Fetishes are way more common than you might realize—here’s how to explore yours in a healthy way.
By Gigi Engl
Kinks and fetishes are less taboo than ever—ours is a post–Fifty Shades of Grey world where BDSM has become mainstream and shows like Broad City, Hot Girls Wanted, and Slutever have helped normalize everything from pegging to cannasexuality. It’s real progress, but it doesn’t erase the fact that for many of us, fetishes can still feel totally weird or even shameful.
The first thing you should know: Fetishes are much more common than you might realize. Nearly half of participants in a representative survey published in the Journal of Sex Research in 2017 reported being into something psychologists consider outside of the “normal” range on the sexual spectrum. An earlier survey taken in 2015 found nearly half of participants had tried public sex, a quarter had tried role playing, 20 percent said they’d experimented with BDSM, and 30 percent said they’d tried spanking.
That doesn’t mean you have to jump straight into a BDSM dungeon if you think you might have an unexplored fetish. The idea of dripping hot wax over someone’s body or having a toe in your mouth can feel a little bit…intimidating. Maybe even scary or weird, so take it as slow as you need.
Here is everything you need to know about what a fetish is, how to know whether your fetish is normal, and the healthy ways you can incorporate it into your sex life.
What is a fetish?
The simplest way to define fetishes according to sexologists: usually nonsexual things that ignite sexual feelings in a person. “A fetish is sparked when things that seem completely normal bring you great sexual satisfaction and pleasure,” says Daniel Saynt, a sex educator and founder of The New Society for Wellness (NSFW). You can have a fetish for a thing (perhaps being attracted to feet), or a place (as in having sex in public); you can even have a fetish for a texture, such as latex.
By definition, fetishes fall outside of the sexual “norm,” but that doesn’t mean every out-there sexual desire qualifies as a fetish. There’s a line separating a fetish from something that you’re just kinda into. To be considered a true fetish, the object or act must be a part of a sex act for you to get turned on. If you enjoy the occasional or even regular spanking, for example, that doesn’t mean you have a spanking fetish—people with a true spanking fetish need that act of domination to get off.
So where do these sexual kinks and quirks come from? “Most fetishes are thought to be learned behaviors in which a person comes to associate a given object with sexual arousal through experience,” says Justin Lehmiller, Ph.D., a research fellow at The Kinsey Institute and author of Tell Me What You Want. That may come from childhood or adolescence, or you might stumble upon a fetish as a sexually experienced adult. “You may not know you’re into a fetish until you try it,” adds Saynt, “which is why I always encourage people to try new things and be curious.”
Is what I’m into normal?
Most of us can relate to having a sex fantasy that feels downright weird, but most of them are totally harmless and fine to explore. If you have a thing for fishnet stockings and your partner agrees to wear a pair to help get you off, go for it. If you get turned on by feet and enjoy watching foot porn while you masturbate, you do you. Totally normal fetishes include everything from age play to gagging and golden showers.
A fetish crosses the line when it harms another person in any way and/or violates consent. For instance, pedophiles have a fetish for children, but this is not in any way healthy or OK—acting on this fetish is both completely illegal and morally repugnant. Frotterism, when someone gets pleasure from rubbing up against someone else in a crowd, can also be deeply problematic for the same reasons. Violating another person in any way is never OK and should be reported immediately. “If you have strong, recurring fantasies about an activity that is nonconsensual and/or poses a serious risk of harm to you or others—and especially if you’re concerned that you might act on this fantasy—it’s worth seeking help in the form of professional counseling,” says Lehmiller. “Find a credentialed and certified sex therapist in your area. They’re the ones who will be most well-equipped to help.” To find a qualified therapist, check out the The American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists.
Fetishes can also become detrimental to your sex life if they get out of hand. If it feels like your fetish is taking over your life or keeping you from having healthy relationships, or “you’re seeking it like an addict might seek their next fix,” that’s a problem, Saynt says. In these cases, it’s also worth reaching out to a sex therapist who can help you deal with shame, anger, and overwhelming compulsions that might arise from a fetish.
How to have a healthy relationship with your fetish
If you’re looking to add your fetish for feet or bondage into your sex life, you can definitely do that in a way that’s healthy and positive.
The first step: opening up to your sexual partner about what you’re into. With so much shame and stigma around fetishes, this can admittedly be difficult—it might take some time. “A useful place to begin is by sharing some of your more ‘vanilla’ sex fantasies first and perhaps acting on some of those,” Lehmiller says. “This will allow you to build up trust and communication skills at the same time, which can lay the groundwork for introducing more adventurous fantasies later.”
As you experiment, always check in with your partner to see how they’re feeling. It’s important that both of you are feeling comfortable and sexually satisfied.
What to do if your partner really isn’t into it
If you experiment with fetish and find your partner really isn’t into it—or they find it straight-up weird—that’s OK. Not everyone is going to have the same turn-ons. Still, it’s important to have an open and honest discussion about it. Shaming a partner for what they are or aren’t into is not a productive way to move forward in a relationship.
If you can’t agree on a fetish, Saynt suggests talking about ways to incorporate your fetish into your sex life in a way that doesn’t directly involve your partner. If your partner isn’t down with golden showers, ask if they’d be comfortable watching porn that involves pee play.
You can also spend some time experimenting sexually with your partner—maybe you can discover a new fetish or kink you can both enjoy.
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