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Many ‘abnormal’ sexual tastes are neither rare nor unusual, study finds

Do you have normal sexual tastes? A new study suggests sexual fantasies, urges and behaviours that are often considered abnormal are actually quite common among the general population, raising questions about how psychiatrists and psychologists define what is sexually normal or not.

The study, published online in The Journal of Sex Research, examined the prevalence of paraphilic, or anomalous, sexual interests, as identified in the widely used Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), among residents of Quebec. It found that participants' experiences and their desire to experience certain paraphilic behaviours, including fetishism and masochism, are neither rare nor unusual.

While some paraphilic behaviours, such as pedophilia, exhibitionism and voyeurism, are illegal and involve a non-consensual party, certain others should not be labelled abnormal, says the study's co-author, Christian Joyal, a professor of psychology at the University of Quebec at Trois-Rivières and the Institut Philippe-Pinel de Montréal.

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"If people are happy, if everybody is consenting, I don't know why it should be abnormal, especially in 2016," Joyal says.

The researchers used online and telephone surveys to ask 1,040 Quebec residents, aged 16 to 64, about their sexual desires and behaviours. Nearly half the respondents reported a desire to experience at least one paraphilic behaviour and around a third of them had engaged in a paraphilic behaviour at least once. The most common was voyeurism – surreptitiously watching strangers when they are nude, undressing or having sex. That was followed by fetishism – sexual arousal by an inanimate, non-sexual object; frotteurism – touching or rubbing oneself against a stranger; and masochism – sexual arousal while suffering, being dominated or humiliated.

The researchers note that the current edition of the DSM, updated in 2013, defines normal, or "normalphilic," sexual interest as "interest in genital stimulation or preparatory fondling with phenotypically normal, physically mature, consenting human partners." Anything else is not necessarily disordered, but is considered paraphilic or abnormal, Joyal says.

"Normalcy is really difficult to define and I don't think it's a good idea to try to do it," he says.

The DSM offers eight examples of paraphilic interests: voyeurism, exhibitionism, frotteurism, masochism, sadism, pedophilia, fetishism and transvestism.

While interests such as fetishism are far from uncommon, Joyal says, other sexual interests such as pedophilia, necrophilia and bestiality are extremely rare.

He explains that a paraphilic interest can be considered a mental disorder if it causes suffering or impairment. The study looked at what are known as merely "anomalous" interests, and not disorders.

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"Just asking people about their sex lives, I know it's a bit taboo," he says. "But still … you have to have evidence-based data before coming [up] with any definition, especially [with] such a sensitive topic like sexual behaviours."

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