Erotic is using a feather. Kinky is using the whole chicken.
A few decades ago, those into BDSM or leather/latex, or many of our other pleasures, would have been described as “fetishists”. Now we tend to go with “kinksters”. It’s an example of linguistic fashion, but in this case it’s also more accurate. Even though many people use them in the same way, and they’re often used to just mean “interests”, the words “kink” and “fetish” are not interchangeable.
In the BDSM Glossary on Fetlife, the definitions for these terms are:
kink: Unconventional sexual preferences or behavior
fetish: Sexual excitement aroused by a specific object, body part, or activity not usually associated with sexual arousal
At first glance, those definitions look similar, and it can be confusing. If I am into leather-sex, that could be an “unconventional sexual preference” or it could be “aroused by a specific object”. If I get off on doing it on the swing in the park, that could be an “unconventional sexual behaviour” or it could be “aroused by an activity”.
However, I’ve bolded up two words there that are important.
WHAT IS A FETISH?
A sexual or erotic fetish is a sexual focus on a specific nonliving object or non-genital body part. In general usage, we also talk about it including specific behaviours or actions.
It’s something the person finds necessary for arousal. In many cases, if you don’t share the same fetish, as an outsider it can appear unusual. It could be mannequins, balloons, a type of food, tufted slippers or your partner wearing a fez. To most of us, these would appear non-sexual. It could be something more common and traditionally sexual though. You can have a breast interest (vanilla), a breast kink (such as bondage or clamps, fun but not required), or a breast fetish (no breasts or not allowed to play with them, no arousal).
So, a simple example might be:
A person with a foot fetish gets aroused by seeing, touching, smelling (etc) feet. This is a part of the body that is not usually sexualized. It doesn’t usually bring on arousal. However, for a person with a foot fetish, it is sexually arousing.
Perhaps you enjoy toe-sucking. The toes/feet themselves don’t necessarily have to turn you on. It could just be the act of sucking/worshipping the toes that you find enjoyable because it is an intimate exchange with your partner. When you suck your partner’s toes, you might feel close to them. In that’s the case, it’s an unconventional sexual behaviour, but you don’t have a fetish for feet.
In his excellent book BDSM – A Guide for Explorers of Extreme Eroticism, Ayzad writes:
Like with any fetishism, all five senses are intensely involved. Some people eroticize the smell of farts, others invent revolting dishes and so on, without excluding the possibility for any type of scandal. There is no moral taboo that hasn’t been broken by its corresponding fetish: a sizable fringe even finds the simulation of serious accidents to be arousing, wearing plaster casts and disturbing fake bandages to savor the horror on the faces of those who see them.
Let me be clear that this type of exaggeration is as far removed from BDSM as Szilveszter Matuska, the early eighteenth-century maniac who caused train wrecks to satisfy his extreme fetishism. What this does do is speak volumes about the ability of the human brain to take pleasure from just about any kind of object and situation — an ability from which we can draw immense satisfaction.
THE PSYCHIATRIC GUIDELINES ON FETISHISM
The ICD-10 (the World Health Organization’s medical classification list) defines fetishism as a reliance on non-living objects for sexual arousal and satisfaction. It is only considered a disorder when fetishistic activities are the foremost source of sexual satisfaction, and become so compelling or unacceptable as to cause distress or interfere with normal sexual intercourse.
Under the American Psychiatric Association’s DSM-5, fetishism is sexual arousal from nonliving objects or specific nongenital body parts, excluding clothes used for cross-dressing (as that falls under transvestic disorder) and sex toys that are designed for genital stimulation. In order to be diagnosed as fetishistic disorder, the arousal must persist for at least six months and causes significant psychosocial distress or impairment in important areas of their life. In the DSM-IV, sexual interest in body parts was distinguished from fetishism, but it was merged with fetishistic disorder for the DSM-5.
The ReviseF65 project has campaigned for the ICD diagnosis to be abolished completely to avoid stigmatizing fetishists. Sexologist Odd Reiersøl argues that distress associated with fetishism is often caused by shame, and that being subject to diagnosis only exacerbates that. He suggests that, in cases where the individual fails to control harmful behavior, they instead be diagnosed with a personality or impulse control disorder.
WHAT MAKES A KINK KINKY?
Kink is more of an umbrella term, and while fetishes are part of kink, kink refers to far more than fetishes.
Technically, you can have a kink without it even arousing you. If you like financial domination of your sexual partners because it arouses them and gives you access to presents, you have a kink that is not a fetish, to give but one example.
But, what makes a kink kinky is that it falls outside of the mainstream. The word I bolded up in the definition was “unusual”, and the deciding factor for a kink is that it is an unusual sexual interest or behaviour. The more mainstream things become, the less kinky they are.
Many heated discussions have formed over where that line falls. Is lingerie a kink? Many people would yawn and say “too vanilla”.
ARE KINKS AND FETISHES A SEXUAL ORIENTATION?
In an interview, writer Jillian Keenan pries the two terms, kink and fetish, apart. She says:
About a year and a half ago, I wrote an article for Slate saying that I understand my fetish to be my sexual orientation. When I go back and read that article now, I can see myself doing a little bit of rhetorical tap dancing. I argue that this is my sexual orientation in that it’s innate, unchosen and life-long, but I don’t want to be exclusive, because there’s some people for whom it is not innate and chosen and life-long, and I’m not trying to exclude them from the umbrella of kink. I’m not trying to exclude them from BDSM communities. If a woman discovers rope bondage in her forties and loves it, that’s fine.
I think my problem when I wrote that article was that I was using the term “kink” as a catchall. Now, as I’ve been talking to more people and gotten involved in the community and met more spanking fetishists, but also as I have made friends in the BDSM community, I’ve realized it would have been more useful in that article if I had separated the terms kink and fetish.
A kinky person is maybe that person who’s wearing the Darth Vader suit and tying up his partner and having sex, and that doesn’t necessarily have to be life-long. Whereas fetish—I can’t tell you how many stories I’ve heard from my friends about how early this starts. So I think it cannot be anything other than an orientation.
The distinction she draws is important, because it leads her to the conclusion that while a kink can be transient hot fun, a fetish is wired in and therefore a form of sexual orientation.
Again, this is also a hot-button issue, but I think she’s right. If you feel like what you sexually need is part of your DNA and who you are, then it’s your own, personal sexual orientation. It doesn’t matter if it’s shared by tens of thousands, or only a handful, or only you. It’s your own understanding of yourself that’s important, whether other people agree or not.