As a long-time dominatrix and sex educator, I continue to be thrown by things people think of as "fetish." I've had submissive clients come to my dungeon waiting to experience simple anal pleasure, as well as publishers asking me to remove vibrators from my work because they were considered obscene. I suppose it's all relative, but I'll always be amazed by the things that are still seen as extreme or taboo!
I am personally into some pretty freaky stuff, from whipping and bondage to role play and group sex. I'm even into golden showers, so I'm aware that sometimes people use "fetish", "BDSM" and "kink" interchangeably. I wanted to get a non-pathologizing definition of fetish sex from a solid scientific source.*
* Whenever I need a dependable social science context for slippery definitions like fetish, I always get in touch with Dr. Justin Lehmiller, a Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute and author of the fantastic book Tell Me What You Want: The Science of Sexual Desire and How It Can Help You Improve Your Sex Life.
"I like to think kink as an umbrella term that refers to a wide range of sexual interests, behaviors, relationships, and identities that are not considered to be mainstream," Lehmiller told me over email. He says that fetish falls under that umbrella, as does the acronym BDSM — which encompasses Bondage, Sado-Masochism, Domination and Submission, among other activities.
Scientifically, Lehmiller defines a fetish as "an intense erotic attraction to a nonhuman object, a nongenital part, or a body secretion." He also confirmed that the attraction to the fetish object can be (but isn't always) so strong that the fetishist requires the presence of that object in order to get turned on.
An example might be a person with a foot fetish who must be able to caress his partner's toes in order to get aroused; or someone who fetishizes leather to the degree that she must keep a well-oiled driving glove in order to orgasm. Still, it's just as common for people to have non-normative interests that can be incorporated into sex or play, in the same way that your favorite hot sauce could be on every dish!
Unfortunately, there's a lot of stigmas attached to the idea of "needing something in order to get off." People see it as a crutch or even worse, an addiction.
But there's nothing inherently wrong or weird about having certain tastes, styles, and preferences. If your fixation on any aspect of your desire (even something "mainstream" like boobs or butts or kissing) is getting in the way of your life, that might be an issue worth discussing with a kink-positive therapist. Otherwise, enjoy the pleasures of your fetish for what they are!
Based on his research, Lehmiller revealed to me that the most common fetish objects are: "feet/toes, underwear/panties, boots/shoes, stockings/leggings, and body fluids such as breast milk, urine, and even blood."
Lehmiller told me that he encounters a lot of people who are surprised by the existence of fetishes for more extreme bodily fluids (especially scat and vomit) and medical devices like catheters and sounds.
I had to laugh at the fact that our work makes a bit desensitized to what people find shocking! Part of the mission of my podcast Why Are People Into That?!, is, after all, finding the common ground in all different kinds of human desires, no matter how "weird" they may seem initially.
While not even experts agree on how fetishes develop, it's safe to say that it's some combination of nature and nurture, experience and curiosity.
I find it helpful to compare it to other, non-sexual tastes, like a preference for heavy metal music or a pastel home decor color palette. You might have had a formative experience that led to your taste in sex, culture, or style; or you may have developed an interested out of a sense of adventure. It can be enlightening to explore those roots without judging yourself, but I find it's more fulfilling to explore how to make your fantasies a reality.
So how do you get started exploring your fetish? I recommend starting with fantasizing, solo, and dirty talk — all of which can diffuse the intensity of experimenting with something new.
You can also get creative by writing or making art about your fetish. Once you're ready to talk to a partner, present your fetish as something you want to do with her/him/them. Incorporate how sexy you find them into how sexy you find your fetish; you want to create a fusion of these interests!
Another thing that's great about fetishes is that you can often explore them with your friends without having intercourse or orgasms. Any sexual interest can be augmented with exhibitionism and voyeurism; showing off, observing in a group play party setting. You might even enjoy indulging your fetish with a friend who could take it or leave it erotically, but enjoys seeing you on your knees licking her boots.
Connect online and in-person with other people who share your fetish. They might not be people you play with one on one, but you can share play space with them feel supported and affirmed. This way, you'll have someone to talk to about your feelings, and share tips! Empathy and belonging are important in a world that demonizes unusual desires.
There's no right or wrong way to start a conversation with your partner about incorporating your fetish into your sex life. Here are a couple of examples:
Hey babe, you know that movie Secretary? I've actually always thought those spanking scenes were really hot, in the context of fantasy role play. What do you think? I've been getting really turned on thinking about ass bent over a desk like that. Actually, I'm open to topping or bottoming or both with you!
I'm kinda curious about how it would feel for you to piss on me. I've done a little reading about it from experts and it seems like there are a lot of ways to start slow. I would only want to do it if it turns you on too. How do you feel about that?
The next time we have sex, I'd really love to wear some high heels, and maybe press them on your chest.
I love how wet you got last night before we even got undressed. Would you gift me your panties from last night so I can smell your sweet sex even when you're away from me at work today?
Don't forget in your excitement to actually listen to your partner's answer. Be ready to come to a compromise and don't be disappointed if your partner says no.
If you find that you have difficulty orgasming or even becoming aroused with your fetish object, you can still focus on your partner's pleasure. You and your partner(s) can even game-ify your fetish: For example, "You have to eat my pussy and make me squirt six times before you get to smell my used gym shorts!"
Some people prefer to only explore their fetishes with a professional provider: a dominatrix or escort, a cam model, or a pornographer who makes custom clips. This is a great way to customize exactly how you like to enjoy your fetish while supporting enterprising sex workers.
Never ever surprise a date, partner, or provider with your fetish!
Do no develop a love of shocking someone with your "weirdness." To reiterate, there's nothing inherently wrong with any fetish, but you risk crossing a consent line if you skip the important step of negotiation. This is foolish, considering how many people are more than happy to share and/or indulge your fetish as long as you practice well-paced clear communication.
If we think about fetishes in a positive light, we can see them as a way to gauge compatibility with prospective partners!
If you know that you need your b-Vibe Snug Plug in order to orgasm, you simply need to have a routine to always carry it with you (or stockpile one for home, one for each partner's house, and one to travel!). And you need to be prepared to talk to partners about the fact that this toy is the key to your pleasure. Instead of feeling ashamed of your preference as pathological, you can see it as perfectly logical.