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But a new study in the Journal of Sex Research finds that paraphilias—unusual sexual interests—are actually common: One in three people have experimented with one at some point in their lives.
Paraphilias range from kinks you’ve heard of before, like stiletto fetishes, to more rare interests, like the fantasy about being swallowed.
Why would someone be into that? Why are some people turned on by golden showers, or wearing diapers? The subject is so riveting that I’ve made a career out of studying it.
As a neuroscientist, I’m interested in what it is about the brain that makes people like the kinds of sex that they like. When guys come in to do my fMRI study, we spend a few minutes scanning their brain. Afterwards, I ask them lots of questions about their sex lives.
Needless to say, my work never gets boring. At last count, sex researchers estimated that about 549 different paraphilias exist.
So, for starters, here are six fascinating fetishes worth learning about.
Golden Showers: Why Are Some People Into That?
People interested in urophilia—also known as golden showers or water sports—enjoy urinating on their partners, being urinated on, or both. About 9 percent of men have this interest, research suggests.
Men who are into water sports tell me the act of sharing human waste, as disgusting as it might seem, creates a bond between partners. Clearly, two people need to share a certain level of comfort in order to pee on each other.
“It’s like I’m sharing my love,” says Kevin, a 20-something university student who likes to urinate on his sex partners.
For some guys, the more disgusting or taboo the act, the more sexually exciting it becomes. Others tell me that they’re turned on by the fact it’s humiliating to be peed on.
Women’s Clothing: Why Are Some Guys Into That?
Many—if not all—straight men (who identify as men) who take part in my studies find women’s clothing, such as shoes and underwear, to be sexually arousing.
It’s one of the most common kinks. A study out of the University of L’Aquila in Italy analyzed the content of online discussion groups and estimated that 32 percent of men have a sexual interest in shoes and 12 percent are into underwear.
But the difference between a guy who’s turned on by panties and a man with a true clothing fetish is that most men, given the choice, would choose a live partner over masturbating alone with a thong in hand.
To Casey, a 36-year-old health care worker who owns several pairs of women’s underwear, lingerie is a symbol of femininity. He thinks that’s why it turns him on.
For many men, this interest stems from early experiences with female clothing that belonged to family members or friends.
“My earliest memories are of playing hide-and-seek in my parents’ closet and being surrounded by my mother’s underwear,” Casey says. “Somehow, it turned into a sexual thing, and has been with me ever since.”
Sploshing: What Is It, and Why Are Some People Into It?
Wet and messy fetishism (also known as WAM or sploshing) involves covering your partner or yourself with messy substances, like food—cream pies, cakes, custard, syrup—or lotion, mud, slime, or paint.
Researchers don’t know exactly how common this fetish is, but I suspect it’s rarer than water sports.
Men who splosh simply like the feeling of the different textures on their skin.
Sometimes they’ll be naked, but often, they’ll be fully clothed or in fetish wear, like latex. Others prefer to stay on the sidelines while watching their partners indulge.
“You get to be creative,” Corbin, a recently divorced construction worker, says. “I like experimenting with different combinations of food.”
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He says he lays plastic sheets down on the bed first or sploshes in the bathtub to help with cleanup afterward.
Diaperism: Why Are Some People Into That?
Adult baby diaper lovers (ABDL for short) like being cared for as a baby by their partners, or “diapering” other adults.
They say they’re turned on by how it feels to wear diapers and soil them. Some also incorporate other child-like items, such as rattles, baby bottles, and stuffed animals, into their lifestyles.
I’m guessing this is one of the rarer fetishes out there.
Pretending to be a baby reminds these guys of a time when life was much easier, they tell me.
“It’s soothing to have someone take care of me,” says Brian, a retired hedge fund manager.
He wears diapers while masturbating and fantasizes about being treated like a baby while having sex with his wife.
Feederism: What Is It, and Why Are Some People Into It?
“Feeders” are people who are turned on by feeding their partners high-calorie foods, and “Feedees” like being fed until they are uncomfortably full. Some want to gain so much weight that they can’t move.
Scientists don’t yet know how common feederism is, but it seems to be rare.
Considering how closely food and sex are paired in our culture, though, it’s not surprising that this fetish exists.
Elements of dominance and submission also come into play, as described in this case study of a woman who loved to be fed.
Feedees feel empowered by having a partner who caters to them by feeding them, and Feeders like having control over the size of their partners’ bodies and what they eat.
When it comes to sex, feeding gets incorporated as a part of foreplay. Belly rubbing is another common erotic activity in this crowd.
Vorarephilia: What Is It, and Why Are Some People Into It?
People who are into vorarephilia, or vore, fantasize about being swallowed whole—alive—by a large animal or another living being, being passed through the digestive system, and passed as waste.
No one knows exactly how many people are into it, but this Australian report says that the fetish is infrequent.
Will, a 24-year-old computer programmer, stresses that he isn’t interested in actually being eaten by a snake.
“It’s just a fantasy,” he says, explaining that there’s something comforting about the idea of becoming part of another living creature by being eaten.
Because it’s impossible to take part in vore in real life, many people who have this fetish will write erotic stories about being eaten, instead of watching porn or trying to act out their fantasies with their partners.
However, Will says he has friends who have made their own large, stuffed cavities to worm their way through, to roleplay the process of being digested.
What to Do If You Have an “Extreme” Fetish
If you have “extreme” sexual tastes, you definitely aren’t alone—there is no shortage of online interest groups, forums, and niche dating sites to help like-minded people come together.
FetLife, known as the Facebook for kinky people, is one popular site, or you could try a mainstream dating site, like OkCupid, that lets you specify your fetishes and what you’re looking for in a partner.
It doesn’t mean anything is wrong with you, either. Many of the guys I talk to are successful men with active social lives and healthy relationships, and their partners are supportive of their fetishes.
The bottom line: Kinks are very common, so don’t be afraid to tell your partner what you’re into. You might be surprised to learn how happy they are to indulge you.
Debra W. Soh is a sex writer and neuroscientist specializing in the fMRI of paraphilias (or sexual kinks) at York University in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter: @debra_soh.