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Kink vs. Fetish

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You say “toe-may-toe,” maybe I say “toe-mah-toe.”

  Kink: The Swirl in the Vanilla

First, let me get one thing straight—vanilla is great. One of my favorite milkshake flavors is vanilla. I prefer vanilla Tootsie Rolls to the traditional ones. There is nothing wrong with so-called vanilla sex. It’s what’s mostly populated this planet, and classics are classic for a reason. Non-kinky sex can make us very happy, and it gets that job done with minimal fuss and usually no serious clean-up afterward.

But kink is also very good; however, what is it?

To me, kink is when you have a strong interest in something outside the basic flavor of vanilla. It’s when you want a swirl of chocolate and maybe a ribbon of peanut butter and/or caramel as well. Mostly, the ice cream is still vanilla, but now there are other flavors bursting through.

Kink is what can often keep things from getting stale, and it can be as simple as something you do once every several years or semi-annually or weekly or whatever. Whether it’s a kink for leather boots and latex corsets or a taste for spanking or a penchant for toe sucking, it’s something that really gets your sexual motor revving. It’s important to you. Too important to give up, but not so important that it drives your sex life.

You see, the thing about kinks (in rope, in hair or wherever) is that they can be straightened out with varying amounts of effort. Once the strands are straight, they will likely start to kink up again eventually, but it’s probably not a major weight on your spirit if that kink doesn’t get met—if you have to flatten it out more often than you’d prefer. You might feel disappointment when you have that kinky urge and it doesn’t get met, but you likely won’t feel resentment or loss over that missed opportunity.

Chances are that if you’re a kinkster you can probably get away without telling your sexual partner about your interests if you’re worried that knowledge wouldn’t be received well, especially if you’re only lightly kinky. The more kinky you are, of course, the harder it’s going to be to go without feeding your non-vanilla desire. And, the farther you are along that spectrum, the closer you come to…

  Fetish: The Mocha Cookie Dough Butterscotch Ripple Pecan…With Vanilla Chips

I have been known often, when speaking of my smoking fetish, to use kink and fetish synonymously in reference to it.

That’s bullshit.

Let me be blunt and honest (with myself and you): I have a smoking fetish. It is something I need to get met. That doesn’t mean every time I have sex, or even every week, or every month. I don’t obsess about it. But, if it doesn’t get met at some point by my partner, I will eventually start to reach a boiling point where I feel cheated, or abandoned, or unappreciated, or rejected. Will I get over it eventually? Almost certainly.

But for me, to never get my smoking fetish met at all would be as serious as to not get my sexual needs met on a reasonably regular basis. Just as a vanilla person would feel crushed if his or her partner suddenly stopped showing sexual interest pretty much ever, so too would I feel that way if my fetish was never addressed.

This is in stark contrast to my many kinks, such as mind control erotica, wet-and-messy sex play, latex and leather and a host of others. They are important to me, and populate a lot of the erotic fiction, photosets and videos on my computer, but I don’t need them played out in real life. I’d like them to see action in real life, don’t get me wrong. It would make me ecstatic. But they aren’t a key part of my sexuality like the smoking fetish is.

Now, just like a kink, a fetish can run the gamut. A light fetish may be something you have to feed, but can keep your own little secret as long as you have a healthy supply of porno that has your fetish in action. Or perhaps you can get the need met by making an appointment with someone when you’re away from your sexual partner.

The more important the fetish is, however, the more you have to face the fact that you probably cannot be in a healthy relationship with someone who doesn’t at least accept your fetish. You may even find you have trouble maintaining a relationship with someone who doesn’t periodically participate in that fetish.

Another thing is that while a fetish may be important to your sexual identity and sexual satisfaction on some level, it won’t always need to be in play for you to reach orgasm or feel satisfied with sex.

There’s no hard-and-fast rule here, except (in my mind), that one. If you need the kinky activity to get off, all the time or nearly so, you probably don’t have a fetish. And that’s how we come around to paraphilias.

