just the tip navigating a fetish in a relationship

Just the Tip logo with Jera BrownJust the Tip is a sex and relationship column from queer non-monogamous kinkster Jera Brown. Here you will find interviews with sexuality researchers and educators as well as smart and compassionate responses to anonymous questions. If you would like to be interviewed or have a sex or love question you’d like Jera to answer, email jera@jerabrown.com or DM Jera on Twitter @thejerabrown.

I think my fiancé has a short hair fetish, I recently came across haircut stories on his email, the fetish doesn’t bother me as much as the fact that he is hiding it from me…. I have long hair and even though we have a very active sex life I am worried this fetish might make him wander into a world that I am not at all familiar with and or may not want me included in or he may be embarrassed to share with me… How do you think I should go about confronting him on this, he doesn’t know I saw the email…. any advice on how to handle this, beside cutting my hair.”

“My boyfriend and I have been together for about 4 years. I would say in almost all aspects our relationship is great and very serious. But the problem I have is with our sex life. I am a rather sexually positive/open person but my boyfriend doesn’t even want to talk about it, says it makes him uncomfortable. I would say we have sex once a month, maybe less, even though he admitted to masturbating in the shower weekly and I have found fetish related porn on our computer. No matter what I do or he says it just seems like he isn’t into me sexually. It is to the point where I have thought about ending our relationship but I really don’t want to. What can I do?”

 Of the 1,040 people interviewed in one academic study, nearly half claimed an “unusual” sexual interest, and nearly a third had practiced that interest at some point.

So if you enjoy or are aroused by something you think most people don’t share, you’re actually quite normal.

Of these unusual interests, fetishes in particular are greatly stigmatized and misunderstood. A fetish has traditionally been understood as an object or body part that is necessary for sexual satisfaction. However, in another recent study of individuals with a self-identified fetish, 76 percent of those surveyed enjoyed non-fetish sexual activity, as well.

But just because something is more common than you think doesn’t mean it’s any easier to navigate — especially in relationships.

As Kathy Slaughter, a sex therapist and LCSW in Indianapolis, explained, “We live in a society where fetishes are just one more weird thing to be weird about in this already sex negative framework that makes any sexual expression suspect.”

I spoke with Kathy about how to navigate conversations and sexual intimacy when you or your partner has a fetish.

[Note that in this piece, I’ll be using fetish and unusual interest interchangeably.]

Navigating Intimacy When You Don’t Share Specific Interests

“I’ve definitely seen relationships create room for fetishes that the partners don’t [have a common interest in],” Kathy explained. “Sexual compatibility is tricky business. The odds that two random humans are going to be emotionally, intellectually, lifestyle, and sexually compatible on all things ain’t gonna happen, and particularly isn’t likely to happen with sexuality. So most partnerships include some variance of ‘I’m into this and you’re not really.’”

Sexual compatibility isn’t just about fetishes or specific sexual interests. It includes a number of preferred sexual styles, as well: rough or gentle, more or less foreplay, whether you prefer more or less penetrative sex.

First, it’s important to remember that when one person is interested in something, and the other isn’t, neither is wrong.

But how do you manage your different interests in the relationship? According to Kathy, how you approach these interests depends on your level of discomfort with them.

“If it’s ‘This is weird and I don’t know what to do with it,’ level of discomfort, that’s one problem. If it’s a complete ‘I can’t even approach this, and it’s maybe even triggering to me’ kind of a revulsion, that’s a different problem.”

In the first situation, compromise may be possible. For instance, you can take turns doing things you’re more interested in, then the things your partner is more interested in.

“It doesn’t mean like every single time, but it just means being aware of how your sexuality works and trying to do what you can to meet your partner where they’re at if it’s not going to be costly to you.”

This costly part is the key. Can you try something without holding it against your partner or being triggered by it? Sometimes it takes a while to warm up to something new.

When I’m dating someone who is into something I’m not, I’ll keep asking questions around it until I find an angle that appeals to me. Sometimes roleplay will work. Or sometimes just seeing the joy on my lover’s face when they talk about their interest makes me want to keep feeding that joy.

Sex doesn’t have to be fireworks for both people all the time.

Kathy explained it’s more common with people in long-term relationships who report having satisfactory sex lives to often have sex that’s just OK. “We encounter this belief often in my practice that all sexual encounters should be equally mutually satisfactory and something short of fireworks going off. One of the things we talk about as sex therapists is learning how to embrace ‘good enough’ sex.”

A common objection when someone has an unusual fetish is that they only want to act on it when the other person is truly into it as well. If this rings true for you, I want to push you. There are many people out there (like me) who simply enjoy feeding our lover’s enjoyment.

For instance, I’ve had several lovers into urine play. It doesn’t turn me on to pee on them (but it doesn’t gross me out either), and I love making them happy. That’s what I get out of it. And who knows … maybe someday it will start to turn me on, as well.

Relatedly, Kathy said, “Sometimes fetishes only need fantasy. Sometimes your partner enjoying their fetish can be as simple as playing with each other while they’re watching their favorite fetish porn, and [what they’re watching] doesn’t matter [to you] because your face is in their crotch.”

How to Talk about Your Fetish with a Partner

1. Educate yourself and practice with others

Whatever you’re into, you’re probably not the only one. There are online communities with forums and other resources for practically everything under the sun. Depending on your interest, there may also be conventions and local communities, as well.

You can ask others how they talk to their partners, and can learn how to more clearly and confidently express yourself.

