Paraphilia (in Greek 'para' παρά = over and 'philia' φιλία = friendship) is a mental health term recently used to indicate sexual arousal in response to sexual objects or situations that are not part of societally normative arousal/activity patterns, or which may interfere with the capacity for reciprocal affectionate sexual activity.
The word is used differently by different groups and so has very little practical use outside of any specific group. As used in psychology it is often an umbrella term used to cover a wide variety of non-typical sexual interests like:
- Exhibitionism and voyeurism which (within moderation) are actually felt to be a healthy component of an active sex life for many people,
- Transvestic fetishism, fetishism, urolagnia (water sports), or unusual partners (such as amputees), which are essentially felt to be harmless and clinically acceptable in the West (though possibly still a matter preferred kept private), provided the person is not reporting experiencing dysfunction or mental suffering, and nobody is getting hurt,
- Sexual sadism which can be either harmless and mutual, or harmful or dangerous, depending on limits and consensuality, and
- Paedophilia, which is universally taboo in Western societies and prosecuted by the law.
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 judgemental or prejudicial sense, to categorize sexual desires or activities lying well outside the societal norm. Many sexual activities now considered harmless or even beneficial (such as masturbation) have often been considered perversions or psychosexual disorders in various societies, and how to regard these behaviours has at times been a controversial matter.
The term "paraphilia" is rarely used in general English, reference to the actual interest being more common. Some see the term as helping aid objectivity when discussing behaviours that are taboo, or non-vanilla or those meeting public disapproval, but which may not in fact be a problem. Others interpret the term more pejoratively as rare conditions or serious disorders that meet with societal disapproval and are (or should be) criminalized or seriously require 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 disorders 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 even a "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 characterize them in terms of their etiology and in terms of the ways they change the functioning of individuals in social situations. 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 American Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).
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 American Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) in 1980. It was used by Sigmund Freud, as well as by the sexologist John Money.
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. Few religious texts make any specific mention of what is or is not sexually acceptable for the god(s) of that religion, although Hindu texts leave little that could be unacceptable.
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