Are Kinks Hereditary? What Science Says About the Genetics of Desire

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Are Kinks Hereditary? What Science Says About the Genetics of Desire

In short, maybe! Your genetic makeup is one of several factors that could influence your sexual interests.

Are kinks hereditary or learned? The short answer is both.


The genetics of sexual attraction and desire is a deeply underfunded field of research. Still, there’s growing evidence to suggest our genes might play a much larger role in the development of our erotic selves than previously thought.



What is a kink? Kink vs. fetish?

A kink is any type of nonmainstream sexual interest, according to Justin Lehmiller, PhD, research fellow at the Kinsey Institute. A fetish is a specific subtype of kink defined by a heightened fascination with a certain object, body part, or bodily fluid. In other words, fetishes tend to have a sensory component wherein people are drawn to the feel, taste, smell, or look of a particular thing. “All fetishes are kinks, but not all kinks are fetishes,” Dr. Lehmiller explains.

Author Katherine Gates has devoted her career to the study of sexual subcultures. Speaking from a nonacademic point of view, Gates offers up another way of understanding the distinction between kink and fetish: Kink describes the use of props and role play in erotic interaction, but those elements aren’t required in order to get off. Moreover, kinky encounters don’t necessarily involve sex—the experience can be gratifying with or without it. Fetish, on other hand, connotes a sexual interest that is “extremely narrow and fixed.” And this fetish has to be incorporated in order for the person to get off and feel sexually fulfilled by an encounter.


Gloria Brame, PhD, is a sexologist, sex therapist, and self-described fetishist best known for her work in the area of BDSM. “For me, the fetish is about feeling really comforted,” Dr. Brame says. “That’s how I feel when a fetish manifests.”



Okay, but are kinks hereditary?

We don’t have concrete proof that our genetic makeup is directly tied to our sexual interests. At least, not yet. But it’s not outlandish to suggest that some people may be genetically predisposed to developing kinks and fetishes. It’s relatively well-documented that personality is to some degree heritable. Certain traits tend to run in families. And as Dr. Lehmiller can attest, from having surveyed thousands of people on the subject, our sexual fantasies can be read, at least in part, as a reflection of our personalities. Extraverts, for instance, were especially drawn to group sex and nonmonogamy fantasies. The fantasies of highly conscientious individuals tended to be more detailed, with a particular emphasis on sex in unique settings like the beach. Dr. Lehmiller also found a pattern of interest in kink and BDSM among those with a penchant for sensation seeking, another personality trait shown to have some genetic basis. Often, high sensation seekers require a more potent stimulus in order to experience arousal or to reach orgasm.


“With people who are high sensation seekers, in some of the research that’s been connected, we see that their dopamine receptors aren’t quite as sensitive as other people,” Dr. Lehmiller explains. “So they just sort of require this higher level or higher threshold of excitement to get the same sexual thrills that other people do.”


That said, it’s important to remember that our erotic interests are the product of many factors. On the biological side, those factors can include our genetic predispositions, unique brain chemistry, and the way our bodies are laid out.


“For some people, nipples are extraordinarily sensitive,” Dr. Lehmiller says. “For other people, there’s just no sensation whatsoever. And if your body just happens to have that heightened level of sensitivity, you might be very drawn to various forms of nipple play including more intense BDSM versions of it with nipple clamps and so forth. So I think part of it is that general sensitivity in different parts of our body. That could also have a genetic component to it.”


Psychological factors such as our personalities, previous experiences, and general attitudes toward sex represent another piece of the puzzle. And there are environmental factors to consider—the cultural context that, in part, determines the partners we choose and the opportunities available to us.


“Whenever we’re talking about sexual interests, we need to talk about it from a biopsychosocial perspective,” Dr. Lehmiller says. “Two people can develop the same sexual interest for very different reasons, depending on the confluence of all of these factors.”



How are kinks and fetishes created?

Many people can pinpoint a specific childhood experience as the source of their kink or fetish. For some, it feels like a fact of life from birth. Others find their kinks later in life through solo or partnered exploration. In Dr. Brame’s experience, younger generations are becoming aware of their kinks earlier in life thanks to the internet. But in some cases, the culture of silence and shame around sexual kinks can delay the discovery process by decades.


“You don’t necessarily realize who you are until you’re in your teens or maybe even your 20s,” Dr. Brame says. “Or maybe even your 50s, not because it’s totally out of the blue. But you don’t realize what kink is or what it is to be kinky. Or that some of your private sexual fantasies actually align with kink.”


Often the kink’s emotional and sexual resonance is reinforced through masturbation.


“We know that the connection between the smell centers of the brain and the memory centers of the brain and the emotional centers of the brain are very close,” Gates says. “And so things that we would consider to be classic kinks, like a foot fetish—or rubber or leather or things that are sensorially evocative, especially through smell—can become connected with emotional content and memories to form a kind of cycle where you smell it and you have this stimulus in this memory that’s very emotional. You might reinforce that through, say, masturbation to the point where it becomes a very firm pathway in your brain.”


But Gates believes some people are primed to develop a kink or fetish under the right conditions.


“I interviewed this wonderful guy who considered himself a macrophile,” Gates says. “He liked to fantasize about giant women. And he said, ‘Nature loads the gun and nurture pulls the trigger.’ I like that metaphor because it sort of explains how that works—that you can be primed biologically and neurologically to be ready for it to happen.”



Is kink a sexual orientation?

Dr. Brame feels strongly that kink isn’t a hobby—it’s a legitimate sexual identity. Throughout her life, relationships that didn’t align with her kinks would inevitably fail. The kink was never explicitly discussed or cited as the reason for the breakup—that discovery would come later. But in retrospect, it makes sense that certain power dynamics weren’t tenable for her.


“I was actually leading a really mainstream kind of life. But I couldn't make vanilla relationships work,” Dr. Brame recalls. “They came and they went and they came and they went…. When I found out I was into BDSM, I was really thrilled. I never looked back. I only had kinky partners, and that led to a marriage of 32 years.”


Dr. Lehmiller says the data supports both possibilities. For some, it is a leisure activity. For others, an interest in kink can have “very deep roots.”


“It’s very persistent, it’s enduring, it has some of the other features that a sexual orientation does,” Dr. Lehmiller says. “It’s not malleable. I think for some people, there does seem to be the sense that kink is more of a sexual orientation for them. But again, I don’t know that we fully understand exactly why that is.”



Written by: Hanna Lustig on Glamour