Different strokes for different folks. It’s a bit trite, but it speaks to a basic truth: what people want and need to be happy and fulfilled varies from person to person. This idea applies to pretty much every area of life, and our sexual desires and activities are certainly no exception.
If what you find sexually attractive or arousing involves a specific object, body part, or situation that may be considered unusual or unconventional, you may feel particularly vulnerable about sharing your predilection with someone else, or even admitting it to yourself. But you are certainly not alone. Unconventional turns-ons are a natural aspect of human sexuality that a lot of people share.
Furthermore, having one does not mean there’s anything wrong with you. That’s no empty reassurance—it’s an assertion supported by science. A 2013 study found no evidence to support the idea that people who engage in BDSM (bondage, discipline, domination, sadism, and masochism) are more likely than others to have mental health problems or personality disorders.
All this is to emphasize that having a sexual interest that deviates from what is considered “normal” is incredibly common and, as long as it’s consensual, and you’re not harming yourself or others, it needn’t be an issue.
However, if you think you’re turned on by a thing, thought, or activity you don’t want—especially if it’s suddenly turned up unannounced—it can lead to significant distress and interfere with your daily life, cause doubt and worry about your identity and desires, and require action to resolve.
In this article, we will explore the nature of unwanted kinks or fetishes, discuss a mental health condition known as fetishistic disorder, learn about the relationship between fears of unwanted desires and OCD, and outline strategies that can help you manage your feelings and thoughts.
Preferences, kinks, and fetishes explained
The terms “fetish,” “kink,” and “sexual preference” are often used interchangeably, but they actually have distinct meanings. Before we go any further, let’s get familiar with what these words mean.
Sexual preference: A sexual preference is a sexual attraction to a particular gender, body type, or other characteristic. If, for example, you are attracted to men over 6’3”, it could be said that you have a “preference” for tall men.
Kink: A kink is a sexual interest or activity that deviates from what is considered “normal” or “vanilla” sex. This can include a wide range of activities, such as bondage, domination and submission, and role-playing.
Fetish: A fetish—unlike a sexual preference or a kink—is often used casually to refer to kinks involving certain body parts or objects, but it’s also related to a specific mental health condition called fetishistic disorder. In the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), a person needs to meet specific criteria for diagnosis.
These are the criteria for a diagnosis of fetishistic disorder in the DSM-5:
- Over a six-month period, the individual has experienced sexual urges focused on a non-genital body part, inanimate object, or other stimulus and has acted out urges, fantasies, or behaviors.
- The fantasies, urges, or behaviors cause distress or impairment in functioning.
- The Fetishistic object is not an article of clothing employed in cross-dressing, or a sexual stimulation device, such as a vibrator.
As you can see, it’s the second point that makes having a fetish a problem—it has to cause distress or get in the way of your life. It’s important to remember that, unlike a kink, a fetish involves a specific object or activity that is essential for sexual arousal—a must-have rather than a nice-to-have.
Furthermore, while a sexual preference is generally considered to be a natural and innate aspect of a person’s sexuality, a kink or fetish is often seen as a learned or acquired interest.
Now we understand the basic differences between preferences, kinks, and fetishes, let’s dig a bit deeper.
Kinks and fetishes are common
While it’s difficult to determine exact numbers, studies have suggested that a significant percentage of the population has some sort of sexual interest that is outside the mainstream.
Here are just a few examples of sexual kinks and fetishes:
- Foot fetishism (sexual attraction to feet)
- BDSM (bondage, dominance, submission, and masochism)
- Exhibitionism (sexual pleasure from exposing oneself to others)
- Voyeurism (sexual pleasure from watching others engage in sexual activity)
- Role-playing (sexual pleasure from acting out specific roles or scenarios)
- Latex or leather fetishism (sexual attraction to people wearing these materials)
- Objectophilia (sexual attraction to inanimate objects)
Kinks and fetishes can develop during childhood, adolescence, or adulthood. In some cases, a fetish may develop after a particularly intense or pleasurable sexual experience involving a specific object or situation. In other cases, a kink or fetish may be linked to specific childhood experiences or memories.
Rather than seeing them as a problem, many people embrace their kinks, integrating them into a healthy, fulfilling sex life. They may even join communities centered around specific kinks and celebrate them with others who share them.