“Pursuing opportunities that give you a place to observe someone else talking about their fetish is a rich learning opportunity for you to then level-up your ability to go and have a comfortable conversation with someone that shares your fetish,” Kathy said.

Being able to express yourself in an environment you trust will be supportive can help you build these skills before you attempt it in a situation where the level of support is unknown.

But there are additional benefits to pursuing resources and community: You can learn more about yourself and work on self-acceptance.

“If we’re trying to talk to somebody about something that’s important to us, but we’re not very comfortable with it, it can be really hard for that other person to feel comfortable with it [because they will unconsciously pick up on your unease with it],” Kathy said.

2. Find shared ground first

It’s common in new relationships to have “what are you into?” types of conversations. These conversations serve many purposes. For starters, you can get to know each other and find common ground.

At least for me, when there’s a scary topic looming in the shadows, it’s difficult to be fully present. But, in a relationship, there are two people with unique desires and interests … and you’re dating this person for a reason. Maybe authentically saying something like, “I want to hear all about you first” can offer you the freedom to focus on them for a while. Ask lots of questions and enjoy this person that intrigues you. But remember that one-sided vulnerability will always feel off. When you’re there in that moment with them, heart open, it will show.

In addition, these flirty and (hopefully) fun conversations can act as practice rounds for more meaty subjects. The more comfortable you are simply talking about sexual topics, the easier it will be to delve into deeper ones.

“If you’re interested in something that’s more complicated or ‘off the beaten path,’ then developing a skill that allows you to make that conversation more deep and meaningful would probably serve you well,” Kathy said.

How To Start The Conversation If You’re the Partner

1. Treat it like any other difficult conversation

Kathy recommends calling upon other difficult conversations you’ve had with your partner. What worked well in the past? Consider where you were and how you started the discussion:

“For some people, an ideal context might be having dinner out somewhere together because there’s no distractions and there’s pleasurable food on the table. Other people might find that overwhelming and would respond better to going for a long walk together. Couples who are accustomed to being more active together might find that tough conversations are easier to navigate while they’re sharing a hobby like rock climbing or camping. That kind of nuance depends on knowing your partner.”

2. Keep in mind what you love or are attracted to about your partner

When we’re faced with something we don’t understand, we so often approach it with a sense of “othering.” Remind yourself of all the reasons you care about this person. Being curious about what your partner gets from the fetish and why they enjoy it is just another way to get to know your partner.

If it’s a deep part of who they are, then their fetish may be interwoven into the characteristics you find endearing about them. It may be a part of what shaped them in the past, or is tied to what drives them, or how they see the world.

Keep in mind that whatever you feel for each other is real and genuine. It doesn’t change based on this knowledge. People are complicated, and one interest does not define them. But it can deepen your understanding of your partner in unexpected ways.

3. Don’t take their fetish personally

Many partners worry when a lover’s sexual interest isn’t something they can (or want to) fulfill, such as an interest in a particular length of hair, breast size, or race.

Kathy encourages partners to not view this interest as a perceived lack in themselves. There are cultural myths that when you find the right person, you fulfill them completely. “And that’s just not true,” Kathy explained. “If you you think about it, there are probably a lot of your partner’s needs that you don’t quite meet.”

4. Be honest with your partner and yourself.

Can you imagine telling your partner that the goal of this conversation is to build stronger intimacy? If so, then start by offering reassurances.

However, some fetishes get under people’s skin more than others, Kathy explained. When you can’t offer these reassurances, but you’re committed to this person, it’s probably time to consult a therapist.

Advice for Both: Don’t Leave Hints and Don’t Snoop — Confront Your Partners Directly

“The vast majority of people are uncomfortable talking about sex [with anyone], and it’s not at all uncommon for that to include the people that they’re partnered with. And then you throw fetishes on top of it — the degree of shame and embarrassment and confusion just multiplies. When you’ve got that kind of emotional stew going on, people behave really strangely and people in relationship with them do, as well.”

This strange behavior often includes snooping — looking at your partner’s email or browser history. Conversely, it may feel safer to leave your partner hints instead of talking to them directly. But a direct conversation is better, because it helps both partners work together.

“When I work with couples, I am constantly reminding them to look at it as they are on the same team trying to solve this problem together. Not that we’re trying to figure out who did what wrong and who did what right, and whose fault is it anyway. It’s much healthier and productive to say to your partner, How can I come alongside you? How can I support you with this problem that we’re dealing with together?

When You Can’t Find Common Ground

Sometimes common ground just isn’t possible.

I’ve had many many conversations with people whose partners unable to have the conversations they need to strengthen or repair intimacy. In some cases, it’s the person with the fetish. In others, the partner is unable to be open-minded (maybe even with themselves) about any unusual interests.

There may be layers of things going on, like a history of abuse or toxic religious baggage. It may be impossible to unwrap our relationship with sex and physical intimacy without also unwrapping our relationship to religion, our gender, our families, etc.

My advice in these situations is to bring in a neutral third party: Find a therapist that is kink-friendly. If both partners a ready to talk, then couple’s therapy may be best. Otherwise, whichever partner is trying to initiate the conversation can use the guidance of an individual therapist.

Photo by Charisse Kenion on Unsplash

Jera writes about sexuality, spirituality, and social justice. They are the author of Just the Tip, a queer-friendly, sex-positive, relationship advice column and the editor of Sacred and Subversive,...