“I have a shopping fetish!”
“I have a total fetish for caramel-covered popcorn — it’s my favorite snack!”
“She watches the Kardashians’ shows because she has a weird Kim fetish. She’s wants to dress like her so badly.”
You’ve probably heard a comment like this at least once a week your entire life. These sorts of comments drive me bonkers, because those people are not really referring to fetishes.
Instead, they’re misusing the word “fetish” to describe anything they really like, instead of something that sexually turns them on. I imagine it might be the same way gay folks would feel when a straight-person says to their same-sex friend “I’m gay for you,” when really they just mean their friend is a good buddy.
This is a subject we could all stand to know more about. Obviously I am not a psychologist or a medical expert of any kind; I’m just a woman with a spanking fetish who is researching official information on the subject on Google and including my own experiences and tips. I highly recommend visiting a sex-positive therapist, specifically a sex therapist, for a professional consult and to sort this stuff out if you or a loved one have a fetish or paraphilia.
But for a basic 101 on fetishes and paraphilia, here are some commonly asked questions and answers:
What do “fetish” and “paraphilia” mean? What does “kinky”/”freaky” mean?
A sexual fetish “specifically refers to a strong sexual preoccupation with an object, material, or body part,” according to The Kinsey Institute, who are sexual health experts at Indiana University. Examples of a fetish might be a person who is sexually turned on by feet, or silk, or high heels, or wearing women’s panties.
A fetish is a type of paraphilia. Paraphilia, according to the Kinsey Institute, “means compulsively responding in a sexual way to an unusual or socially acceptable stimulus.” Examples of paraphilia could be BDSM behavior and exhibitionism, although there are plenty of other examples.
“Kinky” is a more informal term that generally refers to any sexuality that’s atypical (whatever that means). People use the word kinky to describe stuff that’s even just a little out of their usual repertoire, like wearing fishnet stockings to bed once. Other people mean actual fetishes or paraphilias when they refer to kinks. I use the word “kink” or “kinky” rather casually; I learned from the women at the blog Madame Noire that a lot of Black people tend to use the term “freak” or “freaky” instead of “kink.” The lexicon may be different, but the general meanings are the same.
I have always referred to my main kink, which is being spanked, and being submissive to my partner, as my fetishes. Technically-speaking, however, my “spanking fetish” and my “submission fetish” are not fetishes, they are paraphilias. So even as I get angry at people misusing the word “fetish,” I’ve kinda been misusing it myself!
“Spanking fetish” is usually easier for people to understand, though, so I don’t see myself switching my description over to “spanking paraphilia” or “submission paraphilia” anytime soon. I also describe myself as “being submissive in bed” or “being submissive to a dominant partner,” although those descriptions are more vague.
What does having a fetish mean behind the technical definition?
Everyone gets aroused by a confluence of factors — maybe it’s the sexy passage of the book you just read, plus the cute way your boyfriend’s hair is ruffled, plus the fact you’re already kinda horny because you haven’t had the Big O in a week. With all those factors present, you might roll right over in bed, get busy and have an orgasm, just like that.
But someone with a fetish strongly desires that something extra to get aroused. To say “need” might not be the right word, because it’s possible to get aroused by a confluence of other things sometimes, but they are most aroused, most desiring of, the object of their fetish. To take a word from the Kinsey Institute’s definition, the “preoccupation” part implies that the person needs to have the object of their fetish fulfilled in order to have the best possible enjoyment of their sexual release. It might seem strange to others that, say, a man has a fetish for wearing women’s underwear. But in the big picture of his sex life? It’s like getting the whipped cream and the chocolate sprinkles on his Frappucino. It just makes the whole event!
What does having a paraphilia mean beyond the technical definition?
It basically means the same thing as what a fetish means: you are most desiring of to the extent that you “compulsively,” as per the Kinsey definition, seek it out. You may not necessarily “need” it, because you are aroused by other things. But a paraphilia is what really turns your crank in order for you to feel fulfilled.
Some paraphilias are problematic. Clearly, a paraphilia for something like exhibitionism (getting off by being seen and/or exposing yourself to others) can get you in trouble if you do not follow the law. And a paraphilia like pedophilia (getting off from children) is straight-up illegal, not to mention mentally ill (more on that later in this piece).
