What is “normal” with sex and what is almost pathological? Many ask themselves these questions. There are many indiscriminate posts floating around on the internet. It’s high time to give our expert, Nicole Engel, a graduate psychologist and sexual therapist, the floor.
According to the criteria of the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders” (DSM), things like a striptease or the dominance of a partner in the bedroom are considered “fetish.” Voyeurism and masochism are counted amongst pathologically disturbed sexual preferences. Would you agree?
Sexual feelings and activities both depend on the satisfaction of human needs and generally have a wide range of variety. Not only in the intensity of the desires and experiences, but also in the range of sexual practices. When looking at the spectrum, it is often difficult to establish a clear border between normal and abnormal. Unlike other classifications of psychological disorders, the definition of sexual deviance is closely connected to social norms, and whether the relevant behavior patterns are commonly seen or not.
In psychology one differentiates between “disorders in sexual preference” and “paraphilic disorders.” Paraphilia is a sexual urge towards an unusual sexual object or for unusual sexual stimulation. Stripteases and sexually dominant behavior with mutual consent are not considered a disorder. On the other hand, voyeurism and masochism may result in the freedoms of others being restricted and/or the practitioners themselves suffering as a result of this sexual preference.
A recent study by Canadian researchers presented the question of what the distinction between “normal” and “abnormal” is. The result: almost half (45.6%) of all subjects had at least one of the sexual desires that were considered as paraphilic sexual practices. A third (33%) had at least once engaged in these “abnormal” sexual urges. Does that surprise you?
It doesn’t surprise me. I find it wonderful that people can live out their sexual desires with mutual consent. Our society continues to evolve. Psychology is also a discipline that is subject to constant development. In the past, many of the less mainstream sexual practices were too quickly and easily labeled as pathological abnormalities, whilst the characteristics of paraphilia as a “mental disorder” are also subject to changing trends. With the modern, psychological approaches of today, the classifications of fetish preferences, transvestism and mutually consented sexual sadomasochism have now been removed from the “sexual preference disorder” category.
The most important reason for this is that paraphilic behaviors do not present as psychological disorders, so long as those affected do not suffer from the exercise of their sexual urges or the freedoms of others are not violated or restricted.
What kind of cases are you dealing with in your daily work as a sex therapist?
An example from my clinic of a couple experiencing challenges due to a fetish could be the desire of a man to be stimulated and find satisfaction exclusively by his wife’s feet. Problems stemming from an unfulfilled or excessively fulfilled fetish are, however, not so common. For one thing, fulfilling a fetish doesn’t often happen in the way described above, because both partners are okay with it. Additionally, security is also a topic here — generally sex or masturbation are discussed in our society with a sense of shame — so those affected rarely come forward and identify themselves with this theme. That is the real shame. Since sex is one of the nicest things in the world and each one of us should experience it as passionately as we wish.
When is a fetish compulsive?
A need for treatment from a sexual therapist standpoint occurs when the fetish serves as a total substitute for partnership-based sexuality, sexual satisfaction without the fetish is difficult or seems impossible to achieve and when those affected suffer as a result. This means: the sexual mindset is completely limited to the fetish. Experts estimate that this affects around 3% of men, and women much less commonly so.
What kind of fetish is really common?
Everything that can be especially sexually arousing can be considered a very strong preference – or a fetish. A fetish often refers to inanimate things, like objects and materials. These serve to sexually arouse and satisfy. Numerous fetishes represent an extension of a person’s body, for example pieces of clothing or shoes. Fairly common are lingerie, fishnet stockings, clothes made from rubber, plastic or latex, as well as stilettos or sneakers. However, feet themselves can also represent a fetish. Or even balloons.
What makes a fetish so erotic?
The fetish leads to intense sexual impulses and fantasies. It arouses and satisfies sexually. That is what makes it so interesting and indispensable.
Perhaps from an individual perspective, having extreme experiences, breaking social taboos or feeling empowered are all ways to compensate for poor relationship skills and other unmet needs or even be used to raise self-esteem.
Can it be dangerous to suppress your sexual preferences or a fetish? Or in other words: should you always try to fulfill your sexual urges?
Men and women should, as long as no one else is harmed or any rights are violated and as long as the person with the fetish does not suffer as a result of this preference. An unlived life means a suppression of needs, which is in no way conducive to a high quality of life and psychological stability.
Thank you for the interview, Nicole!