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Intro to paraphilias

A woman's legs and feet emerge from the bottom center and rest crossed in the center of this photograph against a blue background.

It's no secret that sexuality is often strange. This is especially true in the digital age, where influencers can make thousands per month selling fart videos and entire forums exist solely to collect and rate pictures of celebrities' feet. Naturally, the internet has decided that this weirder side of sexuality is both hysterical and controversial, with reactions ranging from playful mockery to accusations of domestic abuse. Under the surface, however, a growing movement is helping people to better understand their attractions, safely engage with healthy outlets, and find support when they need it.

Though MAP Resources never links to pornographic content or uses explicit wording, some of the sources for this article might. Click with caution.

The basics

Medical origins

We'll skip the history lesson, but at some point in the past, medical experts started grouping together atypical sexualities, which they considered mental disorders at the time. Eventually, they began referring to these disorders as paraphilias, replacing dated labels like sodomy.

Unsurprisingly, attempting to label and define groups based on abnormality led to significant controversy. Researchers debated what symptoms were required to diagnose paraphilias, whether they should be classified as disorders, and if the label should exist at all, while gay rights activists argued that homosexuality was a normal variation of sexual orientation, and therefore shouldn't be included.

While some of these issues were resolved - paraphilias are no longer considered mental disorders (as a paraphilia by itself does not require professional support) and all major medical texts have stopped explicitly labeling homosexuality as a paraphilia - others remain up for debate. Notably, there has never been a consensus, even among experts, on what exactly the definition of paraphilia should be. Different papers and dictionaries throw around phrases like "extreme behavior" and "intense arousal," but usually end up excluding attractions that are broadly considered paraphilias.

For the purposes of this article, we'll define a paraphilia as a pattern of stable and persistent attractions to an atypical object, situation, or group of people. Although this definition is fairly broad, the term is generally only used when discussing sexual attractions that are not generally accepted by society (causing some to raise concerns about its role in perpetuating stigma).

Terms you should know

Many sexuality-related terms lack a widely accepted definition. The definitions provided throughout this article reflect how terms are used in practice, with a focus on scholarly works.

Kink can be used synonymously with paraphilia as defined in this article but is often used to describe attractions that are more socially acceptable (though still abnormal).

Fetishes are a subcategory of paraphilias in which a certain object, body part, or action plays a significant role in arousal or gratification.

A paraphile or paraphiliac is someone who experiences at least one paraphilia. 

A paraphilic disorder is a mental disorder in which someone experiences clinical distress due to a paraphilia or acts on a paraphilia in a way that causes or risks causing harm to others.

The diverse world of paraphilias

Likely due to ongoing debate over how the term should be defined, major medical texts avoid specifying how many paraphilias exist. Instead, they list a subset of paraphilias that are likely to be of interest to healthcare providers and acknowledge that others exist. This has led to online lists of paraphilias ballooning to over 500 entries, ranging from nearly-normal (mazophilia is an attraction to breasts) to incredibly niche (climacophilia describes arousal from falling down stairs).

Many paraphilias also have an auto- variant, which describes arousal from being on the receiving end of the action. For example, while a pteronophile would be turned on by tickling someone with feathers, an autopteronophile would prefer to be the one being tickled. However, some paraphilias have separate terms for being on the giving and receiving end, such as sadism (attraction to inflicting pain on someone) and masochism (arousal from having pain inflicted on oneself).

Even the two examples in the first paragraph of this article have names. Podophilia is an attraction to feet, usually called a "foot fetish," and eproctophilia is an attraction to farts. A few others you may have heard of or experienced include somnophilia (attraction to sleeping people), urophilia (attraction to urine), menophilia (attraction to menstruation), and asphyxiophilia (arousal from choking someone).

There are also paraphilias involving certain emotions (phobophilia describes arousal from fear), weather patterns (brontophilia describes arousal from thunderstorms), and even concepts (apeirophilia is an attraction to endlessness). Though these seem like they might not be very common, even seemingly niche paraphilias can be unexpectedly prevalent in the population. For example, one study found that 62% of women experience fantasies involving rape (biastophilia/autobiastophilia).

Attractions, not actions

It's important to note that paraphilias refer only to attractions, not actions. Additionally, it is possible for someone to engage in certain activities for pleasure without having the associated paraphilia. A catheterophile (attraction to catheters, duh), for example, might go their entire life without using a catheter, while someone might tell dirty jokes without being a moriaphile (arousal from, you guessed it, dirty jokes), likely because their partner asked them to or for a reason other than gratification.

The stigma of abnormality

Like most atypical sexualities, some paraphilias have a level of stigma associated with them. In extreme cases, this can lead to people engaged in misunderstood relationship dynamics, such as BDSM, to be seen as unfit or abusive parents. More often, however, this stigma can make it difficult for people to feel comfortable seeking support if they are struggling with shame or mental health issues because of their attractions. For less common or less understood paraphilias, it may be difficult even to find therapists who have the expertise necessary to help.

People in kink communities report these communities as providing a space to combat loneliness, engage in creative play, receive and provide social support, and help dispel the internalized stigma around kink

Thankfully, in recent decades, the rise of the internet has led to spaces where people can safely explore and share parts of themselves that would likely be considered taboo by offline friends and family. According to Sam Hughes, a Ph.D. student at the University of California, Santa Cruz, "People in kink communities report these communities as providing a space to combat loneliness, engage in creative play, receive and provide social support, and help dispel the internalized stigma around kink."

Paraphile-friendly spaces also enable new opportunities for collaboration and activism, allowing paraphiles to make themselves more visible and speak out about support needs that aren't being met. As a result, many researchers and mental health professionals are starting to take greater notice of these underserved groups, and some professionals, especially those specializing in sexual health, are required to undergo basic training for treating people with paraphilias or paraphilic disorders.

Two overlapping green circles are stacked horizontally with a purple background on the left and a black background on the right. In the space where the circles intersect are the Greek letters pi and phi.
Paraphilia flag, created by Lecter

Increased awareness from researchers is also leading to new discoveries about the roles paraphilias can play in a person's mental health. A 2021 study found that trauma survivors were using BDSM to recreate and recontextualize their experience in an environment where they have more control. This has led to a growing body of work investigating the potential therapeutic role of kink and other components of sexuality.

What this means for you

If you're experiencing anxiety, depression, or other mental health issues because of a paraphilia or related stigma, there is likely support available. In many cases, peer support can help significantly, so we recommend looking into online support groups for people with your paraphilia (or general kink groups if specific ones don't exist). Some of the more accepted paraphilias even have dedicated subreddits where members can discuss their experiences and ask for support if they're struggling.

If you would prefer professional support, find a therapist who specializes in sexual health, then reach out to ask if they have experience or training to work with paraphiles. If you want to ask about a specific paraphilia, but are concerned about how they might react, you can create an anonymous email account and reach out to them from there.

Keep in mind that seeking support can come with risks, and plan ahead to mitigate them where you can. If you're looking for peer support for a paraphilia that you consider unethical to act on, make sure the spaces you join share your views. Also, be aware that some spaces permit sexual content, if that's something you want to avoid. If you're reaching out to therapists, do some research on the types of conversion therapy and keep an eye out for any signs your therapists might be using harmful "treatment" methods. Although society has made a lot of progress in this area, some outdated and harmful techniques have managed to stick around.

Finally, if you experience attractions to minors, or are interested in knowing more about the subject, go ahead and read our deep-dive on pedophilia to get the facts and learn about the unique support options available.


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