If "Brad" had been born a century earlier, he may never have found others who share his preferences. But the Internet is a magnet for sexual confessions.
In explaining his desires to a psychologist, Brad said, "It was rather appealing in sound, and I found myself fixating on it. At first, I didn't want to admit I was into his farting, but eventually I decided to experiment," according to a case report on Brad, a pseudonym, written by Mark Griffiths, psychologist in England who specializes in behavioral addictions.
Based on Brad's descriptions of his sexual preferences, Griffiths diagnosed him as an eproctophile, or someone sexually aroused by flatulence. As a bisexual, Brad is attracted to the farting of people of both sexes.
In interviews with Griffiths, Brad tried to explain how he developed eproctophilia. His first memory was hearing a rumor that his middle-school crush farted in class. He also tried to explain why flatulence held such appeal. [Hot Stuff? 10 Unusual Sexual Fixations]
"The more disgusting, the more I like it, as it heightens the sense of duality. The more disgusting the fart, and the prettier the lady, the more of a schism it is between the societal expectation and the reality," Brad said.
Griffiths' research on online behaviors, particularly online gambling, led him to study online communities devoted to paraphilia — intense and atypical sexual attractions. Once he checked the veracity of "Brad's" real identity, Griffiths assigned the pseudonym to publish academic research reports on the case. He's working on six more case studies about sexual fetishes, and with each, he's learning things he did not expect.
"The point about the case study is it's a single person," Griffiths said. Different people may experience the same paraphilia in different ways. "When I get press publicity, then I get more people writing in saying 'What you said about Brad is not it at all,'" said Griffiths, a professor at Nottingham Trent University in England.
Old urges in a new medium
Paraphilia aren't new, of course. The novelist James Joyce revealed a tendency toward eproctophilia in 1909 in love letters to his wife, which were published posthumously in the 1970s. The term for the paraphilia sadism was coined after the 18th-century French noblemen Donatien Alphonse François Marquis de Sade. De Sade wrote fictional stories, detailing violent and murderous fantasies. He also practiced sexual violence — sometimes non-consensually. However de Sade's works weren't widely published until the 20th century.
Even today, paraphilias carry a stigma. In discussing Brad's case, Griffiths told LiveScience, "Paraphiliacs, in and of themselves, are often pathologized and seen as negative, but in this case the eproctophile is quite happy." The more he researches paraphilia, the more Griffiths sees that people on Internet forums don't want treatment.
In some cases, the medical establishment has changed to agree with peoples' assertions that they have a preference, not a problem.
Counting fetishes, changing views
Every few years the American Psychiatric Association updates the so-called Bible of mental health disorders. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders has now gone through five revisions — the DSM 5 was published in May — and each time, sexuality has been hotly debated.
In the third DSM, a fetish was considered to be a paraphilia only if "the person has acted on these urges, or is markedly distressed by them." Later editions upped the criteria, from simply acting on the urges to experiencing "significant impairment."
The fifth edition makes a distinction between paraphilias and paraphilic disorders. Someone with a paraphilia may be diagnosed with a paraphilic disorder only if they are distressed by their urges, or if they cause harm to non-consenting people by acting on them. This automatically puts pedophilia, voyeurism, exhibitionism on the list of paraphilic disorders.
Griffiths' next case reports may include a fire fetish, a blindness fetish and dacryphilia, or arousal by tears, weeping or sobbing.
"One of the messages from these case studies is, hopefully, that for humans beings, there's almost nothing they can't be sexually aroused by," Griffiths said.