  Paraphilia: There Is No Vanilla In This Ice Cream

This is a very clinical sounding term, this paraphilia—I mean, how could it not be? You start throwing Latin or Greek prefixes and suffixes around, you get clinical.

For a long while, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM—which, by the way, is pretty much the bible of psychologists and psychiatrists for dealing with mental illness—used terms like “sexual deviancy” and “fetish” to describe anything kinky or non-heterosexual or pretty much non-missionary-position if you went back far enough, I guess.

In more recent editions, fetish has given way to a term called paraphilia, a term that Wikipedia begins defining as something that “describes sexual arousal to objects, situations, or individuals that are not part of normative stimulation. Paraphilia involves sexual arousal and gratification, involving a sexual behavior that is atypical or extreme.”

But let’s get back to the DSM which, as I write this, is nearing its fifth edition—but it’s still in draft form and under review by the various committees that will greenlight the final version, so we’ll stick with the fourth edition for a moment. In the DSM-IV-TR, paraphilias are sexual disorders characterized by “recurrent, intense sexually arousing fantasies, sexual urges or behaviors generally involving (1) nonhuman objects, (2) the suffering or humiliation of oneself or one's partner, or (3) children or other nonconsenting persons that occur over a period of 6 months” (Criterion A), which “cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning” (Criterion B).

Maybe a little harsh? Yeah, seems like a slightly nicer form of saying fetishes are often freaky.

However, the draft of DSM-IV seems to be heading in a direction that distinguishes between paraphilias and paraphilic disorders. The former is not necessarily a psychiatric disorder, but the latter is something that leads to distress or impairment to the person with the paraphilia or people around them—and thus may require some kind of mental health intervention.

In my non-clinical view, paraphilia represents an absolute need. It’s more than a persistent fetish. It is when the kink is so strong that you cannot do without it sexually. The only question is whether that is taken to an extreme that is destructive.

Now, personally, if I couldn’t get it up without my smoking fetish being met, for example, I’d consider that a problem worth seeking help for. Or if I was able to get through the sexual act successfully but felt no satisfaction without smoking involved—I’d personally want help for that, too. I’m not saying I’d be seeking help to get rid of the fact I find many aspects of smoking erotic. I’d just be trying to figure out how to get better balance in my life and how to get a woody again during vanilla sex and learn how to appreciate it again.

But the thing is, a person with a paraphilia may be just fine with the fact that sexual satisfaction can only occur with the kinky sexual practice involved. That person may have a partner who is just as naughty-minded (or sexually open, one might say, but that doesn’t sound as delicious to me) and has no problem with that kinkiness always being in play during arousal and sex. The person with a paraphilia may not want vanilla sex—ever—and that’s fine. In general. I don’t cast stones unless things like consent aren’t involved. If your kink involves children or animals (neither of whom can truly give consent) or involves forcing adults against their will, I start getting judgy.

My personal view and the DSM diverge in the area of paraphilia, I admit that. To a mental health professional, my smoking fetish is likely a paraphilia. It’s recurrent and it’s pervasive.

However, because it isn’t anywhere near all-consuming in my sex life, I don’t like to put it in clinical, mental health terms. To me, in my own labeling to keep us all straight and know what we’re about sexually (and we should all strive to know what we’re truly about), paraphilia is when the kink is something you cannot sexually live without for any significant period of time—which may or may not be a problem.

I think that’s a scenario in which you really need to make sure you open up to sexual partners early and absolutely triple-, quadruple- or even quintuple-think getting into a long-term relationship with someone who doesn’t fully support your kink. However, I don’t think that a paraphilia according to my definition always (or even usually) implies mental illness or a psychosocial problem. But it can create many challenges in life, to be sure.

