Is This Normal?
A conflict between desire and sexual selfhood.
Posted Oct 16, 2020
Without a doubt, the most frequent question I receive is: Is this normal? “This” being whatever sexual proclivity the individual possesses. And, quite often, “this” takes the form of a fetish.
A fetish is a sexual desire or fixation toward an object or specific, non-genital body part. Fetishes can involve an endless list—from shoes, leather, buildings, water, or pencils to elbows, armpits, and feet. In many cases, a sexual encounter must include the fetishized object, in one form or another, in order for the individual to fully experience pleasure.
Fetishes are differentiated from kinks with kinks being defined as a sexual taste or arousal for something that lies outside of normative sexual behaviors or desires. Therefore, given these definitions, a fetish is always a kink, but a kink is not always a fetish. The inability to incorporate a kink into a sexual experience does not necessarily minimize or negate the ability to experience pleasure or have a satisfactory sexual experience.
Just looking at fetishes: What are the limits to what can be fetishized? There are none. As Kenneth Plummer (1975) so notably stated, “Nothing is sexual, but naming makes it so.” I have yet to see a limit to what individuals name.
Back to the question: “Is this normal?” My standard answer is—yes, in that most people experience sexual desire toward something. The question here becomes whether or not a particular fetish is normal. Again, I tend to answer yes. While an armpit fetish (maschalagnia) may not find inclusion in mainstream socio-sexual normativity, a person with an armpit fetish is far from the only one of their kind.
I often find myself telling people that come to me, “You are not the only one who has this desire.” In other words, as Plummer stated, if you name it as sexual, it is sexual, and chances are someone else is naming it as such. So, what is “normal” may be subjective, but to have a taste for something that lies outside of socio-sexual normativity is quite common.
The next thing to consider is how “this” is affecting your wellbeing or even the wellbeing of an other? If someone else is involved, such as a partner, is the sexual behavior extending from the particular desire consensual? If not, that’s a whole other topic that needs to be immediately addressed [see any and all I have written, and will continue to write, on the topic of consent].
Apart from the aspect of consent, regarding one’s well-being, there are things to consider about the effect the desire has on you. Is the sexual predilection obsessive to the point that it interferes with the daily functioning of your life? An unhealthy obsession toward a sexual desire can severely disrupt one’s life: it can lead to an unfulfilling sex life if the desire is hidden or kept from shifting from a desire to a sexual behavior; it can negatively affect an otherwise healthy relationship; physiologically, it can cause undue stress on both the body and mind; it can give one a diminished sense of life satisfaction; and it can disrupt one’s life when the particular sexual proclivity is stigmatized by others (or even the self).
Stigma, according to Goffman (1963), is an attribute that is deeply discrediting to a person. Within a culture’s socio-sexual normativity, all sexual desires and behaviors can be stigmatized. Yes, even those who have no further sexual aspirations than vanilla sex can be stigmatized, for there are those who think that only wanting vanilla sex is “weird.” Sexual desire can be a double-edged sword: you either hide your desires away (which is not always healthy) or you risk being stigmatized should others discover your sexual passions.
How an individual responds to the potential of stigmatization and being stigmatized weighs heavily on one’s well-being. For those who possess a particularly stigmatizing kink, a study by Hughes and Hammack (2019) found that participants discovered a diminished negative reaction to social stigma when they belonged to a kink community or viewed their kink identity in a positive light, as a “journey of growth and exploration" (149).
So, is “this” normal? The answer is most often yes, although it may not be widely accepted as an object or behavior associated with arousal. But, what is important is that the conversation does not stop with that affirmative response. We must delve further into “this,” certainly when the object of desire is more atypical. We must consider what “this” means to the life and well-being of the individual. Even if perfectly normal, we must consider and explore how we live within our social realm with “this.”
Facebook image: Aloha Hawaii/Shutterstock
Goffman, Erving. 1963. Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.
Hughes, Sam D. and Phillip L. Hammack. 2019. “Affirmation, Compartmentalization, and Isolation: Narratives of Identity Sentiment Among Kinky People” in Psychology and Sexuality, 10(2): 149-168.
Plummer, Kenneth. 1975. Sexual Stigma: An Interactionist Account. London, UK: Routledge & Kegan Paul.