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Beneath the Surface
No, it isn't just a fetish
Foreword: This article speaks about sex and kink frankly, but not explicitly. It’s not appropriate for minors, and should not be read by anyone under the age of majority. This article contains links to resources which speak about sex very explicitly.
Please exercise care when and where you read this article.
Over the years, I’ve counseled a lot of trans folks as they’re figuring themselves out. A lot a lot. Several hundred, by now. The overwhelming majority of that number have been transfeminine, but a fairly good number have been transmasculine too, and if there’s one single thing that I can count on to come up almost without fail:
It’s sex and kink. Well… not kink. “Kink.”
We’ll get to that in a bit.
Some of this is almost inevitable. A lot of trans folks have bottom dysphoria, and figuring out the basic mechanics of how to have, and enjoy, sex in the face of genitals that make you feel uncomfortable can be pretty awkward. Getting advice from people who’ve been there? That’s a pretty good idea. And that’s not even touching how difficult things can get when you’re in a long-term relationship as you’re coming out or transitioning, which usually multiplies those troubles.
But before that, there’s almost always another question. Sometimes it comes early in the conversation. Sometimes, much later.
This hopeful, terrified question that bears so, so much weight. Hopeful because, to the person asking the question, if it is just a fetish, it can stay in the bedroom, just be this weird, small part of you that nobody else needs to know about, that never needs to be acknowledged, that doesn’t need to have any power over you or your life.
Terrified, because if it’s not just a fetish…
Well, I don’t really need to finish that sentence, do I?
I never tell people reaching out to me whether what they’re feeling is or isn’t a fetish, because I can’t possibly know. I can’t. I haven’t lived their life. And, frankly, neither has anyone else; anyone claiming they can speak with authority about what someone’s identity is or what is or is not a fetish is absolutely, totally, and completely talking out of their asshole.
They can’t know. I can’t know.
Only you can know.
All I ever do is ask questions, share information, and let people come to their own conclusions about their own lives.
So, let’s do that.
How Kink Functions
The first question I ask—always—when someone asks me, “it’s just a fetish, right?” is a clarifying question: “What fetish are you talking about?”
I get plenty of answers back, but there’s a surprising amount of central tendency. Male pregnancy, for instance, is a really common kink among female assigned at birth (AFAB) people who are questioning their gender or who are trans. Forced feminization, as Amanda Roman observed in quite a lot of detail, is equally common among male assigned at birth (AMAB) folks who are questioning their gender or are trans. Crossdressing and transformation kink—especially, and unsurprisingly, transgender transformation—are extremely common for both AFAB and AMAB folks who are questioning.
There’s other stuff, of course. These are just a few of what I’ve seen most commonly and yes, of course, some of this is my history too. I’ve been there. I know how scary it is to have all that hanging over your shoulder. But, really, we’re getting ahead of ourselves here, because there’s something much, much more fundamental we need to figure out first.
What is a fetish, anyway? And why do people have them?
The cool thing is that psychology has been looking into this for a long time, and has some pretty great answers. A fetish, at its root, is just sexual excitement based on a non-genital thing or action—nothing more, nothing less. Fetish isn’t quite universal, but to give you a sense of scale, about 14% of all people have a foot fetish.
Seriously. One out of every seven adults you pass in the grocery store gets turned on by feet.
And that’s just one fetish. There are hundreds of fetishes. For real.
If you want a real sense of the scope and scale of how many fetishes there are out there and how common they are, go check out Katherine Gates’ Kinkmap. Now, because Gates sells access to the most updated versions of the Kinkmap to fund its continued upkeep and refinement, I’ll only reproduce a much older version of it, from 2002, and only even then to illustrate the scope of what we’re talking about.
Really look at that for a minute.
That’s a hell of a lot, isn’t it?
Fetishes aren’t always consensual or safe, it should be noted, and one person’s favorite kink can be incredibly icky to another person—which is fair and healthy!—but the overwhelming majority of all fetishes are completely benign, if not outright impossible to satisfy in reality. That foot fetish? It’s not my thing, but I can’t see a situation where someone could get hurt by it. Or, to draw an earlier example forward, transformation fetish is an out-and-out impossible fantasy in reality. It cannot be done. These kinds of fetish are, as such, utterly harmless.
So, then, if fetishes are so incredibly common, why do we have them? “It is common for us to reframe or work to regain control over what we can’t change through sexuality and fetishes.” In other words, fetish allows normal people—and keep in mind that having a fetish of some kind is really, really common—to take control over a part of their life that they feel they can’t otherwise control. In doing so, they get to satisfy a fundamental human need that they can’t otherwise satisfy.
