These two terms are used interchangeably, but they shouldn't be.

Advertisement

Sexuality is a highly personal thing, and it can be hard to put labels on it. If you come across things that fall outside of traditional sexual practices and behavior, you might use words like "kink" and "fetish" to describe them.

But what's the difference between a kink and a fetish? People tend to use the terms interchangeably, but experts say they're actually different. Here's what you need to know about kinks and fetishes—and why they're not the same.

Kink-vs-Fetish-What's-the-Difference-GettyImages-CA28108
Credit: Getty Images

What is a kink?

A kink is "an umbrella term to describe non-traditional sexual behaviors and practices," Janet Brito, PhD, a clinical psychologist and AASECT-certified sex sex therapist in Honolulu, tells Health. A kink can be an unconventional sexual appetite, or getting pleasure from something that's considered outside the norm. Brito says kinks usually include "anything that falls under non-traditional sexual and intimate desires, practices, or fantasies."

Kink is a "social term with vague and varying meanings," David Ley, PhD, a clinical psychologist in New Mexico who specializes in sexuality issues and author of Ethical Porn for Dicks, tells Health. It's kind of a fluid word that can be used for a range of things around sexuality that are a little different from the usual.

What is a fetish?

A fetish is a little more targeted. "Historically, a fetish was a sexual disorder where an individual had a specific and limited stimuli that they required for sexual arousal," Ley says. In other words, someone could have a foot fetish or an underwear fetish because they need these things to get aroused. A person with a fetish for sex in public, for example, might only get turned on if they have sex in public or under other specific circumstances.

"Fetishes typically require that the behavior or object must be present in order to obtain sexual arousal," Wilmington, Delaware sex therapist Debra Laino tells Health. Sexual health experts usually call this "erotic target error," where a person's sexual interest is zeroed in on something other than what people think is normal, Ley says.

How are kinks and fetishes different?

You might call kinks "fetishes" and vice versa, but they aren't the same. "A fetish tends to be more of a fixed arousal template and tends to be quite specific," Brito says. "A kink is typically an experience used to enhance a sexual encounter." A kink also doesn't need to be as specific as a fetish, Laino says. "With a kink, sexual arousal isn't dependent on the behavior or object," she says.

Can you have a kink and a fetish?

Yep. "Someone could have a kink of hearing people have sex, and they could simultaneously have a foot fetish and have to suck on toes in order to get off," Laino says.

People "often" have more than one kink or one fetish, and there tends to be overlap, Brito says. For example, a role play may involve a partner dressed as a college student, which could signal a uniform fetish, and the other as a professor, which is an age play kink, she says.

Is it OK to have a kink or a fetish?

If you have certain sexual interests that most people would consider a little different, but it doesn't harm you or anyone else, it's really not an issue, Ley says. "It is most effective to focus on how a person pursued their sexual desires, rather than what they are," he says. "The principles of sexual health focus on aspects of healthy sexual values, rather than judging the acts themselves. Is there attention to honesty, safety, consent, mutuality, shared values, and no exploitation? If so, then this sexual behavior is healthy, even if rare or 'extreme,'" he says.

But if your kink or fetish is non-consensual, or it causes you emotional distress or issues in different areas of your life, your kink or fetish is a problem, Brito says.

Overall, experts say that it's important to be aware of your sexual interests and how they impact your life and the lives of others. "Many people have kinks and fetishes and they are perfectly normal," Laino says. "When they violate the law or put you or someone else at risk for harm, or they are not consensual, it may be time to seek help. Sexuality has multiple layers and people's eroticism is very diverse, so learning to embrace your unique erotic behavior and threshold is important for sexual health."

To get our top sexual health stories delivered to your inbox, sign up for the Health Hookup newsletter