  The Final Analysis: I Have No Ice Cream Metaphor For This

So, my definitions aren’t by the book in many ways, but I would say that I think I’m absolutely right about them. I’m normally pretty humble and unassuming, so that should give you an idea of how seriously I take this “kink spectrum” and how much I’ve thought it over.

Now, let’s recap. Like I noted above, I’m out of ice cream metaphors, so let’s switch sharply over to a traffic signal one.

A kink is the green light. Feel free to proceed. Be aware and be careful, and make sure you know what you’re doing, but you’re probably going to be OK getting through the intersection and your partner may never, ever need to know what you like if you think it would freak him or her out.

A fetish is the yellow light. Be cautious. You might not need to stop, but be extra aware of what you’re doing and why, so that you don’t damage yourself or anyone else in a relationship accident.

A paraphilia is the red light. We can do lots of things at red lights. Usually, we stop. But a flashing red means you can proceed after that if it’s safe. Or you can turn right on a hard red if things are safe. Sometimes, you may run the red unsafely but get through OK, whether you did it on purpose or accident. But the critical thing is to generally stop and think. If your kinkiness is virtually all-consuming, you want to be very careful to choose the right people to hook up with, and do your best to avoid a long-term commitment with someone you can’t open up to about your kinky desires and needs.

At least those are my thoughts. Of course, I’m not a sexual professional or a mental health professional. I’m just an opinionated guy who writes for a living—and who happens to be right in this case.


Heather Elizabeth  

I strongly disagree with the definitions you've provided here.

A kink is a sexual practice that's deemed abnormal by society at large.

A fetish, in the strictest sense of the word is something you REQUIRE

Also, this places each category in a strange hierarchy.

Heather Elizabeth  

I strongly disagree with the definitions you've provided here.

A kink is a sexual practice that's deemed abnormal by society at large.

A fetish, in the strictest sense of the word is something you REQUIRE

Also, this places each category in a strange hierarchy.

Heather Elizabeth  

BAH... stupid new keyboard. lemme try this again.

A kink is a sexual practice that's deemed abnormal by society at large, which is fun because means what's normal vs abnormal changes based on things like social norms, political ideologies, what the media is in love with, etc.

A fetish, in the strictest sense of the word, is something you REQUIRE in order to orgasm. But really, no one's that strict anymore and it's come to mean something akin to a paraphilia; something non-normative that sexually arouses you.

That's all a paraphila is - getting turned out by something that isn't 'normally' sexually arousing. As for the DSM; it's paraphila's are only a disorder if they have a negative impact on your life. If you're down with you smoking fetish and it's not controlling your life, you're a-okay.

And here's my big beef with your article - the strange hierarchy you've placed on things. Kink, not that big a deal, fetish, bigger deal, paraphilia - must have - it's not right, and not simply because you've defined the words incorrectly.

Knowing how important your kinks, fetishes, and paraphilia's to you own personal sexual satisfaction is important for many of the reasons you've listed, but to suggest it's not that big a deal if a kink isn't being met because it's *just* a kink? No. For some people, it's a really big deal. For some people there paraphila's aren't that big a deal; especially if they've got a lot of them.

You don't have to pass some magic category bar before you're allowed to ask that your sexual desires be met.


^^lol. offended?
i thought it was a good article!


KinkyNicki92 ... thanks much

Heather Elizabeth ... you are, of course, to take all kinds of issue with my definitions.

However, I don't find that all people with fetishes...and almost all of them self-define as fetishists when I encounter them...actually REQUIRE their kinky interests. Some do, but they are very much in the minority.

I still maintain that the biggest difference between kink and fetish is that the former isn't a requirement OR need...fetish is a need but not an overriding one...and paraphilia is when things get clinical potentially.

The problem with the definition of fetish isn't MINE but (in my opinion) the fact that the psych community co-opted it and made it clinical.

Much like homosexual folks reclaimed "queer" and black people claim the right to use the N-word while looking askance at non-blacks who use too do I and many people with fetishes want that word back.

