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Last updated: Mar 16, 2022
4 min read

What is a fetish? Are they normal?

A fetish is when a person gets sexual gratification from something that might not traditionally be viewed as sexual (like an inanimate object or nonsexual body part). Some of the most common fetishes focus on feet, hair, piercings, or underwear. Fetishes are totally normal and lots of people have them. As long as they don’t interfere with your well-being or that of others, fetishes can be part of a healthy sex life.

Disclaimer

If you have any medical questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare provider. The articles on Health Guide are underpinned by peer-reviewed research and information drawn from medical societies and governmental agencies. However, they are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

Sex and the City fans may remember the episode where shoe lover Charlotte meets Buster, a shoe store salesman with a foot fetish. For days, Charlotte and Buster happily rocked their socks off while she tried on luxury heels and he (quite literally) got off. 

For some people, this episode may have been their first introduction to sexual fetishes. But how realistic is it? Fetishes are more common than you think. We spoke to our resident sexual health expert Dr. Michael Reitano to learn more about what fetishes are, where they come from, and how they can make a person’s sex life more interesting.

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What is a fetish?

Simply put, a fetish is sexual desire and gratification that’s linked to an inanimate object or body parts not traditionally viewed as sexual (Ventriglio, 2019).

Types of fetishes

“When it comes to objects, fetishes can be linked to the shape (like boots, hats, or belts),” says Dr. Reitano. “Or they can be linked to the material the object is made of. Think: leather, satin, or latex.” 

Object fetishes typically involve clothing associated with the body with skirts, stockings, shoes, and underwear being the most common. Full-body costumes, jackets, and coats are also popular among object fetishists. 

However, this fetish can extend beyond clothing. Diapers, watches, and medical objects (like stethoscopes, hearing aids, and catheters) can all be a turn-on for some people (Scorolli, 2007).

Certain body parts, such as feet or hair, can also be a big turn-on. According to one study on fetishes, about two-thirds of participants reported body-related fetishes (Scorolli, 2007). 

“When fetishes are related to body parts, the focus can be on a specific part or on a physical attribute, like obesity or extremes of height,” says Dr. Reitano.

And the fetishes don’t stop there.

“They are remarkably varied and include tattoos, piercings, or body odor,” he says. “People may also get sexually excited by behaviors like biting their fingernails, smoking, jogging, wrestling, fighting, or other sports activities.” 

Fetishes involving the toes and feet are the most common, being preferred by 47% of people with fetishes. Hair, muscles, tattoos, and piercings are also common fetishes. Nearly 1 in 10 people get sexually excited by bodily fluids including golden showers (urine), menstrual blood, and mucus. If you can name a body part, there’s probably a fetish for it. Even more rare fetishes like noses and ears can be arousing to some people (Scorolli, 2007).

Why do people have fetishes? 

“It depends,” says Dr. Reitano. “Just like we all have different tastes for different foods, people are turned on by different things. Sexual arousal takes place not only on a physical level but also a psychological one.” 

Researchers don’t know for sure why some people have fetishes. For those who develop a fetish in adolescence, their first exposure to that object or act in a sexual setting can imprint it as sexual in their mind (Ventriglio, 2019). 

“For example, a person may enjoy an early positive sexual experience with someone who was wearing heels,” he says. “Then, if that person continues to enjoy positive sexual experiences with people wearing heels, a Pavlovian response starts to develop.”

Over time and repeated experiences, the object itself gets linked to sexual arousal, making someone feel excited even before sex takes place. 

“In this way, it’s easy to see how sexual fetishes can be a healthy and enjoyable part of a person’s sexuality,” says Dr. Reitano.  

However, it’s important to distinguish between safe fantasies and fetishistic disorders. Many people have perfectly healthy fetishes like wearing high heels or having a partner don a cowboy hat during sex. It’s a part of enjoyable play for many individuals and couples—and it’s completely normal. 

A fetishistic disorder, on the other hand, is when the fetish causes significant distress or impaired functioning. A fetish can enter the realm of a psychiatric disorder when it’s harmful to others (psychologically or physically) or involves people unable to give consent (Ventriglio, 2019).

Fetishes vs. kinks: what’s the difference?

These two terms are often used interchangeably but don’t mean the same thing. Fetishes describe sexual attraction and gratification linked to inanimate objects or body parts not inherently viewed as sexual. 

Kinks describe a broader category that is defined by society and evolves according to what’s considered kinky (or what’s not). Kinks can include fetishes, as well as different sexual interests and activities that fall outside the realm of “traditional” sex. Common kinks may include (Rehor, 2015):

  • Erotic role play
  • The use of sex toys like dildos or strap-ons
  • BDSM (bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, sadism and masochism)
  • Adult baby or diaper lovers
  • Cuckolds
  • Furries
  • Exhibitionism
  • Spanking
  • Hair pulling
  • Voyeurism

Are you normal if you have a fetish?

“It’s perfectly okay if you prefer your partner to wear a cowboy hat during sex or if nail-biting turns you on,” says Dr. Reitano. “So long as your fetish doesn’t get in the way of your own well-being, the safety of others, and your partners participate enthusiastically, there is nothing wrong with it.”

He adds that if your fetish causes you distress or interferes with your quality of life, it’s important to talk with a health professional or sex therapist.

“Fetishes can add an element of spice to a healthy sex life, just like exploring different sex positions or fantasies,” he says. 

So, go on and enjoy your fetish!

References

  1. Lasala, A., Paparo, F., Senese, V. P., & Perrella, R. (2020). An exploratory study of adult baby-diaper lovers’ characteristics in an Italian online sample. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 17(4), 1371. doi:10.3390/ijerph17041371. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32093315/
  2. Martinez, K. (2016). Somebody’s fetish: Self-objectification and body satisfaction among consensual sadomasochists. Journal of Sex Research, 53(1), 35–44. doi:10.1080/00224499.2014.978494. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25621815/
  3. Rehor, J. E. (2015). Sensual, erotic, and sexual behaviors of women from the ‘kink’ community. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 44(4), 825–836. doi:10.1007/s10508-015-0524-2. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25795531/
  4. Scorolli, C., Ghirlanda, S., Enquist, M., et al. (2007). Relative prevalence of different fetishes. International Journal of Impotence Research, 19(4), 432–437. doi:10.1038/sj.ijir.3901547. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17304204/ 
  5. Ventriglio, A., Bhat, P. S., Torales, J., & Bhugra, D. (2019). Sexuality in the 21st century: Leather or rubber? Fetishism explained. Medical Journal, Armed Forces India, 75(2), 121–124. doi:10.1016/j.mjafi.2018.09.009. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31065177/