually dangerous. Like any American subculture, smokies keep their numbers up by boutiquing specificities and flattering the individual, so the subsets and permutations are exacting: the long brown cigarette vs. the white 100 crowd, with holder/without, cigar fans and cigar-haters, the sizable anti-Capri forces, whose resentment is understandable if projection is the goal. Men who like their video subjects slightly green around the gills want to see raw nasty baccy: unfiltered smokes and thick, fumey cigars.

Harnessing the tastes of people who respond to smoking to those of people who covet feet makes more sense when one considers the relative ubiquity of both. But it also deepens the mystery—or rather, the lack of mystery makes hash of the notion of fetish as forbidden. If suggestion, intimation, a glimpse at the hidden are aspects of sexual allure, what is it about a playmate’s loafers (or Paula’s cancer stick) that’s so different from some Joe on the subway’s loafers (or the cig of some clerk smoking her lunch in Dupont Circle)? Are the foot (or for that matter smoking) lusters in a constant public frenzy?

One would expect fetishists of any kind to at least have a vocabulary for their singular brand of pleasure that is distinct from the mainstream one yet translatable in broad terms, so that the pleasure crosses over even if the source doesn’t. But neither leg men nor smoke voyeurs could come up with anything less disappointing than spurious (to the outsider) hyperbole: “His feet smelled incredible!” and I quote: “The Persephone video was super!”

Interestingly, there is an anti-mystery that the smoking crowd doesn’t exploit: that a naked woman smoking a cigarette looks really naked. The more tangential the accessory—hats, pearls, gloves, shoes—fastidiously donned while the primary and secondary sexual characteristics go flapping in the breeze, the naughtier and nakeder the result. But the Journal article reports that viewers objected when a professional fetish filmmaker first caught the wave and included ucky old nudity in his loops. “I was very surprised,” he said. “But I shouldn’t be.”

The more I try to pinpoint the specific allure of the smoking mania, the less skin mags, web sites, and newsletters seem willing to give up. Precisely, what makes it a sexual fetish and not just someone’s—many people’s—”thing,” in the coarse, larky Seinfeldian sense? After all, “fetish” (like “intercourse”) is a word generally assumed from widespread use as shorthand to take the prefix “sexual”; other words, like “explicit,” and “graphic,” naturally assume it in its adverbial form.

But at this point the distinction may be moot, as are all distinctions beyond their names. And names mean nothing—that is to say, everything—since the dispelling of substantive variations among subcultures leaves only outward claims on which to hang one’s societal place: If all cigarettes are pretty much the same, why is everyone smoking Marlboros and not Montclairs? Simply, because Montclairs are marketed to the Charles Nelson Reilly crowd, and that’s not an identity so much cultivated as inexorably stumbled into. If all cigarettes are pretty much the same, there’s no better reason, in fact, to smoke this brand and not the other than because you must identify yourself by its advertising.

When advertising got smart, it used its power to bulldoze consumer distinctions of high and low so that it could promote everything as a subculture, even what used to be called the prevailing culture. Whereas the fun in subcultures—in their relationships, their stylization, their information, their artifacts—used to be rooted in their scarcity and incidental nature, now it’s in their democratization: There’s something cool for everyone.

Since the underground exists only as a form of vanity that is easily manipulated, if not manufactured, by consumer culture, what once was mainstream is now ripe material for nonsexual fetishization: hence “straight” camp, geek chic, neo-lounge. If you think LeAnn Rimes is uncool-by-definition-as-a-country-artist, doesn’t her cover of “You Light Up My Life” automatically make her one of us? Now, as the B-52s once asked, “Doesn’t that make you feel a whole lot better?”

As these synthetic cliques grow and shrink seemingly arbitrarily, the problem becomes one not of inaccessibility but of wieldiness; no one knows what anything’s cultural dimensions are anymore. There are limits of information and acceptability—drag queens are a straight fetish in every aspect from look to attitude to milieu, but acknowledging RuPaul as an actual gay man is forbidden. The limits of size have yet to be determined, so if the studio wants to charge $700 for the laserdisc set of Godzilla movies, anyone in that subset—art-scum, film-geek, completist—is obliged to pay it. But if you want a normal, brewed cup of tea with milk, disregard the talk of tea-is-the-new-coffee and expect a bag, a mug of lukewarm water, and access to the cream jug—even at the toniest hotels in town.

The nonsexual fetishization of culture is everywhere; the process gives every American his God-given right to a “thing” at a time when increasingly few citizens understand or can hold onto their place. It makes taste accessible to everyone, which is why the arbiters of such stuff aren’t talking about the boys in Hanson (or the Spice Girls) the way they once did about New Kids on the Block (or Bananarama). (True story: A renowned British physician—a real Dame—muses on her profession, “I guess I’m Liver Spice.”)

Most of all, fetishization takes the threat and the responsibility out of having taste, because what you like is a personal expression, whereas what you collect—or can’t help—is a cultural one. It provides a refuge; if there’s no underground to which something fraught can be driven, then it must find a safe place in plain sight. It’s the purloined letter on a grand scale, dirty or not, cozily and unashamedly nestled in the pages of the Ladies Home Journal.—Arion Berger