Kink and fetish are widely considered taboo, gross, or weird. Moralists far and wide would jump at the opportunity to tell you you’re a sexual deviant for wanting to be tied up during sex.

“Sexual fetishes are frequently misunderstood and stigmatized because they’re so specific and can be so intense, but as long as the experience is positive and both the fetishist and partner feel good about the fetish and experience, it’s healthy,” says Sandra LaMorgese, PhD., a former professional dominatrix.

The question is this: We often hear the words kink and fetish thrown around. You hear a story from a friend about a guy who was only interested in sex if he could suck on her toes (“He had a foot fetish!”) or your cousin tells you how she and her wife tie each other up and use spanking paddles.

Is it a fetish? Is it a kink? Is there a difference? We went to the experts to get to the bottom of this conundrum.

It’s not all black and white

To begin, we have to decide, is there a difference between kink and fetish? Or are they one in the same? The answer: it’s complicated. LaMorgese tells Brides that there aren’t any solid black and white boundaries between the two.

There is no way to completely cut and define the two terms perfectly. They overlap and connect in myriad ways. That being said, while the two terms are connected and even used interchangeably at times, there are a few big differences.

Being kinky

When you or someone else says they’re “kinky,” it usually means you’re a person who practices sex outside of traditional vanilla guidelines. Vanilla refers to regular missionary sex and other “standard sex” positions.

Most often, kink refers to BDSM. But not always! Kink can refer to anything outside of the social “norm.” Dr. Kristie Overstreet, PhD., a clinical sexologist and psychotherapist describes kink as a rather large umbrella, encompassing many a sexual interest along the spectrum.

For you, being kinky might entail any number of sexually adventurous things. What is kinky for one person, might be considered vanilla to another. It is all subjective.

Trying something kinky isn’t as much about the “thing” itself as it about upping the ante on sex. LaMorgese says that kink involves “enhancing sexual intimacy with your partner by adding new and creative elements to sex, such as covering each other in whipped cream and licking it off. In that example, the whipped cream is secondary to the sexual experience that you and your partner create together.”

The whipped cream is something added with the hope of making sex more fun and your connection to your partner stronger. The sex itself is not centered around the whipped cream. It is an asset.

Again, this definition may not fit the bill for all kinky people. Some people call themselves kinky, but BDSM and leather are very much a core part of their sex lives. You might have a thing for leather, a serious thing, and still be a kinky person. The definitions for kink and fetish overlap and collide in various ways, for various people.

What is a fetish?

A fetish differs from kink in that you are not using a specific thing to just enhance intimacy or connection, but are actually sexually attracted to that thing. According to LaMorgese, “A person with a fetish might masturbate while they hold, smell, rub, or taste the object, or they might ask their partner to wear it or use it during sex.”

A fetish is a fixation on something largely nonsexual, such as feet, bubbles, tickling, leather, latex, cotton panties, etc. The nonsexual thing turns them on sexually. Kink, on the other hand, can vary, shift, and evolve over time. You might find being spanked turns you on, only to later find you rather enjoy spanking others even more.

“Unlike kinkiness, which can change freely along with preferences, interests, and partners, fetishes tend to have deeper roots in the psychological and physiological levels of our being,” LaMorgese says. She has had many clients who have had their fetishes since childhood.

For instance, the difference between loving leather as a kink and loving leather as a fetish is where the sexual attraction is founded. A person with a leather fetish is sexually attracted to leather itself, not just the person wearing it. They will often need leather to be a part of their sexual experiences in order to get turned on.

Again, these things overlap and meld quite a bit. Dr. Overstreet says that fetish is a category under the overarching kink umbrella. “They are different yet connected,” she says. “If someone is into kink or a part of the kink lifestyle it could mean many different things about them. It is a very general term. However, a fetish is very specific and describes a person’s need for contact with a particular object for gratification. Don’t assume that just because someone is kinky that they have a fetish.”

Gigi Engle is a certified sex coach, educator, and writer living in Chicago. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter at @GigiEngle.