Kink & BDSM, Sex Q&A

What’s the Difference Between a Kink and a Fetish?

July 10, 2020 by Justin Lehmiller

A reader asked the following question:

“I hear the terms kink and fetish being used in a pretty interchangeable way most of the time. However, I feel like they are two somewhat distinct concepts. When searching online I found that fetish is something necessary for sexual arousal while a kink is something that can enhance it but it’s not necessary. Could you clarify the actual difference (if any) there is among these two widely used terms?” 

Thanks for this great question! I often hear these words used interchangeably as well—and, while they certainly overlap to some degree, they’re not exactly the same thing.

I attended a conference presentation by Dr. Richard Sprott in 2019 in which I think he explained the distinction quite well [1]. According to Dr. Sprott:

“Kink” is used as an umbrella term to address a wide range of esoteric erotic interests, behaviors, practices, relationships, and identities.

In other words, kink is a very broad concept that encompasses pretty much any form of sexual expression that falls outside of the mainstream. This includes the eroticization of intense sensations (such as mixing pleasure and pain), playing with power differentials, deriving pleasure from inanimate objects, role playing, and more.

So what is a fetish? Well, it’s a specific type of kink. In Sprott’s words, fetishes refer to:

Enduring fascination with specific sensory stimuli, including specific body parts or inanimate objects.

Put another way, fetishes involve heightened attraction to certain objects (like boots and shoes) and/or body parts beyond the genitals (like feet and armpits).

Fetishes are often described as “fixations” or “obsessions,” with the idea being that the fetish object is absolutely essential to sexual arousal and orgasm. However, research has found that this may not be a fair characterization of fetishes across the board.

In fact, most people with fetish interests say they still enjoy non-fetish sex [2]. So rather than thinking about a fetish as a requirement for arousal, perhaps it’s better thought of as (in Sprott’s words) a “fascination” with or a preference for a certain object—thus, it heightens arousal if the object is there, but it isn’t absolutely essential for sexual performance and enjoyment.

In the case of a very strong fetish, sexual arousal might very well be contingent upon the presence of that object; however, most fetishes don’t quite seem to rise to that level.

So to sum things up, kink is an umbrella term, and fetish falls under it. Thus, all fetishes are kinks. However, not all kinks are fetishes. For example, sadomasochism (deriving arousal from giving and/or receiving pain) would be an example of a kink that isn’t a fetish because it doesn’t involve fascination with a specific object or body part. Of course, you could be both a sadomasochist and a fetishist at the same time, depending on your specific erotic interests, but that sounds like a story for another post.

One other thing I should mention is that having a kink or a fetish isn’t unhealthy or the sign of a psychological disorder. Most people with kinks and fetishes are psychologically well-adjusted and don’t experience problems in their lives or relationships stemming from their sexual interests [2,3].

Kinks and fetishes are only considered problems when (1) one fulfills their desires by engaging in non-consensual behaviors, (2) when they pose an unacceptable level of risk or harm to the self or to others, and/or (3) they cause severe psychological distress or impairment.

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[1] Sprott, R. (2019). The Invisible Gate: Experiences of Personal Growth and Well-Being in the Context of Kink/BDSM Sexuality. Presentation given at the Society for Personality and Social Psychology Sexuality Pre-Conference, Portland, OR.

[2] Rees, G., & Garcia, J. R. (2017). All I need is shoe: An investigation into the obligatory aspect of sexual object fetishism. International Journal of Sexual Health29(4), 303-312.

[3] Wismeijer, A. A., & Assen, M. A. (2013). Psychological characteristics of BDSM practitioners. The Journal of Sexual Medicine.

Image Source: 123RF/Александр Корчагин

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Written by
Dr. Justin Lehmiller
Founder & Owner of Sex and Psychology

Dr. Justin Lehmiller is a social psychologist and Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute. He runs the Sex and Psychology blog and podcast and is author of the popular book Tell Me What You Want. Dr. Lehmiller is an award-winning educator, and a prolific researcher who has published more than 50 academic works.

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