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What Is Paraphilia?

By Tara Barnett
Updated May 17, 2024
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Paraphilia is a term used in psychology to describe sexual arousal in response to objects or situations considered abnormal in a specific time period. Given that what constitutes normal sexuality changes over time, paraphilia is a term that is best considered within a historical context. Not only does what is considered abnormal change over time, but what is considered normal changes as well. Arousal, in this case, may arise from viewing, thinking of, or being near an object or situation. Most diagnoses occur when a specific person feels that his or her arousal in relation to the object is troubling, leading him or her to seek help.

From the perspective of the person who has paraphilia, situations involving the sexualized object cause intense sexual desire and arousal. Given that the experience is typically pleasurable, the person who suffers from paraphilia may seek out arousal from this source obsessively. He or she may have intrusive thoughts about the object in question and may even be unable to achieve arousal except in the presence of the eroticized situation.

When talking about sexual arousal in response to an object, the term object is broadly defined and may include body parts, classes of objects, and even situations. Actions, both traditionally sexual and innocuous, can also be sexualized. Essentially, paraphilia refers to a sexual response that is deemed by a certain time period as inappropriate given the stimulus. Arousal is different for different people, making it hard to truly determine when a sexual response is occurring except by self-identification.

Many different forms of paraphilia are recognized in medical traditions, and cures for this disorder have been varied as well. Several different chemical treatments, including chemical castration, have been used to treat this disorder in severe cases. When the individual is capable of controlling his or her arousal or the situation is not dangerous to anyone, therapy and other non-chemical treatments can be used. Whether or not the arousal a person feels is actually abnormal, if the person feels that it is troubling or abnormal, he or she may benefit from therapy to change his or her attitude toward the subject and possibly resolve the arousal as well.

In different time periods, many different objects have been considered inappropriate for sexual arousal. Paraphilia, when used as a psychological diagnosis, is currently used primarily when arousal causes social or ethical problems. Arousal resulting from situations involving children or animals, for example, is generally considered taboo enough to be considered a mental illness. Paraphilia involving shoes or a member of one's own sex is usually not diagnosed as a mental illness.

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