Let’s look at a really common example to understand all this a little better: BDSM. How common? Oh, only about 47% of all adults. One in two.
Not common at all. 😉
What is BDSM about? What needs does it satisfy? Fundamentally, someone who’s taking on a Dominant role is taking power and control, and this typically satisfies feelings of powerlessness in a person’s everyday life. Submission, on the other hand, is about releasing a tightly-held control over your life and knowing that you’re safe.
Safety and agency. Pretty reasonable needs, don’t you think? And, goodness, that brings good old Maslow back in, doesn’t it? Standard disclaimer: as with everything to do with human beings, there are exceptions, so some folks may not experience sex or reproduction or other specific items on the Hierarchy as needs—I don’t, for instance! The Hierarchy is a generalized grouping meant to describe central tendencies. That’s normal in human research. People are messy.
Now, if (safe, sane, and consensual) kink is healthy, we’d see some pretty clear benefits from embracing it, wouldn’t we? Turns out that we do. People who engage in and enjoy BDSM are “less neurotic, more extraverted (sic), more open to new experiences, more conscientious, less rejection sensitive, [and] had higher subjective well-being.” In other words, they’re better off in almost every possible measurable psychological metric.
Fetishes satisfy our fundamental human needs through a process known as sublimation. In essence, when our subconscious recognizes that we have a need of some type, but that it’s not safe or healthy to satisfy that need directly, it gets shunted to a different kind of behavior or desire—a different category of need, in other words. Ever rage-cleaned your house instead of punching a guy who said something crappy to you? Sublimation.
Often times, an inappropriate sexual urge—say, cheating—gets sublimated into something nonsexual, but this effect is a two-way street. The bedroom is a safe space where many of the normal social rules of the world don’t apply. For our Dominant who needs agency over their life, flying off the handle and shouting at their tyrannical boss isn’t likely to end well for them, is it? On the other hand, if they find someone who enjoys submitting to their control, both parties leave the experience quite happy. The fundamental rule here is that the need is seeking the closest, easiest, most socially-acceptable analogue.
But that means that if something is sublimated into sex, and especially kink:
The need that’s being sublimated isn’t sexual.
I really want to emphasize that for a moment, because it’s probably the single most misunderstood part of all kink. It’s incredibly common for people of all kinds, not just gender-questioning or trans people, to brush off the parts of themselves that show up in the bedroom as “just sex,” or “just a kink,” never really thinking about them in any detail, or tracing the needs they satisfy to their roots. I’m not just taking about kinky people here, either—sex-negative people brush kink off as “just sex” all the time, and even major psychological theories (now discarded) were built on the idea that if a thing was “just a fetish,” it could be dismissed.
And yes, I’m talking about autogynephilia here, among other things, which is an extremely discredited and misogynistic junk theory. Here’s the thing, though—even if we were to humor the theory and give it the benefit of the doubt… well, let’s apply what the field of psychology knows about kink in general to the theory of autogynephilia (AGP).
Blanchard, the fellow who proposed AGP, argued that many or most transfeminine people were simply fetishists who were aroused at the thought of having women’s body parts. Even if we were to accept his theory as 100% true—and it has fallen to pieces because, among other things, over 93% of all cis women would qualify as being autogynephiles, an even higher rate than Blanchard detected in trans women—as a fetish, it would be subject to the sublimation process of fetish formation.
And if a thing is sublimated into sex, the need it satisfies isn’t sexual.
Even if we give this theory the benefit of every possible doubt and take every single claim Blanchard makes at face value without any critical thought, what we know about how kink and fetish works still tells us that this “fetish” would still be satisfying a completely nonsexual need.
Yeah. That’s why nobody except transphobic people takes autogynephilia seriously anymore. It just literally does not work, even if you go by its own definitions.
Now, sublimation isn’t inherently good. If you’re constantly rerouting your needs into something else, they’re not going to be met as well as they would if you met them directly, which is a problem. More importantly, you’re never going to be able to address the root causes of that need, so it’s just going to come up over and over and over again, and it’s going to get more insistent every time it does.
No matter what your sublimated need is, you’re going to need to face it directly sooner or later.
And if you’ve been paying attention, you’ve probably guessed where I’m going with this, don’t you?
Asking the Wrong Question
At the very most fundamental level, asking if “it’s just a fetish, right?” is asking the completely and totally wrong question. It could be a fetish. It could be something more.
