Once upon a time in America, “socially and psychologically acceptable sex” was something that occurred between a man and the woman to whom he was legally married, preferably in the missionary position. Everything else was taboo, and sometimes even pathologized and/or illegal. For instance, homosexuality was both illegal and listed as a mental health disorder until the early 1970s, when the American Psychiatric Association finally accepted it as a non-pathological element of the sexual orientation spectrum, with the legal system – sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly – following suit.
Even with the APA and the American legal system loosening their collective neckties and “declassifying” homosexuality, these institutions, along with many religions and much of the public, have continued to pathologize, demonize, and otherwise disparage a whole lot of other perfectly healthy and relatively common sexual behaviors – including the wonderfully wide array of kinks and fetishes that turn so many of us on. Consequently, people with less traditional sexual desires sometimes feel shame about their sexual interests. Because of this, they may struggle with depression, anxiety, undue stress, etc. And this emotional pain is not self-inflicted; it is absorbed through the culture and reflected internally.
At this point, some readers may be wondering what I mean when I use the words kink and fetish. There are dozens of definitions, but I tend to think and talk about kinks as nontraditional sexual interests that people occasionally use to spice up their sex life, but that they can take or leave depending on their mood, their partner, etc. Meanwhile, fetishes are nontraditional sexual interests that are, for a particular individual, a deep, abiding, and maybe even primary element of sexual desire and behavior.
Merriam-Webster’s definitions are relatively similar. It describes (the sexual version of) kink as an “unconventional sexual taste or behavior.” Meanwhile, it describes (the sexual version of) fetish as “an object or bodily part whose real or fantasied presence is psychologically necessary for sexual gratification.”
Wikipedia offers comparable information, describing sexual kinkiness as “unconventional sexual practices, concepts, or fantasies,” and sexual fetishism as a “sexual fixation on … features of the body (including obesity and body modifications), objects, situations, and activities (such as smoking or BDSM).” Wikipedia also states that most people draw a line between kink and fetishes, with kink being used to enhance partner intimacy and fetishes being used in lieu of partner intimacy. (Not everyone would agree with that last bit. In fact, many fetishists incorporate intimate connection as part of their fetish behavior.)
An example of kinkiness might be a couple that likes to play “the virgin milkmaid and the well-hung stable boy” to make their liaisons more interesting and exciting. (For a funny example, click this link and skip to the 1:40 mark.) Meanwhile, an example of a fetish might be a man who cannot become aroused unless he is blindfolded, tied up, and encased in a rubber suit.
Although kinks and fetishes have been around forever, most people know a lot more about them today than in the past. Moreover, kinks and fetishes have become more socially accepted. For the most part, this is a function of the Internet. Before the Net came along, it was difficult to find sexual imagery of any kind. And usually the little bit of sexual imagery that was available was extremely vanilla. Occasionally, starting in the 1970s (give or take), a magazine like Oui or Penthouse would get a little crazy and publish a borderline medical image of a woman’s vagina, or maybe they’d go a tiny bit kinky and show her in a bustier and spiked heels. But that was about as out there as a you could get without paying a whole lot of money to some seriously unsavory people.
Then came the Internet and lots and lots of erotica and pornography – of every ilk imaginable, too. Nowadays, if you can think it, there is porn of it. And probably a website or a chatroom or a list-serve or some other online venue where those who are into it – whatever it happens to be – can interact, swap stories (and photos and videos), and generally support one another and feel less ashamed. If you don’t believe me, Google “chubby chasing” or “diaper fetish” or “plushophilia” and see what pops up.
Notably, there is absolutely nothing wrong with any of this. If you’re into a kink or a fetish, good for you and I’m glad you can exercise that desire in the digital era with only a modicum of blowback from the medical, psychological, and legal communities. Sure, you might face disparagement from some of the more conservative elements of society, but this is your sex life, not theirs, so have at it. If you’re into kink, play games with your partner(s). If you’re into a fetish, find your community and satisfy your urges. And do this knowing that your desires and behaviors are only problematic, psychologically speaking, if they spiral out of control and/or create consequences for you and the people around you (as occurs with sexual addiction and sexual offending, for instance).
The simple and happy truth is that our sexual landscape is changing. Forty-five years ago, it nearly took an act of God to get the APA and the legal system to make just one obviously needed adjustment (declassifying and decriminalizing homosexual behaviors). With the Internet, however, centuries of sexual oppression have been smashed to bits almost overnight. Sure, there are still a few strongholds of moralistic judgment out there, but nothing that should prevent any forward-thinking person from finding and enjoying his or her sexual niche.
Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is a digital-age intimacy and relationships expert specializing in infidelity and addictions – in particular sex, porn, and love addiction. He is the author of several highly regarded books. Currently, he is Senior Vice President of National Clinical Development for Elements Behavioral Health, creating and overseeing addiction and mental health treatment programs for more than a dozen high-end treatment facilities. For more information please visit his website, robertweissmsw.com, or follow him on Twitter, @RobWeissMSW.