Psychologists and psychiatrists use the term paraphilia to refer to unusual sexual interests. In other words, a paraphilia represents a desire for an uncommon sexual object or activity. Hundreds of different paraphilias have been described at one time or another; however, there are only eight specific paraphilias listed in the current DSM: fetishism, transvestism, voyeurism, exhibitionism, frotteurism, pedophilia, masochism, and sadism.
While these interests have long been thought to be rare, little data exists regarding their prevalence in the population at large. In fact, the vast majority of the research conducted on these topics so far has been limited to clinical samples, which don’t really give us much indication as to how many people might have these interests at one time or another. However, recent research suggests that they’re far more common than previously thought.
For example, in a new study published the Journal of Sexual Medicine, researchers surveyed 775 college students in Italy about their sexual fantasies and behaviors . They found that just over half of the men (50.6%) and more than 4 in 10 women (41.5%) reported having engaged in at least one behavior that has been deemed “paraphilic” before.
Men were more likely to report most paraphilic fantasies and behaviors than women, including voyeurism, sadism, frotteurism, and exhibitionism. By contrast, women were more likely than men to have fantasies and behaviors about masochism and fetishism.
These findings are strikingly similar to those of a recent study that included a much more diverse sample of over 1,000 Canadian adults aged 18-64 . Results from this study are shown in the table below (and, as you’ll see, the same pattern of gender differences emerged).
It’s also worth noting that I found similar results when I surveyed more than 4,000 Americans about their sexual fantasies for my book Tell Me What You Want. In fact, I found that taboo and paraphilic fantasies were some of the most popular fantasy themes to emerge!
These findings tell us a few important things. First, many “unusual” sexual desires actually appear to be pretty common, especially voyeurism and fetishism. It’s hard to say these things are uncommon when somewhere between one-third and two-thirds of people are reporting fantasies about these subjects. That said, certain paraphilias such as pedophilia do 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 many have acted on them), this isn't quite the same as saying that people desire these things more than conventionally-accepted sexual activities. So, while these studies suggest that having had paraphilic desires/behaviors 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 objects or activities over everything else.
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 Castellini, G., Rellini, A. H., Appignanesi, C., Pinucci, I., Fattorini, M., Grano, E., ... & Ricca, V. (2018). Deviance or Normalcy? The Relationship Among Paraphilic Thoughts and Behaviors, Hypersexuality, and Psychopathology in a Sample of University Students. The journal of sexual medicine, 15(9), 1322-1335.
Joyal, C. C., & Carpentier, J. (2017). The prevalence of paraphilic interests and behaviors in the general population: A provincial survey. The Journal of Sex Research, 54(2), 161-171.
Image Credit: iStockphoto
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