How Many People Have "Unusual" Sexual Desires?

Psychologists and psychiatrists use the term paraphilia to refer to an unusual sexual interest. More specifically, paraphilias are recurrent desires for uncommon sexual objects or activities. Although hundreds of desires have been described as paraphilias at one time or another, there are only eight specific paraphilis that are listed in the current version of the DSM (the psychiatry bible): fetishism, transvestism, voyeurism, exhibitionism, frotteurism, pedophilia, masochism, and sadism (see below for definitions).

Though these interests have long been thought to be rare, very little data exists that can speak to their prevalence in the general population. In fact, almost all of the research conducted on these topics so far has been limited to clinical samples, which doesn’t really give us much sense as to how many people might have had these interests at one time or another. However, a new study published in the Journal of Sex Research offers some insight.

In this study, 1,040 Canadian adults aged 18-64 participated in a survey about their sexual desires. The sample’s demographic characteristics were matched to closely approximate those of the province from which they were drawn (Quebec). As part of this survey, participants were asked about their attitudes toward and experiences with each of the eight paraphilias listed in the DSM. Specifically, they were given the questions below and, for each item, they were provided separate follow-up questions about whether they had ever engaged in the behavior and, further, whether they had the desire to do so:

1 Fetishism: “Have you ever been sexually aroused by an inanimate non-sexual object? Please note that a vibrator does not enter into this category.”

2.Transvestism: “Have you ever been sexually aroused by wearing clothing from the opposite sex?”

3 Voyeurism: “Have you ever been sexually aroused while watching a stranger, who was unaware of your presence, while they were nude, were undressing, or were having sexual relations?”

4.Exhibitionism: “Have you ever been sexually aroused by showing your genitals to a stranger who was not expecting this?”

5 Frotteurism: “Have you ever been sexually aroused by touching or by rubbing yourself against a stranger?”

6.Pedophilia: “Have you ever engaged in sexual activities with a child aged 13 years old or less after you were an adult?”

7.Masochism: “Have you ever been sexually aroused while suffering, being dominated, or being humiliated?”

8.Sadism: “Have you ever been sexually aroused by making someone suffer, or by dominating or psychologically or physically humiliating another person?”

For purposes of this post, we’re going to focus on how many people said they had the desire to experience each of the above sex acts. The results appear in the table below.

These findings tell us a few important things. First, though these sexual desires are all considered unusual, many of them actually appear to be pretty common, especially voyeurism and fetishism. It’s hard to call these things unusual when somewhere between one-third and two-thirds of people from a general sample report desire for them. By contrast, pedophilia in particular does seem to be quite rare and would most certainly fall in the unusual category. 

Second, while some of these desires are common in the sense that a lot of people seem to have had them before (and have the desire to act on them), this isn't quite the same as saying that people desire these things more than conventionally-accepted sexual activities. So, while these results suggest that having had paraphilic desires before isn't that unusual, it may very well be uncommon to have these desires all of the time or to have a strong preference for these desires. 

Finally, it has long been thought that men drastically outnumber women when it comes to unusual sexual interests—in fact, some have estimated that, for most paraphilias, there are roughly 20 men for every one woman. However, no sex differences anywhere near that large emerged in this study and, in fact, women reported some of these interests at rates higher than men (fetishism and masochism). Thus, while there’s certainly a sizeable gender difference in most of these sexual interests, it does not appear to be as large as previously assumed.

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To learn more about this research, see: Joyal, C. C., & Carpentier, J. (2017). The prevalence of paraphilic interests and behaviors in the general population: A provincial survey. The Journal of Sex Research54(2), 161-171.

Image Source: iStockphoto

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