It could be both. One doesn’t exclude the other.
And regardless of what the answer to that is, it’s missing the question that’s actually important:
“What need is this fetish meeting?”
And the obvious answer, sexual gratification? Sorry, folks, but modern psychology has found pretty conclusively that sex isn’t a drive, which is a technical word for “a first-tier need,” like water or air. Even aside from that fact, sublimation just doesn’t work like that. The whole, entire function of sublimation is to move one need into an expression of a different type, and fetish is, by definition, sexualized arousal from a non-sexual thing or body part.
It’s important here to keep in mind the taxonomy I talked about a little while ago if you’re allosexual, meaning that you’re not on the asexual spectrum like I am. A thing is sexual if it is inherently related to sex—genitals and sex acts, that sort of thing. Other parts of the human body or behavior, like breasts or feet or flirtatious behavior, are not inherently sexual. They are, however, commonly sexualized, meaning that sexual meaning is imposed upon them by people. Finally, a thing can be sexy, and no matter how many definitions of the word link it inherently to sex itself, every time we describe a car or some such as sexy it really shows that what the word means as we use it in reality is “something that excites interest or excitement.”
So, a fetish is never about sex or sexual gratification in and of itself. Whatever sexual is gratification involved is only a means to the end of satisfying the sexualized need that that fetish is sublimating. That doesn’t mean that you don’t crave sex, or that it’s not a need at some level—but it does mean that it ranks on the third tier of Maslow’s hierarchy, not the first or second. That’s the tier that deals with authenticity and human interpersonal connection. Remember that last bit for later.
So, that “what need is this fetish meeting?” question? Let’s address it head-on.
A while back, I was talking to someone who turned out to be a trans woman. She was really worried that all of the feelings she had were just a fetish run amok, and so she asked me the fetish question. I, naturally, asked her what fetish she was talking about. “It’s easier to just show you,” she said, and then gave me this.
If you haven’t seen anything like this before, it’s a subcategory of the transformation kink umbrella called bimbofication, in which people of various genders are transformed into having extremely curvaceous, hyperfeminine figures, accompanied by some level of intelligence loss. It seems to be a common kink for both cis and trans women, as well as a fair number of cis men, though I can’t find any data on how common it is overall.
Regardless, this woman explained how she was drawn to this kink, and how she was terrified that she was just objectifying women with her interest. The kink seemed so misogynistic to her; everything else made sense, and she wanted to be trans so badly, because if she was trans, then she could transition.
But her bimbofication kink—wouldn’t that disqualify her? She didn’t say the word autogynephilia, but that’s what she was asking. We talked for a few weeks, and she eventually started transitioning some time later, but I want to hold here and really dig in to the things she was afraid of and what this kink actually represents.
Do you remember back when we were looking at sublimation a bit ago? We sublimate when we feel a need that we believe isn’t socially acceptable, and when we sublimate a need, it’s always going to try for the closest, easiest, most socially-acceptable outlet. Think of it like a river: it’s always going to seek the path of least resistance.
I’m going to say it plainly: being transgender has, for a very, very long time, been extremely socially unacceptable. Even today, about a third of American society believes that trans people existing is inherently bad to some degree. Over 550 anti-trans bills have been proposed in the first six months of 2023 alone.
And that’s a dramatic improvement over how unacceptable it used to be. As a result, for the overwhelming majority of trans people in denial, anything is more socially-acceptable than being, and living, as a trans person. The problem here is that living as our gender is a fundamental human need, whether we’re trans or cis. It’s central to living an authentic life, and no other needs on the third tier can be met without living authentically. Failing to meet fundamental human needs like that piles stress endlessly into the body, where stress chemicals do serious physical damage over time. Long-term, unresolved stress shortens lifespans by about half as much as being a pack-a-day smoker, on average.
Sublimation isn’t always good, remember?
It would make really good, rational sense for a trans person to sublimate their gender into some other, adjacent expression as much as they can when they’re in an unsafe situation. It’s not a strategy that’ll work forever, but it can do a lot to protect us in the short term. Eventually, though, we need to face those needs and meet them directly.
We know that the woman in this case turned out to be trans, and we know she was sublimating her gender into this kink, which she lost all interest in once she began her transition. So, it makes a lot of sense to pull apart that psychological process in a bit more detail, because knowing the before and the after makes it a lot easier to trace how she—and many other trans folks like her—moved from one to the other.
Okay. What needs did this fetish meet for the trans woman I was talking to?
