WHAT YOUR FETISH SAYS ABOUT YOU by Josh Bell
You can’t open up a biology textbook to learn why you have a piss fetish… yet.
In 2023 we are kinkier than ever, but why is this the case?
I spoke with Aella, a former camgirl and escort, an OnlyFans artist once in the platform’s top 0.04% of earners, the cocreator of Askhole, a prolific rationalist writer, psychonaut, and self-taught sex researcher, to learn more about what our fetishes say about us.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You conducted the largest-ever survey on fetishes with over 700,000 respondents. What were your findings?
Before I made the Big Kink Survey I took a long time combing through internet lists of fetishes, going into forums and trying to figure out all the meaningful subcategories of fetishes to make sure I didn’t miss any. I ended up with a complete list of around 800 to 900 fetishes, which… you can’t ask about all of them in a survey. I managed to whittle it down to about 350 categories. For example, there’s lots of types of gags – a funnel gag that you pee into is very different from a ball gag, which is very different from a ring gag – so I had to decide whether to keep them separate or combine them into a gag fetish.
I glanced over at the correlation matrix – it’s used so you can see which question’s answers are correlated with another’s answers – and I looked at childhood experiences, because I asked roughly 30 questions about childhood, about a lot of the things that we commonly associate with fetishes. Usually abuse, or your class, your society’s opinions of gender roles, how religious or oppressed you were, what kind of abuse you suffered, whether it was physical or verbal, or by a man or a woman, I asked a lot of questions like this… and then I asked, of course, about the list of over 350 fetishes.
I basically found no strong relationship between kink and almost any specific childhood experience on average. Like, the people who said “Yes, I was abused in childhood” didn’t have strong correlations for almost any fetish. This isn’t hard proof and I need to look at the data more but it’s worth further study.
How do you define a fetish?
I use the term ‘fetish’ really loosely. There are technical definitions of paraphilias but I think they’re kind of bad. Usually people think of fetishes as things that are rare and taboo, but I personally consider it to be basically any sexual interest; whether it’s the missionary position or necrophilia, it’s all under the same basic umbrella. The difference is the commonality and the tabooness, which exist on spectrums. There’s also obligateness – whether you require the fetish or not to get off – so considering fetish I’d usually ask: Do you have a sexual interest? How taboo is it? How rare is it? How obligate is it? And then you have all the information you need to know without needing to use the term fetish.
I focus on broader sexual interest because there’s no clear cutoff between “normal” sex and fetish. It’s just a clean, slow spectrum. Like… where does bondage lie? What about fuzzy handcuffs? What if the handcuffs are slightly less fuzzy? What if they’re metal? It’s like the more metal they are, the more freaky it is.
Wow! It’s like Plato’s theory of Forms: what makes a fetish a fetish? So if there’s all this grey-area, are we any good at predicting where our fetishes come from?
We have a lot of superstition around it. As in, we have a lot of pop narratives that we use to function in absence of good data. This is what really drew me to working on fetishes specifically, because if I can get a good dataset on this, it could be useful for humanity!
For example, let’s say you have a fetish for disinterested family figures. Like, you’re really aroused by the idea of an aunt or uncle that engages with you sexually but while acting kind of disdainful. And then you might be like: “Oh, this fetish is really interesting and specific, there must have been a time in my childhood that caused this!” Maybe you distinctly remember a time that your aunt was changing your clothes and she acted disgusted by it. It’s easy to think that must be it — this experience with your aunt was the thing that caused your aunt fetish.
So you have this theory that the childhood experience causes the fetish, but there’s also another theory that your fetish is innate in some way – maybe it’s hormonal, or gestational, or genetic – something that wasn’t directly caused by experience. And it’s really hard to differentiate the two theories because if you were already predisposed to being aroused by disinterested parental figures, then of course you’re going to experience them as uniquely and strikingly sexual when you’re five years old, and the first time it impacts you, you’re going to remember it much more vividly.
So it’s possible that people have this type of experience and then in hindsight attribute it as the cause rather than the effect. Like, “Oh, that was the first thing that caused it!” rather than “Oh, that was the first time I realised that’s what I’m into.”
Even if it’s hard to pinpoint where a fetish comes from, can we still learn about ourselves from examining our own sexual interests?
Yeah! And just because my data doesn’t show strong average correlations, that doesn’t mean there aren’t occasionally causal relationships for individual people. I’m saying that we should probably start from the operating assumption that your fetish is likely innate to some degree, but obviously be curious and keep your options open – you may be stuck with a desire, but you can learn how to express it in a healthy way.
Is it accurate to judge a person’s moral character based on their fetish?
No, not really. I think they’re separate. We have a thriving BDSM community where all they do is talk about consent nonstop. Experiencing a desire is very different from doing something immoral, and the vast majority of people have the ability to separate those two. There is no thought crime. If you’re sitting there in the experience of your own head getting off to something horrifying, that’s your own business. As long as nobody’s being hurt, it’s whatever.
Is it hard asking people about their kinks?
Yes! For example, I want to do a survey where I ask parents and their kids about what fetishes they have to see how much is shared, but like… how?
People really do not want to share embarrassing stuff with you. The incentives are kind of fucked. So you have to make sure it’s anonymous, which introduces other problems like the possibility of people gaming the survey or trolling you, so you have to build the survey using methods designed to catch that, which makes the survey longer, which decreases the response rate. It’s hard.
I’m also quite careful about how I ask the questions – instead of asking if a man is gay, I’d ask if they experience sexual attraction to someone with a penis. You want to use the least charged words possible, because any tiny word-phrasing shift can impact the way people answer your questions, and this becomes way worse when you’re talking about anything regarding sex.
Are there any historical examples of unusual sexual interest?
I think the interesting thing is the difference in what’s accepted over time. One of my favourite Wikipedia articles of all time was like, “A history of men fucking goats”. It was just ancient recountings of the ways that men would fuck goats. Like, “Oh yeah, there’s Joe going to fuck a goat again.”
So many sexually accepted norms would leave us horrified. The Simbari people in Papa New Guinea, for example, where the male children hit manhood by eating the semen of adult men. As a ritual the boys give the men a blowjob. By our standards, this is widespread pedophilia. Widespread non-consensual pedophilic rape that’s just normalised. And yet this culture seems to think it’s a good idea and presumably are not horrifically traumatised by it. And that’s really fascinating, how a cultural norm can dictate trauma.
Far out! Do you have anything else to say about unusual kinks?
Some fetishes are hard because it’s lonely. Like, if you’re really into getting submerged in mud, it could really narrow your opportunity to have a satisfying sexual life. But don’t worry, so many people have unusual sexual interests. It’s not that weird, you don’t have control over it, it’s totally chill.
I personally find it so absolutely fascinating. It’s so cool that the human brain can be so weirdly constructed that you can think: “This unusual thing? I have a sexual response to that.” Amazing!