What is a kink, really? How about a fetish — how are they different? And where do fantasies fit in? All the deets, here.

Society is finally progressing into a freer idea of what sex can be (🎉). What may have started with 50 Shades of Gray is slowly growing into a larger movement of sexual liberation, pleasure equality, and more accepted exploration into all things sex.

If you're interested in dipping your toe into the world of kink — or are curious how to label your own sexual interests — it's natural to want to understand the lingo. After all, you'll need the right words to describe what you want and like. Not to mention, using correct language is also an important way to reduce the taboo and stigma around sex and create a more sex-positive culture overall.

The Difference Between a Kink, Fetish, and Fantasy

So, is your interest in rope bondage considered a fantasy or kink? Or is it a fetish? How about your daydreams about having a threesome or experimenting with someone of the same sex? Below, Zachary Zane, sex expert for sexual health and wellness brand Promescent, clears up the difference between a kink vs. fetish vs. fantasy, and what you need to know about exploring your desires.

What Is a Kink?

To understand kink, it helps to understand what "vanilla" sex is. Vanilla sex is pretty much the conventional idea of what constitutes sexual activity, like penis-in-vagina penetration, hand stuff, or oral sex. To be clear, "vanilla" doesn't mean that you're a boring lay! You just may not need or want to incorporate kink, which is totally cool.

"A kink is a sexual activity or proclivity that's deemed a deviation from the social norm," says Zane. "Anything that falls outside of vanilla sex can be considered a 'kink' including role-play, BDSM, choking, and even anal sex."

Kinks truly can be anything. Sex can go from vanilla to kinky depending on the dirty talk you choose, the way a blowjob is performed, or whatever roles a couple may balance between.

Okay, and What Is a Fetish?

"A fetish is similar to a kink, [but a fetish] is required in order to get aroused. Fetishes also tend to focus more on a specific object, such as lingerie, feet, or even cars," says Zane. So, a kink becomes a fetish when it is necessary for a person in order to get off. (See: The Safe and Sexy Guide to Foot Stuff)

If this doesn't jive with the way you've heard the word "fetish" used IRL, you're not imagining it. Research shows that the word "fetish" is often used in everyday language with "a much broader scope than its psychiatric definition," often referring to stimuli that's sexually arousing versus required for sexual satisfaction.

Some people theorize that certain people are born with fetishes, others theorize that fetishes are a byproduct of socialization and the perception that something is "bad" or "taboo." Whether or not there is a true "cause" of fetishes doesn't matter — what really matters is that people play them out safely and consensually.

Finally, What Is a Fantasy?

A fantasy refers to any mental imagery or thought patterns that are sexually arousing or erotic to someone, according to the Encyclopedia of Evolutionary Psychological Science.

"A fantasy is just that: a fantasy," says Zane. "It doesn't mean that it's something you'll enjoy in real life. In fact, people often like watching porn or imagining things they wouldn't want to do in real life."

Just because someone has a sexual fantasy does not mean they actually want it to happen. Often, it's simply the idea that gets them off or turns them on. Many fantasies ride on the appeal of how taboo the subject matter is. For example, some folks might fantasize about the idea of having a sordid affair, but would never fathom cheating in their partner in reality.

Some people decide to play out their fantasies by role-playing in scenes, but most often fantasies remain in one's imagination. And, you know, their browsing history.

Why You Shouldn't Feel Bad About Your Kinks — and How to Explore Them

"Because we live in a sex-negative society heavily influenced by religious ideologies, a lot of folks feel shame for being aroused by (or wanting to engage in) anything besides vanilla sex," says Zane. "Often, people think something is wrong with a person or they're mentally unwell if they like BDSM; this is not true."

The shame folks feel around their kinks is often due to what is called "kink-shaming." This happens when someone is made fun of, belittled, or pitied for their sexual interests and/or requirements.

Just because you like a little spanking doesn't mean something is wrong with you. There's a consensus among the kink community that all kinks are valid so long as you practice them with consenting parties. (Important reminder: Kids and animals cannot consent.)

Curious how your interests might stack up against others? Sexual wellness brand Future Method dove into Google's search analytics and found that in 2020, the most searched kinks and/or fetishes were masochism (sexual pleasure from being humiliated, beaten, bound, or made to suffer in some other way), followed by group sex, sadism (sexual pleasure from inflicting pain, suffering, or humiliation on others), sports gear, and armpits. (Related: The BDSM Guide for Beginners)

There are tons of places to act out your kinks with consenting adults. "We live in the era of dating and hookup apps," says Zane. "There are many apps specifically designed for kinky individuals. Fetlife is a great example. It's actually more of a social networking app. Think Facebook, but for kinksters and fetishists."

When pursuing kink or fulfilling fetishes, it's important to make sure you're vetting potential partners. You and your partners should be properly educated on the risks of the activity, and know the safety measures to prevent harm. Because some kinks are inherently more risky than others (erotic asphyxiation versus, say, a foot massage) sometimes you have to go the extra mile to ensure your partner has your best interest at heart.

The overall idea is to find your people! We can all find our safe place to pursue special interests among nonjudgemental peers. That could mean hiring your local pro-domme (aka a professional dominatrix), going to a munch (a BDSM play party), or exploring the web for your ideal partner. At the end of the day, kinks, fetishes, and fantasies are all pretty normal. The more we talk about them, the more we can normalize them.