I don’t want to skew negative here; not all paraphilias are criminal, not even close. But some paraphilias do really cause social/societal problems when acted upon — as evidenced by the fact that homosexuality was considered a paraphilia in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders until 1973. [Wonky information about the DSM’s change on homosexuality here; more information about the DSM’s criteria for exhibitionism here.]
Other paraphilias are benign and even kind of banal. My spanking paraphilia, for instance, simply means that I strongly desire it at all times, during all sex interactions ever. It’s really NBD for me because I’ve been doing it forever and suspect that I always will.
For me personally, I would call my paraphilia a “need,” an actual need. While I don’t need to actually get spanked in order to build up to orgasm, I do need to fantasize about it. And that’s what I do, both with partnersex or while masturbating. Occasionally I’ll fantasize about other stuff while masturbating, but I have never, ever not thought about spanking. I know that might seem strange, but it’s the only thing I’ve ever known.
How do you figure out you have a fetish or a paraphilia?
Here again I can speak from personal experience: it varies. Some people know from childhood, some people figure it out in adulthood. It would be lovely if we were instantly aware of what sexually turns us on upon, say, puberty. The reality is that our kinks and sexual quirks often remain hidden for a long time out of fear or guilt or just plain lack of awareness that your fetish is an actual thing other people out there do and it’s okay.
In my case, I was aware of my strong sexual predilection all the way back into childhood, although because I was a kid I had no idea at the time it was sexual. I thought about spanking, was fascinated when spanking was on TV (like in old episodes of “I Love Lucy”) and looked up the word in the dictionary. As a kid, I would even fantasize about imaginary, over-the-top punishment scenarios, like getting tied to a fence in the backyard. It wasn’t until post-pubescence/adulthood that I realized, “Oh, I used to think about punishment stuff not because I was a total nut job, but because I’m into S&M!”
But I sure felt like a total weirdo as a kid (before the Internet, obviously) and I still do today sometimes. For example, I don’t always feel accepted or supported by other feminists for my kink (or my kink awareness advocacy). And so do a lot of folks in their own peer groups. That is why some people don’t learn about their own fetishes or paraphilias until adulthood when they’ve finally found an accepting partner and/or culture. Sadly, it takes some people decades to figure out their sexual kinks, accept and explore them. And sadly, there are folks who are persecuted for their consensual kinks.
I would recommend FetLife, the social network/dating website for people with fetishes, as a place to poke around if you want to find folks with your kinks.
Are kinks/fetishes/paraphilias caused by things that happen in your childhood?
Fuck, wouldn’t I like to know! That’s a constant discussion had by, oh, every kinky person always. To the best of my knowledge, modern psychology hasn’t figured out the exact answer — although any therapist could poke around in your psyche and probably make the case both “for” and “against.” For some people, acting out their kink is purely sexual, while for others it can feel emotionally therapeutic. Certainly there are lots of theories.
The truth is that it varies. To use spanking as an example again, some folks get spanked as kids and seem to have sexualized that experience. They want to reenact elements of it in a healthy, adult, consensual environment. Other folks didn’t get spanked as kids, or didn’t see kids spanked, and still find spanking sexual. It’s really a crapshoot.
Now, at age 28, my opinion on whether our kinks come from something in childhood is firmly “it doesn’t matter.” Because at least for me, it doesn’t matter. Obviously our childhoods have some bearing on our sexual tastes in adulthood — just like our childhoods have some bearing on everything in adulthood — but it’s very difficult to parse out exactly how. People used to believe that homosexuality in men was “caused” by a man’s overbearing mother or that homosexuality in women was “caused” by hating men/having been sexually abused or raped. Not true, not true, not true. Even if we do parse out the how and the way, there’s the possibility the information may be used against us. So my feeling is “meh, whatever, it is what it is.”
How can you talk about fetishes or paraphilias?
It’s really important to talk about your fetishes or paraphilia with your partner not keep it hidden out of shame. Or worse, go ahead and do something major without asking consent first, which might come as an unwelcome and possibly painful surprise. Just ask any wife who has walked into her bedroom to find her husband trying on her panties.
