Kink Versus Fetish: What's The Difference Between The Two?
"Kink" and "fetish" are terms that have become commonplace in the American lexicon over the past decade. Often these terms are used interchangeably for unusual sexual play, but there are some important distinctions that separate the two. Here's the difference between kinks and fetishes.
What is a kink?
Kink is an umbrella term that encompasses all "alternative" sexual interests—basically anything that's outside the more common, mainstream forms of sexual activity. Most prominently, this includes all of the aspects of BDSM (bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, sadism and masochism), but it also includes group sex, polyamory, cuckolding, pegging, pony play, "littles1," and much more.
As you can imagine, what's considered "kinky" and "out of the norm" might vary depending on the individual. It's based primarily on your generation, culture, and religion. For instance, your grandmother might find dildos or doggy style to be a form of kink, while those same things might be considered vanilla and boring to her grandchildren in Gen Z.
What is a fetish?
A fetish is a very specific requirement, either based in psychology or sensation, that is necessary for an individual's sexual arousal and enjoyment. Fetishes can involve inanimate objects (such as high heels), known as form fetishes, or specific materials (such as leather, silk, or vinyl), known as media fetishes. They can also be focused on specific body parts (like feet or breasts) or even specific types of partners or behaviors.
Many people have some slight fetishistic behaviors—a voluptuous butt, for example, is currently a popularly fetishized body part—but a true fetish is when an object or behavior is required for sexual arousal. A fetishist would typically not be able to experience sexual arousal without it.
The difference between a kink and a fetish.
1. Kinks are more about exploration and variety, whereas a fetish is a sexual necessity.
Oftentimes, kinks overlap with fetishes, but what separates the two depends on whether the behavior or item is required for sexual arousal.
These days kink is used to spice things up. By increasing sexual excitement, kink can be used to also enhance the intimacy of the experience. Many couples engaging in kink don't need the behavior to enjoy sex; instead, kink stands to increase the connection that's already present. For instance, a person who enjoys spanking their partner during sex may use a hand or riding crop to do so. It isn't necessarily the spanking itself or the object being used that increases excitement but rather enjoying using them with their partner. This same couple may incorporate a blindfold as a form of sensory deprivation and receive the same kind of enjoyment the next time.
Kink is something used to enhance sex, but it isn't a requirement for it. A fetishist, on the other hand, may always need their interest to be included in sexual play in order to get adequately aroused.
2. Kink is an umbrella term.
Kinks and fetishes often overlap. Most fetishes are kinks, though not all kinks are fetishes. For example, a leather fetish is also a form of kink. But spanking or cuckolding might be a form of kink that someone enjoys but not necessarily a fetish, insofar as it's not necessary for their sexual pleasure.
3. Some fetishes are problematic or dangerous.
Fetishes can sometimes be more extreme and disruptive due to the constant requirement of their fetish for sexual pleasure. For example, someone with a serious foot fetish might need to constantly look for partners who are game for foot play for them to have a satisfying sexual life; in such a case, their fetish might become a dominant part of that person's life and identity. (This might be different from someone with a big breast fetish, on the other hand, who will have much less trouble finding sexual experiences that cater to that.)
Some fetishes can even be dangerous, whether for the fetishist or the object of their desires. For instance, someone with a voyeurism fetish (aka voyeuristic disorder) needs to spy intentionally on unsuspecting people to become sexually aroused. Someone who can only be aroused by children (aka pedophilic disorder) also has a clearly problematic fetish. Both of these fetishes don't allow for consent and cause clear harm to others if acted on.
Some fetishists will seek psychological treatment when they find their fetishes interfere with their relationships or cross over into illegal territory. However, most fetishes are not illegal. The more disruptive cases may be diagnosed with fetishistic disorder, which involves having a fetish that causes distress or impairment to the individual or harm to others.
Both fetishes and kink are becoming more mainstream.
The year 2020 marks the ten-year anniversary since the American Psychiatric Association announced it would be changing the diagnoses for BDSM, fetishism, and other kinky behaviors after pressure from the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom. When the new edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) was published in 2013, these new definitions created a clear distinction between behavior and pathology. It separated nonconsenting abuse from consensual enthusiastic alternative sexual interests.
Generally speaking, many kinks and fetishes are starting to become common fantasies experienced by the majority of the American population, and the taboo around these diverse forms of sexuality is beginning to break down. For instance, research conducted by social psychologist Justin Lehmiller, Ph.D., through the Kinsey Institute, has found that multi-partner sex, such as threesomes or orgies, were desired by 95% of men and 87% of women. Along the same line, BDSM fantasies were common in 93% of men and 96% of women.
While fantasies don't always play out in reality, these studies show that there is nothing abnormal about the kinky desires. In fact, those looking to experiment with all forms of kink are joining what's becoming more mainstream by the day.
Sara Sloan, Ph.D., LMFT-A, is a licensed marriage and family therapist associate specializing in relationship and sex therapy. She has a master's degree in Counseling from St. Edward's University, an MFA from Columbia University, and a Ph.D. in English from Texas Tech University. She is a member of the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists and the Sexual Health Alliance. She has a private practice in Austin, Texas.