These days, it seems like anyone with a slight proclivity for a-n-y-t-h-i-n-g is throwing around the words “kink” and “fetish” with abandon.
“I think I have a tall boy fetish,” someone might say after dating two tall boys in a row.
“I have an ice cream kink for sure,” some might say after indulging in a dairy dessert back-to-back.
Unfortunately, as these words have become more mainstream, their definitions become more ambiguous.
That’s why we put together this definition guide on kinks and fetishes. Below, read on for an explanation on what qualifies as a kink versus what qualifies as a fetish — plus insights on exactly how to explore potential kinks and fetishes.
A kink is anything that both falls outside of the typical boundaries of what society has deemed “normal” sexually and is arousing.
Because what qualifies as a kink is dependent on what your social sphere qualifies as normal, it’s highly dependent on a variety of factors, including:
- social circle
- media exposure
- sexual history and the sexual history of your partner(s)
So someone who primarily listens to country music (which doesn’t include much talk about anal) might consider their enjoyment of anal sex an anal kink, for example. On the other hand, someone whose favorite song is “Truffle Butter” might simply consider their love of anal a preference.
This means if someone says they’re kinky, you’d have to ask for specifics to know what that means. Of course, you shouldn’t ask ~just anyone~ a question that’s personal.
“The most common kinks are probably dominance and submission, bondage, and sadomasochism (that’s what the letters in BDSM stand for),” says sex-hacker and sex educator Kenneth Play, founder of Hacienda Villa, an international sex-positive community.
Other common kinks include:
- virtual sex
- orgasm control
- age play
- role play
- bodily fluids
There are a few accepted definitions of fetish, according to Carol Queen, PhD, sexologist with sex toy company Good Vibrations.
The most widely cited definition of a fetish is that it’s anything that:
- falls outside of the typical boundaries of what society has deemed “normal” sexual activity
- is arousing
- must be present for someone to experience pleasure
Basically, this definition describes fetish as a sexual need (while a kink is a sexual preference).
“In the present, it’s less common for sex educators to define fetishes as things that MUST be part of sex,” says Queen. “Instead, a newer definition says that fetishes are things that are erotic superchargers.”
For example, someone with a redhead fetish may be able to have (and enjoy!) sex with someone who doesn’t have red hair, she says. “But red hair is still special and lets us experience eroticism in an especially powerful way than when it isn’t present,” she explains.
Common fetishes include:
- high heels
Indeed, the difference can be hard to discern because there is overlap.
Sometimes the distinction is defined as the difference between a need (fetish) versus a preference (kink), says Taylor Sparks, erotic educator and founder of Organic Loven, one of the largest BIPOC-owned online intimacy shops.
“Someone who finds wearing high heel shoes while having sex to be arousing has a high heel kink,” she says. “But someone who NEEDS high heels to be present during sex in order to experience arousal has a high heel fetish.”
Sometimes, the distinction is defined as the difference between being particularly aroused by a particular sex act, geographical location, or sexual dynamic (kink), and being particularly aroused by a certain object, material, or nongenital body part (fetish).
Some questions you might ask yourself if you’re trying to determine whether something is a kink or a fetish:
- Is what I’m aroused by a thing or an action?
- Do I need it to be present to experience arousal?
- Can you enjoy solo sex without this being present?
Absolutely. You might have a kink and a fetish. Or multiple of both. You might have something(s) that feels like a kink some days, and a fetish on others.
As Queen puts it, “They aren’t really that different.”
“Exploring both involves being open to erotic adventure, being honest with yourself about what you really value and finding a turn-on, sometimes dealing with shame about being different, and being clear about the role these play in your life and sexuality with potential partners,” she says.
“For some, their kinks and fetishes are somewhat obvious,” says Play. “For instance, if during summer as a teenager you can’t help but stare at everyone’s feet in sandals and feel strongly sexually aroused by the sight of feet, you would naturally become aware that you’re into feet.”
Meanwhile, for others, a kink or fetish can be something they discover through exploring things, like porn, movies, or a new lover who exposes them to a new thing. When experiencing something new, you can find out all sorts of things about what you like and don’t, he says.
If you’re in the latter camp and want to learn more about your kinks and fetishes, these tips can help.