Open communication about is integral as is a non-judgmental attitude, when it comes to any kind of sex. You can learn how to satisfy your partner’s kinks, you know! As with any “vanilla” sexual behavior, you will be more likely emotionally or hurt people if you are not GGG, as Dan Savage puts it: good, giving and game. All kinds of screwed up psychological shit happens to both you and your partner if you are foisting new desires on each other without discussing it first … or withholding them.
Trust me, talking about these stuff gets much easier with time.
But some this stuff is all kind of weird, right? Like, people should understand it’s not the easiest to talk about.
Yes and no. “Weird” is relative. I think it’s “weird” that some religious folks, for example, wait until marriage to have have sex for the first time. Who does that?!?! Why would anyone do that?!?! No one I know only has sex with one person at all, ever, that except for my few evangelical Christian acquaintances. And yet … I have a close girl friend who is into spanking about as much as I am and we talk openly about this stuff, sharing videos and photos and personal stories the same way we talk about, like, yoga. Ditto with an ex-boyfriend of mine who was kinky. We could talk about it — and do it — without skipping a beat. Neither I, nor the evangelical Christians, are “weird.” We’re just doing things that other people who don’t do the same thing may have judgmental opinions about.
However, I would be lying if I didn’t admit fetishes and paraphilia cause weird situations. They do. Try having a roommate sleeping on the other side of a thin wall when you’ve got a spanking fetish. (My roommate — hi, Lauren! — was hella cool and accepting when I finally told her about my kink. Now I just generally tell her if I’m going to have a dude over so she knows there will be loud noises and she may want to vacate the apartment.) Try having to explain why, as a single straight man, you have a drawer filled with women’s panties. Try having partner after partner who won’t let you kiss/rub/fuck their feet and as result, you cannot orgasm. (Here is a piece on how to be positive that you’re being sex-positive!)
All that being said, people with these kinks get used to these situations over time and get comfortable — more or less — addressing them. I am a super direct person with everyone always, so I just come out and say shit. Over time, weird situations that come up are weird for the other person, not for me; I imagine that’s how it goes with others, too. The New York Times ran a “Modern Love” essay about this topic recently, which I wrote about here.
So some paraphilias are mental illnesses, right? Weren’t homosexuality and transgenderism once considered mental ilnnesses?
Yup. Pedophilia (the attraction to children/pre-pubescents) is included in the DSM as a psychiatric disorder. Few people would argue with it being labeled as such. Child sexual abuse is morally wrong — and labeling it as a psychiatric disorder enables pedophiles to get mental health to not act on those impulses. [You can read specifics on the DSM’s criteria for pedophilia here.]
However, some paraphilias get labeled as mental disorders and then are changed with the times. See what I wrote above about homosexuality. Transgender folks have also been subject to a whole bunch of bullshit involving the categorization of their sexuality in the DSM.
I would urge everyone to be careful when talking about fetishes and paraphilia to be specific with judgments, such as calling all people with fetishes or paraphilias “freaks” or “perverts” when what you really mean is you are specifically disgusted by a pedophile who has abused children. Mocking fetishes is also shitty, even though I know it is tempting to laugh at, say, adult babies. I used to laugh at stuff like furries or adult babies, but the more mature I get in my own kink, the more I realize I am a shithead when a make fun of someone else’s. Trust me on this: you don’t know if someone is upset by some aspect of their sexuality until you’ve really gotten to know them and mocking/criticizing sexuality only increases the stigma. Nuanced responses and reactions are important here.
And this is a side tangent, but it’s also not kosher to make wild-eyed assumptions about people when you find out they have a kink. Also don’t get all your information about kinks from the movie “Secretary” or 50 Shades Of Grey. People are individuals! We’re all different! Just because someone has a fetish doesn’t mean they are THE MOST WILD AND CRAZY SEXUAL PERSON EVERRRRRR, or were sexually abused as a kid, or like other “weird” stuff, or are dangerous. They’re probably just as messed up as any other person and are dealing with a kink on top of it all. Don’t embarrass yourself by acting a fool.
Which is generally good advice, always.
[Kinsey Institute: Understanding Sexual Fetishes And Paraphilias]
[American Psychiatric Association: Proposed Change Of Homosexuality As A Paraphilia (PDF)]
[Rape Abuse And Incest National Network]
[Advocate.com: DSM-V To Rename Gender Identity Disorder ‘Gender Dysphoria’]
[Kinsey Institute: The Many Meanings Of BDSM]