You can be turned on by a kink or a fetish, and a fetish is definitely kinky – but a kink is not a fetish.
Human sexuality, or rather our understanding of sexuality, continues to evolve.
In the 19th century, any sexual act that was not heterosexual and for pro-creation was broadly labelled as ‘perversion’. Over time academics and researchers began to pay attention to the diversity of alternative sexual preferences. It was through this acknowledgement that sexual modernity began to take shape.
In the 21st century, we still categorise preference in line with traditionally accepted and culturally defined sexual practices. Categories can allow us to group things to help us understand. But the bottom line is: perfectly healthy sex involves actively communicating and consenting adults. And, disclaimer: sex means and involves different things and understandings for everybody.
How do we as a society broadly categorise sexuality today?
A simple way to consider this spectrum of arousal and preference is to think of traditionally accepted norms or ‘vanilla sex’ at one far end; in the middle are ‘kinks‘, and on the other end sit fetishes.
Turn-ons refer to sexual arousal, and kinks and fetishes fall under this umbrella. A kink is generally defined as a preference outside of the sexual norm. Whereas a fetish is related to an object or activity that is usually not considered sexual.
When it comes to having sex of any kind, boundaries and clear communication are of paramount importance. Ensure that respect of sexual expectations and limits are understood as non-negotiable. Consider having conversations about likes, dislikes and clear, explicit standards of safety early. Redirection when something isn’t working, and positive reinforcement for what does is always helpful.
What are these categories, and what do they mean?
Turn on’s: an umbrella term often used to describe a sexual interest. Typical use can include describing a type like ‘tall, dark and handsome.
Vanilla: best understood as those sexual practices that fall within the bounds of traditional sexual norms. Like, heterosexual missionary sex.
Kink: used to describe arousal or an act that some might consider ‘out of the box’, Like bondage or spanking.
Fetish: the sexualisation of something typically non-sexual as the subject of fixation, like leather, feet or latex.
Types of kink and fetish can include:
- BDSM: the acronym for Bondage, Discipline, Dominance and Submission, Sadism and Masochism.
- Bondage: forms of restraint used during intercourse; this can include rope, handcuffs, tape. Boundaries, technique and the use of a safe word are essential for this practice.
- Discipline: the practice of training a submissive to obey a dominant. If the submissive wilfully breaks a rule, punishment may be doled out by the dominant. For example, speaking out of turn could involve enforcing silence with a gag for a certain amount of time.
- Dominance/Submission: This is all about erotic power exchange, not one person having control over another. According to Kinkly, dominance can be physical, emotional or psychological. It can include name-calling or spitting, and slapping. True dominant/submissive relations only exist between consenting adults, and the use of a safe word is always recommended.
- Sadism/Masochism: is the relationship between giving or receiving pleasure from pain, humiliation, degradation, which can involve spanking, whips, or costumes. Many individuals enjoy elements of S&M in their sex lives, including members of the BDSM community and even vanilla couples looking to spice things up. The healthy practice of S&M requires active consent and clear communication.
- Cuckolding: a form of BDSM play that aims to humiliate. Cuckolding may involve listening to stories about or watching a partner having sex with someone else—deriving enjoyment from the stimulation of being cheated on or experimenting with a taboo act.
- Roleplay: the exploration of sexual scenarios and fantasy through acting. Popular scenarios include pretending you and your partner are strangers or acting as an authority figure like a policeman or a doctor.
- Voyeurism: sexual pleasure derived from watching others engaged in sexual acts. For example, watching pornography or a partner masturbate. Cosmopolitan breaks it down as good voyeurism = consent and communication about what you will be doing with every sexual partner, and bad voyeurism = doing something behind your sexual partner’s back.
Outside the bounds of culturally defined and accepted sexuality:
Much like how society expanded its acceptance of different sexual orientations, alternative sexual acts are now recognised as having a place in healthy sex lives.
What was once known as deviance or perversion is now labelled under the umbrella term ‘paraphilia‘, which describes urges and behaviours that involve unusual objects, activities or situations not usually considered sexually arousing by others.
Bioethics professor Alice Dreger notes that today kinks and fetish are recognised as healthy, except when an atypical interest causes distress or impairment to the individual or harms others.
Not causing harm is a typical expectation on any act or behaviour and shows how far our acceptance of sex has come and how our societal views of sex are ever-shifting.
What is normal? Does it matter?
What someone may consider kinky is vanilla for someone else. Depending on who you are, what you’re into and even who you are with, sex means something different to everybody. For some, ‘vanilla’ sex requires a comfort level that only ‘real intimacy can provide’, whereas wild sex can be easier to have with someone random.
When it comes to sex, normal is subjective. What matters is the presence of active consent, constant communication and the absence of harm.