I couldn’t help but wonder: what was the difference between kink and fetish? In the ages of 2020, words such as ‘kinky’ and ‘rough’ sex are often thrown around with not much care for the nuances and histories of kink. Such content is not taught in sex education – this is arguably not the same core tenets as consent, pleasure healthy relationships and STI safety. Regardless, young adults are interested in this kind of play (many a TikTok I’ve seen of people screaming “you’re honour I’m a freak!!!”).
Kink has had a long history – from Goddess Inanna from the Mesopotamian era, to Mr Sacher-Masoch’s tales of being kept by a dominant woman – although it has still seen a large amount of stigmatisation in the world of sexuality (no doubt abetted by Freud and his theories). It was as recently as 2010 that in America, distinctions were made between consenting adults choosing certain sexual behaviours vs. adults who had pathological tendencies/disorders (Gerson, 2015). In short, choosing to engage in pain play with consenting adults did not differ from the same act without consent – a want to perform ‘abnormal’ sexual play and behaviours was considered a mental illness, rather than a sexual preference. And in law courts, social situations like work, and even in relationships with people outside of kink communities, the social stigmatisation is enough to threaten shame; taking children away and losing work posed the largest threat.
Luckily, kink is more openly discussed than ever before; note this does not necessarily mean practised more. However, considering research that people are up to 2.5X more likely to fantasise about kinks rather than enact them, there is more for us all to learn. Let’s dig in…
What is kink?
Kink is considered anything outside of the ‘normal’ realms of sexual intercourse; throughout history, essentially men have decided what forms acceptable sexuality, whilst profiting from the freedom of being sexual subjects (read my sarcasm here). Of course, what has been established as normal throughout time means that morality, social acceptability and exclusion has governed how we think about sex. Acts including “loving touch, romantic talk, kissing, vaginal penetration, masturbation, and oral sex” (Aswell, 2020) are all considered ‘normal’ (and are thus what some in the kink community might refer to as ‘vanilla’). As we can see, this depends on being a ‘romantic’, able-bodied, and heteronormative person. While this does it for some, others are more on the experimental side.
Things that fall under the kink umbrella are:
- BDSM – Bondage, Discipline, Dominant/submissive, Sadism (pleasure from inflicting pain/humiliation), Masochism (pleasure from pain inflicted on you). This might include being tied up, pain play, dominatrixes, master/slave relationships etc. People drawn to BDSM might have an interest in power in relationships (Alptraum, 2019). Some people find themselves enjoying ‘switching’ also; where they play both roles
- Fetishes – considered kink ‘play’ – there are literally hundreds. Having a fetish involves treating something ‘inanimate’ like feet/hands/urine etc. in a sexual manner, often becoming an essential part of sex for fetish-holders (ibid)
- Group sex
These can all overlap too! Kinks can be something practised often, with certain people/one-time partners, or compromise a community individuals can be part of. Fetish more specifically, is something required for sexual release (Borresen, 2018). Some fetishes can be practised in a kinky-way, such as wearing heels during sex; but if it is more of a one-off play, it would fall under the wider umbrella, as opposed to the spoke of fetish.
There are many benefits of BDSM – clear communication, openness, higher subjective well-being (ibid). So far from being dangerous or an example of your poor mental health, people who experiment with BDSM experience better than average mental health. You heard it here first.
Queer communities have long regarded kink and BDSM spaces a safe place for marginalised communities, particularly one that has been impinged on by straight white men (Pan, 2019).
There are, of course, notable trends in kink; it is not unanalysed in the community that men tend to be more dominant, and women submissive. More women are interested in pain play, more men interested in feet (Aswell, 2020). Kink interests can be related to childhood play or even traumas (in a reclaiming manner), or they’re developed as an adult/through experimentation (Alptraum, 2019). Wherever they arise from, they’re generally speaking a healthy expression of sexuality; and for many, a space where they feel truly free.
Lessons from kink
Whilst it is important to make space for kink in sexual imagination and sexuality, many feel that it is imperative not to equate being sex-positive with being kinky. The practising of kink needs to be safe, well-discussed, consensual, thought-out, and of equal interest. Certainly embracing the presence of kink is sex-positive, but it is not something everyone has to try. Vanilla sex has just as much value, and of course changes throughout time (Sloan, 2020).
However, despite sexuality (particularly female) compromising shame throughout the ages (bad sex education, religion, politics, culture, ‘the good wife’ dialogue etc.), it is very important for kinky people to feel accepted and not internalise stigma (Hughes, 2018). This is still considered an ongoing battle.
For me, most significantly, the practice of safewords and aftercare are trailblazing – which often involves cuddling, talking, rehydrating, and “recentering” oneself (Hughes, 2018) after engaging in practice such as BDSM. Integrating such practice as a facet of consent, an extension and maintenance of boundaries enables sexualities to stretch and be respected.
Illustration by the wonderful Mayra Salazar @mayra.tee
Alptraum, L. (2019). The Science of Kink. Medium. (Accessed online: https://elemental.medium.com/the-science-of-kink-f878194ecbe6 18/10/2020)
Aswell, S. (2017). 1 in 5 of Your Friends Is Getting Kinky — Should You Be Too? Healthy Sex Webpage. (Accessed online: https://www.healthline.com/health/healthy-sex/kinky-sex-bdsm 18/10/2020)
Borresen, K. (2018). The Difference Between A Fetish And Kink, According To Sex Experts
Entry Webpage. (Accessed online: https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/difference-between-fetish-and-kink_n_5b58a59ae4b0b15aba94749b 18/10/2020)
Hughes, S. (2018). Growing Up Kinky: Research Shows How Kink Identity Is Formed. Standard Deviations Webpage. (Accessed online: https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/standard-deviations/201805/growing-kinky-research-shows-how-kink-identity-is-formed 19/10/2020)
Pan, L. (2020). Queering Kink. Femzine London Webpage. (Accessed online: https://www.femzinelondon.com/queer-kink 20/10/2020)
Sloan, S. (2020). Kink Versus Fetish: What’s The Difference Between The Two? Articles Webpage. (Accessed online: https://www.mindbodygreen.com/articles/kink-vs-fetish 19/10/2020)