Let’s pay attention to a few details in the picture she shared that are easy to miss:
First, this is a transformation kink about people becoming increasingly feminine.
Second, there’s a common element in this fetish of letting go of society’s judgments about your body. Usually, this seems couched in a loss of ability to care, but the effect seems more important than the cause.
If you’ll recall, this is very similar to the release that submissive people need, and get, from a BDSM kink.
Thirdly, Samus is awfully happy about her change in the image. Happiness in the transformed person seems almost universal in this kink.
Finally, there’s nothing actually sexual about this picture. At all. Like, it’s technically SFW content. Certainly, Samus gets more curvaceous, but breasts and hips are by definition not sexual—they must be sexualized. You see more explicitly sexual material every single time you go to the beach, don’t you?
So, what we have here is increasing, unrepressed femininity, letting go of society’s control over you, and being happy about it in a sexy, but not sexual, way.
Goodness. That’s… pretty blatant, isn’t it? For a depressed, repressed trans woman who wouldn’t allow herself a lick of feminine expression? It kind of ticks every single box, doesn’t it? And that’d explain why it’s something that cis women enjoy too—after all, they’re struggling with the same sorts of patriarchal pressures trans women are—the only real difference is that cis women are pressured to repress their sexuality and minimize their femininity except in a few very specific, patriarchally-controlled ways.
While kink is certainly stigmatized, a trans identity is far more stigmatized. Sex is on the same Maslowian tier as other authenticity needs like gender, and is something (almost always) that people do privately, in the rules-relaxed context of their bedroom, the closest, easiest, most socially-acceptable analogue. Almost nobody sees it. It’s the same category of need. Kinks have an easy explanation that doesn’t involve identity or transition.
Comparatively? Indulging a kink is vastly safer and more private than coming out and transitioning. So, to a subconscious mind that’s trying to keep you safe and alive, it’d make an awful lot of sense to sort of lunge toward kink when it works to sublimate that need.
As the woman I was talking to eventually discovered for herself, it was never about the sex. She didn’t want to live the kind of life that she had once fantasized about, not in reality. It was just a way for her to reach out and touch that part of herself before she was ready to face it consciously, to project herself into a body and a life and a joy that was a lot closer to who she was inside.
The thing is, though, even if it had been about the sex, it’s just kink. Regardless of how many pearls regressive, sex-phobic people clutch or how loudly they screech their Puritanical opinions, this sort of thing is fundamentally healthy. And it’s exactly why kink belongs at Pride.
Repression is self-annihilation. Not just self-harm—it’s a full order of magnitude more destructive to who a person is and their mental and emotional health.
Self-acceptance, however, is an act of profound love.
Kink and “Kink”
In a whole article about the interplay of fundamental human needs, social acceptability, gender, and sex, this next bit may be the most challenging and uncomfortable part of the whole article. If you’re feeling a bit overwhelmed right now, take a breather. Go get a drink. Walk around for a bit.
Ready now? Okay.
Remember back at the start of the article when I asked you to remember the kink-in-fingerquotes bit? This is why. If you’re still reading, and if you’ve been worrying about a kink—and I’m guessing there’s a pretty good chance of that being the case, since you’re here—I’m going to say the next bit as simply as I can.
No, it isn’t just a kink. It might be a kink, but there’s really no such thing as a kink that’s just a kink.
All kink exists to meet other needs. All kink.
I mentioned earlier that I’ve talked to hundreds of people as they were questioning their gender, and that the overwhelming majority of them asked the “it’s just a fetish, right?” question at some point. Some of the people who were questioning their gender eventually came to the conclusion that they were cis, and moved on with their lives, much the happier for having taken the time to really dig in to their gender and what it meant for them.
But in all those people, for how many of them was it just a fetish?
Every single person I’ve ever talked to who was both wrestling with their gender and the kink question turned out to be trans. Some people who were questioning their gender identity figured out that they were trans and never asked the fetish question. Asexual people exist, after all, and some trans folks sublimate their gender into non-sexual outlets, like drag (drag performers definitely aren’t all trans! But… some definitely turn out to be). It’s less common, but it happens.
I don’t know you. We’ve probably never met, and we probably never will. I cannot know what your gender is, or what is or is not a fetish for you. Only you can know those things. Only you.
But if you’ve been asking yourself the “it’s just a fetish, right?” question, you already know the answer if you’re really honest with yourself, don’t you?
So, I’m going to leave you with two questions that I think you should consider with a great deal of care:
What needs are your kinks sublimating?
How can you meet them directly?