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In psychology and sexology, paraphilia (in Greek para παρά = besides and ‘-philia‘ φιλία = love) is a term that describes sexual arousal in response to sexual objects or situations which may interfere with the capacity for reciprocal affectionate sexual activity. However it is important to notice that the term can and is also used to imply “less mainstream sexual practices” but without necessarily negatively implying any dysfunction or ‘wrongness’.


The word is used differently by different groups. As used in psychology or sexology it is simply a neutral umbrella term used to cover a wide variety of atypical sexual interests. There are eight types of paraphilias, and according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the activity must be the sole means of sexual gratification for a period of six (6) months, and cause “marked distress or interpersonal difficulty”.

  • Exhibitionism is the recurrent urge or behaviour to expose one’s genitals to an unsuspecting person
  • Voyeurism is the recurrent urge or behaviour to observe an unsuspecting person who is naked, disrobing or engaging in sexual activities.
  • Masochism is the recurrent urge or behaviour of wanting to be humiliated, beaten, bound, or otherwise made to suffer.
  • Sadism is the recurrent urge or behaviour involving acts in which the pain or humiliation of the victim is sexually exciting.
  • Fetishism is the use of non-sexual or nonliving objects or part of a person’s body to gain sexual excitement.
  • Transvestic fetishism is a sexual attraction towards the clothing of the opposite gender.
  • Pedophilia is the sexual attraction to prepubescent children.
  • Frotteurism is the recurrent urges or behaviour of touching or rubbing against a non-consenting person.

A paraphilic interest is not normally considered important by clinicians unless it is also causing suffering of some kind, or strongly inhibiting a “normal” sex life (according to the subjective standards of the culture and times).

Paraphilia is sometimes used by laypeople in a more judgmental or prejudicial sense, to categorize sexual desires or activities lying well outside the societal norm. Many sexual activities now considered harmless or even beneficial by many (such as masturbation) have often been considered perversions or psychosexual disorders in various societies, and how to regard these behaviors has been, and continues at times to be, a controversial matter.

The term “paraphilia” is rarely used in general English, with references to the actual interest concretely being more common. Some see the term as helping to aid objectivity when discussing taboo behaviours or those meeting public disapproval, but which may not in fact be a problem. Some have even interpreted the term pejoratively, seeing paraphilias as “rare conditions or serious disorders” that should either be criminalised or require serious treatment.

It is worth noting typical clinical warnings given against improper assumptions about paraphilias:

  • “Paraphilias are … sexual fantasies urges and behaviours that are considered deviant with respect to cultural norms…”
  • “Although several of these disorders can be associated with aggression or harm, others are neither inherently violent nor aggressive”
  • “The boundary for social as well as sexual deviance is largely determined by cultural and historical context. As such, sexual orientations once considered paraphilias (e.g., homosexuality) are now regarded as variants of normal sexuality; so too, sexual behaviours currently considered normal (e.g., masturbation) were once culturally proscribed”

(Source: Psychiatric Times)

What is considered to be “perversion” or “deviation” varies from society to society. Some paraphilias fall into the kinds of activities often called ‘sexual perversions’ or ‘sexual deviancy’ with negative connotations or ‘kinky sex’ with more positive connotations. Some specific paraphilias have been or are currently crimes in some jurisdictions. In some religions certain sexual interests are forbidden, and this has led to some people believing that all paraphilias must be sins.

Since the development of psychology attempts have been made to characterise them in terms of their etiology and in terms of the ways they change the functioning of individuals in social situations. Some of these psycho-medical etiologies and descriptions have allowed many societies and religious/ethical traditions to view some of the paraphilias in a less negative light, at least in some circumstances.

Some behaviours that might be classified as paraphilias by some subsets of society may be viewed as harmless eccentricities by other subsets of society, or entirely normal behaviour within other societies.

Due to the somewhat subjective nature of their definition, the specific acts included under the umbrella of paraphilia vary from time to time and from place to place, and indeed from edition to edition of such works as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).

Behavioural imprinting

Observation of paraphiliac behaviour has provided valuable scientific information on the mechanisms of sexual attraction and desire, such as behavioral imprinting. Careful investigation has also led to the tentative conclusions that normal biological processes may sometimes be manifested in idiosyncratic ways in at least some of the paraphilias, and that these unusual manifestations are frequently associated with unusual (and especially traumatic) events associated with early sexual experience.

History of the term

The term was coined by Viennese psychotherapist Wilhelm Stekel (in his book Sexual Aberrations) in 1925, from the Greek para- (beside) + philos (loving), and first used in English in Stekel’s translated works. It was not in widespread use until the 1950s, and was first used in the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders” (DSM) in 1980. It was used by Sigmund Freud, as well as by the sexologist John Money.

Common paraphilias

The following paraphilias are sufficiently common in the general population to be frequently observed in clinical literature, as well as being able to support entire sub-genres of mainstream commercial pornography.

  • algolagnia: sexual pleasure from pain
  • exhibitionism: sexual arousal through displaying genitals in public
  • fetishism: sexual attraction to a physical object, with common examples being
    • balloon fetishism
    • breast fetishism
    • foot fetishism
    • fur fetishism
    • leather fetishism
    • lipstick fetishism
    • medical fetishism
    • panty fetishism
    • robot fetishism
    • rubber fetishism
    • shoe fetishism
    • smoking fetishism
    • spandex fetishism
    • transvestic fetishism
  • infantilism: sexual pleasure from dressing, acting, or being treated as a baby
  • sadomasochism: taking sexual pleasure in inflicting pain, or having pain inflicted upon one’s self.
  • urolagnia: sexual attraction to urine
  • coprophilia: sexual attraction to feces
  • voyeurism: sexual arousal through watching others having sex

Homosexuality was previously listed as a paraphilia in the DSM-I and DSM-II, but this has been rejected from the DSM-III and DSM-IV, consistent with the change of attitude among psychiatrists.

There is still a disorder of homosexuality, but this refers to the repression of homosexuality. Likewise, zoophilia was clinically re-evaluated between DSM-III and DSM-IV. As of 2004, transvestic fetishism was still listed as a paraphilia in the DSM-IV-TR.

Note that non-consensual sadomasochistic acts will usually constitute assault, and therefore belong in the list below. Some jurisdictions criminalise some or all sadomasochistic acts, regardless of legal consent and impose liability for any injuries caused and that, for these purposes, non-physical injuries are included in the definition of grievous bodily harm in English law.

Non-consensual exhibitionism in public places, where people who have not previously consented to watch are exposed to sexual display, is also an offence in most jurisdictions.

There are many rare paraphilias.


The definition of various sexual practices as paraphilias has been met with opposition. Advocates for changing these definitions stress that, aside from “paraphilias” with a criminal element, there is nothing inherently pathological about these practices; they are undeserving of the stigmatism associated with being “singled out” as such. Those who profess such a view hope that, much as with the removal of homosexuality from the DSM, future psychiatric definitions will not include most of these practices.

Religious views of paraphilia

Some religious conservatives view various paraphilias as deviations from their conception of God’s original plan for human sexuality, or from their religious laws. Depending in part on the nature of the paraphilia in question, judgements can differ as to whether religiously it should be considered a case of sexual sin, or of mental illness. Paedophilia and zoophilia are heavily condemned by many religions.

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