It wasn’t until I recently attended a class titled “Working Out the Kinks” at a sex-education and wellness retreat a few months ago that I finally learned the key differences separating a kink from a fetish. And, as a professional sex writer, that’s saying something. I always knew the two weren’t exactly synonymous, but I also couldn’t give a precise explanation as to how they’re different.
Similar to the situation of being asked what a certain word means, and then using other similar but not exact words as the description, I realized then that I had been unintentionally using “fetish” and “kink” interchangeably—and was I ever incorrect in doing so. So in the spirit of spreading awareness, below, get the full rundown on what is a kink, exactly, and how it can be different from a fetish. Then—for the fun part—learn how to incorporate either into any relationship safely.
What is a fetish?
A fetish is the sexualization of something that’s typically non-sexual, and that, by itself, is an object of fixation, says Francisco Ramirez, a sexual-health consultant and teacher of the class I joined. “For example, if massaging someone’s genitals with shoes is a fun turn-on, it might be considered a kink,” he says. “However, if the shoe on its own is a turn-on, and it feels like a necessary part of your sexual repertoire, it might be a fetish.”
Common examples of fetishes include leather, latex, a particular penis size, or styles of facial hair, but the limit does not exist.
And what is a kink?
Ramirez qualifies kink as a broad term that may encompass various “non-traditional” sexual acts. “Kink is anything that falls outside the bounds of culturally defined expectations, which, because of often wildly puritanical societies, could basically be anything that’s not penile-vaginal intercourse.” Enjoyment of bondage, spanking, role play, and dominance and submission are some kinks that Carol Queen, PhD, resident sexologist at sex-toy company Good Vibrations, says are among the most popular. And handcuffs, consensual choking, and other forms of BDSM have grown more popularly mainstream since the release of the Fifty Shades of Grey franchise.
So, again, the difference between a kink and a fetish looks like this:
Still confused about how a fetish and kink aren’t exactly the same? Ramirez suggests considering the scenario of going into the kitchen with your partner. If you see a jar of honey and have a sudden urge to lick the honey off your partner, that’s kinky. But, if simply looking at the jar of honey does it for you—and you get turned on every time you look at jars of honey—it’s a fetish that’s at play.
“If you’re curious if the thing that turns you on is more of a kink or a fetish, try closing your eyes and imagining that thing,” Ramirez says. “Then, ask yourself, ‘was it more of an enhancer…or a necessity?’” Enhancer? Kink, because the honey enhances desire that’s already sexual in nature. Necessity? Fetish, because the honey itself is required for the sexual desire to exist.
Exploring fetishes and kinks safely
Despite their differences, fetishes and kinks share similarities regarding how to navigate them safely, whether solo or partnered.
- Find a partner you can trust. “It’s common for people with fetishes and kinks to have fantasized about them for a long time,” says Dr. Queen. “If someone is new to sharing them with someone else, I’d recommend choosing that person with trust and compatibility in mind.”
- Consent is paramount. This is true at all times and for all sexual acts, but with fetish and kink play, there are added measures to implement. “Before starting, negotiate. Talk about your fantasies and interests together,” Dr. Queen says. Decide on a safe word (that neither of you would ever normally say during sex) that communicates stopping, no questions asked.
- Learn together. Need to learn how to properly tie a knot or anything else as a prerequisite for your fetish or kink play? Take a class, read a book, and watch knowledgeable, highly regarded teachers online together.
And remember, kinks and fetishes aren’t always for everybody. “They can absolutely be enhancing and exciting, but there’s no shame if someone doesn’t want to play,” Dr. Queen says. “I’ve heard people accuse others of not being sex-positive if they didn’t want to get kinky, and that’s nonsense, super inappropriate, and basically the opposite of sex-positive.” That said, if a partner doesn’t seem open and intrigued about exploring your fetish or kink, Dr. Queen suggests keeping it in the realm of fantasy for a while longer, and considering whether you and your partner are actually compatible long-term and on a serious level.
Whether you have kinks or fetishes or both or none, remember that all options can be perfectly healthy so long as sexual events are consensual and enjoyable for all parties involved. To that point, do your best to remain judgment-free from whatever you or your partner is into. “It’s not the kinks that complicate our relationships; it’s our stigma of them that does,” says Ramirez. So, go on and confidently get down with kinks and fetishes—or not.
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