An interesting fact literally no one believes me about is that until relatively recently it was sexological consensus that women don’t have paraphilias.

When I say this, people are like “okay, Ozy means some weird, fringe sexologist who believes bizarre things that no one else agrees with, obviously they can’t actually mean that within our lifetimes sexologists believed women don’t have kinks.” But, no, really. Here is a quote from page 524 of the DSM-IV, published in 1994 and updated in 2000:

Except for Sexual Masochism, where the sex ratio is estimated to be 20 males for each female, the other Paraphilias are almost never diagnosed in females, although some cases have been reported.

To be clear, “paraphilia” is a term which includes most of what we’d consider to be kinks; there is no requirement that a paraphilia be obligatory for sexual arousal, and in fact it is explicitly mentioned that some paraphiliacs are aroused by sex where their paraphilia is not included. Paraphilias defined in the DSM-IV include:

  • Sexual Masochism: “recurrent, intense sexually arousing fantasies, sexual urges, or behaviors involving the act (real, not simulated) of being humiliated, beaten, bound, or otherwise made to suffer”
  • Sexual Sadism: “recurrent, intense sexually arousing fantasies, sexual urges, or behaviors involving acts (real, not simulated) in which the psychological or physical suffering (including humiliation) of the victim is sexually exciting to the person.”
  • Fetishism: “recurrent, intense sexually arousing fantasies, sexual urges, or behaviors involving the use of nonliving objects (e.g., female undergarments).”

Special shoutout to transvestic fetishism which literally could not be diagnosed in a woman or a queer man.

The DSM-IV defined ‘paraphilia’ as a diagnosis by inclusion: paraphilias were a set of specific sexual interests, examples given above. The DSM-5 defines ‘paraphilia’ as follows (pg. 685):

The term paraphilia denotes any intense and persistent sexual interest other than sexual interest in genital stimulation or preparatory fondling with phenotypically normal, physically mature, consenting human partners.

(“Phenotypically normal” is intended to exclude visibly physically disabled and transgender people, as well as perhaps members of some other groups. Please note that “paraphilia” and “paraphiliac disorder” are distinguished; a paraphiliac disorder causes mental distress or is a threat to the psychological or physical wellbeing of others. It is possible that what the DSM-5 intends is that, for example, female crossdressers are all unusually well-adjusted.)

This is what the DSM-5 has to say about the prevalence of paraphilias:

  • “The highest possible lifetime prevalence for voyeuristic disorder is approximately 12% in males and 4% in females.”
  • “The prevalence of exhibitionistic disorder in females is even more uncertain but is generally believed to be much lower than in males.”
  • “It has been estimated that 2.2% of males and 1.3% of females had been involved in bondage and discipline, sadomasochism, or dominance and submission in the past 12 months” [about masochistic disorder]
  • “Fetishistic disorder has not been systematically reported to occur in females. In clinical samples, fetishistic disorder is nearly exclusively reported in males.”
  • “Transvestic disorder is rare in males and extremely rare in females.”
  • Silence about the prevalence of sexual sadism in women.

This is definitely an improvement on the insistence that women essentially never have paraphilias other than masochism, which has twenty men for every woman (!); still, there is an insistence that the paraphilias are extraordinarily rare in women.

Why was this a sexological consensus? I present a few hypotheses.

First, most research on paraphilias is conducted on a sex-offender population. For various reasons, women are less likely to be sex offenders. Sexual crimes by women may be underreported and underprosecuted; women may also be legitimately less likely to engage in many sex offenses.

Second, the definition of ‘paraphilia’ is androcentric. Consider omegaverse. “I get off on a man going into heat and then getting knocked up by another man with a dog dick” is certainly a sexual interest in something other than genital stimulation or preparatory fondling with phenotypically normal, physically mature, consenting human partners. However, it does not fit in any of the current paraphilias. Conversely, there are paraphilias for sexual interests that are more typically male, such as an interest in jerking off into a shoe. This is likely to be a self-perpetuating problem; since paraphilias are defined androcentrically, paraphilias are underdiagnosed in women, and there is no way for psychiatrists to discover that they should correct the definitions.

Third, there is a lot of stigma on women admitting their sexuality, and many women would feel reluctant admitting their sexual interests to a psychiatrist or even on an anonymous survey. (As a very obvious example, studies consistently report heterosexual men having a higher mean number of sexual partners than heterosexual women.)

Fourth and most importantly, women are less likely than men to be aware of what their kinks are, especially before the present day. There are both biological and cultural reasons for this. Biologically, if one has a penis, arousal is more obvious and the mechanics of masturbation are more intuitive. Having a male-typical level of testosterone also usually gives you more interest in sex than having a female-typical level of testosterone does. Culturally, women’s sexuality tends to be shamed and stigmatized as “slutty.” Female sexual exploration and curiosity tends not to be encouraged as much as male sexual exploration and curiosity, particularly historically.

Among all age groups, women are both less likely to have ever masturbated and less likely to have masturbated in the past year. It is likely that many women who have never masturbated or who masturbate rarely also don’t sexually fantasize or fantasize rarely. They may have completely failed to notice what their kinks are.

The self-hating man with a paraphilia might go to a psychiatrist for help fixing himself. The self-hating female woman with a paraphilia might very well never realize she has a paraphilia and instead conclude that she just doesn’t like sex that much.

How did this change? Why, in the past thirty years, have we gone from “women don’t have paraphilias” to “don’t be ridiculous, Ozy, of course it wasn’t sexological consensus that women don’t have paraphilias”?

I believe the answer is our friend the Internet.

Perhaps due to sexual stigma, women seem particularly averse to buying porn. In 1970, if a woman wished to purchase erotic literature, she would have to go to a literal physical store and buy it from an actual shop clerk and then maybe display it on her actual shelves where people could see it and judge her. Today, all she has to do is search on Amazon and download The Devil: Devil’s Playground Duet #1 to her Kindle and literally no one will have any idea.

We’ve seen an explosion in the past twenty years of art, erotica and porn aimed at women. I talk about fandom a lot, but I think it’s equally obvious in the romance novel world: since the development of the Kindle, there have been a lot more erotic romance novels with more and filthier sex that caters more directly to common female interests. This is a self-perpetuating cycle. If you have porn that’s catering to you– porn with sexy men in it rather than sexy women, for example– you’re more likely to notice the sorts of things you get off on.

Cards on the table: I suspect that, while men might be more likely to have certain paraphilias and women might be more likely to have certain other paraphilias, women and men are equally likely to have intense, persistent interests in sexual activities other than genital stimulation or preparatory fondling with phenotypically normal, consenting adult human partners. I believe, in the next few decades as the number of people who had access to porn as teenagers increases, we will see more and more women with paraphilias, and this fact will become obvious.