As mentioned above, it’s only when one’s unconventional turn-ons create problems for their social or sexual lives, disturb them, or cause them distress, that it can be a sign of fetishistic disorder and a reason to seek help.
What is an unwanted fetish?
An unwanted fetish is distinct from a fetish as defined by the DSM-5 in that the person experiencing it does not want or even enjoy it, but it persists despite their efforts to get rid of it.
In some cases, unwanted fetishes can cause significant distress or interfere with normal sexual functioning and may be considered a type of sexual disorder in and of themselves.
For example, a person with an unwanted fetish may feel ashamed or guilty about their desires or may be frustrated by their difficulty engaging in sexual activities without indulging the fetish.
Are unwanted fetishes related to OCD?
While it’s certainly not always the case, worries about having unwanted fetishes are sometimes associated with sexual themes of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). In sexual OCD themes, people may experience persistent and recurring thoughts about taboo or unexpected sexual desires, thoughts, or behaviors, including those that go against their moral or ethical values, and may engage in compulsive behaviors in an attempt to relieve their fears and doubts.
I’ve worked with people with obsessive doubts and worries about the mere possibility of having a fetish. They have intrusive thoughts along the lines of ‘What if I have this fetish?’ or ‘What if I develop this fetish?’
“I’ve worked with people who have a fetish but are afraid of indulging it and somehow going off the rails,” says NOCD Clinical Trainer April Kilduff, MA, LCPC, LMHC. “I’ve also worked with people with obsessive doubts and worries about the mere possibility of having a fetish. They have intrusive thoughts along the lines of ‘What if I have this fetish?’ or ‘What if I develop this fetish?’ Even if they don’t experience the fetish at all, the possibility feels terrifying.”
In response to these worries, people with sexual OCD themes feel driven to do compulsions: they might ask others for reassurance about their sexual thoughts, feelings, or urges, or excessively research others’ similar experiences in order to feel certain that they do or don’t have a fetish. It’s also common for people to “check” their sexual feelings by gauging their sensations and thoughts when thinking about unwanted fetishes.
While these compulsions may make people feel more certain about their sexual desires for a short while, their uncertainty and worries only return stronger since some degree of uncertainty will always exist—even about one’s sexuality or identity—as with all areas of life.
It’s important to note that not all people with unwanted fetishes have OCD, and vice versa. A diagnosis of OCD requires the presence of specific symptoms, such as recurrent and persistent sexual thoughts or impulses that are distressing or interfere with daily functioning. If you feel that your worries about an unwanted fetish could be a sign of OCD, it’s important to speak with an OCD therapist who can effectively diagnose the disorder and administer the most effective treatment for the disorder: ERP or Exposure and Response Prevention therapy.
ERP: The gold standard treatment for OCD
Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy is a type of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) that has been found to be effective in treating all types of OCD, including sexual themes. ERP involves gradually exposing you to feared sexual thoughts or situations while simultaneously preventing you from engaging in compulsive behaviors that only reinforce your fears.
If you’re experiencing fears about having an unwanted fetish, a therapist will help you confront uncertainty about having kinks or fetishes that you don’t want. For example, a person who has intrusive sexual thoughts about bondage may be asked to write about the worst-case scenario of having these desires, while avoiding their usual compulsive behaviors, such as checking their physical sensations, suppressing their thoughts, or seeking reassurance from others.
This process helps you learn that you can live with uncertainty about your sexuality, sexual desires, or preferences. Throughout exposure exercises, your therapist may help you to develop new coping strategies, such as non-engagement responses or mindfulness, to sit with your discomfort. With repeated exposure and prevention of compulsive behaviors, you can learn to reduce your distress and break the vicious cycle of obsessive fears and compulsive behaviors.
Where to get help today
If you think you might have OCD and are interested in learning how it’s treated with ERP, I encourage you to learn more about NOCD’s evidence-based approach to OCD treatment.
Every therapist at NOCD specializes in OCD and receives ERP-specific training. You can also get 24/7 access to personalized self-management tools built by people who have been through OCD and successfully recovered. Feeling accepted, heard, and welcomed by others who truly understand what you’re going through and won’t judge you can be absolutely crucial to recovery—especially for OCD themes that may be particularly difficult to open up about.