Take an online BDSM quiz
“There is a free online assessment called the BDSM Test that can help you learn more about what kinks interest you,” says Sparks. “It’s a good place to start.”
Make a ‘Yes-No-Maybe’ list
A list that involves putting a variety of acts, arrangements, positions, and objects into columns based on your interest in trying them, a “Yes-No-Maybe” list can help you identify the things that excite your body.
There are a variety of Yes-No-Maybe lists floating around the internet. But for figuring out your kinks and fetishes, one with a bank at the bottom, like this one from Bex Talks, is best.
Sparks suggests returning this list and recreating it every few years.
“As with any human experience, things and situations change,” she says. “Sometimes what turned you on in your 20s no longer has the same appeal. But as we get to know more and more about our own bodies and desires, as humans are naturally curious, we seek out different experiences.”
Visit online kink and fetish communities and spaces
From video porn to written erotica, online forums to chat platforms, the internet is rich with opportunities to learn more about your kinks and fetishes.
Sparks’ recommendation: Explore all of these corners of the internet!
“Visiting porn kink sites, such as Royal Fetish Films, gives you the opportunity to see your kinks in action,” she says. “Another kink site is FetLife, which is a fetish and kink social networking site. There you’ll find so many others like yourself that are exploring, experienced, and/or mentoring.”
Through these sites, you’ll be able to read their stories and maybe ask a question or two to group moderators about your own kinks or how they discovered theirs, she says.
Think through your own boundaries
Noodling on your own comfort and discomfort zones may help you better understand your own sexual kinks and fetishes, says Sparks.
For example, you may have a wax kink… but still not want it on your nipples, she says.
“Understanding your own boundaries can help you identify what it is you’re interested in exploring and not,” she says.
Some questions you might ask yourself:
- What body parts am I comfortable receiving pleasure from? In what contexts?
- What things I am interested in exploring on my own versus with a partner(s)?
- What do I need to be present to explore my sexuality in a way that feels safe to me?
Exactly what you’ll be learning about will vary based on the specific ~thing~ you’re interested in exploring. But regardless: It’s a MUST.
“Education must precede your experience, especially when it comes to anything that involves intense power play, pain, bondage, or anything else could at all be considered dangerous,” says Play. This education is important for keeping both you and your partner(s) physically, emotionally, and mentally safe.
For this learning, he recommends hiring a sexuality professional — for example, a sex educator, sex therapist, sex hacker, or sex worker.
You can also check out a variety of resources. Including:
- Sex Hacker Pro Course
- Kink Academy
- “Playing Well With Others” by Lee Harrington and Mollena Williams
- “The Ethical Slut” by Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy
- “Why Are People Into That?!” podcast
Different sex acts have different risks.
Some, like impact play, may be physically higher risk than others.
But regardless, it’s important to:
- Be informed about the potential risks of exploring certain sex acts, so you can work to manage those risks.
- Be intentional about who you’re exploring those sex acts with.
Queen emphasizes that a sex worker will be highly experienced in both realms, and thus a great option for exploring a potential kink or fetish for the first time.
“Professionals may have so much more information about varying kinks, AND be so much easier to talk to and negotiate with, that it can be like a lab setting for exploring your sexuality,” she says.
If you’d prefer to explore with a partner, she says it’s important to choose a partner who you feel comfortable communicating with — and vice versa.
“Even before you get into different kinds of sexual play with someone, you can look for how comfortable they seem with sex, how easy they are to communicate with, and whether they express judgment about others’ sexual choices to determine if they’re a good fit,” she says.
It’s also best to choose a partner who’s generally tuned in to your body language (and vice versa) and who’s willing to do the prerequisite research with you.
Ultimately, whether or not the things that interest you sexually are categorized as a kink, fetish, or neither isn’t super important! But exploring what brings you pleasure in a way that feels safe, freeing, and joyful is.
Gabrielle Kassel (she/her) is a queer sex educator and wellness journalist who is committed to helping people feel the best they can in their bodies. In addition to Healthline, her work has appeared in publications such as Shape, Cosmopolitan, Well+Good, Health, Self, Women’s Health, Greatist, and more! In her free time, Gabrielle can be found coaching CrossFit, reviewing pleasure products, hiking with her border collie, or recording episodes of the podcast she co-hosts called Bad In Bed. Follow her on Instagram @Gabriellekassel.