Kink vs. Fetish: A Sex Therapist Lays Out the Difference

kink vs fetish

You read 50 Shades of Grey. You own a vibrator. You know what a kink is...or do you? We tapped a sex therapist to talk all things kink vs fetish in case you want to explore one—or both—in the bedroom. Strap yourself in, because it’s about to get steamy. 

So, what exactly is a kink?

“A kink is something sexual that someone likes to do with themselves or consensually with partners,” says Rosara Torrisi, PhD from the Long Island Institute of Sex Therapy. “This is usually something considered outside of mainstream sexual activities.” A kink usually brings extra erotic energy to a sexual encounter, explains Torrisi (think: BDSM, role play or polyamory).

It’s worth nothing, however, that what’s considered kinky is subjective. Case in point: While your mother-in-law might think that sex toys are kinky, your bestie considers them pretty vanilla.

Got it. So, what is a fetish?

A fetish is similar to a kink, but the difference is that something is a fetish when it MUST be present in order for the person to achieve sexual arousal or enjoyment. This can be an act (like having sex in public) or an object (like feet). The important thing to remember here is that a fetish is something that the person cannot get aroused without—for some people simply fantasizing about the fetish can be enough while others may need to actually engage with the object or behavior in some way.

Wait, so what’s the difference between kink and fetish exactly?

There can definitely be some overlap between a kink and a fetish so we understand the confusion. Dr. Torrisi breaks down the difference as “whether it's something someone likes to do or if it’s something someone has to do in order to have sexual pleasure.”

Here’s an example: If one night in bed, you accidentally hear your neighbors going at it and it turns you on, that’s kinky. But, if you need to listen to or watch others having sex in order to feel aroused then that’s a fetish.

How can you explore kinks and fetishes safely?

“Two of the most important things about exploring kinks and fetishes are consent and safety planning,” says Torrisi. That means finding a partner that you can trust and doing your research (like learning how to properly tie a knot, for example). Keep the acronym RACK in mind, which is not a fetish but instead stands for “risk aware consensual kink.” It’s a term used in the kink community to make sure that all parties are comfortable and safe.

“There are really great resources from folks who work professionally with kinks and fetishes,” says Torrisi. She recommends checking out La Maison du Rouge for products, educators, research and more. “Joining a community to learn more about how to safely explore kinks and fetishes is also important,” she adds.

If you are experiencing distress about any kink or fetish, reaching out to a sex therapist could be helpful.

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