What is a fetish?
Wait — don't answer that quite yet. Of all the buzzy sex terms out there, "fetish" is perhaps the most misunderstood. It carries a certain connotation, as adjectives like "weird," "strange" and even "dirty" often precede it. The result: endless jokes, stigmas and popular myths about what a sexual fetish is and isn't.
But it doesn't have to be so misunderstood, or complicated for that matter. Gloria Brame, a sexologist, author and member of the fetish community herself, put it this way to Mic:
"A fetish is an intense erotic fascination with an object or part of the body that may give the fetishist as much (or more) arousal and satisfaction as a straight sex act."
The how and the why behind this can vary, said Brame. "For most fetishists, the fetish object or body part has extra layers of personal meaning, whether magical or mystical, or simply overwhelmingly arousing."
With this in mind, here some of the most prevalent myths surrounding fetishes that it's finally time to put them all (yes, we're saying it) to bed.
Myth 1: Fetish = perversion.
Does having a fetish make someone perverted?
"Not at all," Brame told Mic. "I have often wondered about people with massive collections of dolls or guns -- how is that different from a fetish for shoes? The only difference, really, is that a [sexual] fetish is intrinsically connected to libido and desire, while other types of collections may speak to a person's drive for security."
As for why that happens, theories range. One, explained by psychologist and sex researcher Justin Lehmiller, is rooted in classical conditioning, whereby "to the extent that a specific object repeatedly appears just before we experience sexual arousal, we may eventually come to see that object as a cue for sexual arousal." Another theory is geographic, as the area of our brains that control our sexual parts may overlap or be closely located to another part of the brain — say, "the region that manages your feet," noted Shape.
Myth 2: Fetish and kink are the same thing.
Yet another case for staying on top of your accurate definition game.
As noted above, a fetish is often centered around an object or specific act. Kink, meanwhile, is often used to describe any sexual behaviors that fall outside of the mainstream — though there can be overlap, creating some confusion even within the community.
"I have always referred to my main kink, which is being spanked, and being submissive to my partner, as my fetishes," Jessica Wakeman wrote for the Frisky in 2013. "Technically-speaking, however, my 'spanking fetish' and my 'submission fetish' are not fetishes."
A quick rule of thumb, according to Brame, is to just remember that "all fetishists are kinky, but not all kinky people have fetishes."
Myth 3: There's a certain kind of person who's into fetishes.
There is no such thing as a standard fetishist, as the fetish community is incredibly diverse — in fact, it's not even a single community. "There are communities for foot fetishes, latex and rubber fetishists, chastity fetishists, lingerie fetishists, diaper fetishists, and myriad other specialized sexual interests," Brame said.
Even within individual fetish communities, tastes can vary, as one foot fetishist wrote in a 2014 Medium essay: "It's all a matter of taste, and like music, some fetishists have a narrow, refined taste while some guys don't care if their girlfriend has hooves and sausage toes."
Myth 4: Fetishes are rare.
"The Internet has been the single biggest boon to sexually unconventional hook-ups in human history," Brame told Mic. "It has been demonstrated time and again that if you build a site for an interest you don't think anyone in the world shares, within a few months you'll have a bustling membership."
Or, as Cindy put it on Season 3 of Orange is the New Black, "Everything is a thing. Like them people who like to fuck in animal costumes ... That's the thing with the Internet. Nobody's a freak no more."
Myth 5: Fetishes are always rooted in a power dynamic.
With Fifty Shades mania spreading reductive portrayals of kink, many people are led to believe that fetishes are always rooted in a dominant/submissive power dynamic between partners. This is inaccurate, Brame said.
"There are innumerable fetishists that do not have a defined connection with power (master/slave or top/bottom) dynamics," she explained, citing Furries, sploshing, and adult baby fetish communities as examples.
"All of these are expressions of the fetish impulse — the eroticization of something that seems to have special erotic/mystical qualities — but they are very different from a BDSM-type fetish where rituals and engagement revolve around a dominant and a submissive dynamic."
Myth 6: Fetishes lead to crime.
Brame notes that the occasional fetishist who makes negative headlines (See: "Man arrested in foot-fetish attack," "Texas cop with foot fetish asks woman for sexual favors in return for not busting her") is also far from the norm.
"What we don't read are the stories of the tens of millions of fetishists who will never do anything illegal or offensive, and who lead happy productive lives with their partners," she said. "That is the underlying reality of the typical fetishist's life: They are normal, average, contributing members of society and their fetish is their private sexual identity."
Myth 7: Fetishes get in the way of human connection.
Contrary to their object-centric definition, it's important to note that fetishists still prioritize what we're all looking to get out of our relationships: authentic human connection.
"I have never met a fetishist who cared more for their fetish objects than for people," Brame said. "Most want love and connection with their erotic play. What is typical is that a fetishist wants to live out her or his desires with a caring, accepting and — ideally — equally enthusiastic partner."
As Jillian Keenan, who's into belts and spanking, wrote in a 2012 Modern Love essay for New York Times, "In our different ways, we all just want honesty and intimacy."