I'm not going to force kinksters to use the label fetishist, but I damn well will not continue to let fetish be seen as something all consuming.

I don't know about you and whether you have a fetish. But I DO. And like most people I've known who also have fetishes, we don't see them the way a lot of other folks want to.

Again, it's your right to disagree. Been a while since I've gotten someone's hackles up, so it's all good, because I worry I'm not doing my job if someone doesn't fire back at me.


Also, Heather, I don't recall saying it isn't a big deal if a kink doesn't get met. I simply said it wasn't likely to be a deal-breaker or make you feel strong resentment in most cases. I also acknowledged that in all these definitions, there is a spectrum, and some have "it" (whatever "it" happens to be, kink, fetish, paraphilia) to varying degrees.


One more thing (sometimes, these things occur to me over time...sorry).

I think, Heather, that you let off the DSM folks a bit too quickly. They originally took "fetish" and made the desire for non-standard things a clinical problem inherently.

Then they backed off and created paraphilia.

Now they seem to be backing off more and saying that paraphilias aren't always clinical problems.

However, there is no reason for a term like that and a classification to exist in the DSM *unless* it is seen as likely being a problem. That's the purpose of the DSM: to classify psychological problems of various degrees.

Remember that once homosexuality was considered a DSM disorder.

For something to be in the DSM as a classification and *not* be seen as something that tends to get in the way of life is a bit contradictory.

I'd be afraid of being bitten by a deadly spider. But I'm not afraid of spiders. The former is prudence; the latter is a phobia. Phobias don't always cause serious challenges in life, but they are clearly a disorder because they are irrational.

Most people who self-define as having fetishes, in my experience, don't have challenges on a regular basis. They don't always need the object of their desire. Sometimes when they want it and are denied, it's a problem and sometimes it's little more than mild disappointment and irritation.

It may be critical in their sexual identity, but NOT required.

I don't see people who identify as kinky usually using it as a sexually defining thing. In fact, most "kinky" people I've encountered seems to be a bit alarmed at the idea of being seen as having a fetish.

And this, again, is why I want the term fetish back. It's an important classification, and it needs to be recognized while also being de-stigmatized. The DSM folks realized they were on shaky ground in modern times to keep using it. They abandoned it...we fetishists are taking it back.

Or at least I hope we do.


I will add just a little bit of two-sense here as a student training in psychology: The evolution of the DSM is also reflective of the evolution of our culture. Anyone familiar with Kinsey? When he was doing his research (which by the way was controversial because no one had done it before and know one knew about how to do it), things were fine until he suggested that homosexuality was normal and women enjoyed orgasms before marriage. The DSM evolves as the minds who create it evolve. As more older Caucasian men who want to turn gay people straight die, there is room made for us to be more progressive and culturally sensitive.

I would agree that paraphilia's are not suggested to be bad until someone is harmed or the person who "has" the paraphilia is distressed by it. There are some where there is always harm, i.e. pedophilia. At any rate, psychologists generally operate on the principle that distress must be caused to the person who is dealing with whatever issue and/or someone is being harmed by the behavior. Most people I believe look at kinks as preferences, fetishes as preferences that have a strong need-fulfilling drive, and paraphilias a preferences driven by compulsion.

Yes the green light, yellow light, red light may be a simplistic analogy, but it is helpful for people to understand where some things toe a fine line. Hence why those involved in BDSM have rules and contracts.


no one*


Thanks, Ayumi...I think your capsule definitions at the end of your second paragraph are actually pretty close to what I was saying.

I agree that the DSM evolves, and in no way seek to denigrate psychological and psychiatric care (I actually am a healthcare-market journalist). In most ways, the DSM has improved, but it still stumbles at times (obviously; humans are involved)...and I think they're still wrestling with sexual issues in the DSM. The cover-your-ass style of phrasing for paraphilia in the coming edition makes me think they still aren't sure where to draw lines for dysfunction and non-dysfunction where sex is concerned.å



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