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Kinks and Fetishes: What’s the Difference?

Learn what each means and why your fantasies are common.

Photo: Inna Mykytas via Pixabay

Disseminating the words “kink” and “fetish”’ can feel like walking across a minefield. Some people use them to denote similar types of sex acts, while other times, the words mean very different things. Ultimately, it’s a subjective and sometimes contentious debate. 

Defining Kinks and Fetishes

The only way to honestly answer the question “what makes kinks and fetishes different” is to understand the context of these terms:

  • Both kinks and fetishes involve sexual interests outside the “norm”
  • They can be classified as paraphilias, which are intense attractions to atypical activities
  • In the past, kinks/fetishes were wrongly pathologized as disorders
  • This type of sex is totally normal between consenting adults

Both kinks and fetishes refer to sexual interests and behaviors that fall beyond what is deemed “typical,” which can be tricky to define. After all, what you might consider kinky or fetishistic, somebody else might think is completely vanilla! 

Plus, tastes change over time. Christianity’s influence in Europe and the U.S. meant that at one time, any sexual activity that wasn’t for procreation was considered immoral–and, by extension, kinky. Few people today would agree!

As technically noted, kinks and fetishes can be classified as paraphilias, which are intense sexual attractions to things or activities considered outside the norm. However, defining diverse sexual experiences through a clinical lens has a problematic and harmful history.

Not too long ago, being into BDSM would have been enough to qualify someone for a mental health diagnosis. We now recognize that kink and BDSM are normal expressions of human sexuality. This is a large part of why using clinical language to talk about kink and fetish is often challenged.

Are Kinks and Fetishes Okay? 

  • Many people have kinks they don’t talk about publicly
  • Kinks and fetishes are much more common than you might think
  • It’s important to focus on self-acceptance rather than meeting arbitrary norms

At this point, you might be thinking about your own sexual identity as well as your kinks or fetishes. It’s important to know that your desires aren’t an issue if they’re between consenting adults. 

However, if those interests are causing someone distress or harm (for example, non-consensual voyeurism), then clinical intervention can be helpful and/or necessary. But if we are talking about consensual activities where everyone involved is enthusiastic then it’s all good.

Remember, studies estimate that between 40% and 70% of people have kinky fantasies–
and as many as 20% act upon them. In other words, being curious about kinks and fetishes might be more “normal” than vanilla interests.

Kinks vs. Fetish: The Subtle Differences

  • Fulfilling a kink is not always essential for sexual satisfaction
  • Fetishes tend to be more intense and fixed sexual interests when compared to kinks
  • The line between kinks and fetishes can be blurry
  • Clarify how your partner defines and experiences their kinks/fetishes

Now, let’s examine how these terms are used. 

A kink tends to refer to a sexual behavior or inclination that someone enjoys but isn’t required when getting off. A fetish, on the other hand, usually means something that someone mostly or always needs in order to experience sexual gratification.

It’s a lot to take in and might leave you feeling confused. How can you know where you stand if people use the two terms to mean both the same and different things? The key takeaway is the importance of communication.

Have conversations with your sexual partner(s) about their definition of kinks and fetishes. Work together to ensure you have clarity about what each other means, and if in doubt, always ask.

As with all sexual practices, the key is to act ethically and consensually. Even if your interests are not typical, diversity is normal and healthy. As long as everyone participating is happy, then kinks and fetishes are fine.

It’s okay to embrace sexual diversity free of shame and stigma–no matter what turns you on! Remember, you’re not alone!

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