ANDREW DESCRIBES HIMSELF AS having a boot fetish. “I wear boots while having sex, and if my partner is open to it, they will wear boots, too,” says the 40-something living in Melbourne, Australia. “I caress and lick them or sometimes rub myself on them.” He describes this interest as a fetish—not a kink—because “nine times out of 10,” boots are required for his sexual arousal.
People often use the terms “kink” and “fetish” interchangeably. However, many sexuality experts and people within the kink community make an important distinction between the two concepts.
So, what’s the difference between a kink and a fetish?
While all fetishes are kinks, not all kinks are not fetishes, explains Justin Lehmiller, Ph.D., a researcher at the Kinsey Institute, member of the Men’s Health advisory panel, and resident sex researcher at Astroglide.
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A fetish is something that’s necessary for someone to experience sexual satisfaction, the way Andrew feels about boots. Fetishes fall under the broader category of kink: “an umbrella term that encompasses any and all sexual interests, behaviors, and identities that aren’t considered mainstream,” Lehmiller says. So, a kink may be a fun, occasional addition to someone’s sexual repertoire, or something that they consistently require.
Sometimes, the word “fetish” is also used to describe the “erotic fascination with a non-genital body part, article of clothing, or inanimate object,” according to Lehmiller. But a fetish can also involve a behavior or fantasy, says Dr. Jessica O’Reilly, Astroglide’s resident sexologist.
The key difference to remember between a kink and a fetish is not the type of activity or object that’s brought into the bedroom, but whether it is necessary for that person’s arousal.
What does it look like to have a fetish?
Fetishes can involve a variety of body parts, objects, and activities, including erotic role play, handcuffs, spanking, used underwear, group sex, and voyeurism. Whatever a person’s fetish entails, if it’s “not used in sexual activity, then sexual gratification is not achieved,” says psychotherapist Veronica Lichtenstein, LMHC.
Lichtenstein, for example, had a client with a diaper fetish. “She had a sex craving outside the norm and admitted that she was not as satisfied in the bedroom unless she incorporated her baby paraphernalia,” which made it a fetish, she says. “If she reported she liked to use diapers, baby bottles, role play, etc. occasionally during sex, it would be considered kink.”
Some fetishes, like Andrew’s, involve wearing something into the bedroom. “Believe it or not, I must wear a wig in bed to become sexually aroused,” says 66-year-old Hollywood publicist and author Daniel Harary. “I’ve been bald for a very long time, so when I wear a long hair wig in bed, it brings me back to my teenage years, when I had very, very long hair.”
Other clothing and accessory-based fetishes include leather, lingerie, gym gear, heels, and other shoes, says psychotherapist and certified sex therapist Dr. Lee Phillips. Another common form of fetish involves body parts, such as “navels, legs, mouth, and hair,” he adds. “We tend to see the ‘philias’ with fetishes. Some of these may include urophilia (sexual acts or activities involving urine) and coprophilia (sexual acts or activities involving feces).”
Some theorize that fetishes may relate to people’s experiences early in life or to the neuroscience of how we process pleasure (especially when the fetish is body-part-based), says O’Reilly.
“It comes from my huge crush on Ginger Spice from the Spice Girls when I was a teenager,” Andrew says of his boot fetish. “She often wore those kinds of boots on stage.”
Phillips emphasizes that “fetishes are quite common, and they are only a problem if they interfere with the person’s life—for example, a person does not show up at work because they are looking at their feet on the subway all day.”
What does it mean to have a kink?
“‘Kinky’ refers to anything that deviates from conventional sex,” says O’Reilly. “You can see from this definition that this is highly subjective.”
What’s considered “kinky” to one person, in other words, may just be part of someone else’s normal sexual repertoire. For instance, Rome, a 48-year-old retail manager in Texas, says his kink is that he likes “hairy pussy.” But for somewhere outside the modern United States, where pubic hair removal is something of a trend, pubic hair may just be an everyday part of sex.
A kink “is best defined as sexual behaviors and preferences that are not easily categorized or different from what we consider typical sexual interests,” Phillips says. “For example, a typical sexual interest, also known as ‘vanilla sex,’ would include kissing in a missionary position. Kinky sex may involve role playing where one partner is submissive (the sub) and the other one is dominant (the dom).”
Other kinks can include sensation play (e.g. hot wax or electricity), sexual acts like fisting, and bondage techniques like ropes and sensory deprivation, says Phillips. Any addition to the bedroom that can constitute a fetish can also be a kink, and vice versa.
A final word on kinks and fetishes:
Some preferences are on the border between kinks and fetishes. Amber Angelica, a 25-year-old dominatrix, says she needs to send or receive money to get aroused by virtual sexual interactions (making it more like a fetish in these scenarios), but not in-person ones (making it more like a kink).
“I would not be turned on by dirty talk, pictures, or images, but it arouses me to make a big purchase or receive money,” she says. “If I’m having sex in person, that is different, and I can be turned on by the other person!”
What ultimately matters is not what label you put on a sexual desire but how comfortable you are with it. “Healthy intimacy happens with consenting adults and is safe for everyone involved,” says Lichtenstein. “Regardless of your kink or fetish, when your sexual behavior isn’t damaging to yourself or others, the healthiest way to deal with it is to accept what you are feeling and desiring as a natural part of who you are.”
Suzannah Weiss is a freelance writer, certified sex educator, and sex/love coach whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, New York Magazine, and more