Ladies' underwear, animal costumes, and rubber balloons might not sound sexy to everyone, but for some people, they're a huge turn-on. Sexual fetishes describe unconventional sexual behavior, and they can be part of a healthy sex life. But sometimes fetishes get in the way of relationships with friends, family, and romantic partners. So when is asking your partner to wear business socks in the bedroom okay?
Unconventional obsessions: Why it matters
The term fetish is hundreds of years old. It comes from the Portuguese word feitico, meaning obsessive fascination. Today the word fetish refers to a recurrent fantasy, urge, or behavior that's sexually arousing and lasts for at least six months. Fetishes can involve anything from items of clothing to non-genital body parts like feet—but they don't mean that someone's a freak. Sexual fetishes are just a kind of paraphilia, or atypical sexual behavior, which also includes activities like cross-dressing and dominance and submission.
Many fetishists hold, rub, or smell the object of fixation, or ask their partner to use the item. And some fetishists may be unable to experience arousal without the fetishized stimulus. Women's lingerie, high-heeled shoes, boots, hair, stockings, and a variety of leather, silk, and rubber objects can all be fetishes. Then there are furries (people who dress up in animal suits), hairy armpit devotees (ironically not connected), and lovers of regression (read: adult babies).
There's not a whole lot of research out there on fetishism, but Greatist Expert and sex therapist Dr. Ian Kerner thinks it's mainly a guy thing. While women may enjoy reading about the kinky stuff (we have 50 Shades of Grey to thank for that), fetishism is much more common in males. As many as two to four percent of males have a fetish arousal pattern, and most viewers of online fetish-based porn are men.
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In terms of why someone is into stilettos and balloon popping, there's not a lot of science on how fetishes happen. Just like Pavlov and his dogs (think back to Psychology 101), fetishes may develop through classical conditioning. Essentially, the fetish can be reinforced by orgasm that takes place in the presence of the object or activity. Some experts say childhood trauma could bring on fetishistic behavior because an object sometimes provides a source of comfort after a disturbing event. So even though we're not totally sure why some people have fetishes and others don't, is it okay to have one?
The kink link: The answer/debate
Before we even tackle the "f" word, we have to break down what "normal" means in terms of sex. Kerner defines sexual normalcy as having a range of desires and a degree of sexual fluidity. Not having that flexibility, and instead fixating on one stimulus, is when a fetish comes into play.
But fetishes don't have to be dirty secrets. Couples therapists like Dr. Barry McCarthy say fetishes, like other paraphilia, can be considered normal variations on sexual behavior so long as they don't involve the use of force, kids, public sex, or self-destructive behavior. An unhealthy fetish, he adds, involves a lot of shame and secrecy. In many cases, these fixations can bring on distress and impair social life, occupational activities, and romantic relationships.
The jury's out on whether or not certain fetishes qualify as actual mental disorders. Some psychiatrists think more severe paraphilias, like oxygen deprivation, shouldn't be considered a mental disorder so long as they don't cause serious physical harm. Others think fetishes don't exist at all and instead represent a range of sexual interests. Still other mental health professionals recommend drug treatments for paraphilic disorders (mainly drugs that lower overall sexual excitation).
Some people embrace their fetishes, searching for partners who accept and understand their sexual preferences, Kerner says. But other couples seek counseling because the fetish is distressing to either one or both partners. Others try cognitive behavioral therapy to learn how to either avoid arousal from the fetishized object or avoid triggers. For many fetishists, the Internet may help alleviate the feeling of being alone, Kerner says, because they can find online communities of people who share similar
It's okay to let that freak flag fly, so long as sexual preferences don't get in the way of personal relationships and daily life. If a preference turns obsessive, it's also okay to seek help from a mental health professional. Just use caution when asking someone to dress as a dog on a first date.