Overview of Paraphilias and Paraphilic Disorders


ByGeorge R. Brown, MD, East Tennessee State University
Reviewed/Revised Jul 2023
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    Paraphilic disorders are recurrent, intense, sexually arousing fantasies, urges, or behaviors that are distressing or disabling and that involve inanimate objects, children or nonconsenting adults, or suffering or humiliation of the person or a partner, with the potential to cause harm.

    Paraphilias involve sexual arousal to atypical objects, situations, and/or targets (eg, children, corpses, animals). However, some paraphilias that seem unusual to another person, do not rise to the level of a paraphilic disorder simply because they are unusual. People may have paraphilic interests but not meet the criteria for a paraphilic disorder.

    The unconventional sexual arousal patterns in paraphilias are considered pathologic disorders only when both of the following apply:

    • They are intense and persistent.

    • They cause significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning, or they harm or have the potential to harm others (eg, children, nonconsenting adults).

    People with a paraphilic disorder may have an impaired or a nonexistent capacity for affectionate, reciprocal emotional and sexual intimacy with a consenting partner. Other aspects of personal and emotional adjustment may be impaired as well.

    The pattern of disturbed erotic arousal is usually fairly well developed before puberty. At least 3 processes may be involved:

    • Anxiety or early emotional trauma interferes with normal psychosexual development.

    • The standard pattern of arousal is replaced by another pattern, sometimes through early exposure to highly charged sexual experiences that reinforce the person’s unusual experience of sexual pleasure.

    • The pattern of sexual arousal often acquires symbolic and conditioning elements (eg, a fetish symbolizes the object of arousal but may have been chosen because the fetish was accidentally associated with sexual curiosity, desire, and excitement).

    It is controversial whether all paraphilic development results from these psychodynamic processes, and some evidence of altered brain functioning and functional anatomy is present in some paraphilias (eg, pedophilia).

    In most cultures, paraphilias are far more common among males. Biologic reasons for the unequal distribution may exist but are poorly defined.

    Dozens of paraphilias have been described, but most are uncommon or rare. The most common paraphilic disorders are

    Some paraphilias (such as pedophilia, frottereurism, voyeurism, some forms of exhibitionism) are illegal and may result in imprisonment and lifelong registration as a sex offender. Some of these offenders also have significant personality disorders (eg, antisocial, narcissistic), which make treatment difficult.

    Often, more than one paraphilic disorder is present.

    For clinicians who treat patients with paraphilic disorders, guidelines are available regarding the use of pharmacotherapy (1).

    General reference

    1. 1. Thibaut F, Cosyns P, Fedoroff JP, et al: The World Federation of Societies of Biological Psychiatry (WFSBP) 2020 guidelines for the pharmacological treatment of paraphilic disorders. World J Biol Psychiatry 21(6):412-490, 2020. doi: 10.1080/15622975.2020.1744723

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