What is normal? Psychologists and sexologists have been asking that question for decades. Some sexual activities, such as fetishism or sadomasochism, are seen as ‘abnormal’, but surprisingly little research has been done on prevalence. In recent years, however, a few studies have emerged, showing that what we generally see as ‘deviant’ is actually quite normal or common.
Paraphilia & DSM-5
Paraphilia are unusual, atypical sexual interests or preferences for certain activities or certain erotic goals or objects. The DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) defines a paraphilia as ‘any intense and persistent sexual interest other than sexual interest in genital stimulation or preparatory fondling with phenotypically normal, physiologically mature, consenting human partners.‘
At the moment there are only eight specific parafilia in the DSM-5:
- fetishism: objects
- transvestism: cross-dressing
- voyeurism: watching
- exhibitionism: being watched
- frotteurism: rubbing against someone
- pedophilia: children younger than 13
- masochism: suffering pain, being humiliated
- sadism: causing pain, humiliating
There is also a residual group ‘other’, in which a number of other paraphilia are mentioned, such as necrophilia (corpses), zoophilia (animals), coprophilia (faeces) and urophilia (urine).
A paraphilic disorder, however, only occurs if the sexual fantasies, urge or actions cause clinically significant suffering or restrictions in social or professional functioning. In other words: if you have a fetish but are not bothered by it, then according to DSM-5 nothing is wrong.
What is normal?
A 2017 survey of 1,000 Canadians looked at how many people sometimes desired for one of the eight paraphilia from the DSM-5. And what turned out? They were actually quite common. For example, 60% of men said they had a desire for voyeurism, 40% for fetishism, 34% for frotteurism and 19% for masochism. For women, this was 48% fetishism, 35% voyeurism, 28% masochism and 21% frotteurism.
Another similar study, published in 2020, has been conducted among 10,000 adults from the Czech Republic. In addition to the paraphilia from the DSM-5, the study also looked at some paraphilia from the ‘other’ group, such as zoophilia. The result was comparable: 59% of the men said they were interested in voyeurism, 44% in frotteurism and 36% in fetishism. For women it was 32% voyeurism, 20% frotteurism and 13% for fetishism.
Our own research (Dutch) from 2017 also shows that we often think that we have a different fantasy, but that that fantasy is shared by many others. A large proportion of the respondents (40%) had once fantasized about what it would be like to be a sex slave. About twice as many women (44%) as men (21%) had sometimes fantasized about a rape. Other taboos also occur in our imagination, such as bestiality (11% of the respondents sometimes fantasized about this), golden showers (25%) and autoerotic asphyxiation (11%). It is also striking that about 3% of the men had sometimes fantasized about sex with a minor.
You also see the latter in the other studies too; Pedophilia is a rare paraphilia. In general that is less than 2%. Zoophilia (bestiality) is also rare. This was 3% in the Czech study.
Although the studies all differ somewhat, they all came to the same conclusion: Sexual behaviors that we assumed to be deviant (and therefore not ‘normal’) are more common than you may think. Fantasies about the paraphilia from the DSM-5 (with the exception of pedophilia) are widespread. In any case, they are more common than assumed.
We must therefore be careful with labeling of certain sexual preferences as paraphilia, because they are not at all so different.