Psychologists use the term paraphilia to refer a wide range of unusual sexual interests, including—but not limited to—exhibitionism, voyeurism, sadism, masochism, and fetishism. Because sexual desires and behaviors that fall under the paraphilia umbrella tend to be widely misunderstood, I thought it would be worth taking a closer look at some of the key things scientists have learned about them.
1.) Having a paraphilia does not necessarily mean that you have a psychological disorder. In the most recent version of the DSM, the mental health community made a distinction between having a paraphilia and having a paraphilic disorder. This change stemmed from growing consensus that one can have an unusual sexual interest, yet still be mentally healthy and have a healthy sex life. Today, paraphilias are generally only regarded as disordered or clinically significant to the extent that they are highly distressing to the person who has them or result in some sort of harm to others (e.g., when they involve non-consensual behaviors).
2.) Many sexual interests that have been labeled paraphilias are actually pretty common. By definition, a paraphilia is an uncommon or unusual sexual interest; however, when you look at the prevalence of certain fantasies and behaviors that have been deemed paraphilic, it’s clear that not all of them are unusual in the sense of being statistically rare. For instance, survey research finds that a sizeable number of both men and women have fantasized about sadism and masochism (check out some of stats in this infographic). Likewise, other research has found that many men and women find the prospect of voyeurism to be at least somewhat sexually arousing. That said, while many people have had these desires before, this isn't the same as saying that people have a preferences for these activities over more conventionally-accepted sexual practices--that's a different question.
3.) Almost all paraphilic interests seem to be more common in men than they are in women. With the exception of masochism, study after study has found that men tend to have more paraphilic desires than women. Why is that? One study suggests that part of the reason may be because men tend to have higher sex drives and more compulsive sexual urges in general (learn more about this research here).
4.) Many paraphilias are thought to be learned behaviors. Where do paraphilias come from? Although it’s likely that they have multiple causes, one of the most popular theories is that they represent learned behaviors. As some support for this idea, researchers have found that they can condition mild fetishes into participants by repeatedly showing them unusual objects just before presenting them with sexually arousing images. After enough pairings, those objects eventually become a cue or “trigger” for sexual arousal in and of themselves (learn more about this research here).
5.) Paraphilic behaviors are more appealing to us when we’re already sexually aroused. Research has found that, for both men and women, sexual arousal lessens disgust responses. This means that what we normally find to be disgusting doesn’t seem quite to bad if we already happen to be turned on (learn more about research supporting this idea here). Thus, in an unaroused state, you might think that you’d never engage in a paraphilic behavior—however, if you’re really turned on, you might find that you’re more willing to give seemingly unusual behaviors a try.
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Image Source: 123RF.com/Aleksandar Mijatovic
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