Welcome to Let’s Talk About It, the column where we answer questions posed by our readers regarding sex, sexuality, gender and related topics, brought to you by the student-led organization Sexual Empowerment and Awareness at Tennessee (SEAT).
This week, we were asked, “Is it normal to have a spanking fetish?”
First, let’s define fetish and two similar words that can be confusing, kink and paraphilia. Sexologists typically define fetishes as an attraction to an object or act which is necessary to orgasm, while kinks are simply any sexual interest which is perceived as alternative or atypical. Thus, the only difference between a spanking fetish and a spanking kink is whether or not it is a requirement to orgasm. Finally, a paraphilia is any sexual act which is perceived as abnormal and can be considered synonymous to kink. However, the term has its origins in clinical psychology and therefore usually refers to harmful or extreme behaviors including pedophilia or nonconsensual voyeurism.
While these definitions may seem simple, sexologists continue to disagree on the boundaries between these terms and on the definition of “extreme” and “harmful” paraphilias. Certain behaviors including bondage, submission and impact play are nearly always called kinks, despite the fact that studies suggest that they are more common than most people would suspect. For instance, a 2014 study in the Journal of Sexual Medicine found that 65 percent of women fantasize about being dominated and 52 percent fantasize about bondage, indicating that they may not be atypical at all.
When asking whether or not a sexual behavior is normal, it is important to ask what it means to be normal and who gets to define normal. Sexology and its close friend, psychology, have historically been dominated by cisgender, white, heterosexual men, meaning that minority identities and behaviors were perceived as abnormal, harmful and paraphilic.
For instance, being gay was considered a psychological disorder until 1987, and transphobic psychologists and sexologists continue to portray transgender women’s identity as a paraphilia despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. The idea of what is or is not normal is too often weaponized against minority groups by constructing harmless behaviors as alternative and harmful.
On the other hand, sexual behaviors such as pedophilia or other inherently nonconsensual acts are clearly harmful, and it is necessary to label them as such. In reality, the vast majority of kinks, such as spanking or BDSM, fall somewhere between perfectly harmless and deeply harmful, so rather than simply stating whether or not a given behavior is normal, it is more useful to assess how to practice kink as safely and healthily as possible. It is precisely for this reason that SEAT defines sex positivity as “non-judgemental reception of others’ sexual expression insofar as it remains harmless to other persons.”
A tool that many kinksters use is the Risk-Aware Consensual Kink (RACK) model. The goal of RACK is to ethically practice kink by ensuring that all parties are aware of the potential risks, all parties are prepared to deal with those risks and all parties freely, enthusiastically consent to taking those risks. While this sounds very formal, it more often looks like a conversation about what you and your partner(s) want and how you can negotiate those boundaries to have the best time you can.
Best practices include establishing a “safe word,” which is a word (or gesture if your mouth is unavailable) which helps you to quickly communicate with a partner whether you want to keep going, slow down or stop. Many people use the stoplight -- green means go, yellow means slow down and red means stop. But don’t just wait for your partner to tell you to stop; you should also check in with them and ask how they’re doing, if they’re comfortable and what they need.
While kink may include extreme power dynamics, it is absolutely vital that consent remain a two-way street. Kinky scenes can also be intense, so check in with your partner after and ask them what they need, providing comfort and care which is known as aftercare in the kink community.
Finally, if you want to engage in something that involves pain, restraint or other bodily risks such as spanking, whipping, bondage or choking, be absolutely sure you know what those risks are and how to minimize them.
STIs and pregnancy are also a risk as they are with any sex act, so take advantage of the free condoms provided by SEAT, the Center for Health Education and Wellness and the Pride Center. Do not rely on porn as a resource, and instead consult sexologists and kinksters who you can trust, because porn is designed to entertain, not educate.
So to answer the question, “Is it normal to have a spanking fetish?” the truth is that normal is not a useful category when discussing the complex and diverse world of human sexuality. Spanking is something that a lot of people like that can be practiced safely, which is much more important that an arbitrary designation of normality.
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